The two volumes are a Jataka, a Panchatantra, a grantha, a history, an atlas and a travelogue all kneaded into one
Not of India’s north, not of its south, not lurchingly eastward enough, Odisha does not lie at the end of a directional arrow. It cannot be geographically ‘fixed’. It is a place in itself, historically at rest with its legacy, culturally poised in its dower, aesthetically filled to the brim of its huge talents. It does not claim to culturally or aesthetically ‘complete’. Who or what can? But Odisha is, quite exceptionally, replete. Name a faculty, a dimension, a department of human endeavour and accomplishment and you are bound to find it in this province of three names — Odisha, the politico-official, Utkal, the socio-cultural, and Kalinga, the historico-civilisational.
Tagore’s dappled song, now our monochromatically recited national anthem, places ‘Utkal’ between ‘Dravida’ and ‘Banga’. But Odisha is not a transit point north of the one and south of the other. It is self-contained, a non-reflecting panel to them. Odisha has been and is accepting of adjacence but not of subordination. It composes neighbourhood but not to another’s script. It is large of heart (and practical of mind) enough to be able to compare but not compete, offering the relief of alternation but not of rivalry.
Its eclectic topography has collaged its lived and living life. Odisha is not basically forested, not all mountainous, not really that coastal as to be dependent wholly on a life by the sea. Yes, it speaks one language, Odia, but large numbers of its people understand Bangla with ease, another group is bi-lingually Telugu-knowing. And of course the tribal criss-cross along the borders to its slender west has brought into its language fold more than one tribal expression. It has several distinct forms of them, living close to each other and to Odia. The world of the ‘indigenous’ everywhere, be it in Australia, the U.S., Europe or on the Indian sub-continent, suffers the rites of an imposed citizenship as a historical inevitability rather than as a human desirability.
Odisha is therefore about nuance, about that hyphenated approximation which approaches but neither annexes nor loses itself in another entity. Something in its being has given it a poise, a restraint like a komal rather than a tivra svara in a classical raga. And how that soothes! The Odia script, rounded like pebbles on a river’s soft bed, is a tender script, never busy, never showy, not sharp of edge or florid of display. Meant to go along the grain and groove of the palm leaves on which it was so extensively written, so as to not cut them in traverse movement, the Odia script gets to be woven on fabric even as it can be written on palm and its versatile descendant, paper. Whole verses from Jayadeva’s ‘Gita Govinda’ have, in fact, been worked into close hand-weaves, a textile accomplishment no less than a plain design act.
Odisha’s cultural legacy can only be touched gently, by a single-hair brush frame by frame. Odisha can be explored, not exaggerated. No wonder that the miniature artistry of the Odisha patachitra has reached the intricacy of detail it has in that genre. No wonder, again, that the close circuitry of its work on silver wires has created its stunning filigree.
But Odisha’s sight is binary. If it can narrow its eyes to the finest point of detail, it can widen them to the massive. The ‘juggernaut’ is about mass, not the minimal. The Sun Temple, again, is about hugeness, about the mega. Just as Odisha’s ‘small’ can tremble on the point of a needle, its ‘big’ can out-spread all the curved peripheries of magnification. One has only to see a solar eclipse wane above the waters of Gopalpur-on-Sea or above the upper reaches of the liberating art at Konarak to know what the cosmos means.
Of the many micro-slices of Odisha’s cultural, artistic and architectural history, we have had but scattered information. Verrier Elwin had given us vital glimpses of tribal life in the region. Charles Fabri had, likewise, given us cameos of Odisha’s art traditions. More recently, P K Behera and K K Basa had published scholarly works on Odisha’s archaeological sites. But not until the publication of this two-volume treasure chest edited by Hermann Kulke, Professor Emeritus at Keil University and his colleagues, has the world received an integrated idea of the many dimensions of Odisha’s material and intangible heritage.
If one ‘thing’ has been missing in the documentation of Odisha’s dis-aggregated heritage, it has been the ‘full picture’, the ‘whole story’, the ‘complete narrative’. Odisha’s katha has been an ola-manuscript with more than half the leaves missing, some in expert but un-reachable hands elsewhere, some trivialised by the market of information, others lying like an as-yet unrecognised Sakuntala in the Dusyanta of collective amnesia.
Prasanna Kumar Dash, the volumes’ Managing Editor, has to be thanked and felicitated for putting together these scattered leaves, adding to them new and wholly ‘tissue-acceptable’ ones, and then tying them together in the two-strand ligature of this work to relate Odisha’s amazing story.
From its ‘pre’ and ancient and medieval history through to modern times, from its traditions in religious belief, the making of its arts, old and contemporary, leaving out nothing because it is too big or too small, these volumes are a Jataka, a Panchatantra, a Mahayana, a grantha, a kosha, history, atlas, gazetteer, travelogue, refresher and self-instructor all kneaded into one.
Containing the double-distilled wisdoms and insights of 17 experts, Imaging Odisha is the child of specialisation. Its lineage places the work in the aristocracy of learning, but its accessibility makes it a fellow-traveller in journeys of very simple vessels. I wish it was lighter in the number of redundant colour plates (and therefore in holding grammage) and had a lower density of typographical errors. But these are mere neps in fabric, which in weft and warp, weaves a modern ‘yana’, the Odiyana.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of