The writer travels across Odisha to find what it takes to become a pattachitrakar.

“Where can I meet Vishnupada?” I asked while holding a framed Pattachitra, the unique painting style practised in Odisha. The shopkeeper in Bhubaneswar pointed in the general direction of the crowded street in front and said, “Raghurajpur.” Vishnupada was the master artist whose Pattachitra I was holding up. Now I had to find Raghurajpur.

“Raghurajpur is one of the centres of Pattachitra along with Paralakhemundi, Chikiti and Sonepur,” said Pattanayak, hotel manager. Fifty km from here,” he said, “and I shall arrange a car.”

So the next morning I hit the highway that heads south. After half an hour, Jaydeb, the driver, asked, “Do you want to visit Pipli, Sir? Famous for handicraft and applique.” I have seen Pipli works, as they are popularly called, hanging from shop-fronts in Bhubaneswar. But I resisted the temptation and stuck to finding Vishnupada, the Pattachitrakar. In another half hour, we turned left from the highway to a narrower road to Raghurajpur.

Thankfully Raghurajpur is still a quintessential small Indian settlement, larger than a village but not yet a full-blown town, where everyone still knows everyone else. And a master Pattachitrakar is way up on its hierarchy of citizens.

We stopped at the bend of a narrow lane in front of a modest two-storied building. Vats of dyes were strewn around the short path to the house. I found Vishnupada on the upper floor in his studio-cum-shop. Big and small canvases, framed and unframed paintings, half-finished works, palletes, brushes… The charpoy in the corner must have witnessed many night-long toils over the canvas. Vishnupada is a middle-aged man with a lean, slightly stooping frame.

“We have been Pattachitrakars for many generations,” he said. The predominant themes are of Vaishnava traditions and lore. Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, feature in several paintings. Other legends of the Bhakti cult, like Krishna and his exploits are also popular subjects.

“Do you paint alone?” I asked. “Our whole family is involved,” he said, “and my students and apprentices too.” The women usually make the dyes and prepare the canvas. “We do not buy colours; we make them,” said Vishnupada. White is prepared by powdering, boiling and filtering conch-shells. Hingula, a mineral, is processed to get red. Yellow is squeezed out of Haritala stone. Ramaraja, a variety of indigo, gives blue, and black is obtained either from lamp-black or from burning coconut shells. Pattachitra derives its unique place among the different traditional school of paintings because of its pictorial conception, technique of painting, line formation and colour scheme. Vishnupada picked up the brush, dipped it in black and started making bold outlines on a large canvas that had a few sketches in one corner. Usually outline colours are drawn over a light pencil or charcoal sketch. But here there were none. These master Pattachitrakars are so sure-handed that they go at the canvas with permanent colours without any sketch. Vishnupada may have guessed what I was thinking. After a few strokes, he stopped and turned to me.

“It takes years of learning, practice, and introspection to become a Chitrakar,” he said. What he meant was: To become a master Chitrakar. The master visualises the larger concept. He then creates individual parts, which are stand-alone picture-stories by themselves, and then integrates these into a seamless whole. The master designs the canvas and creates the outlines. The other artists and sometimes advanced apprentices fill in the block colours as directed by the master. And the painting comes to life. From a glass-topped showcase at one side, Vishnupada took out a sheaf of narrow taal-patras (palm leaves). Apart from canvas, palm leaf is the other popular medium for Pattachitra. But in this, the drawings are mostly in ink and more intricate. He took out another taal-patra and said, “This is a composite piece of the 10 avatars of Vishnu I had drawn on taal-patras stitched together.” “I see only five,” I said. “Where are the rest?” Vishnupada smiled. He flipped the first avatar. Another leaf appeared from behind, almost magically, to reveal the Kurma avatar. By the time I left Vishnupada, I was in a daze, and wanted to remain that way for the rest of the day. In the enchanting world of Pattachitras.