Hugh and Colleen Gantzer visit Raghurajpur where every street, wall and verandah has a message in art.

This village is unique.

It’s the only one of its kind, not only in India, but possibly in the whole world. In Orissa’s Raghurajpur everyone is an artist. Every artist depicts facets of the, virtually limitless, tales and legends associated with Puri’s Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. In fact, the entire village is an evolving gallery of folk-art. It had impressed us when we first visited it more than two decades ago and its virtuosity impacted again when we returned.

The layout of the village had not changed. It was still just two parallel streets with unassuming tiled houses facing a central row of temples. Tall palms swept shifting shadows across the roofs and an artist worked in his verandah, his pet white cat purring at his feet. His name was Abaksha Nayak and he was incising an intricate picture onto pale green strips of palm leaf. Later, he would emphasise the engraved lines with lamp-black and subject his leafy “canvas” to a complex traditional process that would give it the texture and toughness of wood and make it virtually indestructible.

A technique that was, probably, developed in our southern states to preserve scriptural texts had been converted, by the artists of Raghurajpur, into an imperishable art form.

This, however, is only one of the many ways of self-expression that the talented families of Raghurajpur use. As we walked down the village street we passed cottages with walls enriched with murals. One depicted the four seasons in meticulous detail. On another, warriors waged a fierce battle. A third verandah was dotted with mathematically accurate interlocking squares and triangles as if an alien intelligence had transmitted a pixelated message.

We wondered then if the people of Raghurajpur were professional artists or if they were farmers who treated art as a lucrative hobby.

Said Bijoy Kumar Barik: “We do have some fields and a few cattle but we don’t do such work, ourselves.” Presumably they have servants for those tasks. “There are 120 families here. They are of various castes. The Maharajas, Mahapartas, Soins and Bariks were brought by the Maharaja, and some of us settled here, from Puri. The others had been here for a long time before we arrived, no, we do not know where we, or they, originally came from.”

His statement was intriguing. The families accept the fact that their origins were different so they still do not marry outside their group. But, in spite of adhering strictly to their bloodlines, they have no difficulty in accepting a cross-fertilisation of innovations and creativity. Their axiom seems to be “I may not marry into your family, but anything you can create I can create better.” And they have been doing that for 36 generations, or more.

Interestingly, unlike most of the crafts-people we have met in other parts of our land, here both men and women are creative artists and artisans. Their families are, very clearly, multi-talented, with siblings and relatives expressing themselves in varied ways. Jai Dev Maharana crafted sets of the world’s first playing cards. They were circular and came in packs of 144. One from his family was a painter and had created a large panel of the Rath Yatra procession of Lord Jagannath.

The Prusty family is particularly gifted. Dilip Kumar specialised in Patta Chitra and he has been making these traditional paintings for 15 years. He employed a special process involving tamarind seeds and powdered stone to give curtain cloth the toughness of canvas. On that, using natural colours, he created a very sophisticated and stylised folk-art that is typical of Raghurajpur.

Dilip Kumar also does painting on tussore silk, his father and sister are wood carvers and his mother is a papier mache artist.

Waste management!

The white haired and smiling Sashi Dei Maharana had evolved the last word in waste management art. She created small images, dried them in the sun, painted them in bright colours and sold them in village fairs and festivals. The images were made of cow-dung.

Then, at the far end of the village, we stepped into the Dasabhuja Gotipua Odishi Nrutya Parishad. We sat in a hall with musicians on our left and, when they began to play, a line of beautifully made-up girls emerged, their anklets chiming with the beat of the music. Then they began to dance. It was both graceful and expressive; then athletic and gymnastic. Later we realised that they were not women but boys. They would leave the dance academy when they become young men and then, if they were skilled enough, they could become Odissi dancers as the famed Kelucharan Mahapatra had.

Gotipua, too, is dedicated to the Lord of the Universe as are all the other fascinating art forms of the quiet and unpretentious little village of Raghurajpur.