Dandasahi. Try saying it. Go on. Let it roll around your tongue and hear its artistic lilt. The name is befitting its pedigree, though it is just a dot on the map. Dandasahi is an artists’ village in Orissa. Lesser known than its famous cousin, the Raghuajpur artists’ village.
What’s striking about Orissa, the land on the Eastern coast of India, is its natural beauty and ART. Native art is everywhere — on the walls, floors, and ceilings; on the sidewalks, underpass, lanes and bylanes. So when I was informed about Dandasahi, my eyebrows did not disappear into my hairline.
It is a rudimentary village; au naturel. And it is has been the home of Pattachitra artists from the 12th century and earlier. Pattachitras are paintings on cotton, silk and palm leaves.
Time, it seems, is not in a hurry here. Like everything else, it meanders. The village is a half-a-kilometer drive from Chandanpur near Puri and is tucked way in the coconut grooves on the banks of the Bhargabi River.
There is but one road that runs through the village. It is narrow, but tarred. It is flanked, on either side, by trees and shrubs. And small houses that break the beautiful monotony of lush green. There’s more vegetation than goats and more goats than people here. Total population of the village: 150.
It was raining. And the village seemed to be awashed with a rich hue of green. But not enough to brighten the grey, the colour of gloom that seems to be omnipresent. The houses are small, dingy and dark, barring one or two homes, and they announce their opulance with embellished iron gates. The tattered coat of impoverishment hugs the curves of the village. Yet, like a fine silk pocket square, each home sparkles with art. There is an abundance of it.
Art is everywhere — on the walls and windows; floor and ceiling; on the steps leading upto window-less rooms or on the threshold that’s falling apart. The artists in this village do not see space as we do. They see it as a canvas.
Every aspect of their lives are coloured and painted with what their forefathers had bequeathed them — art.
Wedding invitations are not printed in this village. Instead they are painted on the walls of the home celebrating the union. They don’t contrive to be eco-friendly. They just are. This has been the way of life, for eons, for the pattachitra artists residing in this village.
The roof is thatched. The threshold at a low height. Once you cross it, the eyes take a few minutes to acclimatise. There’s a flickering naked bulb hanging from the rafter. It is home to Ananta Maharana, the famous pattachitra artist and recipient of the Shilpa Guru award.
The room also doubles up as an artist’s workshop — of sorts. Maharana is in the back of the house. He is in his seventies. His son and grandson are in the workshop. They have taken over the mantle. There’s no fear of death of tradition here.
Dominating the small room is an wooden table that must have been new and sturdy once upon a time. But it is still standing, bearing the weight of precious paintings and an artist, doubled at the waist, meticulously painting inside the circles and lines, the way it was done centuries ago. Nothing has changed in Dandasahi since the 12th century, except for the 40watt bulb hanging overhead and the paved road outside the door.
The techniques of pattachitra is ancient. And they remain so. First, for the base of the painting, two cotton fabric pieces (“Used cotton saris are the best,” says Vikram Singh, grandson of Maharana) are prepared by coating it with glue made out of tamarind seeds and white chalk powder. This is allowed to dry for a few hours. Then it is coated again with soft white stone powder and tamarind gum. This gives the cloth tensile strength; it is then smoothened with round pebbles making the surface smooth and semi-absorbent, allowing it to accept the paint. The paint is made out of natural materials — vegetables, earth and mineral sources. The colours used predominantly in pattachitra are black, red, yellow and green. Black is obtained from wick-burning lamps; yellow from haritali stone and red from the hingal stone. Colour white is obtained by crushing, boiling and filtering shells. Earlier, the artists didn’t use pencil or charcoal for the preliminary drawings, but now some of them do. Still, most start by making a rough sketch directly with the brush using light red or yellow colour. The borders are painted first. The artist finishes the painting with fine strokes of black brush lines, giving the effect of pen work. Then the painting is held over a charcoal fire and lacquer is applied to the surface. This makes the painting water resistant and durable, besides giving it a glossy finish.
The artists traditionally paint religious, mythological, and folk themes. Krishnaleela and Lord Jagannath are recurring motifs.
The backroom where Maharana lives in a humble tenement. Humble as in it has no flatscreen television. But it has a few plastic chairs though. Maharana sits on one of them, by the window that’s richly decorated by art. Maharana, now well into his seventies, is frail but extremely skilled. And so his abode is rich with art. His legacy can be seen in the intricate art that adorns the walls and framing the windows; it can be seen in the old trunks, some over flowing and some filled to the brim, with pattachitras.
The room is filled, choc-a-block with pattachitras and painted wooden boxes, bottles, coconut shells and so on. Maharana’s sons show me Ganjifa and I gasp at its beauty. Ganjifa are traditionally painted set of playing cards. Then there’s the Chitra-pothies, a collection of painted palm leaves stacked on top of each other and held together between painted wood covers by means of string.
Lord Krishna has been the primary muse of the pattachitra artists. They have been painting his life for ages.
Hospitality in the village comes not in the form of tall glasses of drink and heaped plates of food. Instead it overwhelms the visitor in the form of doors being thrown open in welcome and the artists’ enthusiasm to share their art, their bequest — even with absolute strangers.
One can buy pattachitras directly from the artists in the village or one can go into town and buy rip-offs for a much lesser price. But then even the gyps are exquisite. That is the nature of pattachitras.
Maharana’s is the face most known to the world outside the village boundaries. But the other artists in the village are also cut from the same cloth. Their homes are similar to Maharana — maybe smaller and poorer but nevertheless enchanting with intricately painted doors and window frames and every nook and cranny stuffed with art.
Tradition deems that only men paint pattachitras. Women are relegated to the role of preparing the canvas.
But then pattachitra has been the way of life for both men and women in Dandasahi. It has been for centuries. And it will be for a long time to come.
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