Do you own a Palm leaf Pattachitra?

There is a sense of pride in the artist’s eyes. He is explaining to me what it is to possess a Tala-Pattachitra.

It is a legacy you are acquiring madam, a priceless masterpiece that does not fade and which occupies a place of pride in your home. You will be proud to pass it on to future generations,’ he insists. He is talking about his creations, the Palm leaf engraving- Tala-Pattachitra from Orissa.

His pride makes me feel strangely happy. You see, he is talking about an ancient Orissan palm leaf art – perhaps a thousand year old heritage from Orissa and Indian heritage is something I am rather cocky about.

More about Tala-Pattachitra art:

The creations are all done on Palm leaves. The fine drawings are from manuscripts. The details could be from mythological tales like Ramayana, Mahabharata, tales of Lord Jagannath of Puri temple…. But what makes them striking is that a thin stylus made from iron called Lekhana is used to engrave these illustrations. The artist or the Pattachitrakar as he is called, definitely requires a skilled and steady hand!They are so fine and detailed.

I see the engravings dyed in a striking black color. And I ask him how they color these fine line drawings. To which he replied,’ Madam, we rub the palm with a  black dye or soot or charcoal powder. The areas that don’t require the color are rubbed with a piece of wet rag.’  The color now becomes a part of these creations. Soot from the hearth , straight in to the handcraft!

The engravings are done in a single leaf- more often in four to five leaves or even more and stitched together.The result could be a scroll with a flap that neatly show off the illustrations and perhaps even a verse or two.


History of Pattachitra Paintings:

Orissa has a rich history. Though it comes in our history text books in the notoriously popular Ashoka- Kalinga war, it was an independent State before, that proved a formidable opponent to Mauryan dynasty. Over the centuries it has been ruled by various rulers -Samudragupta, Harshavardana, Gangas etc. It came under Mughals, the Nawabs of Bengal ,Marathas and the British too. Culturally it is a potpourri of various religions- Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and the heterogeneous tribal  religions as well. This is reflected in their arts and crafts. The Patachitra or the palm leaf art and illustrations depict this medley.

Originally the Tala-Pattachitra was created by the Nayakar community. They were astrologers and used such palm leafs to create birth horoscopes of newborns. Today this art-craft is seen in the state of Orissa especially in Bhubaneshwar, Ganjam,Puri and Raghurajpur regions. And it has adapted to the changing times. The palm leaf now sees itself as wall hangings, lamp shades, fans,bookmarks etc so that it gels in to a contemporary home theme.

If you would like to know more about this art-craft then  Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat is the place to be. Check out their art and craft section. Support the artisans by buying a piece of this heirloom.





A tryst with Modern Art

The other day at a prominent gallery, I came across a painting titled ‘ Shades’. One half of it was sketched in a dark color while the rest was painted a shade lighter. It was priced above 20000 Rs. And I idly wondered -I could have done such a painting too.  As I walked ahead, I stumbled upon a beautiful  Mysore styled painting of a goddess. The rich colors, deep hues,intricate brush strokes – each detail was depicted to perfection and managed to convey a deep sense of divinity. The gold and silver works on the artwork further accentuated this feeling.  I was stunned for a moment and I realized I was standing in front of a masterpiece. This is what I would call ‘true art’ was the feeling I came away with.

A painting at Chitrasanthe

However a few days later I had an interesting conversation with a hobby artist- a senior citizen who had been dabbling in art for years. And he changed my perception on art.

Modern Art – a new perception

“Modern art by itself may not invoke any form of awe. It might not inspire you with its beauty,richness or take your breathe away,” he said. “However if it makes you pause,ponder and invokes feelings, then the piece has done its job.” he explained further.

I went back to the gallery and looked at ‘Shades’ again. I noticed a series of dark lines slowly growing a shade lighter , thinner, finally attaining a lighter tone. The  painting that I had previously dismissed as a smear job now took on meaning. It was the artist’s way of conveying that each person had a dark side but with effort he could move towards his positive side. Did the artwork inspire me now? You bet, it did!

Modern Art defined:

Just to put things in context, art created during the period 1860-1960s is called Modern art. It does not stick to any boundaries, styles or themes. The art forms during this period tried to break free from the traditional art practices and tried to create something new. The goal was to build something original, to challenge the existing norms, to depict reality as is. Sometimes it made you uncomfortable striking you with questions that had  no answers.


Paintings by Saikat Chakraborty

Or the visuals may have a deep underlying social and political message. For instance the ‘White on White‘ abstract art form by Malevich ,a Russian painter. The painting was done during the  1918s  – one year after the Russian revolution. The abstract talks about hope, freedom, change, the birth of a new society. In a sense it takes you back to the Russian revolution and the society then.

So while the classic pieces like Mona Lisa and the paintings by Vincent Van Gogh can evoke a different sense of emotions, the Modern Art with its abstract paintings, Impressionism etc takes a different voice. So as a lay person it makes sense to see these master pieces in that light and not compare and think- just a painting by a con artist. It might just have a deeper meaning, you never know!


Photo credit- Usha Hariprasad





Kashmiri Carpets- A heritage worth possessing

The passion in the young chap at the Asian Arts Emporium was evident. He spoke about carpets as if they were living, breathing buddies of his. “Look at the colors madam. Just walk around and you will see the carpet changing color,” he gushed. This was true as I walked around the hand woven Kasmiri carpet, I could see it altering from dark to light shades. ” Isn’t it magic madam? No machine-made rug can give you such results,” he said smiling proudly.


Kashmiri Carpets with a Persian touch:

Though it is unclear as to when the carpet weaving was introduced to Kashmir, it is evident that the artists were brought in from Persia to train the weavers of Kashmir. The Mughals were responsible for its growth in India. ” Each community in my village is engaged in the weaving. And each of their patterns are distinct,” said the salesman. The colors were subtle, the patterns were varied, some floral, some geometric in the numerous wool and silk carpets that he displayed. The oriental rugs can have varied patterns- flower motifs,trees, tribal designs, curvilinear/abstract, animal figures etc. This again is unique to the area from where it originates.

Machine-made versus handmade:

The machine made rugs  stand no chance with the handmade rugs when it comes to quality and durability. Turning the handmade rug on its back he showed me the weaving and the knots made by hand. The knots were uneven. ” “Even if one knot breaks madam there is no damage to the rug,” he said and added,” But the same cannot be said for the machine-made ones as parts of the carpet may unravel if there is a damage to the knots.”

While a good quality machine-made rug can last for 20 odd years a handmade rug is a heritage that can be passed down from generation to generation. The older it is the more expensive it gets! Plus rugs before the invention of synthetic dyes are truly antique and fetch a good value if you have the heart to sell it.

Dust generally causes no problem with handmade carpets. The pile is inclined, so it dusts itself off from the dirt. ” “Any stains can be easily removed from the carpet by rubbing lemon juice,” said the young chap.

I didn’t buy anything because I could not afford the 50,000 Rs price tag attached to the handmade carpet. This is the only disadvantage that I could come up with, the price. Machine made stuff are cheaper. But money is a small factor to consider when you understand that it takes the weavers 7-8 months to prepare a carpet. So if you love collectibles and money is not a problem, then this is one heritage item that is worth possessing.





Different Strokes – A story of paintings

Mural from Lepakshi

My article titled Different Strokes’ was first published in Deccan Herald, Spectrum supplement in July 2012. A shorter edited version is reproduced here.

Heritage is not just about stone sculptures or palaces. Poornima Dasharathi traces the history of paintings in the State, and discovers that they are full of rich and diverse themes.

When we look at a Jaipur painting or a Mysore painting on the cover of a calendar or between the sheets of a diary, we just give it a glance as our eyes focus on  the dates. The painting is pretty no doubt, but beyond that, it doesn’t register.

However if we were to know that the painting was the skillful work of an artist a thousand years ago with limited materials such as a rock face as canvas or probably the only record that tells us how a king looked like, then we would better appreciate its significance and value.

Art has flourished in South India much before the Christian era. As timelines changed, the canvas changed from the flat surface of caves (mural) to cloth and manuscripts (miniatures) and finally paper.

Murals of Badami

The earliest example in the State are the murals in Badami caves. In the book, ‘South Indian Paintings’, the author Sivaramamurti attributes the beautiful murals in the caves to the time of the western Chalukyas, who ruled from sixth – eighth century AD. 

In the same style as that of Ajanta, the art was probably made during the reign of Mangalesa, the uncle of Pulakesi II and the brother of Kirtivarman.

The ruler was a great patron of art and created some magnificent cave temples in his capital. One of the paintings that have been described by all scholars is a court scene where there is a central seated figure witnessing music and dance. 

Scholars think that the central figure is Mangalesa’s elder brother, Kirtivarman, for whom he had high regard. Though mostly obliterated today, the graceful figures and their beautiful jewellery remind one of the Ajanta murals.

The local colours used were red, yellow, green, brown and black. The usage of blue came in the later years as it was imported from Persia, the author explains.

From the 8th century until the 15th century, there are no samples of paintings in the State. This is not to say that painting as an art was not promoted but examples of paintings have not been found, apart from just one discovery of palm leaf manuscripts from Moodbidri, based on the teachings of Mahaveera (Jain saint). The manuscripts use bright colours chiefly red, yellow and green and are exquisitely detailed.

From the 15th century onwards, there are many records of paintings in south India. The Vijayanagara rulers revived Hindu art in their vast empire. Wall paintings decorated not only caves outside the capital but on every building in the cities.

This fact is chronicled by Domingo Pais who visited Hampi during the reign of its most famous ruler, Krishnadevaraya. While he gives a glowing account of the city, what strikes one’s mind is an account of paintings on a portion of the palace which depicts the cultures of all communities including the Portuguese and other foreigners to Vijayanagara; the paintings are intended as a window to the Queens to know about the cultures of people across the world.

Though the palace doesn’t stand today, Vijayanagara paintings can be found all over south India in fragments, Anegundi, Hampi, Lepakshi, Kalahasti, Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh now), Chidambaram (in Tamil Nadu), to name a few.

In Hampi’s Virupaksha temple, the ceiling of the mantapa has a series of paintings. One of the scenes shows the ascetic, Vidyaranya, the guru of Harihara and Bukka (founders of the empire), being carried on a palanquin and followed by a retinue.

The Virabhadra temple at Lepakshi is home to some of the best preserved paintings of the Vijayanagara period. Apart from the exquisite temple architecture, the temple’s ceiling describes many stories of Shiva – Bhukailasa, Kirataarjuniya and the marriage of Shiva and Parvati – to name a few.

The paintings are highly decorative; the highlight of the paintings is the exquisite textile designs and patterns of the clothes that people wore in that period.

Deccani paintings

The ‘Deccan’ sultanates constituted the area that comprised north Karnataka, Maharashtra and northern Andhra. Of the five kingdoms, art flourished mostly in the kingdoms of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golkonda.

The Deccani (Dakhani) paintings were largely influenced by Persian and Turk art. Artists came from Tabriz( in Iran) to the Deccan in 15th century setting the tone for the Deccani art narrates Mark Zebrowski in the book, ‘Deccani Painting’. However despite the foreign influence, there is an underlying Indian humanism, he explains.

Persian and Indian fusion is also emphasised by A L Narasimham, noted art historian, in the book, ‘Nijada Kale’. He describes the miniatures found in an astrological manuscript, Nuzm ul Ulm, commissioned by Adil Shah I in 1570.

The miniatures usually have a single character with blossoms and creepers that enhance the shape; the patterns usually seen in Persian designs. The Persian way of showing the faces at an angle is later changed to showing just the profile, he further adds. 

The Bijapur court which encouraged music also produced the earliest of Ragamala series of paintings. It is said that depicting musical modes through paintings originated in Bijapur.

The Deccani style reached its zenith during the rule of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Bijapur, says Aruni, ICHR. Ibrahim II was a great patron of art and passionately fond of painting, music and poetry.

Zebrowski compares him to another great contemporary, Akbar. Like Akbar, he was fascinated by Hinduism; in fact most of his portraits show him wearing Rudraksha beads.

Ibrahim gave his daughter in marriage to Akbar’s son, Daniyal; amongst other goods, many manuscripts and paintings went as a part of the bride’s retinue to the Mughal court. Some of the Bijapuri artists like Farrukh Husain also went on to work in the Mughals’ court. 

European influence

The Vijayanagara and the Bahamani kingdoms extended patronage to many European artists. Some of the earliest artists were Jesuits who drew scenes from the Bible, explains Narasimhan. He narrates the charming story of a padri named Bartholomew who presents a few biblical art works to Vijayanagar ruler, Venkata II, who ruled from Penukonda in 1600s. 

Amazed by the skill, the king orders the artist to create the same work in front of him. As the artist recreates the paintings, the king buys the entire collection and has it displayed in the court much against the wishes of courtiers.

Another such story from the same article is that of an artist named Cornellius Heda who journeys all the way from Prague to India. Imprisoned by the Portuguese in Goa, he escapes and arrives at the court of Ibrahim in Bijapur known for his sympathy towards artists. He becomes the court painter and art advisor to the King. 

Post 17th century, there was a huge influx of European artists. As landscape artists were given patronage in India rather than Britain, many such artists visited India and created huge collections of landscapes, culture, everyday life, flora and fauna. They returned to their countries and sold these paintings of exotic East.

After Tipu’s demise, there was a flurry of British artists to Mysore. The Daniel brothers who visited India and China created a portfolio of around 60,000 sketches!  Many detailed paintings of forts, landscapes and hills were also commissioned by the British for military purposes.

Mysore paintings

Mysore traditional paintings stick to devotional themes. There is an absence of realism and they are richly ornamental with the use of gold. 

Though this style was patronised by the Wodeyars, much of the Mysore school of art that has been found and described is only from late 18th century onwards, during the time of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (Mummadi).

Some of the artists of this period are Javagal Narasimhayya, Naguvanahalli Naranappa, Patala Nanjudappa and Tippaji to name a few. Many works of the painters decorate the palaces in Mysore even today.