Tala pattachitras are a storytelling device and purely decorative illustrations depicting the never-ending repertoire of stories in the Indian epics.
Being more durable and tensile than paper, palm leaves are excellent elements for recording. They are three times stronger than the hand-made paper. Various historical records and stories are highly indebted to this medium for their survival through the ages.
The illustrated palm leaf manuscripts stored in Orissa State Museum are Gita Govinda, Usha Vilasha, Ushaharana, Bidagdha Madhava, Amara Sataka etc.,which provide for us a living record of the sartorial styles, cosmetics and coiffure, dance forms, myths and legends, and above all our efflorescent heritage of socio-cultural traditions.
The earliest known and most effective mode of preserving information were putting down drawings and symbols. Starting with depiction of life scenes in Stone Age caves, to trading seals with undecipherable scripts and to volumes of written text in the form of books, these are the forms which have survived the erosion of time.
Palm leaf inscriptions was an ancient and much used technique in India. In 1442 C.E. the Persian ambassador Abdur Razzak wrote about a dafterkhana (wing or annex of documents) where a number of writers were engaged to write down accounts on palm leaf. Similarly the Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa has expressed surprise over the scribe’s briskness of writing with the stylus on long and rough palm leaves.
Lipikaars or scribes etched copies of ancient literature and sacred verses on palm leaves, about two thousand years ago. Some worked under the patronage of kings and temple authorities while some other scribes did it as a hobby leisurely at home or in educational centres. The later group mostly committed grammatical or linguistic errors due to the lack of expertise and experience. The palm leaf manuscripts on Shrutis ( Vedic Texts ),Smritis ( Dharmasastra ), the Puranas including Ramayana as well asMahabharata and Bhagabata were presented to scholars of respective field, so that they could recite and interpret them during public discourses. This undertaking was meant to achieve merit (punya) and to spread popular education. Most of the temples, mathas had a specific time in the afternoon or evening for this purpose. The inscriptions on palm leaves would last a few centuries before new copies had to be made. Especially in the southern regions of India, a major bulk of the literary and scientific traditions have been passed on through palm leaf inscriptions. Tamil and Grantha (sanskrit script) were scraped onto the dried leaves and rubbed on with lampblack, kohl or turmeric to increase contrast and readability. The shelf life of these manuscripts were three to four centuries, even in south India’s tropical climate. After which, the scribes set about to make new copies.
Palm leaf paintings may have been an offshoot of inscribing these manuscripts. Stemming from making small decorations around them, these would have gradually taken over as an art form in itself. Elaborate tales came to be told in these etchings and the surfaces were congenial to fillings of colour too.
The 19th century spread the use of the printing press and led to the decline of the palm leaf manuscripts. The Talapattachitra paintings are the only presently practiced form of palm leaf inscriptions.These manuscripts are nearing the end of their lifespan and are facing disintegration, so projects are underway to recover, preserve, and translate them to ensure that the traditional knowledge that they contain is not lost to history.
The abundance of palm groves in Orissa made the palm-leaf manuscript culture very popular through the ages. The need for ink and pens were nil and it was easy to scribe and engrave with just an iron stylus and some black dye. The Oriya writing due to its round and linear shape, facilitated the growth and development of palm leaf manuscript writing and the tradition even continues till the present days.
In Orissa, the Pata paintings are deeply rooted in religion. It has grown and flourished under the cult of Lord Jagannath of the Jagannath Puri templewas constructed. Orissan temples and monuments are resplendent with their sculptures.There is a strong influence of these sculptures and depictions in the paintings. The paintings also derive a lot of inspiration from the dance form, Odissi. This dance form of Orissa is also said to be of an ancient origin on the basis of these sculptures and has been mentioned as Odra Magadhi style of dancing in Bharat’s Natyashastra.
Amongst the many places where this art form is practised, Raghurajpur, a village about 12 km. from Puri, has carved a niche for itself as a Heritage village.The reason being that the entire village has devoted itself to this art form.
When the Talapattachitra leaves are stretched out like the open bellows of a harmonium, the world of mythological epics and tales step out. All of these are contained in these inch-thick pile of leaves delicately strung together by threads. The artists sometimes cut out voids and patterns to give it a delicate stencil-like appearance. These are mostly placed over a layer of solid leaves to give more dimension. They seem even more intricately beautiful when the artists place bits of coloured paper under the lace-like cut outs, accentuating the beautiful compositions. Some areas can open like small windows to reveal a second image under the first layer.
Colors are hardly used in Talapattachithra. They are only used as fillers and in very subdued tones. Vegetable and mineral colors are used for painting.
Stories from the Mahabharatha, Ramayana and the tales of Lord Jagannath form the undying glaciers of inspiration for the paintings. The Odissi dance form also has left its influence on the art.The fine details with bold lines and colour combinations of natural hues lend a strong visual appeal to these paintings.
Some of the important themes are Thia Badhia (representation of the Jagannath temple), Krishana lila (Jagannath as Krishana demonstrating his childhood feats), Dasabatara Patti (The ten incarnations of Vishnu), Nabagunjara (a figure comprising nine different creatures), Kandarparath (Cupid’s Chariot - Krishna on a chariot fully composed of colourfully dressed, playful women). Rama-Ravana Judha (War between Rama and Ravana), Kanchi Abhijana (Expedition against the Kingdom of Kanchi).
The sense of perspective is little and there is no feeling of far and near. Overlapping the forms is mostly avoided. The border is a mandatory ornamental feature, framing the painting.The designs have remained more or less traditional deriving forms from the temple sculpture motifs of Orissa. The thickness of the border is governed by the size and subject matter of the painting. A painting sometimes can have two borders with the narrow one on the inside and the broader one on the outside.
The representation of the human forms or figures are usually frontal. So are the streamlined eyes. The face and the limbs are shown in profile. The exceptions being the triad in the ‘Anasar Patti’, Lakshmi, Durga in Mahisasuramardini aspect, Nataraja, dancing Ganesha and Lakshmi-Narayana. The multi-headed forms, Brahma and Ravana, are also given a frontal treatment to accommodate their many heads.
All male figures are of the same height and the women are drawn shorter than the men with their heads reaching up till the man’s earlobe. Figures of old persons are given a slender build, bent posture, receding hairline with white streaks and wrinkle lines on cheeks and forehead. Every animal and person has its own stylized features defined by ancient texts, religious myths and local traditions.
All faces in Orissan Pata figures have long beak like noses, prominent chins and elongated eyes.
In the female face, the nose is drawn as a flowing line from the forehead where as in the male face there is a dip between the lower forehead and the nose. In the female figures the eyes are more elongated almost extending to the ears, the chin more rounded and the hair solid black. The nose of ‘Garuda’, Vishnu’s steed is made extra long. The ‘asura’ (demon) face has a nose curling upwards. Beards and moustaches are given to the faces of rishis, asuras, sarathi, Jay-Vijay and Kings. The beard is generally pointed and forms three crescent shaped steps at the edge of the cheek. The moustache of the kings is shown long and curling up, asuras looping and those of commoners pointing straight.
‘Tribhangi’ is one of the popular poses in Pata paintings. This comes from the strong influence of the Odissi dance form. The name means ‘three bends’ and the posture is depicted with one leg bent, a curvature at the waist and the inclination of the head to one side. Among the other postures are ‘Virbhangi‘ (heroic posture) with chest thrust forward. This is mostly adopted for Hanuman, demons, wrestlers, kings during war etc. ‘Lalitabhangi‘ (delicate posture) is used for all females and also for the Vamana avatar. There are several postures ,like Padmasana (lotus posture) and Natajanu (kneeling), for depicting the way the characters are sitting and for what purpose.
The crowns also vary for the different types of figures. Four types of crowns are portrayed, named after the crest: ‘banka chulia’ (tilted plume) for Krishna, ‘topi kiriti’, a royal crown for the kings and Gods like Indra and Vishnu, ‘amba kasia’ (tender mango) with the crest shaped like a mango for queens and ‘pana patri’ (betel leaf) with a heart shaped crest for Kali, Bhairavi, Tara and other Goddesses.
Trees are painted slender and willowy with each leaf and flower separately drawn. Since the background is mostly red or ochre, trees are often painted grey. They are drawn mainly to fill blank spaces unless the subject specifically demands so. Two most favored trees of the chitrakaras (painters) are the ‘kadamba’ (nauclea cadamba) associated with Krishna lila paintings and ‘bilva’ (aegle marmelos) associated with Shiva. Besides these, tufts of ‘durva’ (grass) are also painted to fill up blank spaces.
As for animals and birds, the choices are not many. Ducks and cranes are shown on water and parrots and peacocks on trees. Parrots looking back wards are painted near the pinnacle of temples and two peacock drawn on two sides of an archway. When there is a circular design within a square, four lion heads are drawn to fill the corner triangular spaces. Lions also signify the ‘Simhadwara’ (lion gate) of a temple. Deer are associated with groves of Vrindavan, horses and elephants with royalty. Other animals like buffalo or the mouse are portrayed along with Gods as steeds.
This art form is now not confined to a particular caste. Therefore, the traditional craft guild has expanded. There is, however, no organised group for marketing or passing on the knowledge.
Heavy marketing concentration in and around Puri and Bhubaneswar lead to the decline in paintings in other villages.Therefore barring some, the income of other artists is marginal and seasonal.
Every new and aspiring artist, also wanted to be a small trader in the painting business. This was a strange trend that developed, maybe because the middlemen or traders received more profit than the rural artists. These factors and the lack of knowledge of market and scope, has lead to the poverty of the artist.
The artists select new leaves of the Palm tree that are about to open, or the tender young leaves, which are dried and then used for painting. A sharp iron stylus tool is used to etch the drawings. Cotton threads are used to string together the leaves.
The colours used are made by the artists from natural sources.
Black: Lamp (carbon) black mixed with wood apple gum used to rub into the etching and create contrast.
Red pigment: Ground Cinnabar (iron oxide) it is locally known as Hingula.
White: Burnt conch shell powder mixed with plant gum.
Yellow: Prepared out of the adhesive of wood apple mixed with Turmeric powder.
Blue: Ground juice of Indigo plant leaves mixed with some plant gum.
Green: Ground bean leaves, mixed with plant gum.
A strong iron hatchet is used for cutting leaves from the palm tree. Small iron tools are used to work on the leaves. A sharp pointed iron stylus is mostly used for engraving and terracotta pot is used for boiling water. A chisel, bodkin and drill are the other tools used for preparation of wooden cover board. Stone plates and stones are used for preparation of pigments. These are mixed and stored in coconut shells. Different types of hand-made brushes are used to paint in fillers as per design requirements.
Tender leaves of the palm tree are plucked and seasoned. The seasoning is done in various ways. Some hang the palm leaves in their kitchen, take them out and apply turmeric paste to them. In some parts, leaves are dried completely under the sun and are then kept under the mud or silt of a pond for 10-15 days. After this, they are removed, cleaned and dried again, under the sun for some time and finally a paste of turmeric is applied on the surface of the leaves. In some parts of Western Orissa, the palm leaves are allowed to boil with paddy husk and then they are cleaned with soft cloth and kept alternately under dew and sun for a few days. After the seasoning, the leaves are cut into the required lengths.
A thick stylus with a sharp needle point is used to inscribe on the leaves. The leaf surface is balanced and pressed between the stretched fore-finger and the thumb of the left hand. These fingers are kept at a ‘V’ shaped angle between each other. This helps in holding the thin leaf in a tighter grip. The right hand moves the stylus in smooth, light pressured, rounded movements to inscribe the paintings in to the leaf. The stylus has to be held at a proper angle for the right depth to be attained. The natural grains of the palm leaves make the movement against it difficult and just the right amount of pressure has to be put on the leaves so that they do not tear.
After the etching, lampblack or kohl is rubbed over the leaves. The etchings take in the lampblack and the rest get wiped away. Then, according to the final design of the Talapattachitra, the voids are cut away to make stencil like patterns or layered on other leaves.
List of craftsmen.