After three years of seclusion at home, drawing, writing, editing videos and photographs, frustration finally gave way to the joy of travelling to India again. As the pandemic receded, I had planned to document other forms of Indian murals and floor paintings, but to my surprise, I was offered a research trip to Odisha. I owe this gift to the generous sponsorship of Stephen Huyler, an American friend whom I admire for his extensive research and documentation of Indian ritual and sacred arts. He provided me with a local guide who was for many years his coordinator for the cultural trips that he organised in India.
For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to Odisha for its classical dance known as Odissi. Had I not chosen to learn Kathakali in Kerala, I would have studied this style of dance which is defined by subtle undulations of the torso, graceful swaying, and intricate steps.
More than the costume, I was fascinated by the exquisite headpiece called tahia. The flowers that make up the adornment are connected to each other by a thread and are carved from sholapith, the white, porous stem of a wild aquatic plant (Aeschynomene aspera) also known as ivory plant.
In Bengal, this plant is considered auspicious and is used both for bridal headdresses and for the elaborate ornaments of Goddess Durga during the autumn festival. In Odisha, it is said that since the 11th century, the ornaments of the idols of the Jagannath temple were made with sholapith.
Odissi dance is also associated with a joyful episode during my studies in Kerala. Many years ago, I had the privilege to attend the rehearsals of Sanjukta Panigrahi, the great Odissi artist and disciple of the legendary exponent Kelucharan Mohapatra. Accompanied by her husband Raghunath Panigrahi, she had been invited to dance for a religious ceremony and I had offered to help her during her stay. When she left, she placed an exquisite pair of filigree earrings in my hand, which have remained among my favourites. Years later, there was this white metal hair ornament, bought for a few euros at a yard sale here in France. The filigree work was indeed that of an Odisha jewel, but the unusual workmanship indicated a tribal origin, but from which community? It was only during this trip, when I visited the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar, that I finally got an answer. Upon entering the first exhibition hall, I spotted the jewel on a mannequin's bun in a display case labelled as follows: "Hairpin (Sudbaha), Santal community, Mayurbhanj".
I have always had a fondness for Indian handicrafts, with a preference for the artists of Odisha. The engraved and painted palm leaves, the colourful paintings called patachitra on cloth, silk or paper known for their mythological narratives and in particular the story of the Jagannath temple and its deities, all fascinated me.
I had already bought paintings and palm leaves at various craft fairs and at the craft bazaar of the Dakshinachitra Museum in Chennai, but my latest purchases were during the pandemic. The imposed lockdown and lack of tourists had crippled India’s economy, as elsewhere in the world, and traditional artists were struggling to make ends meet. Through social networking, some have been able to sell and partially support themselves. Interestingly, in the wake of globalisation, moving from a collective tradition to a more individual expression, a number of artists and craftsmen have evolved traditional forms into a new narrative style that incorporates the concerns of the contemporary world. Indian artists have long used their art to spread social messages, and some have produced series of paintings in their traditional style during the lockdown to raise awareness of social distancing and hygiene to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Apindra Swain from Raghurajpur village in Puri district of Odisha is one of them. His creativity and tenacity have saved him from financial hardship and earned him some international recognition.
Palm leaf manuscripts were the most important writing or drawing medium in Asia and I have always been attracted to the making of these accordion-like manuscripts engraved with a stylus. Palm leaf printing, also known as talapatra chitra in Odiya, is an ancient folk-art. Palm leaves are cut to the desired size, then the strips are sewn together and folded into an accordion-like shape to form a bundle. The sewing is done in such a way that the engraved designs represent a whole image. The purchased manuscripts were not coloured but blackened with a concoction of charcoal and oil applied and wiped on the surface to reveal the incised patterns. These illustrations tell fables and stories from Hindu mythology, reinterpret nature, animals, and birds, and bring erotic themes to life. More recently, artisans have created bookmarks and postcards to appeal to mass tourism.
Story to be continued...