Kala Bhoomi Museum
On the day of my arrival in Bhubaneswar, I was received at the airport by Babu, a friend and local guide. After dropping my luggage at the hotel, we headed off to Kala Bhoomi Museum established in 2018 with the aim of displaying all the handicrafts of the state in one place and bringing the history and culture of Odisha to people from around the world. Often, craftsmanship is seen in terms of manual skill rather than creative thinking. Without the technical culture to appreciate the creative process, the public overlooks ingenious minds and thinking hands. Hopefully, the museum's display of objects and performances will encourage interaction with the artisans themselves, whether they are potters, sculptors, religious image-makers, or dancers. For my part, in the space of a few hours, I got a detailed overview of Odia culture. What is missing is an encounter with the amazing tribal mosaic that populates the hills of Odisha.
As soon as I entered the museum, I was enthralled and totally amazed by the fabulous world of human creativity. In the first room, impressive pottery, or more precisely, planters for growing sacred basil, whose slender sugarloaf shape is reminiscent of the architecture of the temples of Odisha. The tulasi or holy basil is considered the earthly manifestation of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity and consort of Vishnu, and is worshipped in Vaishnava homes, hence the presence of planters near the houses.
The terracotta planters are similar to those photographed by Stephen Huyler in the nineties. On the walls, the author's photographs bear witness to this unique but disappearing craft. During my daily trips, I have not seen pottery of this quality except for the simple coloured cement pots at the entrance to the houses. Is it a matter of cost for the villagers? Have the potters lost their skills?
In the next room, there are patachitra paintings known to illustrate mythological stories and portraits of the divine triad of the Jagannath (Lord of the universe) temple. In Odisha, God Krishna is worshipped in this form along with his brother Balabhadra and his half-sister Subhadra. Jagannath has a dark complexion and circular eyes, while the other two effigies have almond-shaped eyes and are respectively white and yellow in colour.
These smiling deities, dressed and adorned according to the seasons, are simple wooden poles without legs, with minimalistic arms on either side of the trunk and topped by heads. For Vishnu devotees, Jagannath is an abstract incarnation of God Krishna or Vishnu, but the possible tribal origin for these atypical representations has been raised. Indeed, carved wooden poles are found in many tribal communities across India.
During the Puri temple's chariot festival or Ratha Yatra, the triad Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra are carried in procession from the temple to the summer residence on three massive and colourfully decorated wooden chariots. It was against this backdrop of fervour that patachitra paintings and other devotional objects were created to meet the demand of pilgrims wishing to take a souvenir home. Even today, the production of these popular works is a testimony to a centuries-old tradition of votive art, emanating from religious orthodoxy, which continues in the village of Raghurajpur, near Bhubaneswar and in other towns.
Villages with a sense of art
Raghurajpur, about 50 km from Bhubaneswar, has been a popular tourist destination since 2000. The village has two main streets and over 120 houses decorated with mainly religious murals.
It is probably the only village in India where every household is engaged in the production of crafts. Both houses and workshops, the patachitra community also create traditional masks, stone deities, and wooden toys. As soon as we entered the village, many craftsmen-painters were haranguing visitors and tourists. My guide disliked the place and told me to leave as soon as possible because, according to him, it was all a show to attract the gullible customer; most of the buyers had no knowledge of mythological stories and were not interested in them.
Yet, as I walked through the two lanes of the village, I was struck by the myriad of colours and characters on the walls. I discovered a unique painting tradition of this region: the names of the bride and groom, and the date of the wedding are painted in the centre of a simple or complex pattern on the front wall of a house. Depending on the client's budget, the painter adds musical instruments and auspicious symbols.
The names of the bride and groom are written either in the local Odia language or in English, and some of the paintings are signed by the artist, who advertises his creations via social networks to promote himself. On the way back, I noticed these murals in all the villages we passed through.
Story to be continued...