National award-winning pattachitra artist Bijoy Parida fell into painting quite by accident. His was a business family that had little inclination towards the arts. But a friend of his father noticed a young Parida’s penchant for drawing, and suggested the Orissa Handicraft Training and Design Centre as a way to find a profession for him. Two years later, Parida was armed with a degree and a passion for his subject but, as he said, “little knowledge of use about the art of pattachitra”. Another five years spent training under one of the oldest practitioners of the form, Gokul Bihari Pattnaik, cemented Parida’s skills, and in 1978, at the age of 20, he began his career as an artist.

Last week, his solo show, Dancing the Line, was exhibited at Artisans’, a gallery in the Kala Ghoda district of Mumbai. Also part of the exhibition were workshops by Parida that introduced the world of pattachitra, and Odissi dance performances by Dakhu Mashruwala, which showed the parallels between Orissa’s folk art and its classical dance form.

Parida’s work is typical of pattachitra style, a folk art native to Orissa. It draws on scenes from the mythological epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. “All pattachitra artists follow a similar technique, a similar method of drawing and decoration,” Parida said. “But like no two people’s handwriting is the same, each artist is able to achieve difference by imbuing the painting with his own style.”

The 59-year-old artist achieved this difference by focusing only on two colours, black (extracted from lamp soot) and geru (red ochre extracted from geru stone) instead of the multi-coloured designs that are in vogue right now, he said. In one of the most arresting series that was part of the exhibition, Parida drew on the shada ritu or the six seasons.

“Of course, most of us are only aware of three seasons,” he said, and added with a laugh, ”And now with climate change there is no guarantee. It rains anytime, and heat comes in winter and cold in summer.”

'Winter' from the Six Seasons series. Image credit: Artisans'
'Spring' from the Six Seasons series. Image credit: Artisans'
The Navagunjara beast from the Mahabharata, a common motif in pattachitra. Image credit: Artisans'

Scholars suggest that pattachitra dates back to the 2nd century BCE to the mural art found inside Khandagiri and Udayagiri Caves of Bhubaneswar and in the Ganjam district of Odisha. The modern-day version of pattachitra grew hand-in-hand with the worship of Hindu God Jagannath, whose temples abound in Puri, where Parida grew up. “I often saw those paintings as a kid, but was only able to make sense of them after I completed my training,” he recalled.

One series in the exhibition that stood in contrast to the subdued hues of most other work was Chausathi Kala, or the 64 Arts series. Chausathi Kala depicts skills such as singing, painting, engineering, carpentry – all of which formed the basis for the development of a “cultured” person in ancient India. Jagannath, an avatar of Vishnu, is said to have mastered all these skills.

A depiction of the Chausathi Kala or the 64 arts which Lord Jagannath is said to have possessed. Image Credit: Artisans'
A depiction of the Chausathi Kala or the 64 arts which Lord Jagannath is said to have possessed. Image Credit: Artisans'

Since he wanted a broad appeal for his work, Parida created work which draws on images from Hindu mythology but does not depict anything religious. For example, the classical image of Krishna performing Radha’s sringar, the adornments which, according to religious texts, are a mandatory part of a woman’s attire, is replaced by two women performing the same ritual.

Normally an image associated with Radha and Krishna, Parida used non-religious figures for wide appeal. Image credit: Artisans'

To allow for a deeper engagement with the art form, Odissi dancer Dakshu Mashruwala performed as part of Dancing the Line. Surrounded by Parida’s artworks, in what she described as an “artistically-charged atmosphere”, the dancer explained the linkages between pattachitra and Odissi. “Dance is about making lines in space, painting is making lines on canvas.” She also performed on ashtapadis or hymns from the Gita Govinda, a 12th century poem about the relationship between Radha and Krishna, which also inspired many motifs present in Parida’s work.

Odissi dancer Daksha Mashruwala (right) performs with Namrata Mehta at The Dancing Line exhibition. Image Credit: Artisans'/ via Facebook

Like most Indian folk arts, pattachitra is seeing fewer and fewer new practitioners. Parida blames this on mobile phones and the resultant goldfish-like attention span most people have. “Pattachitra requires patience,“ the artist said. “But these days, young people cannot switch off their phone and are always fidgeting. How can art be created in that way?”

Bijay Parida conducting a workshop on palm leaf engraving. Image Credit: Artisans'/ via Facebook