In India, the ‘Art of Painting’ has deep historical roots traced back to the Mesolithic time, about 10, 000 years ago. Some of the richest treasures of early Indian paintings are found on the walls of the Ajanta caves in Western India.
From Ajanta, ideas in paintings were spread across the length and breadth of the country over centuries, bringing several new elements and a synthesis of various ideas (miniature, realism, etc.) to the arts. After centuries of experimentation, today the heritage of Indian painting stands distinctively unique in the arena of global painting tradition. Folk paintings have remained particularly consistent in their strong ritual associations, and nowhere is this truer than in the case of Orissa’s Patachitra cloth paintings.
Patachitra is an age-old painting tradition that was established in Puri, where it was executed by a traditional caste known as the Chitrakara. As the devotees know, life in Puri revolves around the temple of Lord Jagannath. Celebration of festivals and constant daily puja is enjoyed by throngs of worshippers. One of these festivals is the Devasnana Purnima, in which the chitrakaras are deeply involved.
On the occasion of Devasnana Purnima, images of the Deities are brought out in a procession to the bathing platform, located outside the temple, and a ceremonial bath is given to the Deities by pouring water on Their images. They are then brought back inside the temple. Thereafter the Deities fall sick and are kept away from public view for fifteen days. This period is called anasara or anavasara. During these days, there is a need for substitute images for the public to view and to which prayers and rituals can be offered. Consequently, a Chitrakara paints the substitute icons, called Anasara Pati.
Preparation for the making of Anasara Pati begins on the occasion of Akshyaya Tritiya. On this day, a Chitrakara receives a piece of cloth from the temple administration to prepare as a canvas. When he completes the painting, the family priest comes to his house to perform a puja of the Pati in the presence of all his family members. A day after this puja, a priest from the Jagannath Temple comes to his house with a garland and accompanied by persons carrying ghanta (gong), chalti (ritual umbrella), and kahali (pipe). Another puja is performed at his house and after the puja is over the Anasara Pati is rolled and tied with a piece of black cloth. The Pati is then carried to the Jagannath Temple by the Chitrakara in a ceremonial procession.
The tradition of Anasara Pati goes back to the time of King Anangabhima Deva, who ruled Orissa between 1190 and 1198 AD. This is evident in the chronicle of Jagannath Temple – the Madala Panji.
Besides Devasnana Purnima, the Chitrakaras are occupied with other festivals in Puri, the most famous being the Rath Yatra. When there are no festivals they are engaged in painting on the walls of various temples and mathas, along with the houses of some affluent families which allows them to earn their livelihood. Traditionally Chitrakaras were being paid in kind for their services, but now they earn their living mostly through selling their paintings.
For hundreds of years, pilgrims from all over India have been visiting the holy dhama of Puri. These pilgrims have also been patrons of the Chitrakaras. Collecting a memento from the place of pilgrimage has been a practice in India since ancient times. In Puri, there is a belief that a pilgrimage to the town is incomplete unless the pilgrim takes back with him/her five Patas of Jagannath, five beads, five cane sticks and nirmalya (dried rice from the temple kitchen). In Bengal it is the custom of every pilgrim returning from Puri to send one of these pictures and a few grains of the dried cooked rice, Mahaprasada, to his/her friends and relatives.
Throughout the history of pilgrimage, the Chitrakaras used to make such Jatri Patis to suit every pocket. Cheaper ones were done on primed newspaper with crude workmanship. However, the more expensive Patax used to have a plan of the Jagannath temple showing not only the Triad in a shrine, but also other gods and goddesses, festivals of the temples and animals like elephant, horse and deer.