Formerly in the pre-Muslim period, painting on the walls of the temples received special encouragement. The temple walls were found to have been decorated with painting by the management, and well-to-do persons also had interest in decorating their domestic buildings.

While painting on palm leaf and cloth was popular, painting on paper in Orissa was a phenomenon which received impetus only during and after the Muslim rules in Orissa. The Muslims had no interest in palm leaves nor did they bother to utilize these materials for maintenance of records. They used paper, maintaining records in papers and writing the scriptures on paper. This influenced some Oriya painters to paint on paper. The specimens of such paintings are preserved in the Orissa Museum. [1] They depict the role of Krishna in Mathura and Gopa. The artist’s treatment of human figures, trees and landscape are impressive, but the peculiarity which is noticed in such painting is that some human figures are drawn with Mughal costumes. This is indicative of the impact of Muslim rule of Orissan art.

Some of the other interesting pieces of painting on paper as preserved in the Orissa Museum are the marriage story of Siva, Krishna Lila, and sketches of darbar.

In the scene of the marriage of Siva, the right hand of Siva and the left hand of Parvati are tied and they are taking the marriage oath in the presence of Brahma and Vishnu. The lady standing with arghya is the wife of Dakhya, mother of Parvati. The description of the marriage is not so important as the setting and the arrangement, which creates an impression about how the marriage ceremony was to be held.

Another is the story from the Krishna Lila wherein Shri Krishna is found to fight with three demons. [2] He has caught hold of the neck portion of Bakasura and is pushing a vault into the demon’s mouth. The head portion of the other demon, Sandhasura, has been caught in two hands of Shri Krishna and both of them continue to fight. The left hand of Shri Krishna has been thrust into the mouth of a third demon, Arghasura, and with His right hand, He is going to give a blow. In this fighting scene between Shri Krishna and the demons, the cattle folk have been found to have raised their heads in different directions. This scene is impressive as well as interesting.

Another painting depicts a darbar scene. Here the king sits and behind him is an umbrella-holder. The king symbolically directs the persons standing in front of him. The king as well as some persons in this darbar wear Mughal costumes.

In Orissa, a very large number of illustrated palm leaf manuscripts are available. Some of them are painted; others are not. A good number of them are preserved in the Orissa State Museum while some are found in Radhu Nandan Library, Puri and Utkal University Library, Bhubaneswar. Some recently illustrated manuscripts are also available in the Museum of Berhampur University, Orissa.

Drawing and sketching on palm leaf with an iron stylo constituted a special pictorial art in Orissa. It appears that this art might have its origin in the early period, but from the evidence available it is know that by the 17th and 18th century, it was becoming common and more popular than before.

The drawing or sketching on palm leaf is generally found to have been explained in words or verses in the Oriya script. Also there are some illustrated palm leaf manuscripts in which the happenings or events are explained in Sanskrit language, but in Oriya script. This is perhaps indicative that before the full development of Oriya literature, Sanskrit was much cultivated and the artist illustrated the events of the Sanskrit works [3] in his drawing on palm leaf.

Toward the 17th century, when Oriya language and literature grew rich and facts from Sanskrit works found a place in Oriya literature, the artist now found it probably easier to illustrate the drawings with Oriya language. Perhaps this is the reason why illustrated manuscripts are found in large quantities in the 17th and 18th centuries than before.

Another reason which encouraged the practice of drawing on palm leaves was the royal patronization. The various kings and chiefs must have appreciated it. Any artist who could draw pictorial art on palm leaf and present it to a chief was destined to receive suitable presents or money for the art. As a result, there rose a class of artists drawing art on palm leaves at various places of Orissa. The artist could retain this art of penmanship and pictorial art in his family through generations, so this often was found to be not a hobby, but a source of livelihood.

Also the writers and the poets of Orissa were a source of encouragement themselves. The artist who may have previously selected materials from an epic in previously Sanskrit language could now find such epics in Oriya language, because Puranic stories had been either translated from Sanskrit to Oriya or absorbed into the Oriya literature from the Sanskrit text. Such stories treated in kavyas and poetry, when presented through pictorial art, were found more impressive and gained popularity as they appealed to the common man. As almost all of the drawings on palm leaves derived facts from the writings of writers and poets, it is evident that the artist class were certainly influenced by them and it is just possible that some of them might have been used to make a propaganda of their literary work, with the help of the artist who could draw art on palm leaf.

Whatever may be the propaganda effect, the fact remains that the literature provided materials to the pictorial art — an idea of how to make a plan and execute the plan in a way that will create a realistic impression.

The influence of literature on the work of palm leaf artists is evidenced from the fact that the artist has taken materials from Oriya literatures such as Bhagavat Gita by Jagannath Das, Vaidehisha Bilasa, Labanyabati, Chitrabandhokabyodaya, Dashapoi, and Rasika Harabali by Upendra Bhanja, Sarbanga Sundari by Lokanath Das, Ushavilash by Sishu Sankar Das, Adhyatma Ramayanaby Gopala Telanga, Bidagdha Madhava by Rupa Goswami, and Rasha Binoda, Rashakallola and Artatrana Chautishaby Dinakrishna Das. Besides, Rama lila, Krishna lila and Rasha lila were to be depicted, as they were very much popular and appreciated by the common man.

The earliest palm leaf art so far available goes back to the 17th century. Amaru Sataka (Hundred Verses by poet Amaru) belongs to that century. In it is depicted the beautiful drawings on both sides of the folio with writing on the side of the picture. Dasabatar [Dasavatara] drawings and paintings on palm leaf are quite common in Orissa and are found at many places. A Gita Govinda illustrated palm leaf manuscript is another brilliant specimen. It shows how near about the 17th century, such was depicted with robustness. A work of Oriya iconography found in the Utkal University Library has been dated to have been written in the 17th century and contains a good number of drawings, principally taking materials from the Hindu corpus.

The theme collected by the artist was from Puranic stories. This pictorial art took the same trend as was manifested in the theme of literature. It depicted in many cases the theme of Vaishnava literature. But in other cases it is noticed that the artist had equally emphasized Siva worship, Rama worship and Jagannath worship. The two manuscripts [4] depicting marriage scene of Siva and Parvati, one attended by Brahma and Visnu, presents Siva as a great demigod. The manuscript [5] from Utkal University depicting the worship of Siva by Banasur and Siva in different mudras indicates that Siva found a place in Vaishnava art.

In the palm leaf art from Adhyatma Ramayana by Gopal Telenga the building of Setu Bandh by Rama for fighting with Ravana, the worship of Rama’s sandals (Paduka) by Bharata and Viswamitra, and taking with him Rama for the purpose of killing Tadaki are some of the scenes depicting Rama’s role. [6]

Lord Jagannath has been depicted with Balabhadra and Subhadra in the Dasabatar manuscript preserved in the Utkal University Library. They have taken their seats on the Ratna Sinhasan. [7] Again Jagannath has been represented as Patita-pavan or the lifter of the down-trodden.

In the manuscript of Rukmini’s marriage, Rukmini sits inside the chariot while Krishna goes on fighting with the enemy’s forces. [8] Here Krishna eloping with Rukmini is not the primary point. What is primary is how the artist has arranged the fighting forces. The poses of the horses up on their hind legs to rush to the opposite side and the posture of the horseman on their backs are something unique which can be only comparable to the horses of Konarak. The movements of the caparisoned elephants on the battlefield are impressive in their bodily construction, with tusks and march.

To express the run of a horse with high speed with the help of merely an iron stylo is no mean achievement. It certainly explains the high order of skill and technique with which the artist was accustomed. This is a climax in penmanship and an art which certainly startles the eye of an observer, whose observation would have been deep and penetrating and who would have that aesthetic sense to appreciate the art.

In the manuscript on Siva and Parvati’s marriage, Viswakarma is waiting with a chariot to take Siva and Parvati after the marriage. [9] The background which has been created by the artist in this situation is something highly attractive and marvelous. In the drawing, with the point of iron stylo, water waves are depicted in which fish and other aquatic animals are swimming and visible to outside observers. Some birds are hopping nearby while others are hovering over the water to pick up any fish that might come to the surface. Two persons are moving towards the water to enjoy the natural scenery in front of them. This treatment of landscape may be easy to a modern artist who uses modern sophisticated instruments and colour for impression, but to create an equally deep impression with the help of an iron pen on palm leaf is highly creditable to a person of the medieval age.

In the manuscript [10] on Krishna Lila, the Kaliya Damana is depicted. The natural setting drawn by the artist explains his love for natural scenery. Here we find various plants and trees; the peacock, deer, and cows are playing and the cowherd boys are happily moving in the midst of them.

In another manuscript [11] depicting Vrindaban on the bank of the river Jamuna, the artist has shown the scenery and the movements of different animals. This Vrindaban is full of flowers and animals like deer, elephant and peacock are found roaming. An interesting technique was adopted here by the artist, and that is that the same animal which looks like a peacock from a distant view can give one an expression of an elephant.

Love scenes are also graphically depicted. The marriage ceremonies with their social background throw light on the social structure of those days. Human figures are drawn with marvelous success. Expression of feeling from the faces is quite evident. Human faces with various expressions and postures as drawn by the artist clearly indicates the high class penmanship in the artist’s hand.

The treatment of facts from the writers in a way most expressive shows how the art of drawing and sketching on the palm leaf went to its highest pinnacle of glory. This is obviously an evidence of very high-class pictorial art. It will be no exaggeration if the art of penmanship on palm leaf can be compared with the art of sculpture of the age of Konarak.

We should note that this palm leaf art or pictorial art, with or without colour, was continued in the Muslim period and on into posterity without any sort of interference from the ruling authorities. The artists followed the traditional ways, maintaining their own individuality and distinctiveness. Although subject matters were brought from the religious literature, still the art depicted the social background of the age.