Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

Exploring Uncommon Pattachitra Motifs and Themes

Analysing Rare Themes And Unusual Pattachitra Motifs

Just as a million drops of water make up the sea, a multitude of themes, motifs, and subjects grace Indian traditional paintings. A prominent example is ‘composite paintings’, in which artists use parts of humans, animals, or objects to make up a complete picture. Several composite painting themes feature in the Pattachitra motifs of Odisha and West Bengal. Composite paintings depict surreal and mystical worlds and contain themes and references to mythical animals and fantastical, otherworldly elements.

Pattachitra painting is such an ancient artform that it has hundreds of motifs and many themes that are not very well known. The most popular Pattachitra themes are ‘Dasavatara’ (depiction of Vishnu’s ten avatars), ‘Krishna Leela’ (stories of Krishna’s childhood), and ‘Thia Badhia’ (depiction of Odisha’s Jagannath temple). Let’s explore some of the lesser-known themes of Pattachitra paintings.

Rare Pattachitra Motifs: The Awe-Inspiring Navagunjara

Navagunjara Pattachitra paintings (image source: hinducosmos.tumblr.com)

Fantastical beasts of terrifying and awe-inspiring appearances frequently feature in religion and mythology. The Navagunjara is one such beast, that is made up of nine different animals. It has a rooster head, neck of a peacock, the hump of a bull, and four limbs. The front limbs are an elephant foot and a human hand, while deer and tiger feet make up the back limbs. Its tail is a serpent. The Navagunjara is an avatar of Lord Vishnu and appears only in the Odia poet Sarala Dasa’s version of the Mahabharata.

In this folk retelling, Navagunjara appears in front of the archer Arjuna. At first, Arjuna is terrified, and raises his bow to attack. He then realises that he cannot understand or comprehend the entity before him and deduces that it is an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Several versions of this myth exist. The Navagunjara, as a virat rupa (omnipresent avatar) of Vishnu, symbolises that what is impossible in human reason is possible in divine thought. The animal is a common motif in Pattachitra paintings, which should come as no surprise as the Navagunjara is a part of Odisha’s folklore.

According to ‘Impact of Islam on Odishan Culture’ by Mohammed Yamin, the Navagunjara also appears in Pahari and Deccan schools of painting. The ‘Navagunjara’ card set of Ganjifa playing cards shows him as the King card and Arjuna as the Vazir or Minister card. In Indian art forms, artists use animal motifs to symbolically represent abstract elements. You can learn to draw intricate animal and bird motifs through Rooftop’s Pattachitra Maestro course.

Rare Pattachitra Motifs: The Joyful Kandarpa Leela Themes

The Kandarpa theme in Pattachitra is essentially a love theme. ‘Kandarpa’ means ‘cupid’ and refers to Kamadeva, but he is seldom shown in these motifs. Instead, this theme of Pattachitra shows his influence and presence through depictions of Lord Krishna. The Kandarpa themes show the gopis’ devotion and love towards Lord Krishna and depict various scenes from Krishna’s Raas Leela.

The variations of the Kandarpa theme all share one similarity: they show women or gopis contorting their bodies into the forms of a vehicle for Lord Krishna.

It conveys a sense that gopis are bound together in love for their beloved Lord and also suggests they have a feeling of kinship or sisterhood towards each other. The Kandarpa Leela has four variations: hasta or hathi (elephant), ashwa (horse), nouk or nauka (boat), and ratha (chariot).

1. Kandarpa Hasta (Gajarasa)

Kandarpa Hasta is better known as Nava Nari Kunjara, which literally translates to nine-women-elephant. The theme of Nava Nari Kunjara is also called ‘Gajarasa’ in Pattachitra paintings. It is a very rare motif that shows nine women contorting themselves into the shape of an elephant. This motif features prominently in Odia sculpture and architecture. It become popular during the Mughal and post-Mughal periods.

The nine women in Gajarasa represent the nine rasas of Hindu aesthetics. Sometimes artists would depict Lord Krishna on the back of the human elephant as a ‘rasaraja’, or master of the rasas. In sculpture, Radha features alongside Krishna, portraying ‘shringar’, or erotic love, as the most important rasa. The motif was immensely popular among the Mughals and used as a symbol of strength and virility. They would illustrate Mughal emperors riding on a Gajarasa in Mughal miniature paintings. We can also see the Nava Nari Kunjara theme in Sambalpuri Ikat.

2. Kandarpa Ashva

This theme shows gopis forming the body of a horse. We see Lord Krishna sitting on this horse and playing the flute. The Nari Ashva motif of Pattachitra traces back to the ‘Rasa Panchaka’, a book by Odiya writer Divakara Das. The horse is associated with strength, and this theme depicts it as ‘a vehicle of love’. The Kandarpa Ashva theme is not particularly rare, and we can find it even in contemporary Pattachitra paintings.

An interesting parallel to this theme is ‘panchanari turaga’, in which Kamadeva or his companion Rati are seen riding on a horse made up of five women. We see this theme as well as the Kandarpa Hasta in temple carvings, paintings, and sculptures in South India.

3. Kandarpa Ratha

(image source: stringsofheritage.com)

Kandarpa Ratha, or Cupid Car, is the depiction of gopis forming a chariot, or ratha, for Krishna after being entranced by his melodious flute playing. Sometimes Radha accompanies Krishna, and they sit atop the chariot. In some depictions, we see Krishna and Radha embracing each other, and gopis embrace each other to mimic them. The gopis create an arch around Lord Krishna and sometimes hold fans or garlands. Pattachitra artists can creatively alter the placement and composition of the gopis, especially while drawing the wheels of the chariot. The ratha motif also references the Ratha yatra festival held in Puri, Odisha.

4. Kandarpa Nauka

Image source: wikimediacommons.org
Image source: twitter.com

The rarest of the Kandarpa themes, the Kandarpa Nauka, features gopis interlocking limbs with each other to form a boat upon which Lord Krishna travels. Radha may or may not be present. Odisha has a rich history of boating and several traditional boating festivals, such as the Boita Bandana.

The boats depicted in Kandarpa Nauka closely resemble the Boita, a traditional boat of Odisha that has arched corners. The Boita resembles the shape of a bird, with one tapering end shaped as the head of a bird and the other curving in to form the tail feathers.

The Connection Between Pattachitra Motifs And Other Indian Art Forms

Indian art forms are distinct yet closely parallel to each other. Pattachitra motifs are closely linked with other Pata art forms of India. We see similar themes in the Paitkar paintings of Jharkhand and the Pata Shilpa paintings of West Bengal. In order to preserve the history of Indian culture and traditions, learning about the motifs of each distinct art form will help us gain a better understanding of art and Indian heritage. It will also help us understand the local artists and communities of India, as well as their interpretations of folk art.

Gajarasa (image source: indica.today)

Dasavatara Patti, Rama-Ravana Judha, Kanchi Abhiyana, Thia Badhia, Krishna Leela, etc. are some other themes of Pattachitra paintings. Artists are still practising this ancient art form that dates back to the 12th century. It is not possible to learn about all the motifs and themes of such an ancient art form in a day or two. But if you truly want to explore and learn, Rooftop app is the right place to start. Take workshops and if you want delve deeper, check out the Pattachitra course which covers borders, animals, birds, deities, temple decorations, and even delves into Pothi Chitra, the ancient art of Palm leaf engraving.

To start painting these rare and mystical themes yourself, download the Rooftop App from Google Play or the App Store and enrol in the Pattachitra Maestro course today!

Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things on Indian traditional, folk, and tribal art forms.

By Melissa D’Mello

Related Posts

Symbolism in Indian Art

Indian traditional art is a world in its own right. Its distinct language and symbols touch upon different aspects of life and life lessons....