An Introduction To The Palm Leaf Manuscripts Of Pothi Chitra
Have you ever wondered how stories were recorded before the invention of paper? It is said that our ancestors would paint on rocks, cave walls, and leaves. In the same way that the Egyptians used papyrus made from the Cyperus papyrus plant, the artists of Odisha used palm leaf manuscripts, or Pothi Chitra. These manuscripts are said to have existed since the inception of the Jagannath temple (about 1161).
Palm leaf manuscripts were used to create written records until the 19th century. Let’s look at the history, techniques, and current state of Pothi Chitra painting.
The History Of Odisha’s Pothi Chitra
Pothi Chitra is a sister art form of Patta Chitra. It uses palm-leaf engraving instead of fabric painting. ‘Pothi’ is an obsolete Hindi word that means ‘book’. Pothi chitra is also called Tala Pata Chitra and is created on talapatra pothis (palm leaf manuscripts). These tala patas were traditionally used to write horoscopes. Artists would travel to the Jagannath temple in Puri and sell the palm leaf manuscripts to the priests there. Writing about auspicious dates and the future of rulers served as an additional source of income for them.
Pothi Chitra, or Tala Pattachitra, gained popularity in the 15th century. The Sarala Mahabharata was written on palm leaf manuscripts, and these hand-written copies spread throughout Odisha.
- Did you know? The Sarala Mahabharata is the only version of the Mahabharata that contains the story of Arjuna meeting the mythical beast, Navagunjara.
Though the tradition of Tala Pattachitra is quite old, the oldest surviving versions preserved in the Odisha State Museum of Bhubaneshwar are from the 17th century. The museum has a collection of over 400 illustrated Pothi Chitra manuscripts. Older paintings have not survived, presumably due to the tropical and humid climate of Odisha. Pothi Chitra has now evolved into a pictorial representation of ancient knowledge, myths, and stories. Text is used sparingly and is now reserved only for horoscopes, shlokas, and wedding invitations.
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Pothi Chitra: The Process Of Painting On Palm Leaf Manuscripts
The Palm tree is called the Tala Gaccha in the Odia language. The leaves of this tree form the canvas of the Pothi Chitra palm leaf manuscripts. The members of the Pothi community climb the palm trees and collect the leaves. They dry the leaves for a month and treat them with turmeric. This lends a golden hue to the tala pattachitra, and turmeric’s antibacterial properties also increase their lifespan. After this, they cut the edges of the leaves and sew them together to form a canvas.
The artist uses a sharp, pointed iron tool called the Lekhani to etch designs into the palm leaf manuscripts. Then they fill in the grooves with black or white ink. The colours are filled in only after all the designs have been etched. Artists prepare the black colour by burning coconut shells or earthen diyas and adding katha gum to the resulting black residue.
- Did you know? Pothi Chitra used to have a dichromatic colour scheme. Later on, artists began using various natural colours on these palm leaf manuscripts.
The Preservation of Pothi Chitra
Artists would store the Pothi Chitra manuscripts between two wooden planks. These planks were elaborately decorated as well. The main factors affecting the preservation of Pothi Chitra paintings are environmental factors such as insects, changes in humidity and temperature, and harsh lights.
To maintain the life of the tala pattachitra, the artists apply natural herbs such as ghorabach or Margosa leaves to them. They may also apply either Citronella, Camphor, or Lemongrass oil to keep the leaves flexible and reduce the chances of physical damage. The palm leaf manuscripts are also fumigated with thymol vapours to prevent fungus and rot.
Modern-Day Uses Of Odia Palm Leaf Manuscripts
Even today, writing on Pothis is considered holy and associated with religious symbolism. Palm leaf manuscripts are an important part of religious ceremonies and are used in the celebration of important milestones such as births and marriages. Pothi Chitra manuscripts are used to inscribe the wedding invitation to the bridegroom’s family as well as the horoscope of newborn babies. On the eleventh day of the Jyestha month (also known as Rukmini Harana Ekadasi), a letter from Rukmini is presented to Jagannath in the Jagannath temple of Puri. This letter is written on a palm leaf manuscript.
Curators and art dealers from West Bengal source most of the Pothi Chitra pieces available today. Many palm leaf manuscripts are displayed at museums in Mumbai and Delhi.
The Contemporary Artists Of Pothi Chitra
Most contemporary Pothi Chitra artists reside in Nayakpatana. Sarat Kumar Pradhan is one of the last remaining Pothi Chitra artists. Pradhan can spend about 10 to 25 days painting a single art piece. He spent a year creating the piece that won him the National Handicraft Award in 2016. The contemporary Pattachitra artist Bijaya Parida created an intricate pankha (fan) using palm leaf manuscripts, which is displayed at the ODIART Purvasha Museum in Chilika. Balaram Prusty of Chandanpur paints both Pattachitra and Pothi Chitra pieces. He sells his work online and works with a team of 40 people.
77-year-old Pothi Chitra artist Maga Nayak can take anywhere from one month to a year to complete a single piece. Some of his artwork can fetch up to Rs 2,00,000. The Nayak family creates up to 40 pieces each year. They also create handicrafts like chess and ludo boards, jewellery boxes, and other utility items. They do not usually take commissions but offer customised and contemporary designs to interested buyers.
Government Efforts To Conserve Odisha’s Palm Leaf Manuscripts
“Pothi chitra is more tedious, gives less returns, and looks outdated in front of cloth scrolls. The artists also didn’t do much to make it mainstream. I wish the government had made the same efforts to popularise Pattachitra. We would not have to struggle during the pandemic crisis.”– Prasanna Nayak
While Pattachitra painting is now internationally recognised, Pothi Chitra has not received as much attention. The Government of Odisha has been trying to win a GI tag for Pothi Chitra but has not been successful yet. One of the villages practising this art form, Nayakapatana, is situated near Raghurajpur, a popular centre of Pattachitra painting. Since most of the tourism and funding favour Pattachitra, these ancient palm leaf manuscripts remain on the sidelines.
The art of creating palm leaf manuscripts is being taught in many government schools and Kendriya Vidayalayas as it improves handwriting and fine motor skills.
The Preservation Of Pothi Chitra Today
Maga Nayak and his sons Prasanna and Prashant run a school that teaches the traditional methods of Pothi Chitra. Students learn how to paint the palm leaf manuscripts with natural colours and without the use of pens and brushes. Artists from all over Odisha stay at these schools for weeks in order to learn Pothi Chitra painting.
The artist Arun Uday Mahapatra teaches Pothi Chitra at NID, IITs, and other institutions. His father spoke about this art form at Oxford University and travels regularly to promote it. Western art collectors, particularly in the UK, Japan, and Germany, are very interested in collecting Indian palm leaf manuscripts.
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By Melissa D’Mello