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Beyond Words - Issue #34

Beyond Words - Issue #34
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #34 • View online
Raghurajpur is an artisan village in the state of Orissa, India. The nearby town of Pipli has more tourist traffic but Raghurajpur remains an undiscovered gem. As a Bengali, I have been to Puri too many times to count. Yet this nearby half day trip evaded me until 2018.

Decorated house walls. Art is everywhere in Raghurajpur
Decorated house walls. Art is everywhere in Raghurajpur
‘No one visits my home, because I am at the end of the 1st lane!’ the young man exclaimed with exasperation and a hint of cajoling. He was a neatly dressed young man, in a cotton shirt and trousers, a neatly trimmed moustache and a persistent but gentle air about him which I found touching. ‘Where is the gotipua gurukul?’ I asked. ‘You want to go there first? I’ll take you, and then you can visit my home nearby’. He pointed out the nearby houses with their intricate murals covering the front walls, the village temple and the ruins of the ancestral home of Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra- a legend in Odissi dance. It looked like we had found ourselves a guide. He had a convincing and open manner which made me think that he could be trusted.
We were visiting Raghurajpur, an artisan village which has been declared a heritage site in India. Situated in the eastern, sea bordering state of Odisha, around 14-15 km from the popular pilgrimage site of Puri which boasts the famous Jagannath temple- Raghurajpur is a little known gem which feels like a discovery one would selfishly want to keep to themselves. I feel a bit sheepish thinking that I had never heard of Raghurajpur in spite of having travelled to Puri umpteen times over 30 years with my family. The artisan village of Pipli is shamelessly touristy and the other day trips- Konark, Chilka, Gopalpur and the many minor temples around Puri are filled with trippers ticking their boxes. In the midst of a very well beaten track, it was a friend last year who mentioned Raghurajpur. For months, I googled, looked at various reviews (including Tripadvisor) and maps before I had a clear plan for the next trip to Puri.
There are two art forms that Raghurajpur can boast of- gotipua and potochitro.
Gotipua is an ancient dance form, older and a predecessor of the more famous Odissi. It is danced by young children before they lose their flexibility and displays agile acrobatics as much as rhythmic steps akin to Odissi. Young gotipua dancers go on to become Odissi dancers and gotipua instructors in later life. Late Guru Maguni Das is a legendary name. His bust figure graces the entrance to the village’s gotipua gurukul which still houses live in students.
Potochitro is painting on canvas and silk. Intricate and colourful, the art is hundreds of years old and the families in Raghurajpur have been engaged in the art for generations. The themes are mostly religious and draw from Hindu mythology and Gods and Goddesses. Recently neutral themes have been introduced for ‘people who might not want religious pictures in their houses’ our guide explained when he was displaying the art work in his family home.
A three wheeler auto rickshaw from Puri can be convinced to take passengers to Raghurajpur and back, waiting for an hour or two. Prices can be negotiated from around 500 rupees. We were a larger group who would have needed two auto rickshaws, so when our hotel offered to arrange a car (non-AC) for 1000 rupees, it seemed entirely reasonable and the easiest way to reach Raghurajpur from Puri which is likely to be the base for visitors. Public transport is also possible. Get to the bus stand near Gudicha temple and take a bus towards Bhubaneshwar and get off at the small town of Chandanpur. From Chandanpur it is a 3 km walk or another rickshaw/auto ride to Raghurajpur. However the bus station is a little away from the centre of Puri, so the advantages of going by bus are limited compared to taking an auto from Puri directly to the artisan village.
We set off on a cloudy but dry day in September, reaching Chandanpur through scenic rural roads, ponds filled with white lotus and fields with tall grasses. The car turned into narrower muddy roads to a junction that clearly marks the way to Raghurajpur. Reviews have described unscrupulous taxi/auto drivers taking visitors to smaller villages or worse- a series of showrooms claiming to be Raghurajpur. So it is worth being aware of what to expect whist entering the village. There are  3-4 shops but they are just that- shops, not residential houses of the artisans, which dot the entrance to the village, just before the car turns left into the residential lane. It was early and off season, so we were spared the shopkeepers trying to stop and convince us that we had reached the village.
We had no problems with our driver who took us straight to the start of the village. Two parallel lanes house 140 homes, each family engaged in the art of potochitro. Between the two lanes a third line houses the village temples.
It was at the start of the 1st lane that we met Abhimanyu and Ashok, both with houses further into the village. Abhimanyu was the one who impressed us and led us straight to the end of the village to the gotipua gurukul. The village is thereby longer than it is broader and hardly 2 km in its entire stretch. A few steps through the 1st lane, we crossed the ruins of the ancestral home of Kelucharan Mahapatra. His famous students visit occasionally to take a handful of soil from the site for sacred purposes. His brother still lives in the second lane, a wrinkled old man whose house has front walls decorated with pictures of his famous brother. We said hello and he joined his hands in a namaste before disappearing into his house, not interested in much conversation.
My daughter and I train in another classical Indian dance form-bharatanatyam. For a dancer to visit a gurukul, even that of another dance form is an emotional experience. Touching the bust of Guru Maguni Das in a prayer, I entered the simple rectangular room that serves for training and performances. The current Guru and trainer is Sebendra Das who cordially invited us and proudly displayed a number of albums and books showing the art of gotipua, the preparation and costume of the artists and pictures of their national and international performances. I asked without much expectation, whether there was a dance performance due any time soon and the Guru and Abhimanyu simply said that if we wanted a show would be put up for us!
Hardly able to believe this was happening, we settled into the threadbare benches at the end of the room. The musicians and singers gathered at the end of the room below a huge portrait of Guru Maguni Das. The current Guru took the double sided drum and after an introductory rhythm, seven children aged around 7-13 entered the room in synchrony.
For fifteen minutes we were spell bound by stories of Krishna and a fluid combination of gymnastics and feet beating to the rhythm of drums. The dancers formed human pyramids, took the posture of Hindu Gods, formed V’s, circles, semi circles and straight lines, walked on their hands, did cartwheels and bent into other unbelievable postures boasting joints with young flexibility. At the end, they formed a horizontal straight line and bent low to their audience. Our applause was spontaneous and heart felt.
The system of living and training for years in a gurukul, is a traditional system which requires undivided devotion to an art form. The young dancers had chemistry between them which showed a relationship which ran deep. I distributed some money to all the children and gave a donation to the gurukul. Then on an impulse whilst the children were milling around me, I offered to show them a short Bharatanatyam piece.  They seemed delighted with the prospect and sat in a neat organised semicircle. I have rarely had such a devoted and rapt audience. The privilege of dancing on gurukul ground will remain a unique experience for the dancer in me.
Next we proceeded to Abhimanyu’s house who seemed all the more excited at hosting an ‘artist’. We were seated in the front room which serves as a workshop and exhibition place. First Abhimanyu showed us the base of the potochitro paintings. It can be done on tusser silk and even dried leaves (taalpatra) but the commonest base is made out of old cotton cloth- usually thin sarees. They are dried and layered, plastered over with powdered shells and tamarind seeds and lastly smoothed over by wet brick until the surface is even and silky. Then the base is cut to various sizes. Pencil outlines are made for pictures with a range of intricacies, and then filled in with natural colour made from powdered stones. Abhimanyu’s father prefers primary colours, the original shades from stones; Abhimanyu likes to experiment with combinations bringing out more shades from a few original ones.
Abhimanyu opened a trunk and brought out painting after painting. Stories of Krishna, Ramayana, Mahabharata- entire epics depicted on one piece of cloth. Smaller portraits held Jagannath, Durga, Ganesha and even neutral themes like trees and flowers. Abhimanyu displayed one canvas with the stories of Krishna, with Radha and Krishna in the centre which was a hundred and fifty years old, painted by his great grandfather. This was a family heirloom and pride, not for sale but he was okay for us to photograph every piece that caught our fancy.
We could have gone on for hours, but with an eye on the clock, I selected two pieces for which Abhimanyu quoted reasonable prices. I then requested to see the interior of the house. On the way in, I had noticed mural paintings on the verandah which were worth a visit.
Abhimanyu led me through the double storeyed house. Even the interiors were filled with colourful images. The images on the verandah were of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva- the Hindu trinity of creator, protector and vanquisher. Abhimanyu then took me downstairs to point out black and white line paintings of the marriages of holy couples- Ram and Sita, Shiva and Parvati.
Three more men- Dilip, Narayan and Ashok had been waiting patiently outside the house to take us to their homes. Visitors are rare and there is tough competition between 140 families to have their share of attention. We made short visits and small purchases to all the requests. All of them were delighted to be photographed on their respective porches with large murals.
The entire families are engaged in the art. Daughters married to other villages continue their art and pass them back to Raghurajpur for sale. Daughters-in-law are taught the art and join the family in a tradition that is a treasure in itself.
Abhimanyu also mentioned that there is a guest house in the village which houses people usually engaged in research and survey projects. I doubt visitors stay here a night but it is certainly worth considering.
Our driver had expressed surprise at our intent to stay for two hours at the village. At the end we had overstayed and were being hurried on!
Abhimanyu had taken me up to the flat roof of his house which gave me a view of the length of the village, the two lines of houses, the narrow lanes and the central spine of temples. I wondered if the is a scene was hundreds of years old. I also wondered how it would look in another hundred years.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nandini Chakraborty

Stories from travel. There is nothing that teaches us more than human interaction, culture, and history. Travel breaks misconceptions, challenges assumptions and teaches us the true worth of this world of ours.

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