Odisha village paints to tide over the pandemic

The walls of artists’ homes in Raghurajpur are the canvas for a unique competition heralding hope.

In the life that’s awaited after COVID-19, thousands of travellers would be criss-crossing Odisha, visiting temples, thronging tourist sites and hanging around beaches. About 150 families in Raghurajpur, a heritage craft village in Puri district, hope a portion of these footfalls will reach it and help them get their livelihoods back on track.

In fact, they are already preparing to welcome tourists grandly with murals that will have a collective size of 7,500 sq. ft. A complete makeover of the artists’ village is currently underway, with everyone — from children and womenfolk to budding artists and veteran masters — busy painting their walls to impress prospective buyers of their artworks.

Odisha’s Department of Language, Literature and Culture, in association with the Odisha Lalit Kala Akademi, an autonomous organisation to promote painting, sculpture, architecture and the applied arts, has come up with the innovative idea to help artists financially, without giving the impression of doing charity.

For every mural painting, each family will receive ₹10,000, critical help at a time when COVID-19 has spelt doom for their thriving livelihoods. 

For every mural painting, each family will receive ₹10,000, critical help at a time when COVID-19 has spelt doom for their thriving livelihoods. The best five among them will be awarded at a State-level function.

“I had been to Raghurajpur several times. All 151 families of Raghurajpur practice different art forms for their livelihood. Despite creating pattachitras and other artworks on daily basis, the majority of families do not have wall paintings that would display their skills,” said Sudharsan Pattnaik, renowned sand artist and president of the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Odisha chapter.

“Our idea was not to tell the artists to travel and participate in an art camp, which is also not advisable in a pandemic. We requested them to paint their respective walls, maintaining a safe distance. We will pay ₹10,000 for every 50 sq.ft. painting, which will be a signature of their calibre,” Mr. Pattnaik said.

He added that Raghurajpur would welcome tourists with a new look and the murals would become a sort of visiting card.

Multiple blows

Prior to the pandemic, Raghurajpur received 300 to 400 footfalls per day on average, which ensured a monthly income ranging from ₹8,000 to ₹35,000 for each family, depending on the quality of artwork. Last year, the first wave of the pandemic dealt a blow to their livelihoods, which was followed by the shock of cyclone Fani that ravaged the village in May 2019.

Due to the prolonged lockdown in 2020, no tourists came to their village for buying paintings and other artworks. Around January and February, the artists’ village started to receive tourists, mostly from neighouring West Bengal. This did not last long as the second wave struck in the middle of March. Thus, for the second year running, artist families have been struggling to earn a living.

Families of the village produce artworks in nine different disciplines, including pattachitra, wood and stone carving, and masks. 

“Our livelihood has been adversely impacted by back-to-back disasters. In the second wave, about 20 persons had contracted the coronavirus, while a promising artist, Akash Moharana, grandson of Jagannath Mohapatra, who was instrumental in the revival of the pattachitra style, succumbed to COVID-19. It shook up our mental strength,” said Abhiram Das, secretary, Raghurajpur Village Committee.

Mr. Das said all families of the village produce artworks in nine different disciplines, including pattachitra, wood and stone carving, and masks. At any given point of time, about 20 artists from the village can be found travelling to crafts fairs, displaying their skills across the country. The competition among villagers is likely to boost their morale and offer hope in a prolonged period of difficulty.

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