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Pata-Chitras of Orissa:
An Illustration of Some Common Themes
by Bernard Cesarone
click on small images for large images with captions
III. Themes that Illustrate Episodes from the Epics
Stories from the medieval puranas (or epics), particularly the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana constitute some of the subject matter of pata-chitras. Themes from the Vaishnava (that is, related to the worship of Vishnu) religion are common, including depictions of the rasa-lila, or Krishna's sport with the gopi maidens in the forest of Vraja (or Vrindavan) as well as depictions of Krishna's boyhood escapades, of Krishna slaying demons, etc. Rama and Lakshmana traveling in search of Sita, and Rama slaying Ravana, are popular themes taken from the Ramayana.
1. Episodes from the Bhagavata Purana
The Srimad Bhagavata Purana (or sometimes, Mahapurana, great epic) is a medieval devotional text written from a Vaishnava point of view. It recounts many episodes from Hindu mythology in its twelve books. The most relevant of these books for devotees of Krishna is Book X, which describes the exploits of the young Krishna in the pastoral Vrindavan where he grew up. The book, especially the chapters on Krishna's youth, are a rich source of imagery for the chitrakaras. Three typical pata-chitras showing scenes from the early life of Krishna are illustrated and discussed here, as are several paintings that depict multiple scenes. The stories that accompany the illustrations are paraphrased from the Bhagavata translation by Goswami (1971).
Figure 18 shows Krishna's foster mother Yashoda churning curds while the child Krishna looks on. The story is told in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 9.
The hungry baby Krishna went to his mother while she was churning curds just outside their house and she suckled him contentedly. However, she had put a kettle of milk on the boil, and when she heard it begin to overflow, she set the boy aside and ran into the kitchen. The child, annoyed, broke the pot of curds with a stone, and then went into the house, to the room where butter was kept in pots, and began to eat the butter. When Yashoda finished with the boiling milk, she went outside to find the broken pot. She then returned inside to find her son not only eating butter but also giving butter to a monkey. She grabbed a stick and chased after him. They ran round and round. Finally catching him, she set aside the stick (never intending to strike him) and tried to make him be still by tying him with a stringand then more string and more string. But no matter how much string she got, it always came outbecause the Lord can never be bounda little short. However, after a while, perceiving the frustration of his mother, Krishna submitted to being tied, thereby showing that the infinite and unmanifest Lord, out of love and compassion, allows himself to be controlled by his devotees.This picture shows the beginning of the incident from the Bhagavata. The pillar and the patio indicate the house. The baby Krishna (who typically is blue and wears a yellow cloth) stands by, with a crown on his head. The solid background of this picture is pink with filler designs. The pata-chitra has a double border; the outer border shows a vine and leaf design, the narrower inner border, a line of arcs or semicircles.
The incident is from the Bhagavata, Book 10, Discourse 25, verses 1-33. By way of introduction to the story, it should be mentioned that in the previous Discourse 24, Krishna advised his people of Vrindavan to desist in their worship of the God Indra; rather, they should worship the mountain Govardhana, the brahmans, and the cows. The villagers followed his advice.
Indra, realizing that his worship on the part of the villagers of Vrindavan had been stopped, became exceedingly indignant. In his rage, he commanded the storm clouds to assault Vrindavan. This they did, and great volumes of water flooded the land. The cowherd people prayed to Sri Krishna to protect them from the anger of Indra. Krishna responded by uprooting Mount Govardhana from the ground with one hand. The villagers, along with their cattle and other possessions took shelter in the space beneath the mountain, and spent their time gazing on the Lord. Finally, after a week, Indra's pride was crushed and he called back the storms. Krishna told the people to return, and he set down the mountain in its proper place.
In the pata-chitra illustrated in Figure 19 (above), the artist shows Krishna lifting the mountain with one hand; indeed, with one finger, in an almost casual stance (see Figure 19a left). Two of the villagers, perhaps symbolizing the entire village, stand under the protecting mountain. The artist shows them gazing on Krishna, as described in the Bhagavata text. The outer border has a black background and its flowers are set within a spiral leaf pattern. The flowers which float in the red background of the picture are seven-petaled (rather than five-petaled as in other pata-chitras that employ this design element). This picture also has an additional color (besides the basic colors of the typical pata-chitra), the dark grey of the mountain. Brushstrokes in yellow, green, and white are meant to symbolize vegetation on the mountain. Otherwise, the picture contains the standard red background, double border with floral designs, and areas of flat color. The details on the clothing are well done. Sri Krishna stands on a lotus flower, drawn red-on-white, which itself is placed on a pedestal, treelike with trunk and stylized branches and leaves. The sky in this painting is clear, which, admittedly, is inconsistent with the story being illustrated.
Before retelling the story behind this picture, it should be noted that Balarama was Krishna's brother who shared with Krishna many of the exploits of his youth and who was also well beloved by the villagers of Vraja. (In the introductory section about Jagannath, it was noted that, in Puri, Balabhadra is equated with Balarama, as Jagannath with Krishna.) Akrura, whom Krishna addressed as "uncle," had come to Vraja from Mathura under orders from King Kamsa to fetch the two brothers to Mathura. Then, in the Bhagavata Purana, Book 10, Discourse 39, verses 1 through 57, the story unfolds.
Akrura, who had arrived from Mathura, spent the evening with the brothers Krishna and Balarama and their father Nanda. Afterwards, Nanda instructed the people of Vraja to bring some of their possessions the following day as presents to be offered to the kingdom of Mathura. The gopi maidens, hearing this, understood that Akrura had come to Vraja to take their Krishna away. Of course, they were extremely distressed about this. The gopis rebuked Krishna for his lack of compassion for their suffering and pleaded with him to stay. But, despite their pleas, Krishna started on his journey, with the cowherd girls following behind the chariot. Krishna sent them a messenger, who sought to comfort them with the Lord's promise to return. They were not consoled. So long as the flag atop Krishna's chariot was visible, so long did the young women stand by the road, watching their beloved Krishna ride away.
In this original story, the gopi maidens do not actually throw themselves before the chariot's wheels. But that later literary additionrepeated in this pictureappropriately conveys their grief and agitation.25 So we see here that the chitrakaras are not confining their work to the Bhagavata story alone, but are interpreting that story in light of later literary developments.
In Figure 20 (right), Krishna and Balarama are seated in a chariot prepared to leave for Mathura. Akrura, the driver, is ready to whip the horses into motion. The gopi maidens, exquisitely pained to see them go and unable to bear separation from their beloved Krishna, attempt to prevent the Lord from leaving: one holds back the white horse, a second holds the horse's hind legs, a third attempts to hold the chariot's wheels, a fourth grasps Akrura's whip. Other girls trail behind the chariot, one weeps at roadside, one floats somewhat awkwardly in front of the chariot. All these various poses depict more movement than in many pata-chitras. They also show a sequence of actions over time, rather than a group of actions occurring at one single time. First the girls attempt to prevent the chariot's movement. Then, as it leaves, they weep along the road. Finally, as it proceeds down the road away from the village, they follow behind. As they do so, Krishna looks back at them and offers his promisea promise they fear is a hollow oneto return.
In this painting, we find much detail in the gopis' clothing and especially on the temporarily halted chariot, with almost lavish detail on the chariot canopy. At least three shades of green are used, and two of the maidens wear a sari that is light lavender in color. The trees, with more branches and leaves, fill the background space more thoroughly than in many other pata-chitras. In the middle of the picture is the charioteer Akrura, rather than Krishna, who is seated in the chariot somewhat right of the picture center.
The pictures discussed above all illustrate one event. There are other pata-chitras which have multiple scenes in one picture. Das (1982, p.73) notes that this type of painting, which he calls a "story painting," is of comparatively recent origin, is executed with fine detail, and is intended more for the art collector than the pilgrim. He conjectures that this type of painting is derived from a type of painting that shows Krishna and his mother Yashoda in a central circle surrounded by pictures of various events or personages in Krishna's life that are placed in eight compartments, shaped like lotus petals, around the central circle. This Srikrishna-janma-pata (or janmashtami pata, that is, Sri Krishna's birthday painting), perhaps 10 inches on a side, is typically painted by a particular chitrakara for a service in the Jagannath temple in honor of Krishna's birthday (Das, 1982, p.42).
Related in form to the Srikrishna-janma-pata is the pata-chitra shown in Figure 21 in which Krishna and his beloved Radha occupy a central medallion surrounded by alternating figures of Krishna and cowherd maidens. This is intended to represent the rasa dance in the forest of Vraja, in which Krishna multiplied himself such that every one of the gopi maidens would be able to enjoy him as her partner in the dance.
But Das's (1982, p.73ff.) story pictures are somewhat more elaborate than this. He describes a painting by the famous chitrakara Jagannath Mahapatra. This picture is on a rectangular cloth about 24 by 36 inches and focuses on a rectangular central picture of Vishnu slaying the demon Hiranyakasipu. Around this central image are smaller scenes, six rectangular and eighteen circular, that tell the rest of the story of the mythological event.
In the late 1990s, at least, these larger story pictures could be fairly readily found in shops in Puri and in some chitrakaras' studios. Figure 22 illustrates such a picture that includes a central medallion, a circle of stylized lotus petals, and top and bottom panels. In the central medallion are Krishna and Radha. The blue-skinned Krishna is dressed in yellow, which is the color of his sweetheart Radha, who is dressed in a green skirt (instead of blue, the color of her lover). A gopi maiden stands on either side of the couple. (See Figure 22a below.)
Around the central medallion is a ten-petalled lotus. The pictures within the lotus petals alternate between Krishna and a gopi maiden. (See Figure 22b.) This alternation is meant to represent the rasa dance, in which Krishna multiplied himself so that every one of the gopis would have a Krishna with whom to dance (as with the pata-chitra of Figure 21). Flowers, leaves, and circular patterns fill the spaces around the medallion and the lotus leaves.
On the top and bottom of the painting are ten figures that represent the dasavataras, or ten incarnations of Vishnu. In the top panel (see Figures 22c through 22e below) are the first five incarnations: (1) matsyavatar, or fish avatar, with a human torso surmounting the fish's body; (2) kurmavatar, or tortoise avatar, likewise combining a human and an animal body; (3) varaha avatar, or boar avatar; (4) nara-simha, the half-man, half-lion incarnation; and (5) bala, the dwarf. Each of the first four incarnations holds a mace, discuss, conch, and lotus flower in his four hands. Bala holds an umbrella. The first two are seen in water; the other three standing on the ground, painted green.
Varaha avatar, narasimha
Bala and decorative border
|Across the bottom of the painting (see Figures 22f through 22h below) are the sixth through tenth avatars: (6) Parasurama, a warrior, holding bow and arrows; (7) Rama, hero of the epic Ramayana, who is often painted green in pata-chitras, also holding bow and arrow; (8) Balarama, the brother of Krishna; (9) the Buddha sitting in a meditative posture; and (10) Kalki, riding a horse, who will come at the end of the world to bring about the dissolution of the universe. Compare the inclusion of Buddha here, as opposed to the substitution of Buddha by Jagannath in the pata-chitra that showed a schematic representation of the Jagannath temple at Puri discussed above (Figure 16). Also in relation to that picture, note the full presentation of Kalki on a horse, as opposed to the reference to Kalki by a very stylized horse in the other pata-chitra.|
The whole is surrounded by an inner border with a stylized flower and diamond design, and by an outer border with a flower and leaf design. This picture contains more colors than are found in a typical pata-chitra. The backgrounds of the figural scenes are white, rather than red. The picture contains the usual red, yellow, blue, black, white, and green. It also contains a second shade of yellow and green, and also pink. Careful attention has been paid to the decorative details in this picture. (See Figure 22i left).
Figure 23 below, shows another large story painting which differs in two obvious ways from the previous. First, it is done in monochrome rather than in color. (Some characteristics of the monochrome paintings will be discussed below in the section on paintings of deities.) Second, the scenes in the surrounding rectangular boxes present not the ten incarnations of the Vishnu but rather eight incidents from the early life of Krishna.
The scenes along the left edge of the painting represent the slaying of Putana, the destruction of Bakasura, the destruction of Aghasura, and the slaying of a demon in the form of a calf. The story of the demoness Putana is told in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 6, verse 1ff. (See Figure 23B.) The terrible demoness Putana, who practiced the killing of young children, was sent by the evil king Kamsa to kill the infant Sri Krishna. Having smeared her breasts with poison, she came to Krishna and offered him her breasts. The baby sucked her breasts, drinking up the poison. He continued drinking, until he had sucked out the very life from her body. The demoness, roaring and groaning, collapsed dead on the ground with a mighty thud. This was the first of many incidents of demon-slaying in Krishna's life. The painted scene in the pata-chitra shows the infant beginning to suckle Putana in a landscape of hills and trees.
The lower picture in Figure 23b left, shows Krishna slaying Bakasura, a demon in the form of a heron (baka meaning heron and asura meaning demon 26), from Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 11, verses 45-59. One day, when Krishna and his young cowherd companions came to a pond to water their cattle, they came upon a great heron who approached Krishna and suddenly swallowed him. As the Lord was burning up his mouth, the heron disgorged the boy, and then rushed at him in order to run him through with his powerful bill. However, Sri Krishna grabbed the demon's beak and pulling on each half, tore the bird apart. In the lower picture in Figure 23b, we see Sri Krishna grabbing the upper part of Bakasura's bill. Typically, he would be grasping the lower part as well, but here we see him standing upon it, or perhaps just reaching for it. A bilva tree divides the scene in two, with each character occupying one side of the picture.
Moving down the line of pictures, the next incident is Krishna's slaying of Aghasura, a demon in the form of a giant serpent. (See Figure 23c.) Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 12, verses 13-39, tells how the demon Agha approached Vraja, having assumed the form of a snake whose body stretched for miles, whose lower jaw rested on the earth, and whose upper jaw touched the clouds. He looked like a giant mountain and his opened mouth appeared as a mammoth cavern. The curious villagers entered this cavern. But the demon bided his time, waiting for Sri Krishna to follow his companions before swallowing and digesting them all. The all-protecting Sri Krishna did then enter the serpent's mouth. However, before Agha could consummate his evil deed, the Lord himself grew and grew in size until the serpent was choked, his eyes jumped out from their sockets, and his vital force passed out through a hole pierced in his head. Thereupon all the villagers, along with their cattle, left the innards of the dead beast and were saved. In the picture shown here, Sri Krishna is stands on the demon's head and seems to be wrestling with him, rather than killing him from inside his body. In some pata-chitras of this theme, some of the villagers' cows may be seen exiting from the mouth of the dying Aghasura. 27
Alternately, this scene may represent Sri Krishna's slaying of the demon Sudarsana, who, also having assumed the form of a snake, swallowed one of Krishna's companions. As part of his destruction of this demon, Krishna stood upon the snake's head (Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 34, verses 5-19).
The bottommost picture on the left side shows Sri Krishna slaying a demon in the form of a calf, as recounted in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 11, verses 41-44. In this incident, the demon had disguised himself as a calf and hidden himself among the herd of cattle that Krishna and his brother Balarama were tending. However, unfortunately for the demon, the Lord was able to pick him out. Krishna calmly approached and then suddenly seized the demon-calf, twirled him round in the air, and hurled him against the top of a kapittha tree (a sort of sour apple tree). Then the demon, along with the kapittha fruits, fell lifeless to the ground. Figure 23c. shows Krishna just as he begins to grab the demon. The scene is composed in a fashion similar to the one immediately above, with Krishna in the center, arms engaging a demon on the right, and an overhanging bilva tree on the left.
Again, this scene might represent another incident in which Sri Krishna slew the demon Arista, disguised as a bull (Bhagavata, Book X, discourse 36, verses 1-15).
Moving to the right side of this black-and-white pata-chitra, we find scenes of the killing of Sakatasura, Vasudeva carrying the baby Krishna, the slaying of Kesi, and the slaying the Trinavarta. The incident of Sakatasura, the demon in the form of a bullock, is cursorily described, and the "killing" alluded to, in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 7, verses 4-10. One time, while she was busy attending to the activities of a festival, his foster mother Yashoda put Krishna underneath a bullock cart to rest. Unknown to her, a disembodied demon had entered into the cart, intending to weigh down the cart with his bulk, thus crushing Sri Krishna. However, the baby, restless with desire for his mother's milk, kicked up his feet which thereby touched the bottom of the cart. As a result, the various items on top of the cart were knocked over and the cart itself was overturned and shattered. 28 (See Figure 23d.)
The second detail picture (again in Figure 23d) shows Krishna's father Vasudeva carrying his child to the home of the cowherd Nanda and his wife Yashoda in Vraja, where he would leave his son in order that he be protected from the evil king Kamsa who intended to kill him. This journey of Vasudeva on a rainy night across the Yamuna River is described in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 3, verses 46-53. In Figure 23d, we see Vasudeva walking across the hilly terrain, rather than wading through the Yamuna. Some pata-chitras of this theme also include the snake Shesha, who holds his seven heads over the father and son in order to protect the baby from the rain. 29
The final two scenes are uncertain. The first of these (see Figure 23e.) is likely a representation of the slaying of the demon Kesi, in the form of a horse. The Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 37, verses 1-9, tells how the demon Kesi assumed the form of a giant horse and came to Vraja, terrifying the inhabitants. Sri Krishna killed the demon by inserting his arm in its mouth, and expanding his arm until it burst the demon asunder.
The last scene (see Figure 23e.) possibly illustrates Krishna's slaying of Trinavarta, a demon who took the form of a whirlwind, as described in the Bhagavata, Book X, Discourse 7, verse 20. The demon caused a dust storm in Vraja, in the midst of which he carried Sri Krishna up to the sky. However, Sri Krishna, who was riding on his back, burdened Trinavarta with his weight and seized him by the throat. Finally, strangled, he perished and fell back to the earth.
2. Episodes from the Ramayana
Besides incidents from the life of Krishna as told in the Bhagavata Purana, chitrakaras also favor scenes from the life of Rama in their pata-chitras. These scenes are from stories told in the epic Ramayana, the epic that recounts the exploits of the god-king Rama, especially those that deal with his attempt to win back his wife Sita, who was abducted by Ravana, King of Lanka. This section of the article highlights two such paintings.
The Ramayana tells the story (among its many stories) of how Rama released the beautiful Ahalya from a curse, an event that occurred early in Rama's career, prior to his marriage with Sita. Long before the advent of Rama into the world, the sage Gautama (not the Buddha!), discovering the adultery of the god Indra with his wife Ahalya, had cursed Indra to be covered by a thousand wombs and had turned his wife into stone (although the act was inadvertent on the part of Ahalya, who was tricked by Indra) until that day when she should be graced by the touch of Rama's feet. When this latter event transpired, Ahalya was returned to life and she offered a hymn of devotion to Rama.
In the pata-chitra in Figure 24. we see the just-released Ahalya, kneeling on the hill with folded hands, uttering a hymn to her savior, Rama. The green-hued Rama stands, holding his bow, with his foot touching the stony mountain. Rama's brother Lakshmana stands behind him, and Gautama behind Ahalya. Gautama is identified by his matted hair (a typical attribute of sages and ascetics in pata-chitras). The painting has a double border typical for small pata-chitras: an outer border with a vine and leaf design and a narrow inner border with a line of arcs or semicircles.
Occasionally there are pata-chitras that show more than one scene. The painting in Figure 25, executed by Sudarsan Mahapatra and his assistants, is such a pata-chitra. However, it only illustrates two closely related events from the Ramayana, not multiple events as in the story paintings described above.
When King Dasaratha was about to crown his son Rama king, his second queen asked to redeem a boon the king had granted her during their youth, according to which her son, Bharata, would become king. Dasaratha, true to his promise, was forced to grant the boon. Bharata, who loved Rama and was horrified at this turn of events, then became king while Rama was exiled to the forest, taking with him his wife Sita and his brother and devotee, Lakshmana. On the left side of the painting (see Figure 25a), we see Rama (colored green), followed by Sita and Lakshmana (both colored yellow) as they head to the wilderness. As often in these pictures, Rama and Lakshmana are carrying their bows. All three wear crowns.
The right side of the painting (see Figure 25b, left) depicts the abduction of Sita, an incident that occurred some while into Rama's exile. The demon king Ravana had sent Maricha, one of his allies, in the form of a deer to entice Sita. She saw the charming deer and asked Rama to capture it for her. Rama went off into the forest, leaving his brother Lakshmana behind to guard Sita. He did indeed catch the deer, but before it perished by his arrows, the demon-deer called out Lakshmana's name usingwith his powersRama's voice. Lakshmana, thinking Rama was in trouble, hurried after. At that point, Ravana appeared at the hut in the guise of a holy man. When Sita answered his call and emerged from the hut to render service to a holy man, Ravana grabbed her and proceeded to take her back to Lanka in his aerial chariot. Soon Rama and Lakshmana returned to the hutcarrying the dead deeronly to find Sita absent. The righthand picture shows Sita, in the grasp of Ravana, struggling to return to the hut. She wears the same dress as in the lefthand picture. Ravana brandishes a sword, his false holy man's locks trailing behind him. Though Ravana is typically depicted in Indian art (not only in pata-chitras) as ten-headed, in the scene of the abduction of Sita, in which he first appears as a fake holy man, he often has a single head.30 A bilwa tree is visible over the thatched roof of the hut.
In this pair of pictures, we see the more traditional red background in the lefthand picture, a white background on the right side. Both pictures include stylized five-leafed forms as filler. There is a single border that employs a flower and leaf design. The two scenes are separated by a column of four-petaled or -leafed forms.
Continue to Part IV: Themes Related to Gods and Goddesses
Text and pictures ©
2001 by and Kalarte Gallery.
Table of Contents
Introduction | Jagannath | the Epics | Gods and Goddesses | Folklore and Erotic Themes | References
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