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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

V. Themes from Folklore and Erotic Themes

1. Themes from folklore: nava-gunjara

Pata-chitras based on folklore include paintings of Manasa, a snake goddess popular in parts of Orissa and especially Bengal, and of the nava-gunjara theme, in which Vishnu or Krishna is shown as a composite creature of nine different animals (Mohanty, 1980, p.10). An example of the latter is shown in Figure 31.

Figure 31.

Krishna appearing as 
before Arjuna

In this painting of the nava-gunjara, Arjuna stands before Vishnu in the composite form of nine animals. In the Bhagavad Gita, part of the epic Mahabharata, there is a point in the discourse between Arjuna and Krishna wherein Arjuna asks the Lord for a vision of his true form. Krishna grants this vision, both glorious and terrifying, in which Arjuna sees the entire universe inside Krishna. This great form of Krishna is called virat-rupa (omnipresent or vast form). A variant of this in Orissa is the nava-gunjara, or a composite form of nine animals (Swali & Swali, 1984, p.24). 33

Figure 31a.


In a rendition of the Mahabharata (which, as noted, includes the Bhagavad Gita) by the fifteenth century Oriya poet Sarala Das, several episodes are added beyond those found elsewhere in India. In this telling of the tale, Vishnu himself proceeds to a hill where Arjuna is doing penance in a forest. Here, Vishnu reveals himself to Arjuna in the nava-gunjara form, a vigorous animal standing on three legs, those of the elephant, tiger, and horse. The fourth limb is not an animal leg, but an upraised human arm, the hand of which is holding a lotus flower. Besides these four creatures, Vishnu-nava-gunjara also has the head of a rooster, the neck of a peacock, the hump of a bull, and the waist of a lion. A snake comprises the tail. When Arjuna saw this creature, he immediately recognized it as the virat-rupa of Vishnu-Krishna. He threw aside the bow and arrows he had been carrying, folded his hands, and invoked the Lord's blessing (Swali & Swali, 1984, p.24).

Figure 31b.


Thus, in this painting, we see the various aspects of this story. There is the aggregate creature composed of the nine animals as described by Sarala Das. We see the creature's human hand holding the lotus, elephant leg on the ground, and peacock neck and rooster head facing Arjuna. We see vegetation - admittedly, rather sparse - representing the forested hilltop of Arjuna's penance. Arjuna's bow and arrow lie on the ground at his side. Arjuna himself, crowned, stands with folded hands before Vishnu, whom he has recognized. (See the close-up in Figure 31a, above.) The horse and tiger hind legs of the nava-gunjara are detailed in Figure 31b left, as well as the waist of the lion, hump of the bull, and serpent tail. In this picture, we also see the typical double border, the outer wider border with a wavy leaf design and the inner with a design of arcs or semicircles. Note too that this picture is "out of square"; more a parallelogram than a rectangle. This is true both of the borders and of the outer edge of the cloth itself (not clearly visible in Figure 31). Such angled lines and cuts are frequent in pata-chitras.

2. Erotic themes: kandarpa ratha

Themes in pata-chitras that have erotic overtones include the kandarpa ratha (Cupid-car) and the nari ashva (woman-horse). In the former, a group of gopi (cowherd) maidens form themselves into a chariot in which rides their beloved Krishna, or sometimes Krishna and his sweetheart Radha ride together. Some of the gopi maidens embrace each other in mimicry of the embrace of Krishna and Radha. Swali and Swali (1984, p.30) state that this theme is derived from activities at the Jagannath temple in Puri. The ratha in the pata-chitra supposedly recalls the rathas that are used in the famous Car Festival (ratha yatra) in Puri.

The nari ashva (or woman-horse) is another occasional motif of the Puri painters. The inspiration for the image of nari ashva comes from the book Rasa Panchaka by Divakara Das of Orissa. This theme involves the gopis whose bodies are arranged in such a manner as to create the impression of a sportive horse. In this image, just as the chariot of the kandarpa ratha is comprised of gopi maidens, so is the horse composed of the naked bodies of young women. Krishna rides joyfully on this horse, holding his flute and striding, perhaps, upon the buttocks of that pretty maiden whose body forms the back of the horse (Swali & Swali, 1984, p.30).

Kandarpa ratha
Figure 32.

Kandarpa ratha

A pata-chitra of the kandarpa ratha is shown in Figure 32. This poetic image or metaphor is derived from the rasa-lila episode, told in Bhagavata, Book 10, Discourse 29, verse 1 through Discourse 33, verse 40. The sanskrit word rasa means something on the order of "savor," "flavor," "mood," "taste," "strong attachment," "sentiment"; lila means "sport," in the sense of "play." The rasa-lila is that evening's sport in which the gopi maidens danced with Sri Krishna, moved by powerful sentiments of love. The story of the rasa dance is critical to the subsequent mythology of Krishna, to the mystical practices of the Vaishnava religion, and to the development of much future art and poetry.

The story begins with Sri Krishna playing his flute, one night, in the forest around Vrindavan. Hearing his intoxicating music, the gopi maidens left their homes and husbands and hastened to be with their beloved in the forest. The wonderful love dance of Krishna with the village girls then occurred. The Lord multiplied himself into many Krishnas so that each gopi maiden would have a Krishna with whom she could dance. The story also mentions that Krishna at one point went off further into the woods with a favorite girl. In the Bhagavata, this girl is unnamed. However, later poets, such as the great twelfth century poet Jayadeva (who, according to legend, came to live in, or at least visited, Puri 34) identified her as Radha, who subsequently took a major role in the Krishna mythology. Many pictures relating to the Krishna mythology show Radha by herself or Radha and Krishna together.

Kandarpa ratha
Figure 32a.

In this painting, in the middle of a chariot that is constructed of the bodies of the gopi maidens, Krishna stands alone, playing his flute. (See Figure 32a. left) (In other renditions of this image in pata-chitras, Krishna is embracing Radha inside the kandarpa-ratha.) Or rather, he is kneeling (or perhaps it is an awkwardly drawn pose of sitting in a cross-legged position) on a lotus seat upheld by two of the cowherd girls. In this picture, we see some of the girls, in acrobatic poses, forming the wheels of the chariot. They are drawn such that their arms and one of their legs form the spokes of the wheel; they almost seem to spin around. The girls who form the superstructure of the chariot are in positions such that their limbs often wrap around each other in various ways (the hand of one grabbing the ankle of another, the feet of one standing on the forearm of another, the hands of one upholding the legs and buttocks of another, the arms of two around each other's shoulders). (See Figure 32b.)

Kandarpa ratha
Figure 32b.

The picture conforms to most of the typical aspects of the pata-chitras described in this article. However, it also contains several unique features. Note the additional color of pink that is present within that part of the superstructure of the chariot that is outside the gopis' bodies (the same pink is used in the area surrounding the central medallion of Krishna and Radha in Figure 21). And, with regard to color, the painting differs from the others in that a light green color successfully competes with red as the overall dominant color of the picture.


Kandarpa ratha
Figure 32c.

Several of the gopis in the painting carry fly-whisks or fans, presumably to attend to the comfort of Sri Krishna. Two of the maidens curiously float above the chariot carrying garlands that are perhaps intended for the bosom of their Lord. Two of the girls near the top of the chariot are shown in a very rare frontal pose. These faces are awkwardly drawn. In fact, the drawing of the faces in this pata-chitra generally seems to be less well done than that in most other pata-chitras described here. Another curious feature is that a few of the gopi maidens in the painting are drawn smaller than the others, a difference in scale that is rarely seen in pata-chitras. The picture contains the five-petaled flowers floating in the red background that are found elsewhere in pata-chitras. Finally, the girl balanced impossibly at the top of human chariot is, interestingly, lifted out of the picture itself through the inner border and into the outer border. (See Figure 32c.above.)

This pata-chitra imparts a sense of the dance that was a main event of the rasa-lila by means of the girls' intertwined limbs described above. This feature also conveys a sense that the gopis are bound together in love or common cause, a sisterhood dedicated to Sri Krishna. Generally, the picture displays the intense and one-pointed devotion of the cowherd maidens for their Sri Krishna. Furthermore, the frenzied girls are the vehicle on which, or in which, Krishna rides. Thus, the picture also reveals the undercurrents of sexuality that are present in the Vrindavan episodes in Krishna's life, as told in the Srimad Bhagavata Purana. These undercurrents were steadily developed by later poets, and sexual imagery and sometimes also practice were incorporated into elements of the Vaishnava religion.



This article has explained some common themes in the pata-chitras of Orissa and has illustrated those themes with examples of paintings produced in the vicinity of Puri. The painters, known as chitrakaras, often work in a studio setting, in which a master painter supervises the work of other less skilled artists. This tradition is still very much alive, and it continues to serve one of its original purposes, that of providing devotional images to the pilgrims who visit the Jagannath temple in Puri, as well as other temples in Orissa. The paintings are generally brightly colored (with some exceptions, as we have seen), with relatively standardized borders and stylized figures and forms. In recent years, paintings illustrating a series of scenes, especially around a central image, have become more common, as have monochrome paintings.

The images in the pata-chitras refer to stories from Hindu mythology and religion, especially from the Vaishnava religion; or they illustrate the traditional iconography of the gods and goddesses; or they depict various incidents in the rituals of the temples. These stories, iconographic attributes, and rituals would mostly be well know by the chitrakaras' traditional clientele. But in latter decades pata-chitras have also been purchased by collectors, who may not necessarily understand all the details of the mythology or iconography; or who, on the other hand, may have a more sophisticated understanding of the paintings than the average pilgrim.35 Heightened interest by both Indian and foreign collectors, along with increased government support for traditional crafts, has resulted in a widened market for the chitrakaras, whose works can be found in government stores and other handicrafts emporia.36 With these developments, the pata-chitra tradition is more secure than it was a hundred years ago. But it remains to be seen how this folk art form will fare in the coming century, given the struggles of traditional art forms in the face of modern mass media.

Text and pictures ©  2001 by and Kalarte Gallery.
All items collection of the author or Kalarte Gallery unless otherwise noted.

[33] Arjuna's request for the vision occurs in Book XI of the Bhagavad Gita, a text in which, during the great battle of Kurukshetra, Krishna gives spiritual instruction to his charioteer and devotee Arjuna. Prior to this request, he has asked (in Book X) for instruction on Krishna's forms: "Therefore teach me now … all the sum of your shapes …" and "Show me beneath what form and disguise I must learn to behold you …" and "Number them all … your manifestations…" (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 1944, p.88).

Krishna then recounts to Arjuna a long list of those various things and creatures of the world that are his self. In this listing (as translated from the Sanskrit by Prabhavananda and Isherwood, 1944, p.89) are some of his animal forms:

"Among horses, you may know me as Uchchaishrava, who was brought forth from the sea of nectar…
"I am Airavata among royal elephants…
"I am Kamadhenu, the heavenly cow…
"I am Vasuki, god of snakes…
"I am the lion among beasts…
"…Vishnu's eagle among birds…
"…the shark among fish…"

Immediately after hearing this list recounted, Arjuna asks Krishna (in Book XI) for a vision of his true form. Responding to this request, Krishna grants Arjuna the vision of that form, both glorious and terrifying. Arjuna sees the whole universe inside Krishna-Vishnu, and Krishna exhorts him again. "After Arjuna had heard these words of the Lord Krishna, he folded his palms and bowed down, trembling." (Prabhavananda & Isherwood, 1944, p.94).

This form of Krishna is called virat-rupa (omnipresent or vast form), Krishna containing the whole universe in his body. Therefore, one theme found in paintings in India is that of Krishna as a giant human being with many aspects of creation contained in his body. Swali and Swali (1984, p.24) note that this universal form of Krishna was portrayed as the virat-rupa by, for example, the painters of Nathdvara, a major Vaishnava pilgrimage center in Rajasthan; and that chitrakaras in Orissa painted Krishna's universal form, alternately, as the nava-gunjara. The preference for the nava-gunjara is exemplified by the story in Sarala Das's Mahabharata, described in the main text. [Return to text]

[34] See Miller (1977, p.3,5) who reports that legend tells us that Jayadeva came under the influence of the Jagannath cult in Puri, and that his supposed marriage to Padmavati, a dancing girl in the Jagannath temple, may be an allusion to the poet's initiation into the Srivaishnava cult that had been established in Puri under the influence of the philosopher Ramanuja.[Return to text]


[35] The British official and scholar of Indian art, W.G. Archer, purchased a number of pata-chitras in 1932 (Das, 1982, p.63). Especially after the efforts of Halina Zealey in the 1950s, the chitrakaras' work was introduced to a wide audience of collectors. [Return to text]

[36] See Das, 1982, pp.81-89 for a history of the decline of the pata-chitra tradition in the first half of the twentieth century and of its rejuvenation beginning in the 1950s under the zealous patronage of Halina Zealey, who spent several years in Orissa while her husband was working on village improvement projects. Mrs. Zealey encouraged the painters' work and helped expand their markets by arranging for several exhibitions of their work both in India and in the West. [Return to text]

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