Rabindra Behera had just returned from a seven-month sojourn in Goa, not holidaying in the sun and sands, but creating what he calls the largest patachitra painting in the world. It is 148 feet long and 2 feet wide and adorns the Mallikarjun Temple in Goa. It took him and two junior artists six months to complete this commissioned work which is now the pride of his life. They earned Rs 4 lakhs for the piece. He came to tell me about it with a gift of sweetened crisp mathris blessed from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, and packed in a palm leaf basket. He took a piece for himself after reverentially removing his shoes and apologized that this was all he could offer as a gift from his home. The Puri Temple receives thousands of earthen lamps and pots everyday as offerings. The temple distributes thousands of palm leaf baskets containing sweets made sacred for devotees to take home. Hundreds of basket makers and potters earn their livelihoods this way and thank their Lord Jagannath for the two meals a day that comes their way.
Rabindra Behra began to learn the art of patachitra etching when he was eleven years old when his family found he was not so interested in school. He was taken with some elementary art equipment and left with Jagannath Mahapatra, the guru of many painters who have now settled in and around Raghurajpur in Puri District. Rabindra had shown an interest in craft and art when he fashioned a mud and grass idol of Ganesha which his friends and family decided to use to worship during the festive season. He was accorded the honour of providing the deity for worship for three years, after which he was deposited at the home of his guru. He spends his day by rising, bathing and having a small meal before 8 am. He works on his paintings till 2pm after which he has lunch and works again till 5pm. After a wash he goes, every evening, to the Jagannath Temple to worship. He says all the formalities of this take him two hours. On return he has a meal and gets back to work till midnight. Added up, he spends more than the stipulated eight-hour day creating his works of traditional art. A 5’ X 2’ palm leaf wall hanging that folds into a neat long package with extraordinarily fine etching of stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharat, legends of Krishna and Shiva’s powers and experiences, elaborately ornamented with birds, elephants, creepers, floral patterns and geometric embellishment, takes him three months to complete. He then travels to Delhi to visit a handful of art lovers, managing to sell half a dozen art works, if he is lucky, for Rs 30, 000 each.(500 euros) . His small works sell for as low as Rs 300 to Rs 500, hardly five euros or ten dollars at most. He stays with an aunt or at the Jagannath Temple in Delhi. His work is of such high quality that one automatically presumes he is a winner of a state or national award. Is he? His answer is disheartening. He said he tried to submit a piece that he had done with great thought and care at Bhubaneshwar to the concerned government authorities but the experience was so bad that he never went near them again. What happened? The place was full of corruption and his work was brushed aside without a second look. He did not want to try that route again.
Rabindra Behera is only twenty five years old. I talked to him about literacy and how it was necessary for all artisans and traditional artists to be literate and yet not move away from such expressions of their traditional heritage. He agreed that if he did not know how to read adequately or calculate well enough to keep his accounts correctly, he could be exploited easily. I asked if he could incorporate artistically written scripts of poems, stories and religious verses into his paintings. It would be the reverse of illustrating scripts with paintings, so that the written word was given importance. He sat for an hour working out ideas and came up with fascinating combinations of the two. He knows scores of religious tales that teach spiritual values, how to nurture the environment to protect all flora, fauna and living beings, and ultimately to bow before his Lord Jagannath from whom all blessings flowed. He soon understood how the old art could be made contemporary, yet retain the important essence of the old, and how he could create a new vocabulary of patterns using scripts with his art. Rabindra Behera aspires to be known and be wealthy but he seems strangely isolated from the new India that is being thrust on him, against his will and understanding. Is he out of place in the ‘real’ India if he does not wear blue jeans, does not speak English, and does not need a laptop, and lives, by choice, under the munificence of his Lord Jagannath? We need to ask ourselves whether he has a place in the new India and whose India is it anyway?