Centuries before paper was invented, our ancestors hit upon the idea of using hardy dried leaves as paper.
They were known as patra, which means both letter and leaf in most Indian languages. Students processed palm leaves not only for their use, but also for their teachers and scribes who were engaged in making copies of important manuscripts.
Processing palm leaves was no mean task, but it was certainly fun–filled too! Palm fronds cut freshly from the tree were allowed to dry partially for a couple of days in sunlight and buried in swamps for a week so that they became sturdy.
Later, the leaves were washed and dried completely in the shade and cut along the borders so that they formed rectangular pages measuring eight to 12 inches in breadth and about an inch or two in height. Sometimes, when longer sheets of palm paper were required, they were sewn together using plant fibre.
Once the palm paper was ready for use, a fine tipped iron stylus (pencil) was used to etch the words or diagrams on the leaf so that they made a depression without actually damaging the leaf.
Then powdered vegetable dyes, usually charcoal powder made from burnt coconut shells, were mixed with sesame oil and rubbed over the leaves in such a way that the colours settled down in the depressions. The palm leaves were then coated with turmeric powder mixed with sesame oil to add sheen and strength to the leaves. Other colours rarely got an entry in the form of writing.
If at all they were used, they were subdued tones used as fillers. Vegetable and mineral colours were used for highlighting or painting in the traditional form. This ethnic art form essentially consisted of inscribing letters and artistic designs on palm leaf, mostly cut into standard sizes and held together with two wooden plank covers stringed through a hole in the centre.
They were then bundled together and wrapped in silk or cotton cloth for safe keeping. Our ancient texts like the vedas, puranas, epics, scripts of plays and treatises have been passed on to us on palm paper.
Over a period of time, when paper was invented and mechanisation made it possible for it to be easily available, paper made from palm leaves made an exit. Today, these processed leaves are used as canvas on which creative artists showcase their talent. Thus was born a new genre of art called tala patachitra.
The creative artists of Orissa decided to explore the possibilities of using the processed palm leaf to give expression to their sketching skills. They translated scenes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and mythological lore like the Dashavatara and Bhagavatha in the form of paintings.
Some artists lent their imagination exclusively to different poses of Krishna, particularly as Jagannath, the reigning lord of Puri. As time passed by, artists experimented with different motifs which they etched ever so delicately on the fragile looking yet sturdy eco-friendly canvases.
This art was so charming and fascinating that the artisans who were interested in the art congregated in the district of Puri and worked together on various projects.
The act of contributing their talent and enterprise on a large scale continues till date. In fact, it is very heartening to note that the Government of India has allotted an exclusive area called Craft Village in Raghuraipur in the district of Puri.
The tourist department of the state has included a sojourn to this haven of art to ensure that all the visitors to the state have an opportunity to have at least a glimpse of this intricate art in the making.
Even small children of this village are encouraged to learn this art form. They generally start with etching figures of landscapes, animals, birds and flowers on their own. They are then guided into the primary stage of the art of fine etching when they are taught engraving short popular verses from the Bhagavadgita, Bible and Koran with a steady, beautiful hand.
Of late, some enterprising artists use fabric and acrylic oil paints to colour their art. They have also evolved colourful stickers of the traditional art which can be transferred to the processed leaves. These ravishing stickers appear exotic but are bestowed with a very short life (for they peel off when scratched accidentally) unlike their original counterparts which have withstood the test of time.
This novel method is only a couple of years old and is used mainly for making book marks, greeting cards, invitation cards, company annual agendas and brochures. Several prestigious companies of national and international repute are opting for this art form increasingly.
Tala patachitra artists are very possessive and proud of their rich heritage and do not want to compromise on the well proven ancient technique. Moreover, the response of the market for their native art is steady and is going global — enough to keep their hearts and hearths warm!