Beyond Pattachitra and Talapatra Chitra, Here’s a Lesser Known Leaf Craft of Odisha
Weaving palm leaves together to make decoration pieces, and weaving traditional headgears with siali leaves are the ancient crafts of the Bhumij tribe. A Balasore-based charitable trust is working with villagers to keep the craft alive.
Niroj Ranjan Misra 6 Nov 2023 8:29 AM GMT
Odisha’s ancient and sacred art of palm leaf painting (engravings), commonly known as talapatra chitra, is world famous.
Unlike pattachitra in which a painting is made on a ‘treated’ piece of cotton cloth using natural colours, in talapatra chitra, needles or iron stylus are used on dried palm leaves, which are delicately strung together with threads to narrate a story.
But there is another lesser known craft of the tribal communities of Odisha who use palm leaves to make decorative objects and weave headgears out of siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaves, a creeper with large leaves .
Arti Singh, a 28-year-old tribal resident from Salabani village under Nilgiri block in Balasore district, is one such craftsperson. She is one of the 12 villagers belonging to the Bhumij tribe in her village who know the traditional craft of making products using palm leaves and siali leaves.
Bhumij denotes one who is born from the soil. They are believed to be a branch of the Munda tribe. The tribe is found mainly in Mayurbhanj district and is sparsely distributed in the districts of Sundergarh, Keonjhar and Balasore of Odisha.
“My palm leaf work hardly fetches me about Rs 1,000- 1,500 a month,” Arti Singh told Gaon Connection. Her husband is a plumber who makes about Rs 4,000 a month. She, who earns about Rs 9,000 per month as a daily wage labourer, finds it tough to make both ends meet. She fears that their traditional craft is in danger of dying out completely.
Explaining the craft, she said that fresh palm leaves are collected, dried in the sun and then shaped into artefacts including leafy decoratives, which are popular among the tribal communities.
While the craft of palm leaves decoratives is a traditional skill, it is fast disappearing. Recognising that, a charitable trust called Bana Dhulira Phula based in Nilagiri block, stepped in and since 2018 has been trying to promote and keep the craft alive.
Bana Dhulira Phula has assured Arti Singh and the others of her ilk in her village that it will help them sell their decorative leaf-craft and give sustenance to the centuries-old practice that is dying slowly but surely.
“Earlier, we used to make 40 to 50 palm leaf handicrafts in a month. Its number has now exceeded 100 under Bana Dhulira Phula’s guidance. The prices range between Rs 150 and Rs 1,100, depending upon the shape, size and how intricate the object is. The hat made of siali leaves is priced at Rs 300,” said Arti Singh.
Noted artist from Odisha, Keshu Das, who is also the cultural advisor to Bana Dhulira Phula said that till about 15 years ago, craft persons in more than 350 Bhumij households pursued the leaf craft.
But, more and more craft persons have been forced into daily wage labour in order to make ends meet, he lamented.
“Many of them were forced to abandon the craft. However, 12 of them who still practise it against all odds were helped by Bana Dhulira Phula, though they barely make any money from it,” Das told Gaon Connection.
They make some money when they display and sell the wares at one odd fair or festivals or when they get sporadic orders by some craft patrons. “We hope to provide them a more solid and regular income from this craft,” he added.
Artist Keshu Das underlined the important role of the Directorate of Handicrafts, as it could promote this craft.
“If the craftspersons get training under government’s professional designers and are taken on more frequent exposure visits, they can diversify and use their skill to make table mats, bags, containers and flower vases and a lot more that could even have export potential,” he pointed out.
No official support yet
Palm leaf decoratives are among the 51 approved crafts registered with the Directorate of Handicrafts. The directorate has a provision of imparting training to artisans of different crafts like straw craft in Dhenkanal, and sea shell craft in Puri to improve them through value addition.
Jitendra Kumar Biswal, the deputy chief executive officer of the Odisha Rural Development Department and Marketing Society (ORMAS), while admitting he did not know much about the craft, said that steps would be taken to help the artisans and their craft.
Biswal, however, assured that ORMAS would take all possible steps to promote this rare craft, if Bana Dhulira Phula people sat across the table to hammer out a detailed plan.
When Gaon Connection asked the Bana Dhulira Phula, its chairperson Bajaya Kumar Acharya said: “If the concerned government agencies allow us to submit a proposal and discuss it threadbare, we are ready today to do so.”
The palm leaf decoratives and siali leaf headgears were placed at the first National Art and Craft Mela (NACM) exhibition in the state capital Bhubaneswar in 2019. The leaf craft secured the top position in a competition during the NACM in 2020.
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“At the NACM in 2022 we could sell over 10,000 rakhis made out of palm leaves at the price ranging between Rs 20 and Rs 70,” Sibani Singh, a 40-year-old tribal artist told Gaon Connection.
“Several art buffs and visitors including former chief minister of Odisha Giridhar Gamango, and noted artist and designer Siddartha Das appreciated it. However, the government has done nothing significant for the craft’s survival, promotion and improvement,” complained Acharya.
The Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), Nilgiri, did provide space for the display of leaf art at the National Art and Craft Mela in Bhubaneswar in 2022, but more support to the artists needs to be extended, he added.
The ITDA is a development initiative sponsored by the Union government. It works towards improving the socio-economic condition of the tribal population.
“We don’t have funds to promote the craft that it needs,” Sabrina Singh, the project manager of ITDA told Gaon Connection.