Human Flower Project

Chitra Pothi Lives On

Illuminated letters or temple decorations? Palm leaf painting dates back to medieval India and survives among artisans in a few small villages of Orissa.


An artisan demonstrated palm leaf painting at a Kolkata fair, Dec. 2009

Photo: Sandy Ao

Back before there were computer screens to write on, there was this stuff called paper, made from plant material. It’s true.

And back before digital cameras and Photoshop, there was an image making process called painting. It, too, involved plant materials: bloodroot and indigo for pigments, cotton, papyrus, and linen for canvases—or in the case of Chitra Pothi of India, leaves of palm.

Sandy Ao, long an admirer of this vernacular art form, made an exciting discovery last month at Kolkata’s New Market after many years of looking.

“I simply love these palm leaf paintings, Chitra Pothi or Talapatrachitra,” she writes. “I was given a palm leaf painting by my Greek friend ~ Hara Papadoniou Gupta’s husband. That was way back in 1972.”

And here it is, an image of Shiva in his ecstatic dancing pose, known as “Nataraj.”

imageDancing Shiva, a palm leaf painting of from the 1970s and a treasured gift

Photo: Sandy Ao

Thanks to the materials Sandy has sent us, we’ve learned this folk art form developed primarily in Orissa, a state in Eastern India bordering the Bay of Bengal, just South of Sandy’s own Kolkata. One source claims that Chitra Pothi evolved as an embellishment on communications – like illuminated manuscript, in the “pre-paper days” when “messages and letters were etched out on palm leaves and dispatched.”  Other sources say these palm leaf paintings were originally made ceremonially, for the temple of Lord Jagannath (an incarnation of Vishnu) at Puri.

This strikes us as more likely, since Jagannath is indeed a favorite subject of the region’s Chitrakaras (painters), as are the other Hindu dieties, though Sandy tells us – and shows us, too – “There are many other images besides the Hindu gods/goddesses…Jesus on the cross, Lord Buddha…etc.”

Whether its origins were sacred or secular, the method of palm leaf traditional painting has been well documented. “With the help of an iron pen or stylus (lohankantaka), the artist first inscribes the text or design on the surface of palm leaves, then applies a paste of tamarind seed, oil and charcoal. When the residue is rubbed off, the groove stands out distinctly.” With its design scored directly into the leaf, chitra pothi is much more tactile than a drawing on paper or even an etching or woodcut. And since for larger pieces, several leaves are bound together, these works also possess an incipient motion; they can undulate like a fan or screen. How fitting for the dancing Shiva.


Palm leaves are bound together to make a larger “canvas”

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy recounted more to us about her first exposure to Chitra Pothi nearly 40 years ago. “My friend Hara was an artist, and her husband was a big game Shikari (Hunter) who used to go to Orissa’s forests for hunting, in the days before hunting was banned. One evening after returning from his hunting trip, he took out a wrapped leaf and presented it to me… and he told me ‘Some thing different from Orissa.’ I had never seen such a form of art in my life before that. I was so amazed as well as happy to have such an original tribal art as a gift. I fell in love with this Chitra Pothi and have loved it ever since.”

As for her gift, “I carried it with me to Nagaland,“ Sandy writes, “from that simple young college dreamer to a struggling mother— now a grandmother. In fact, it has stayed with me for the last 37 years, keeping my dream as a painter alive.” Yes, she’s a fine painter as well as a photographer.

“I lost touch with my dearest friend, Hara,” Sandy goes on to say. “She left India with her son and settled in Canada. And I naturally lost contact with her husband too—Mal Joyanta Gupta. This gift is the only link that takes me back to the wonderful moments I shared with Hara. And I must say through her I learned many different approaches in art and painting. These are still affecting my painting.”

Sandy also lost touch with Chitra Pothi. During the 1980s, she made a trip to Orissa in search of this art form and was told that to find any pieces, she’d need to travel to one of the few villages in the region where palm leaf painting was still practiced.

imageTraditional Chitra Pothi images all came from Hindu mythology, but for today’s commercial market, the artisans have branched out, painting bookmarks with the images of Jesus and other subjects

Photo: Sandy Ao

Only in December did she come upon this marvel again. At a fair near Kolkata’s New Market, she met artist Sridhar Moharana and his son, also a trained Chitra Pothi artist. Mr. Moharana, age 42, is in fact one of the most notable practitioners of this art form in India. Born into a traditional Patachitra family in Orissa, he learned the craft at age 7 from his elders, “studied further at State Handicrafts Training Institute, Bhubaneshwar,” and has won many national honors for his work.

He lives in the village of Raghurajpur near the temple town of Puri. Thanks in part to the promotional efforts of Helina Zealey, an American social activist who worked here in the 1950s, the art of Chitra Pothi found an international audience and the artisans of tiny Raghurajpur gained some well deserved notoriety.

Sandy was thrilled to see palm leaf paintings once again, many of them highly colored. And we were thrilled to have received four palm leaf bookmarks – of Ganesh, Shiva, Lakshmi, and Saraswati – mailed all the way from Kolkata! Our books are dancing, Sandy. Thank you so very much.

“I must say in my opinion, today’s palm leaf painting has become a lot more commercial compared to the one that I have had,” she writes. “I am not finding any Shiva in Nataraj posture in the sale counter.”


Sridhar Moharana, center, concentrates as he son explains the technique of palm leaf painting to a tourist at a Kolkata fair. Mr. Moharana comes from village of Raghurajpur in Orissa, where this vernacular art form has remained strong.

Photo: Sandy Ao

Mr. Moharana’s son described for a tourist how the paintings are made. Sandy noted, “I was told that Japanese tourists loved the bookmarks with Lord Buddha’s image, and the whole lot of Lord Buddha’s bookmarks were sold off that day. I guess with this encouragement, next time more such Lord Buddha bookmarks would be in these (Haate) fairs for sale! One learns how to move with time.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/16 at 11:50 PM


Thanks very much for this. Palm manuscripts are a neglected item on the internet (if not in real life). I spent weeks over years trawling the web for sufficient examples (from all over Asia) to construct a blog post on the topic but there are so few decent pics around I’ve left it on the permanent backburner. I do have some fairly recent examples that Deborah kindly passed on (see a couple here) but I’m still underwhelmed in the ‘great visuals’-party-for-the-eyes stakes that usually motivates me. Cheers!

Posted by peacay on 01/18 at 07:18 PM
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