In his three-room flat in the idyllic Raghurajpur village in Odisha, Bhaskar Mahapatra has painted more than a hundred versions of the Tree of Life. But the one painted by the artist last summer will perhaps remain the most memorable. It occupies a place of pride in the collection of French President Francois Hollande.
Gifted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to France, the silk work ostensibly focuses on sustenance of life and clean environment, befitting the global meet on climate change, which the European nation will host in December this year. “It represents common descent and the need to be one with nature,” says Mahapatra.
The universal Tree of Life motif was combined with the depiction of the annual Nabakalebara festival, where deities are made in neem wood. The artist has painted the associated rituals, from the search of the sacred Daru (wood logs) to the creation of new deities. “Now the tale will become popular around the world,” says Mahapatra. He recalls selling this 18×30 inch work approximately between Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000.
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The 44-year-old took more than 20 days to design it. “I was asked to make a work that everyone will like; I had no idea that Modiji will be taking it with him and it will garner so much attention,” says Mahapatra. Having trained for over a decade under renowned Pattachitra master Jagannath Mohapatra, this is not the first international outing of his work. Honoured by the Lalit Kala Akademi, in 1985, Mahapatra was part of the India Festival in Washington, where he travelled with an image of Buddha. In Odisha his work adorns several temples and his collectors are spread across the globe. “I don’t even know where my work goes,” he says.
Like most other artists practising the Pattachitra tradition, he too began with compositions on palm leaf and cloth, graduating to paper and canvas. Natural pigments were gradually combined with acrylics to add longevity.
Mahapatra experimented with varied mediums, putting his work on saris, cushion covers and paper masks, among others, but his theme continue to centre around Lord Jagannath. Currently, his wife and teenage daughter also practise the art.
Curator Sushma Bahl, who has known Bhaskar for over five years feels it’s his rootedness that distinguishes him from other Pattachitra artists. “His experience of painting on the palm leaf enables him to paint extremely intricate patterns,” says Bahl.
She is currently showing his work in the exhibition “Forms of Devotion” at the Lalit Kala Akademi. This too has the Tree of Life, the central pattern though differs slightly, with another festivity associated with Lord Jagannath.