The Artisans of Puri | Milaap

The Artisans of Puri

Ever since I arrived in Odisha for the fellowship, my surname has been a running joke among my colleagues at the Mahashakti Foundation. “The whole district of Puri is hers,” they remark often. So when I finally got the chance to travel to Puri to meet a group of borrowers, it did seem like a sort of homecoming. 

Puri is home to one of the most revered temples across India, the Jagannath Temple. The temple is said to have opened in 1161 and inside the inner sanctum reside the Lord and his siblings. The temple is one of the chardham - the pilgrimage to four holy temples in India. Besides its spiritual significance, the temple is also known for the meals cooked in its kitchen.The temple kitchen is one of the largest kitchens in the world. With the sea shore quite close to the temple complex, the acrid air of temple smells like a concoction of salt water, incense, food and flowers.
The Temple Complex

The city boasts a splendid history of art and culture. From the entrance walls of the temple to the intricate designs of tombs, a grand work of perseverance is up for display. The city grew along with the art too, taking turns, shaping and moulding itself into forms that stood the test of time.  

Located at a short distance from the temple area is a small village, Talanuasahi. A group of 11 women from this village have been been part of this remoulding of city art. They have been working hard to keep alive very old crafts, while reinventing and experimenting to keep up with the times. The women together run their own arts and crafts businesses. The group which has named itself after the goddess - Maa Santoshi, personify the traits of the goddess herself. 

Gitarani Rath, a member of the group, welcomed us at the door. Her calm and serene face greeted us and she led us into the drawing room. The slabs on the walls of the room were entirely covered with images of Lord Jagannath of different sizes.The 11 women together built up this inventory with a microloan. They design show-pieces, mementoes and small craft pieces with shells and plaster. Recently, the group even rented a small apartment where they could work. This rented house is now their office. Here they work uninterrupted, away from the never ending duties of their households. 
Craft pieces adorning the wall

“We try to finish the household chores as soon as we can and then go to our workplace to start our daily art work,” Gitarani tells us. “Every one is not free at the same time, so we have flexible work place and timings.” Most women in the group find it most convenient to work after lunch. Instead of afternoon siestas, between to 2-5 p.m. they are found, in these premises creating pieces of art.

The group imports the raw materials from states across India. The image of the lord is imported all the way from Gujarat, while the lustrous golden paper used at the base of the image is imported from Kolkata. Gitarani gives a demonstration of how to create a piece using the ‘Made in Taiwan’ glue stick fitted into a gun-like machine. The machine heats the glue and allows seamless use with no mess.

The raw materials, Gitarani at demonstration, Appliqué work

At top speeds, a person can churn out about 100 framed images in a day. Beside the framed images and plaster structures, another art form the group specialises in is appliqué work. Prativa Mohanty, the president of the group, has exemplary sewing skills. Appliqué work originated here as temple art, but slowly it found relevance in daily utilities. We marvel at the beautiful montages Prativa puts on show. 

A handbag decorated with an patches that make up a girl, her house and a few animals. A sewed letter holder, for safely storing letters and cards, depicting various seasons. And a breathtaking wall-hanging showing village women off to fill their pots. She also excels in creating appliqué bed-sheets, shirts and tops. A large bed sheet can take about 15 days to complete while a smaller piece can be finished in 3-4 days. The group has created a niche market base for themselves. Most of the suppliers come to them to collect the finished pieces. They have also tie-ups with local sellers at the beach and a few self-help groups. 

The group members displaying their craft

In times when 'work with your head' jobs are replacing jobs that work with hands, these women epitomise the of joy of creating things. Along with their crafts these women run households, sponsor their children’s educations (Gitarani’s daughter is pursuing MPhil in Bioinformatics). Above all, they bring fulfilment and sense of pride that can only be felt when one can hold out their work for the world to admire.