She does not remember her age. But she could tell me that she is more than eighty years old. Her back is hunched and feet flattened, her fingers are sturdy and crooked a bit. From nowhere she looks like an artist; the stories that I have already heard do not match with the person whom I have just met. She has not moved out of Raghurajpur for many years and as she jogs her memory she finds that she has not even travelled anywhere other than to the Puri temple. But her works, small little toy like sculptures that do not justify the word ‘sculpture’ but not toys either, have travelled all over the world. Whoever visits Raghurajpur, a village for/of folk artists in Orissa does not go back without buying a few sculptures from her. She is a very special artist, rarest of sorts, who makes her works in cow dung. Her name is Sasimoni Moharana.
Sasimoni does not speak any language other than rustic Odiya which is translated to me by Kshitish who has taken me there. His interlocution is a bit authoritative and he makes his interpretations which I understand. As we reach the village Raghurajpur which is around fifty one kilometres from the Puri town where the illustrious Jagannath Temple is located not far away from the Bay of Bengal, it is the godhuli time. A very special time of the day, which could be called twilight or liminal, neither day nor night; not even dusk. May be it is at this particular part of the day people feel their existential pangs so intensely and that must be one reason why our ancestors had insisted that people should focus their minds on their ishta devata, favourite god or goddess.
(Entrance of the Raghurajpur folk artists village)
Beating of drums, clanging of gongs, ringing of bells and enthusiastic bhajans, litanies are already on at a temple at the entrance of the village. Children run around, elderly men move towards the temple where I could see a couple of people washing large cooking vessels which gives me the impression of an elaborate village lunch a few hours back. Cows that are not so tall hurry back to their stables with a few stray goats, proportionately short to match the nature’s order trailing behind them. Clouds of buzzing mosquitoes descend from the damp lands around as the veil of the darkness gets a bit thicker than before. Anticipating their daily arrival people have already kept burning incense pots outside their homes.
As we approach the veranda of her home, Sasimoni is already into her prayer and worship. Bending over the ritual vessels and lamps, she stands before an idol of Shiva annihilating a ferocious demon. She is wearing a white sari with red mango patches block printed. I notice her not wearing a blouse beneath it. Most of the rural Orissa women still do not wear blouses and with their memories of dislocation from deep rural areas to the organized villages like Raghurajpur intact, older women prefer to be what they used to be in those good old days. “As we turned seven we were given a white sari called Bombay Chaap, sari block printed in Mumbai. Then we were married off to twelve year old boys,” Sasimoni reminisces as we settle down inside her drawing room, an 8 feet by 12 feet room with its walls painted with bird images and foliages in ‘duplicate’ colours. The houses are laid out on either side of a broad tract of land where village gods and goddesses have temples, people have committee hall and the boys have their meeting squares and so on. The houses are like railway bogeys with a narrow walkway leading to the rooms on the one side.
(Sasimoni Moharana with daughter in law Kavita Moharana)
I wonder why Sasimoni called the colours on the wall ‘duplicate’ with a wink in her eyes and a smile on her lips reddened by constant chewing of beetle leaves. “The artists here never use artificial colours bought from the market. But the young generation has no patience to make colours out of rocks, shells, leaves, flowers and any other pigment producing substance,” says Sasimoni and she fondly looks at the walls where her grand children have painted those pictures. She seems to be happy for the last generation of a great lineage of artists and artisans keeps the interest in art on and does not intend to rupture the continuity of creative circuits. “But I make my colours even now. Years of grinding rocks and lime has made my hands and elbows weak and painful,” says Sasimoni.
In Raghurajpur, anyone who walks on two legs is an artist and they are proud of being an exclusive artist community that practices a variety of art forms, at times daring to innovate and often remaining faithful to the traditional streams. Sasimoni is perhaps the only one artist there who works in the medium of cow dung. Rest of the artists, especially women who used to make cow dung sculptures have already shifted to other mediums like paper pulp and glue, including Sasimoni’s daughter in law, Kavita Moharana. Sasimoni makes what she knows and at times what she does not know also. She could talk to you, listen to your talk while making sculptures; the focus is clear and the skilful fingers do not miss a shape. Her improvisation of form is seen in one of the lizards that she has created; that is neither a lizard nor another reptile- it could be one creature that exists in the old memories of Sasimoni.
Born to an artist who lived near Puri temple and did art works for the temple, Sasimoni was married off to Bansidhar Moharana at the age of nine. Bansidhar, a wood carving artist and in his late eighties now is agile and does his work. When Sasimoni got married there was no organized market for their arts and crafts. They had to work in the beetle leaves plantations and earned very little money for their livelihood. Even in those direst situations none of them left their creative abilities behind and the works that they created were sold around the temple where the tourists and devotees were their major patrons. In 1950, an anthropologist, Elena Jolly got them together and with the help of the government established a village fifty kilometres off Puri which is now known as Raghurajpur.
(Parikit and Kavita Moharana, Sasimon's son and daughter in law)
When in Puri, Sasimoni’s community was not making sculptures; they were in fact making Ganjifa, the painted round cards for the card game. Then there were people called Mahari who danced for the Lord Jagannath. With Jolly establishing the Raghurajpur village, most of them moved to the village and for the last sixty five years or so they have been living there with a lot of pride. The new generation in the village has heard stories about the villages that their parents and grandparents had left behind but has not gone there. The change in the aspirations is visible. Most of the young boys have motor bikes and girls ride on bicycles. “They too practice art,” says Sasimoni, “But they also want to do something more than art in their lives,” she adds. They want to do more in life because they too have understood the ways in which the world functions; they understand economics and they do not allow anyone to exploit them.
(Parikit Moharana's painting)
Sasimoni wakes up in the morning and after her ablutions and pujas, she gets into work. She prepares cow dung with enough materials to harden it and then get into grinding the colours. Once the dung sculptures are dried they are painted on, which is done meticulously by Sasimoni herself. In the meanwhile the household chores are taken care of by Kavita, the daughter in law. She brims with enthusiasm and covering her head with the edge of her sari, she tells that she does not find enough time to work. However, she takes me to the studio a floor above where her husband Parikit Moharana works on his patchitras. The studio looks humble but I do not see anything different than the studio of a contemporary artist. I wonder why these artists do not command the prices that our contemporary artists do that too at times with the help of support of the skilled supporting artists.
In Parikit’s studio, Kabita shows me the works that she has created; coconuts, dried seeds and empty bottles painted over with patterns and the Jagannath faces using pigment colours. The craft is meticulous and the brushwork and choice of colours is precise. She also shows the works done by her daughter and son. In one of the bottle works, a female name is written and I ask whether it is a signature. Kabita covers her head once again as if driven by habit and gives a shy smile. “That’s my son’s work and it is his girl friend’s name,” she says. One bottle is so attractive with repetitive patterns and I ask for its price. She says that it is priceless and she does not intend to sell it because it is done by her daughter and she loves it a lot. If you have thought that they are mere artisans and are ready to sell anything that is there only because there are some prospective buyers you are mistaken. They are artists with modern artistic attitudes and sensibilities.
(Kavita Moharana with her daughter's work)
Kavia takes out Parikit’s paintings. They are kept in a roll inside a PVC pipe. They belong to this world though their art is made in the traditional stream. They know how to preserve their art, how to make it and transport it but still they do not know how to make huge profit out of it. Lord Jagannath stands in the middle and Balabhadra and Subhadra flank him. In another canvas it is an iconic Jagannath in the middle and a lot of motifs around it. Kavita points at the unfinished paintings and the white patches where colours have not gone into. “The unfinished areas for detailed narratives,” says she. “Each cavity will have an avatar and in some other paintings my husband would paint an assortment of mythological stories,” with pride in her eyes Kavita says. She also contributes to Parikit’s works whenever she is asked to do so. “I fill in spaces with colours, help in making colours but the real problem is that I have to look after my in laws who too do art all the time, apart from attending the daily needs of the family,” Kavita says and she does not fail to add that she also paints whenever she gets time.
(some works by the Moharana family)
The canvas on which Parikit paints is very special. It is not a conventional canvas but a prepared surface using old saris and adhesives. “One of the young men in Raghurajpur is a specialist in making this sort of canvas,” says Kavita. An old sari is stretched and is treated with glues and pastes till it becomes hard and gives a smooth surface to paint on. How much do they get for a painting? “Depending on the size and the time that we spent on it,” says Kavita. A five by five that I have just seen is sold for a mere fifteen thousand rupees, which the middle men would sell for around seventy thousand rupees in the urban market. Kavita is not worried, “We do not know what they do with the work. We get what we ask for.” Curiosity led me to ask her whether she has heard the names of those famous artists from Orissa who live in Delhi or elsewhere. She thinks for a while and says that she does not know any of them. Fame is not real fame if you are not famous in your own place, among your own people who pursue more or less the same profession as you do.
Sasimoni is happy to see us back in her drawing room and is willing to pose for a few photographs. “Are you afraid of the young generation leaving this profession and going away to pursue their urban dreams?” I ask her as it is time to leave. “No, I am not. They have art in their blood and they cannot escape the calling,” she asserts. The girls in the village do not fall in love or marry outside their clan. But I have not asked the girls whether they do not fall in love at all. Boys definitely marry outside yet the community still seems to be held together by the glue of art and tradition. As they are all doing financially well, with no greed for making money or amassing properties, they are relaxed in their approach to life. The girls peddle around and boys bike around not going too far in distance or tradition. And unlike in other places, Sasimoni is adored by even the youngest member in Raghurajpur.