Painting, according to some scholars is as old as Odisha's (Formerly Orissa) sculpture. In fact profession-wise, there was originally no distinction between painting and sculpture. The Chitrakars or artists were commissioned by their patrons in all visual arts of their times. To some extent the ancient wall plasters inside the Jagannath temple complex and in the temple of Mukteshwara seem to bear out this view. Hence the three main categories of Orissan painting, the Bhitichitra or the murals, the pata or the cloth painting and the Talpatachitra or the palm leaf engraving remain more or less the same in style and subject-matter during any given period of Orissan history.
The colours of all Orissan Paintings are vivid and contrasting, with red, ochre, indigo, green, black and white being used traditionally. Each outline is clearly and strongly defined. The paintings concentrate on sculpture like figures of simple shapes and monotonous postures and expression. There is no perspective or background detail, the background is generally either just painted in a contrasting colour or filled in with flowers and tendrils.
The subject matter of all these paintings is of Vaishnava origin Jagannath, the main manifestation of Vishnu in Orissan lore is the main source of inspiration. However, the rise of the Bhakti movement in the 15th century saw a period of Renaissance that accentuated the adoration of Krishna. This devotion stimulated all the art forms of the State. The rediscovery of Jayadeva's Gita-Govinda too added a new theme to Orissan art. From this period onward, we find a large scale visualization mythology and folklore, including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavatagita, the Shakta, apart from more traditional Radha-Krishna and Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra themes.
The Patachitras are paintings on cloth. In the absence of paper, cloth gives an extended smooth surface and is easily transported. For the patachitra, small strips of cloth are prepared for the painting by a coating of a mixture of glue and chalk which result in a leathery finish. The outlines are then drawn directly in red or yellow and the other colours subsequently filled in. Finally the pata is given a lacquer coating to protect it from climatic effects. For this process of varnishing and glazing, the back of the painting is exposed to heat while the top is being brushed with a fine layer of lacquer.
Even today the Chitrakars of Odisha (Formerly Orissa) use vegetable and mineral colours. A prillient and permanent white is obtained by powdering, boiling, and filtering conch shells. Red comes from Hingula, mineral colour - a stone ingredient. Haritala, is processed to get yellow. Ramaraja, a kind of indigo, provides the blue. Black is made from either lamp-black or burnt coconut shells. Brushes are very crude and are made from the hair of domestic animals.
The Talapatrachitras or the palm leaf engravings consist of frozen linear drawing as illustrations of manuscripts. In these engravings, colours are muted and play a very minor part. Where colours are at all applied, they are just painted either to emphasize the inscriptions, or to fill up blank space. In Odisha (Formerly Orissa), manuscripts were written on palm leaves even during the Mughal period when the paper was freely available. In the limited space of the oblong palm leaf with a small width, human figures completed with details of hair style and dress, animals, flowers and trees are executed with great precision and beauty, the tool of this art is a sharp style and it needs a remarkably steady hand to be able to wield this tool on thin strip of leaf. These talapatachitras have an affinity with the Rajasthani miniatures both in the treatment, composition and the colour scheme.
Apart from these three most important pictorial genres, there is a lot of folk art in Odisha (Formerly Orissa). One of the most popular done on circular playing cards peculiar to Odisha (Formerly Orissa). These are called Ganjapas and have elaborate borders with the central illustration from either the Ramayana or the Dasavatara of Vishnu or from 'Krishnalila'.
Even though there is a marked difference in quality and conception in the new illustrated palm-leaf etchings and pata-chitra paintings, and the sixteenth and seventeenth century examples in the Odisha (Formerly Orissa) State Museum, or the work of contemporary applique artists in Pipli and the fragments of century old work which some of the older artists retain as precious heirlooms, the painters and palm-leaf etchers of villages such as Raghurajpur still create remarkably lively and highly-skilled work.
Throughout the world, traditional art forms have vanished, leaving behind nothing but their rapidly dimming memories in museum galleries. What makes Odisha (Formerly Orissa) an extremely unusual place is that she has managed to preserve a significant measure of her artistic heritage, and that amongst her huge number of skilled craftsmen, there still exist a good proportion of artists of true genius. Many of their forms are changing and developing, but all are exuberantly, and often beautifully alive.
Etching and painting on palm leaf is one of the most ancient craft forms not only in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) but also in the whole country. The birth of this art form, marks the beginning of the dissemination of written words and is therefore, closely intertwined with the literary traditions of the country. While palm-leaf inscriptions and paintings are available in several states of India, it is in Odisha (Formerly Orissa) that the craft reached perfection and great excellence. The numerous illustrated manuscripts in the collection of the Odisha (Formerly Orissa) State Museum embody the rich artistic traditions of the State. This tradition continues even to-day and thrives among the handicrafts artisans of the State particularly in the districts of Puri and Cuttack.
The art form essentially consists of inscribing letters and artistic designs on palm-leaf, mostly cut into standard sizes. While for manuscripts the leaves are cut in rectangular sizes, held together with two wooden plank covers stringed through a hole in the centre, for paintings the leaves are stitched vertically and folded, like a bellow. However, instances of cutting the leaves into fancy shapes like balls strung into a garland or leaves cut into shapes of animals and other objects are also not wanting. The process of preparing the palm-leaf to make it ready for etching is quite elaborate and time taking. The unripe leaves of the palm tree are first cut into the required shape and are sun dried. However, the leaves are not to be exposed to intense heat and should not be completely dried. Once this initial preparation is complete, the semi-dried leaves are buried in muddy swamps and left there for four to five days for a further seasoning. After these are retrieved and washed they are once again dried, but this time they are air dried, not being exposed to sun. After this, these dried leaves are kept inside the grain stores and put inside the paddy heaps. This treatment is the final seasoning of the leaves which makes them insect proof and stiff. These seasoned leaves are then stitched or stringed together as per the need. The etching whether of words or of artistic designs is done with the help of an iron stylus. Great concentration and planning is required before any design can be engraved as no alteration is possible on account of the very nature of the material. After the etching is complete the leaf is rubbed with a paste made of bean leaves, charcoal made of burnt coconut shells, til oil and turmeric. The leaves are then wiped with a piece of cloth and the paste deposited in etched portion of the palm-leaves reveals prominently the engraved design. For painting the palm-leaves, vegetable and mineral colours are used.
While writing of texts, including illustrated texts, was popular and widespread in the ancient times, after the discovery of paper and printing this has become more or loess extinct. However, it is worth while mentioning here that the rich collection of the Odisha (Formerly Orissa) State Museum contains a large number of illustrated texts both plain and painted of which the more prominent ones are Jayadeva's Sri Gita Govinda, Bidagdha Madhaba of Rupa Goswamy, Amaru Sataka of Amaruka and Ushavilasa of Sishu Sankar Das. The themes of these manuscripts are mostly the love episodes of Radha and Krishna as well as other mythical and legendary incidents. The paintings and drawings also present excellent scenes of nature.
As the craft is practised mostly large drawings are made on the rectangular palm leaves stitched together vertically. The major motifs are drawn from the rich legends, myths and folk-lore of the State. The various gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon are represented either singly or in groups more prominent of these being Radha and Krishna, Durga, Ganesha and Saraswati. In larger illustrations the entire story of Bhagabata or Krishnalila, or Ramayana and Mahabharata are presented while in smaller ones, single episodes are presented. In many ways the traditions followed for palm leaf etching are very much akin to patta paintings. The figures are highly stylised and embody the traditional concept of beauty. The figures usually have a sharp pointed nose, long eyes and well-proportioned bodies. The figures are usually represented in profile.