Pattachitra, meaning ‘cloth-picture/painting’ in Sanskrit, is a generalised term used to describe a style and format of painting with origins in Odissa (now Odisha) and West Bengal. The centuries old tradition conducted by artisans, known as chitrakaras, has strong technical and stylistic similarities to the classical Indian wall murals and palm leaf manuscript illustrations. This style typically lacks perspectival recession and employs single tone backgrounds, a striking application of colour and predominantly profile portrayals. Furthermore, warm palettes dominate, making use of hand-mulled paints from readily available plant and mineral pigments, such as chalk or ground shell white, indigo, red lead, Indian yellow and charcoal-based black. The rise of the pattachitra practice is thought to centre on the city of Puri, within which is located one of the most significant sites of Hindu worship, Jagganath Temple. It is suggested that painted representations of the temple and its iconography on cloth were employed for worship at times when the temple was closed or inaccessible. This tradition quickly evolved into a demand for Jagganath pattachitra as pilgrim souvenirs, which served as a reminder and conduit for devotions. Pilgrims soon requested pattachitra portraying other deities and scenes from Hindu histories, scripture and narratives. The practice of painting this content in this manner likely grew outwards from Puri, encompassing much of Odissa and Bengal, providing to the masses not only a broadly attainable art form, but more importantly, readily accessible and transportable devotional iconography. The utility of these paintings in this manner is evident from the compositional device of the festooned fabric painted across the top of many of the works – suggestive of an enclosed shrine or stage, protective curtain drawn, deity poised within or narrative scene playing out.

The dissolution of the Mughal Empire’s dominance in the Odissa region by the Hindu-centric Maratha Confederacy, in the late eighteenth century, likely resulted in an influx in the availability and dissemination of pattachitra paintings. Governed by conventions, patterns emerged in the composition, portrayals and choice of scenes depicted by the chitrakaras. Eventually artisans inherited master-copies from which they based their trade. The growing presence of the British and other European nations in the region at the turn of the nineteenth century also impacted upon the pattachitra trade. Artisans began experimenting with secular content in an effort to appease the predominantly Christian foreigners. Furthermore, the readily available paintings, both religious and secular in nature, were acquired and sent back to Europe as tokens of the ‘exotic’.

This collection of paintings from the R.M and C.H bequest was likely acquired by Ronald and Catherine during their trip to India in 1965, during which time they visited Jagganath Temple and the surrounding district in Puri. One of the works included in this grouping is a prime example of a pilgrim souvenir pattachitra representing the temple and its devotional iconography.