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Exploring art in Odisha

Spending time with beautiful objects and their creators is a reminder of the good in humanity

An idol of Ganesh made of unhusked paddy grains (left); and a filigree adornment crafted for a Durga idol. Photos: Neha Dara/Mint.
An idol of Ganesh made of unhusked paddy grains (left); and a filigree adornment crafted for a Durga idol. Photos: Neha Dara/Mint.

After 30-odd years of believing that there’s some good in everybody, I find my faith in humanity wavering. Stories of assaults on 10-year-olds, the killing of people over bovine creatures, road rage, sexism and racism and intolerance, the rubbish I see in the most picturesque of places—all these have chipped away at my you-may-say naive, yet firmly held, conviction.

It was in this sombre mood that I embarked on a recent trip to Odisha. My initial joy at spotting acres and acres of green forest from the plane ebbed when I spoke to a conservationist and learnt that animal populations that used to be dominant in the area have now nearly disappeared. They described jungles that were once full of elephants and tigers. A local journalist told me of a reporter who lost his job for writing a story that displeased the powers that be. Sitting together on a rainy Bhubaneswar evening, a friend and I shook our heads and wondered if things would ever change. A cloak of despair lay upon us, making the cloudy evening seem darker than it was.

The next morning, she and I drove to nearby Cuttack. There, on a narrow, twisting street, we found the workshop of Nirakar Das, whose family has been engaged in the work of tarakasi, or silver filigree, for as long as he can remember. He learnt the skill from his father and uncles, as they did from theirs. We watched mesmerized as Das, his uncle, and another male relative worked as a team to flatten a silver wire and fashion it into a lovely flower filled with delicate swirls. They worked with dedication, years of experience and tiny forceps to create crowns and ornaments that will decorate idols of the goddess during Durga Puja.

Das directed us to the nearby shop of Jayant Sahoo, where he said we would find jewellery more refined than is commonly sold in stores. From the many drawers in his tiny shop, Sahoo, who prefers to be called John bhai, pulled out earrings, hair ornaments, bracelets and pendants. He showed us necklaces made of intertwined silver threads. His eyes gleamed as he described pieces made by his father and grandfather that he keeps carefully in a safe at home and vows never to sell. “They made flowers so delicate that they floated on water," he boasted.

Some of the gleam in his eyes transferred to our own. We spent a couple of hours in the shop, oohing and aahing over the beautiful designs. As I touched each piece, the care and focus with which it was made, the years spent perfecting the art that it represented, the flair and beauty it showed restored my faith in humanity bit by bit.

At the Museum of Tribal Arts & Artefacts in Bhubaneswar the same evening, a place that I almost didn’t visit, I saw other demonstrations of the creativity human beings are capable of. At the centre of each of its various halls that display tools, attire and household items used by Odisha’s various tribes, artists demonstrated indigenous crafts, surrounded by their creations. A 4ft-high Ganesh figurine caught my eye. Going closer, I realized that it was made from grains of rice tied to thin strips of bamboo with colourful thread. Once again, I was struck not just by the splendour of the object, but the effort, skill and craftsmanship that had gone into making it. I stood there for a while, watching the artist work on another creation, deftly picking up a tiny grain of yellow-dyed rice and incorporating it with rapid turns of his fingers.

I felt hope creep back into me, and looking at my friend I could tell she felt the same way. None of the things that make me despair had gone away, but these instances of the beauty that we are capable of creating, and the passion we put into perfecting an art, were a timely reminder of the many wonders in our country. The scales righted themselves somewhat.

One for the Road is a column on personal takeaways from travel.

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