Looking back into a tradition of craftsmanship going back generations National Award Winner Ashok Kumar Mohapatra, 37, speaks with pride of his craft and vocation of wood carving. Born into a family of traditional stone carvers at Basti Pathuria Sahi in the historic town of Puri (Odisha) he received his first lessons and training from his father and uncles, who in turn had learnt their consummate art from Shri Giridhari Lal Mohapatra his talented and distinguished grandfather. The Mohapatras have earned a name for excellence in stone carving, statue making and temple building. They trace their ancestry to the builders of the acclaimed temple of Lord Jagganath at Puri.
A smile of satisfaction touches Ashok Kumars face as he reminisces how as a child he enjoyed polishing stones on way to school and even at that young age earned a little money selling small images of Lord Jagganath near the beach. The excellence in his craft came later under the careful guidance of his father Madan Mohan Mohapatra who recognized in his son talent and capability to take on the family inheritance. While the older generation had mastered the craft of carving granite, sandstone and red stone Ashok Kumar made a niche for himself as an entrepreneur carving in wood. Interestingly this happened when a businessman marketing his fathers carvings suggested that he try his hand at wood as many Japanese tourists were looking for crafts in a lighter medium.
The wood’s he chose to work on are ‘pani gambhari’ a soft creamish white teak along with the harder ‘phula gambhari’ and the darker sisu or rosewood for heavier pieces, which he buys from Puri. While features in painted wood carvings are usually less defined and diffuse, those done on ‘gambhari’ are sharp and fine and attain an exquisite work finish resembling the workmanship of sculptors.
The motifs include various stylized animals and birds, elephant, lion, tiger, bull, peacock etc, Radha, Krishna and sakhis and the three most popular deities of the Puri temple, Jaganath, Balabhadra and Subhadra. The three chariots of the Puri car festival are decorated with wooden images depicting various deities as parswadevatas. A popular image is from the Mahabharata, of Krishna the sarathi or charioteer teaching Arjuna the tenets of the Gita while guiding the horses harnessed in front. Excellently proportioned and finished to fine smoothness these wood carvings depicting myths, legends and folklore are a collector’s delight. Good examples of the work of the wood carvers of Odisha can be found in temple ceilings and carved wooden beams and doors in places like Charchika temple, Buguda, Banki, Birnchinarayan temple, Kapilas, Siva temple and the Laxmi Nrusingha temple at Berhampur.
Ashok Kumar’s winning work is the ‘Buddha Kila’ a mural composed of many scenes from the life of the Buddha. A relief work composed on a single plaque of wood it has taken him two years and seven months to complete. With grace, delicacy and beauty the figures present different stages of Bhagwan Buddha’s life. The serene Buddha and his life fascinated the young Ashok Kumar. Seeing images brought to life in stone by his father brought in him a dream of some day doing the same. While many craftsmen were depicting the life stories of Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon the life of Buddha was ignored for reasons unknown. His award winning Buddha collage is culmination of single minded devotion to his art.
Ashok Kumar is happy being in Delhi to show his craft to a wider audience and to receive the National Award for Master Craftsperson’s given by the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. This exposure gives him an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience and contact more buyers. His one regret as he says is “works such as mine with an earthy character and rough texture, with no lacquer finish do not find too many ready buyers anymore. Buyers are today looking for glitter and shine…even in engravings and carvings. The market is changing fast and I will have to consider innovating”. But then cheerfully adds” however there still are a few who appreciate that not all that glitters is gold”.
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