The Raghurajpur heritage craft village in Odisha, India is a favorite tourist spot, which is less than two hours away from the main city of Bhubaneswar. But more than the art and craft products, which you could find anywhere in Odisha, the allure of this village comes from visiting the artisans in their own homes, which is a community of some 125 artisan families that are organized and sustained by the making of Indian craft. The village is also a regular stop for local and international artist groups that frequent the Indian state. And it was through such visits that local Odishan artist and art festival organizer Khitish Dash conceived the idea of RIA/CE.
Partnering with American contemporary artist Carol Hummel, the two artist-organizers set off to make the Raghurajpur International Art/Craft Exchange (RIA/CE) a reality. The two artists had previously worked together in several art festivals in India, and already had an idea of the things that work and didn’t work for the artist during such events. Things like feeling restricted with the time to do or make their art, or having to stick to a rigid group schedule that encroaches on their workflow. The organizers, with the help of village president Prabhat Prusty, planned RIA/CE in such a way that avoids or at least minimizes these impediments and others.
And so for five weeks in September and October 2011, 21 artists from Asia, Europe, and North America converged in Raghurajpur. While the days were spent attending workshops, the nights were spent exploring the nearby market, visiting the neighboring ashram, or bonding with the village folk, who opened their homes to the artists. Some of the artists also used the time to work on their individual projects, practice performances, or attend private lessons with their chosen artisan.
The artists attended a workshop each week, where Indian artisans taught the basics of their craft, whether it was Pata Chitra painting, stone or wood carving, cow dung toy making, or the traditional dances of Odisha. One of the more memorable workshops was cow dung toy making. U.K. artist Kate Marshall considers the moment she plunged her hands into fresh cow dung as one of her unforgettable RIA/CE moments. The workshop was also significant for American experience artist Melissa Daubert. Instead of copying the toy goats that the teacher was making, Melissa thought of making tiny gopis out of the cow dung. By the end of RIA/CE, she had made 108 of these tiny sculptures, which were representations of Krishna’s gopis or female devotees – an eye-catching work that had the villagers and foreign artists intrigued.
During the final days of RIA/CE, an exhibition of the artists’ works was mounted in Raghurajpur. The works were a sight to behold – a collection of stylized, modern versions of the Odisha craft forms. The villagers regarded each piece with curiosity, studying the make of the artwork from the painting technique down to the choice of color.
Some of the artists also left their mark in the village by creating wall or door paintings within the village. I got the villagers involved in the making of a “RIA/CE Village Banner”. The banner had fabric scraps forming the shape of a house, a bird, and a leaf at the center, with the hand prints of several of the villagers and artists surrounding them. U.K. artist Marigold Hodgkinson created the stone sculpture titled “Nabaganjar” during her stay in the exchange, and decided to leave the work in Raghurajpur as contribution.
On the last night of RIA/CE, as they did every Friday during the exchange, the entire village gathered in the public square for a program of performances that were mostly Indian dance and drama. These programs had the active participation of the foreign artists, who performed alongside the village performers in full Indian costume and make-up. They became end-of-the-week celebrations to cap off the good work done for the week, and they were extensively covered by the Odishan media, having local government officials and other VIP guests in attendance.
American artist-performer Stephanie Rae Dixon considers her performances as Lord Rama and Lord Shiva during these programs as her favorite moments during the exchange. “When I did Rama, the community was so supportive of an outsider playing a very traditional role. They embraced the experience with open arms. For me, it was indoctrination into the community life,” Stephanie recounts.
RIA/CE had its share of frictions and complications – the demands of the five week event, which was actually an art residency, exchange, and community immersion in one, at times took a toll on everyone involved. In the end, though, the village saw an increase in tourist/artist/collector traffic with the publicity it gained from hosting RIA/CE. Moreover, RIA/CE strengthened Raghurajpur’s profile as an international heritage crafts learning center. The experience has inspired further cooperation amongst the artists, as well as with the artisans of the Raghurajpur village.