I remember, as a child when I was growing up in small towns of Odisha I seldom visited the historical temples of Bhubaneswar. The temples were extra ordinary creations of a time when the world according to today’s standard stood passive. In the absence of computer-fed technology, all works had to be done with the coordination of hands and brain, yet producing the seamless creations of humankind. For last two centuries, scores of historians and archeologists have described in detail about forms, shapes and expressions of these timeless creations, the legacy of which are found in temples of Bhubaneswar. For years, I had been one of them.
But as I grew eternally, I started wandering about the divine hands that were once behind the creation of Bhubaneswar art in the Middle Age. I started believing that no human without divinity could chisel with such perfection. But as history is always silent about ordinary moments of divinity, my search remained elusive, until when I listened the incredible story of the Master Sculptor, Sri Raghunath Mahapatra. Raghunathji has been awarded Padma Vibhusana, India’s second highest civilian award in 2013, yet his story was unknown. However, thanks to the award he received from the Government of India, he was highlighted in the public domain recently.
Born in 1943 in a family of sculptors in the holy town of Puri, Raghunathji had studied not beyond class 3. Recently in a television interview, he recalls his moments. He was hardly 8/10 years old; he was not good at conventional subjects. One day he was beaten up badly by his teacher. Upon his return, when his grandfather saw his swollen palms, he immediately removed him from the school and eventually trained him as a sculpture at his family backyard studio. This was the end of his schooling. When he was 18 years old, Raghunathji was discovered by an Odisha govt officer, who was in search of a creative hand. At 18, Raghunathji moved to Bhubaneswar to work as a state government employee in the capacity of a master craftsman. In the 1960s, one of his first big assignments was the making of a replica of Konark horse, a statue that has marked as the state symbol of Odisha, for the premise of the Barabati Stadium at Cuttack.
Upon its completion, it brought him laurel, far and wide. Eventually he was awarded Padmashree. But the destiny for this master craftsman had other things to do. Internally he was finding restless as his soul was guiding him on an eternal route, for a divine search of the mother goddess Maa Harachandi, who withstood with him on many difficult moments. One day he decide to renounce his life, bought two pairs of hand-made towels (called gamchas in odiya) and bought a ticket for the destination, Howrah station. At Kolkata, he knew no one, on top of it he had meagre money to live in this vast city. But with courage he headed towards Kashi on the banks of the holy Ganges. He was wandering on the ghats of the river; some offered him food, others cloths. But the trouble that made him restless that he was not meeting his spiritual objective. One day, a sadhu told him to go to the dense forest Vindhyachal, to meet his eternal search.
He left Kashi and headed towards the jungle of Vindhyachal. Upon wandering solitarily, he came across a union of three trees that have merged into one, a pipal, a bel and a banyan tree. His conviction forced him to stop at that divine spot. He spent 41 days without proper food for Maa Harachandi. Eventually, he saw Lord Shiva. However, a divine soul came to him and advised to give up extremity. He offered food. Raghunathji spent nearly 8 years of his life in an ashram set up near the divine tree. During those years there were innumerable moments of divineness, which laid the foundation for his later life. One day a sadhu made him understand how his family was suffering without him and asked him to go back.
Upon his return from renouncing, the life turned blissful. He got his first order after his come back to make the replica of a Konark horse in a circle that stands in front of Bhubaneswar Railway Station. Since then, the statue has become a legendary marker of the city. For last three decades, his divine hand has chiseled hundreds of creations that dot across Odisha, India and even in foreign shores.
Today, the humble Raghunathji dreams to restore the lost glory of the stone temple at Konark. According to him, many portions have broken down and it is not possible to replace those and get the same effect. So if we come up with a new Konark, may be a smaller version that would make his dream true and offer plenty of opportunities for the sculptures of Odisha.