Sitting cross-legged at the verandah of his house at Chitrakar Lane in Puri, Nityananda Moharana carefully separates thin strips of sholapith (Indian cork) reed from its brown cover and rolls them into small blocks. He cuts the edges of these milky-white rolls in different angles and ties one its ends with a wire to give it a shape of a beautiful flower. This flower is used in making of tahia or gajra, a headgear which every Odissi dancer wears during the performance. Over the last two decades, Moharana is making tahia and he is among the few artists who still use sholapith as base material for it.
There are four types of flowers—kadamba (kadam), golap (rose), sebati (chrysanthemum) and buds of malli (jasmine)—used in making tahia which essentially consists of a ghoba and a Krushna chuda, he explains. A cylindrical string of sholapith forms the ghoba that is fitted around a dancer’s hairs and pulled into a bun. “It looks like a thousand-petalled lotus depicting the crown chakra of human body. It is followed by another cylindrical string of jasmine buds. A long flower stalk that emerges from the centre of the bun is called Krushna chuda, which signifies the spire of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. The lower portion of the bun is decorated with two small rose garlands,” he says, adding that tahia gives a beautiful look to the dancers and is essential component of their outfits.
It usually takes two days to make a tahia, which resembles a garland made up of ivory. Moharana’s tahia is in great demand by Odissi dancers from across the world, including the US, the UK, Japan and Korea. He creates around 200 pieces a month, most of which are exported. Sholapith are integral to Odia culture, and Lord Jagannath and his divine siblings—Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra—are decorated with flowers made with it.
Interestingly, Moharana started his career as a pattachitra (scroll painting) artist, but shifted to tahia-making after his father taught him the essentials of the art. His father, Harihara Moharana, was introduced to this craft by Kelucharan Mohapatra, a well-known Odissi guru. “When Sanjukta Panigrahi, the foremost exponent of Odissi, used to perform at the Kala Vikas Kendra in Cuttack, Kelucharan had asked my father to come up with something that can last longer than the natural flowers, used at that time. My father then came up with the concept of tahia,” he says.
From prominent dancers, like Sujata Mohapatra and Ileana Citaristi, to newcomers, all vouch for Moharana’s creativity with sholapith. Even as Odissi costumes are subjected to experimentation at present, the structure and form of tahia has remained untouched for the last many years and has become integral to the dance form, Moharana believes. Although in the past, the artist had tried to add zari threads and a few colours to it, both traditionalists and young dancers did not like the idea.
“They all want the white colour of sholapith to remain intact. Sometimes. I tried to change shape of the tahia too, but that met the similar fate. Our dancers certainly want to preserve the tradition as far as the Odissi adornments are concerned,” he smiles.
But in future, Moharana might be compelled to opt for other materials to make tahia.
Earlier, the raw material (sholapith) was available in plenty in ponds, swamps of villages near Puri. “Today, I have to purchase it from people who mostly collect them from marshy waterlogged areas. Sholapith as a base material is extremely delicate to handle when the reeds are raw, but it becomes strong enough to withstand carving by a knife after some time,” says Moharana. The process needs a lot of concentration as a wrong move would waste an entire stem. “Cutting the reed into thin slices is the most difficult part and is mostly done in summer,” he says.