I first met Raghunath Mohapatra ji in Bhubaneswar in 1981.
I was then in charge of designing the Oberoi hotel in Bhubaneswar. To contextualize the interior architecture and interiors, I was looking for a traditional master sculptor to work with me on the 7,000 square foot lobby. I did extensive research and finally “found” Mohapatra ji. We entered into a dialogue and quickly established a report. I explained to her that in the contemporary architecture of this hotel, designed by the late architect Satish Grover, I wanted to use timeless elements of great Odisha stone craft traditions, but without exact replicas. In Odisha, people would often ask the sthapatis to predictably sculpt objects like Konark’s wheel.
I wanted to use these craft skills, but not in a cliché way. The layout of the hall took the form of a mandir – from mandap to maha-mandap, to the antralaya and finally to the garbha-griha, the sanctum sanctorum.
I remember Mohapatra ji was very happy with this architectural layout and was delighted to work with me. From there began a 40-year relationship, which was both as a co-worker and as my “bhai guru”.
After much deliberation and conceptual drawings exchanged between us, we were finally both on the same path. By this time, of course, we had visited all of Odisha’s major heritage sites. This corresponded to the way of conceiving deeply sought. There was a sculpture that Mohapatra ji wanted to do for part of the hall. This, he said, would be carved from white wood and would represent Arjuna receiving the Bhagavad Gita of Lord Krishna, as they rode to fight in a chariot in the Great Mahabharata War. I remember so well Raghunath ji telling me, “You trust me and I will make every part of it with my own hands.” What he produced was a sculpture of exquisite beauty!
When the Oberoi was completed – with its double-height entrance hall, its katha-colored terrazzo floor with its central white marble medallion of a graphic plan of the Mukteshwar temple ceiling, its buff-colored carved columns and balustrades in Konarak stone, its window in bas-relief the contours all sculpted by Mohapatra ji; as well as the specially commissioned group of bronze hanging temple bells used as a central ceiling light, the ikat fabrics woven by master weavers and the collection of sectional pen and ink sepia designs from some temples of Odisha – the Taj Magazine wrote about it as “the nicest new hotel in India”. It’s a rival group that writes on the Oberois! Since then, the lobby has remained unchanged. Shortly after its completion, a group of Japanese filmmakers stumbled upon this hotel and shot a movie on it. Subsequently, Mohapatra ji was invited to Japan where he carved a massive statue of Buddha there. He has spent his life creating many magnificent temples in India and the United States.
He always told his family and me that I was one of his sisters from a previous life. When I met him, he had already received the Padma Shri in 1975. He received the Padma Vibhushan in 2013, the first sthapathi to receive this great civilian award.
We continued to work together on many projects, including the Indian Restaurant at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata; whose leitmotif was a series of columns carved in khiching stone resembling jade, all made by Mohapatra ji.
Even in the courtyard of our own home in Delhi at Golf Links, he carved a magnificent statue of Surya, which is an exact replica of the Surya in Konark temple. He also carved a small mandir in Konark sandstone, which is a scaled-down replica of the mandir in the center of the reservoir of the great Lingaraja temple.
For the entrance to the Prime Minister’s office at South Block in New Delhi, I commissioned Mohapatra ji in 1985 to make a pair of stunning and beautiful 6ft tall diyas. I have ordered many beautiful sculptures for several private clients including the magnificent Anantshayi Vishnus in the black granite of Odisha.
I remember he once made an 8 foot Krishna statue for another client; it was a monolithic sculpture, which took him six to eight months to complete. As part of the iconography of this sculpture, he had carved chains, but these were separated from the body and each link of the chain was movable. He had supreme virtuosity.
There are sthapatis and sthapatis, but he was superbly gifted. Of course, he descended from a long line of sthapatis. His ancestors had worked on the temples of Puri and Konark; Mohapatra ji could operate on multiple scales simultaneously. As he was a traditional architect, he could design and manufacture massive temples and at the same time carve exquisite small figurines. In 2008, I commissioned him to make 24 small panels in deep bas relief, each panel representing a significant episode in the life of the Buddha. This five-foot-by-five-foot sculpture was placed by our architect daughter, Kohelika, in a very contemporary house she had designed in Jorbagh, New Delhi.
When Mohapatra ji received the Padma Vibhushan, there was a lot of media attention. He was asked, “What are you going to do now?” He replied that he would build a second Konark! He even bought the land for it. He said to me, “I don’t want to depend on the government and everything. God has been very kind to me.”
Currently he was a member of the Rajya Sabha. But, in the final analysis, he was a deeply spiritual man. From this source springs the greatness of his art. His knowledge of the scriptures and Indian mythology was encyclopedic.
Mohapatra ji introduced me to his guru, who is now over 100 years old. He lives in Cuttack and we call him Babaji. Mohapatra was devoted to him and his well-being. He once told me how, when he was a young boy of 12, he left home and went to the Himalayas in search of a guru. He wandered there for 10 to 12 years.
He said, “I didn’t realize that the guru I was looking for was in my own state, in Odisha. Whenever Mohapatra called me, he never said pranam or similar greeting. He greeted me with a full prayer and a blessing. He introduced Babaji to me 20 years ago, at a time when our eldest daughter was going through a very traumatic time. He told me: “My Guruji will help you.” Meeting Babaji was one of the most memorable events of my life. Babaji is a guru for the poor. Every day, he wakes up at 4 am to prepare food for 150 people to whom he does not take a single paisa. The last time I spoke to Mohapatra, about a month ago, was to inquire about Babaji’s health. Mohapatra ji always watched over my family because he knew my husband was seriously ill. He always said, “If my sister is a dukhi, how can her brother be happy?” He also inquired about Kohelika of whom he was very proud. He always said that she and her sons would continue the legacy of their parents.
Mohapatra’s only regret was that he had not been formally educated. He didn’t speak English. But, he made sure that his children received the best education. It is such a tragedy that his two sons, Prashant and Jashobanta, also died of COVID-19, days before his own death. Previously, he had lost another son, a young man, who suffered fatal cardiac arrest on a train. I have known his sons since they were little boys, I have known them for years and years because they too worked with their father. In the 90s, Mohapatra was delighted because our dog had produced a litter, from which I presented him with two puppies for her children. From time to time he would show me photographs.
Mohapatra ji is perhaps the greatest of the sthapathis, “a national treasure” that we have lost. He was a brilliant traditional architect and a master craftsman. Yes, he had built huge temples. Yes, he had carved huge Buddhas. And yes, he had carved thousands of statues, large and small. But what will remain is that he taught his trade to others. When I first met him he only had two sthapathis working for him. In the 40 years that I have known him, he has trained over 2,000 sthapathis. This will be his greatest legacy.
As said to Sneha Bhura