Patachitra or painting on scrolls refers to the traditional folk art of eastern India, found in the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand. Each state renders its uniqueness to the art. In this post, I will elaborate on the Patachitra traditions of West Bengal and how they shaped the Kalighat paintings. But first, a quick comparison between the styles of Patachitra paintings in Odisha and West Bengal.
At the Traditions of India exhibition at the CSMSV Museum in Mumbai, I came across two distinct forms of Pattachitra paintings – from Odisha and from Bengal. Seeing the two forms of paintings side by side, and interactions with the respective artists made it easier to compare and contrast the two art forms with respect to their similarities and differences.
Though Patachitra art forms from both the states are similar in the sense that these are cloth-based scroll paintings made with the use of organic colours, both the forms are distinctively different in the treatment of their subjects, style, presentation and design.
For details of Pattachitra paintings of Odisha, browse the link -> Pattachitra art of Odisha
Finesse and intricacy characterise the Pattachitra art of Odisha, whereas simple bold lines, brevity in representation and vigour mark the Patachitra paintings of West Bengal, which are extremely varied in themes. But, even within West Bengal, there are variations in the style of Patachitra painting in the different districts of West Bengal.
Bright and vibrant scrolls with pictures of Hindu deities adorned a wall of the Coomaraswamy Hall at the exhibition. The adjacent wall was covered with paintings done in the Kalighat Pata style.
The artist Anwar Chitrakar is a traditional Patua Chitrakar, trained in the Kalighat style of painting. Anwar has won the West Bengal State Award, the National Award and the President’s Award and his artwork have been at various national and international exhibitions. His paintings are a part of the collection at Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Mumbai International Airport.
Anwar hails from Naya village of West Bengal. This quaint village in Pingla Block of the West Medinipur district of West Bengal is also known as ‘Pater Gram,’ meaning the village of the Patua artists. There are around 250 Patachitra painters or ‘Patuas‘ living in Naya village.
Patuas or Chitrakars is a unique community of folk painters of Bengal, who tell their stories through their scrolls and songs. Many of these Patua artists are Muslims but their detailed depictions of the Hindu mythological lore and deities is incredible. Holding their art above their religious identity, the artists of Patua community represent the blending of different religious beliefs and traditions.
As per the Folklibrary.com
‘Patuas‘ and ‘Chitrakars‘ find mention in literary works dating back to more than 2500 years . Some researchers are of the opinion that ‘Patashilpa‘ was originally an art form of the Santhals (tribal community). As Buddhism spread in India, the Patuas embraced the faith. Scroll paintings were used to preach Buddhism and it is likely that the Patachitra tradition spread to Tibet, Sri-Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Later, with the spread of Islam, many of the Chitrakars became followers of Islam. However, they continued to earn their living by painting Hindu deities and singing their stories.
The showing of Patachitra begins with the creation of a pat (scroll painting).
Painting is done on strips of cotton cloth, coated with chalk and gum. Each scroll is a visual depiction of a song that narrates a story either from mythological and devotional texts, local folktales and historical incidents. The painters dexterously depict all events or episodes of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or other stories on the scrolls.
Colours derived from natural pigments are used to paint large scrolls. The paintings are exposed to heat and glazed with a lacquer coating to protect it. After single panels have been painted, those are sewn together and the seams seem to disappear in the scroll border. After the scroll painting is complete, songs are composed by the Patua artist to suit the visuals.
A Patua would travel from place to place with the painted scrolls, displaying his scrolls and reciting their contents. As the artist went around the village, an audience would gather to watch the performance.
The first frame of the scroll tells about the major characters of the story. The Patua then unfurls the scroll and sings the narrative plot, frame by frame. At the end of each performance, the Patua adds a touch of personalisation by mentioning his name and the name of his village.
Traditionally, these performances were done by male artists, who were accompanied by younger male members of the family. The women of the house would be involved in preparing the canvass, making the drawings, and organising for the trips.
Read about the Kantha craft of Bengal, on the link -> Kantha Work: Traditional craft in contemporary designs
In the early 19th century, some of these Patua painters migrated to Kalighat, an important pilgrimage place in Kolkata. Initially, they painted icons of the Hindu deities, religious themes based on mythological and Hindu religious texts and historical incidents on paper but soon they expanded the subject of their art to secular and contemporary social themes.
For Vintage pictures of Kolkata, browse the link: Kolkata in the 19th century
Perhaps surprised by the cultural norms of the urban milieu, they started recording the happenings of their times. Their paintings reflected their conventional views. So, one could see a satirical depiction of the urban culture and society. In these paintings, the figures dominated the entire pictorial space without any secondary adornment or props. The contemporary paintings were a satire on the Babu culture of the rich urban gentlemen, who were influenced by the western thinking. In their paintings, the artists also derided social debauchery, mocked feminism and religious hypocrisy.
Thus 19th century in Bengal saw the fusion of folk paintings with contemporary themes and satire. Though this art was popular among the middle and lower class of people it did not appeal much to the Indian intellectuals of that time, who had a high reverence for the Victorian ideals.
Yet, surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling was so fascinated by the beauty of the art that he acquired a number of these paintings. His collection was later donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. Some of the best specimens of Kalighat painting are in this collections, and at the collection in Prague Museum.
With the advent of the easily reproducible lithograph and photographs, started the decline of the Kalighat paintings. Eventually, the children of the painters migrated to other professions,
As I was having a look at the Kalighat paintings done by Anwar Chitrakar, I was reminded of the paintings by Jamini Roy. Being an ardent admirer of Jamini Roy paintings, I love the simplistic look of the paintings which effortlessly and subtly convey powerful emotions, with gently curving lines, almond-shaped eyes and poised figures with calm, peaceful expressions.
When I mentioned this to Anwar Chitrakar, he said that Jamini Roy had experimented with Kalighat paintings and had learnt from the village patuas. His techniques, as well as the subject matter, was influenced by the traditional patachitra art of Bengal. So, the similarity is bound to be.
While showing his art, Anwar Chitrakar took out a fruit that he had carried with him and cracked it open with his hands. The fruit had thorns on the exterior but red seeds inside looked like pomegranate. He crushed the seeds and rubbed it on a paper to produce a red stain. “This is the natural red colour, I have used in the painting,” he told me. We use natural paints like turmeric for yellow, indigo for blue or plant-based colours, which are prepared in advance and stored in plastic for use throughout the year. The sap of wood apple tree (Bel) is used as a binder.
I came to know about the Pot Maya festival, which is held annually since 2010 in the month of November, in the Naya village. During this festival, people can see this unique art, interact with the artists, and learn how to make natural colours and attend Patachitra workshops. There are no hotels but the Chitrakars host the visitors on request.
West Bengal Tourism has identified the districts of residence of the Patuas, including Naya village as tourist destinations. The Government of West Bengal, in partnership with UNESCO, has developed Rural Craft Hub in Pingla.
An NGO banglanatak.com is also working to revive and preserve the unique traditions of Patachitra and Pater Gaan. An ongoing initiative by banglanatak.com in collaboration with the European Union has facilitated interaction between Patuas and Contemporary painters and new media artists from Europe.
These initiatives have helped the Patuas to make the art form as a means of their livelihood and have led to the empowerment of the women in the Patua community.
The enriching conversation with Anwar Chitrakar deepened my interest in Patachitra folk art of West Bengal. I thanked him and purchased these two Kalighat Pata style paintings, which now hang in the living space of my home.
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