Scrolling out musical art

Scrolling out musical art


SPECTACULAR SCROLLS Patachitra artworks from Bengal. Photos by Dilip Banerji

As I disembarked from the bus at Pingla, little did I knowthat my eyes would be in for a feast. Mud walls supported thatched roofs. Bamboo stakes wedged firmly on the ground to support the roof upon the extended verandah where I saw an artist engrossed in his painting.

A closer look revealed that he was drawing a series of frames to bring out known figures from mythological stories upon an unknown canvas. Unknown, because the other end was rolled, dithering to divulge its actual length and also, the semi-glossy material was very different from the canvas we all know. He was actually painting the patachitra, a unique folk art of Bengal. He was not the only soul delving in his drawings. The entire village was buzzing with vivacity and verve of myriad colours. The buzz was feasible, visible but rarely noisy.

The village was Naya, a self-effacing village at Pingla in the West Midnapore district of Bengal. It had come alive with this bubbly display of patachitra to attract visitors from all over India and overseas. For decades, the artisans visited Kolkata and other metros in different exhibitions to display their craft. This time around, the table has turned. The crafts were displayed to the urban audience, not in the dazzles of art galleries or suave trade fairs in cities, but on the lawns of secluded village hutments beneath the Chatim tree, where wet saris or lungis fluttered upon ropes and smoke evolved from the open air kitchen of the chitrakars or artisans.

As I walked into the village, it was coming alive. Villagers worked overtime to splash the ambience with colours. The walls, the timber studs, or the boards of the common workshop were decorated with sketches of different hues. Actually, colours ran through their veins. Little Tumpa was seen sitting beside her mother and wielding the paint brush with aplomb. She went to Madhya Pradesh to train artists twice her age. Some of the artists went overseas to display their art, like Gurupada Chitrakar, who went to England to display and sing. He was accompanied by Ruby Pal Chowdhury, executive director of the Crafts Council of West Bengal, who translated the verse.

SPECTACULAR SCROLLS: Patachitra artworks from Bengal. Photos by Dilip BanerjiAs my eyes roved, I saw elders, kids, youths, and the middle-aged — all sitting in the precincts of their houses, engrossed in this industrious illustration. Frames after frames evolved from the canvas, which was just a long cloth treated with special soil (dug out from lake beds) and glue extract from tamarind seeds. The colours were all natural, and the process, age-old. Every colour was sourced from various unique raw materials. The yellow colour was extracted from raw turmeric, green from kidney-bean leaves, blue from aparajita (Clitoria Ternatea), Segun Pata (leaves of teak), etc. Each colour was dispersed in glue, extracted from tamarind seeds, and then kept in coconut cups, while some were strewn around on the lawns. 

Patta in Sanskrit meant cloth and Chitra meant painting. This form of cloth painting has been handed down from generation to generation in the families of chitrakars or artisans. Arguably, 300 years ago, Raja Balaram Sen of the famous Sen Dynasty was instrumental in its nourishment and sustenance.

From time immemorial, artists composed a song (Pater Gaan), and based on its content, drew a series of pictures to complement the story. Both must be in sync, and performed with accuracy. 

The most interesting part was that this art was practiced by the Muslims too. Anwar Chitrakar said, “Though we paint on Hindu mythology, we, as Muslims, suffer from no psychological hitch. These paintings are a way of our life and it doesn’t come in the way of our religion. We have no objections to singing the folklores of Hindu dev-devis”.

Foreigners who visited the fair sat on the lawns to try their hand at the patachitra, learning some tricks of the brushes from youngsters. 

All this was the result of the efforts of Amitava Bhattacharya, the founder of a group of social entrepreneurs called, engaged in social development.

Collaborating with the European Union, they had brought funds for the social upliftment of the artist community and were instrumental in their international exposure. A resource centre was built in the village where artifacts of almost every chitrakar was displayed for sale. If one wished, they could even stay there in the adjoining guest rooms. 

As I was returning from the village, I was left wondering how simple efforts can transform an almost extinct art form and re-establish it, so that it is able to  fly high in the sky, like a phoenix does from the rubble of ashes.

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