What the decorated scrolls say...

What the decorated scrolls say...
Our country has a rich heritage of folk art and culture, and West Bengal is no exception. One such extraordinary art form is that of scroll painting, most famously known as patachitra. Since its emergence in the medieval period, this folk art continues to enjoy its popularity even today.

An art form practised by people known as patidars, patikars or patuas as their vocation, it has an interesting history.­

In order to popularise their art form, and make people buy their artworks, these patidars would travel from village to village, exhibiting their paintings, and explaining the themes depicted in them through ballads or narrative songs. These paintings also enjoyed the patronage of people who valued folk art and art collectors. However, today, they no longer go from door to door to sell their paintings, but depend on sales in art shows and exhibitions. The main themes depicted in the scroll paintings of the past were stories from mythologies including the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Mangal Kavyas of West Bengal.

Figures of gods and goddesses like Shiva and Chandi were quite common. So were Radha-Krishna. However, the themes have changed now, and episodes from India’s freedom struggle, commentaries on the French Revolution, and topics of latest interest have made their way to the modern scroll paintings.

Though the style of painting varies from place to place, and from group to group within the community, one common feature of these scroll paintings is the rich ornamentation and bright colours. One look at the paintings and you cannot but help buying a few. Such is their allure.

Though scrolls are generally made of tussar silk, some are also made by glueing together layers of old cotton cloth to create a leather-like canvas. These scrolls vary in sizes — ranging from 4-15 feet in width and 3 -15 feet in length. The traditional colours used are red, ochre, indigo, green, black and white, and obtained from various natural sources including trees, leaves and flowers.

The brushes used by these painters are generally made of animal hair, while the glue is made of tamarind seeds. Tamarind seed powder is soaked in water overnight and boiled till it acquires a gluey consistency.

Once the scroll is ready, artists coat the surface with a mixture of chalk and glue to give it a stiffer feel. Some artists even add rice flour to give it a better finish. The outline is then drawn, and the figure filled in with the same colours.

The base colour, however, is red, on which the other colours are painted. The last step in this style of painting is the coating of lacquer to give it a glazed finish, and also to protect it from the vagaries of nature. Midnapore in West Bengal highlights the typical Bengal-style of patachitras.

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