Painted narratives

gasping for breath

Painted narratives

Simple Mysticism The  scrolls tell  profoundly symbolic stories in naive yet complex imagery.

Bengal has a rich heritage of folk-art and folk culture. Different arts and crafts at different stages in history were created both for recreation and as means of making a living. One of the outstanding forms of traditional folk art is the scroll painting or Patta Chitra which emerged and flourished all over Bengal in the late medieval period and continues to exist though tenuously, even today. Its survival owes itself to its wonderful capacity to interpret past tradition and to adapt itself to modernity.

Scroll-painting is more a craft than an art, for  the people engaged in it since its inception, made use of it as their principal vocation. In the past the scroll-painters variously called Patidars, Patikars, Patuyas, lived in clusters in different localities, mostly rural, and formed guilds of their own to protect their interests and help one another in every possible way.

Because this art form, or craft, received popular patronage in those days, the Patidar community was able to exist but it never was an affluent community. In order to enlist larger patronage, the patidars moved from door to door showing their pictures to the accompaniment of narrative songs or ballads explaining the themes depicted in the pictures.

The verses were either composed by them or collected from folk singers as an attempt to impress the people. The paintings were also sold to discerning lovers of arts and to the kind of people who bought them to decorate their rooms. To augment their income, the Patidars also made clay models and terra-cotta dolls.

The scroll-painters gleaned their themes mainly from ancient Indian mythologies and the Mangal Kavyas of medieval Bengal. The puranic gods and goddesses like Shiva, Chandi, Manasa appeared again and again in their pictures as did scenes from the Ramayana, Savitri-Satyavana episode from the Mahabharata. The Behula-Lakhindara episode of Manasa-Mangala and the Kamale Karnini vision of the Chandi-Mangala were very common subjects of painting with the Patidars.

The styles of the painters varied from, place to place and group to group. Generally, however, they were fond of depicting heavy monumental figures of the deities with rich ornamentation in bright deep colours with a view to making an immediate and abiding impact on minds of the simple rural people or on the minds of  those with religious  leanings .

Today most modern painters, however, employ less ornate styles and use light water colours for the sake of serenity and contemporary tastes. Apart from the Kalighat style of painting, another style of pata-painting is from Vishnupur, which appears to be more lyrical than picturesque.

The scroll generally consists of a piece of cloth 12’x2’ in size with a piece of paper of equal size pasted on one side. Two sticks are attached at two ends of the scroll to facilitate smooth and quick folding and unfolding. Sometimes durable paper scrolls are also used as in the case of Kalighat patas.

A noteworthy fact about the patidars is that they transcend all religious barriers. Most of them, have both Hindu and Muslim names and are usually found to observe Muslim rites and offer prayers at mosques. But they use Hindu gods and goddesses and the stories of Hindu mythologies for their art. They also follow Hindu marriage rites.

They offer a unique example of religious and communal harmony because of which they have an easy access to both Hindu and Muslim communities. This intermingling of Hindu and Muslim cultures is, of course, a familiar feature in many parts of rural India.

Today in keeping with change, scroll painters have changed their aesthetic outlook to some extent and have begun to use important historical events and modern cult-figures as reference points.

Episodes from India’s struggle for freedom have featured prominently in the modern scroll-paintings but today this priceless craft has lost its appeal in a  world addicted to cinema, TV and gadgets.

Consequently, the lot of the Patidars has suffered a setback. Their number has shrunk to a negligible figure and those who still carry on this craft as a vocation live in dire poverty and inconceivable misery.

Their efforts to popularise this art by making use of current topics and important modern personalities seem to be of no avail. Scroll-painting as an art may endure, thanks to government patronage being extended to revivalist scholars and researchers  but the Patidars as a community stand on the brink of extinction.

 Scroll painting forms an integral part of not just the Bengal culture but Indian craft traditions.  The skill displayed by these folk painters is simply astonishing. It is a pity that the limited number of Patidars who still follow their traditional craft in a few pockets, have been languishing on account of social neglect and lack of appreciation.

They no longer go from door to door displaying their paintings as in the past. Today they mainly depend on the sale of their works to art lovers and research scholars. Sometimes they send them to art-galleries and art-fairs for use as exhibits to earn a pittance. But this is hardly enough to guarantee a minimum income for their existence.

Aesthetes and lovers of heritage crafts in India should come to their rescue in view of the fact that they are struggling to preserve a valuable tradition of folk art that has enriched our culture . Once lost, this craft will be hard to revive and will be lost to us forever. 

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