Patua and Kalighat from Pingla West Bengal

By Arpita Sk

The Story

Long time ago, before the prominent rule of Lakshman Sena in West Bengal, there lived a big, grotesque, mighty fearful monster that terrorized and consumed human beings at nightfall. The fight against the monster was an equal match and in fretful fear of this monstrous creature who was slowly devouring the villagers alive, the people of the village rampaged to find a solution. One night, when innovation struck, they built a huge mirror, setting it in front of the monster. In fit of rage, that a monster as big, cruel and grotesque as it existed, it charged at its own reflection, shattering the mirror; Which only resulted in the monster being confronted with many more reflections of itself, believing them to have multiplied he hit his head and wept to his own death. Now the people could live in peace, but – there was lingering fear of how many more monsters are out there? 

A big leaf was used to paint the picture of the monster, circulating it from village to village, in order to protect their fellow neighbouring villagers. The painter travelled to all these villages, giving them the painting, narrating the tale of the monster he and his village fought, receiving rice, shelter and food to eat, transforming it into a culture and travelling folk craft. People wanted more stories, more variations and storytelling became an important basis of his art, he transformed them into folk music, painted on cloth, creating a divergent basis for his art to flourish. The traditional indigenous Patachitra art form, or Patua Hand Scrolls that are reflective art pieces of society, culture and milieu, originate from West Bengal in 13th century; They illustrate, with vivid imagination and colourful paints, the folklore and mythology of India. 

Adaptive, Transformative & Contemporary…

A reflective, adaptive and transforming artform, patachitra merged the likeness of vivid visuals, folk music, master wordplay and storytelling to create art that is socially aware and evolving with time. Though started out as a median of folklore and oral history, today it is the art that packs a punch with its social commentary. This artform, in its formative nature unfolds in three acts: the kahani (story), the mahatmya (glory) and the bhavita (introduction) and follows the pattern of ‘tripad’ or three beats found in Indian classical music. These have evolved into much simpler music, a lot less theatric, while some sing simpler notes, some narrate and some just paint; it lives on today, because of its versatile nature while remaining resilient and retaining its artistic aesthetics. 

Today one of the prominent evolutions of this art form is its role in creating awareness about the imminent threat of covid-19. The monster, in the origin story of the art, is a continued symbol used in this art form till date, representing all things evil that preys on their lives and livelihood. It is an all-consuming metaphor that could be modified to show a certain opponent who is an unequal match to humanity, like COVID. Their art becomes the mirror, upholding the reality of the situation to people, it is a reflection of times and their crisis. This includes transforming the monster narrative to fit contemporary issues, depicting PPE suits, composing lyrics that spread awareness about Covid. Ruponsa, an artisan, has used the similar metaphor and recites a poem warning people to be aware of the virus as it is deathly and it kills; And Mamoni calls the virus a demon descended on mankind, using lyrics and painting of a demon. 

Sustenance, Sustainability & Eco Friendly…

A stockpile of twigs, leaves, vegetables, coconut shells that are paint mixers, different colours mixed with sap of the bel tree, which acts as an adhesive. In times of depleting global resources and destruction of natural resources with harmful chemicals, the patuas retain their artform while using natural resources and paint that are friendly to the environment. The patua paintings, the folk songs, wordplay etc are not the only crafts practiced by patuas: the creation of the craft paper, paints, the method through which they paint to stay on the paper are all part of the charm and artistic uniqueness of the artform. The paintings are made on handcrafted paper which is made of paper panels that are stitched and assembled with thread and scraps of old sarees. The paints are made from natural dyes extracted from vegetables, trees branches, leaves, flowers etc., they are mixed and made in coconut shells and stuck into the paper using vegetable gum. 

Scrambles of a Myth to Master Art Form…

The Covid 19 pandemic is only one of the many hurdles patuas have faced, in a country that is increasingly moving towards westernisation and remains a victim of the colonised mind sets with traditional arts & crafts turning into stories, living in dead places like museums, the Patuas and their art form continues to fight for survival. The art form’s survival is a testimony to the community’s resilience, adaption and ability to stay relevant while retaining all their oral traditions and ancestral artistic endeavours. Today, they continue to fight social injustices and be the mirror that reflects society’s misgivings, they’re a voice of caution and voice of truth. The story is only as good as the storyteller, and the art is only as good as the artist; so while they struggle to make ends meet, keep their art alive, use their art to spread awareness of Covid, the least we can do is buy this art and support these artists. 

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