Patua: Master Artisans

by Arpita Sk

The Colonial Impact… 

A few centuries of colonisation, exploitation and dehumanization, left India bleeding and broken.  One of those broken pieces is the traditional arts and crafts sector that bears India’s heritage, culture, and oral history. Post Independence lack of focus and bureaucratic will has left many forms languishing and artisans unsupported. 

The patachitra form of art, originating in the 13th century West Bengal, was also impacted in the imminent social realities; it adapted to incorporate western ideals and to fit into the contemporary expectations. . Despite the cloud of doom looming over their heads, the Patua community, makers of Patachitra stay strong; a small yet resilient community that still creates art rooted in social realities that constantly adapts to changing times. 

You can see examples of this in Rahim Chitrakar’s ‘Corona Story’or Mamoni Chitrakar’s ‘Corona Katha’ amongst many others. The adaption to colonial times is evident in their ‘Kalighat Paintings’ which are available in both Occidental and Religious versions. Need and affordability were key drivers for the community to pivot to this new form in the early 19th century.  

Their Art Practice does not just fight for survival but demands a legitimate existence; the use of brushes changes, designs & contemporary themes: critiquing the colonial rule; tribal themes; religion; with increased westernisation 9/11; taboo social issues like transgenders, single mothers, HIV/AIDS; and now COVID19. The art form has evolved to thinner lines with more western influence to accommodate for popular demand and audience that is often tourists. Despite this, the art form retains its original roots and continues to paint traditional themes along with contemporary due to a community of artists who continue painting patachitra; Let’s meet some of the faces of this vast community…

The Master Artisans: Faces of a Vast Community… 

Mamomi Chitrakar

Mamoni Chitrakar is the daughter of Swarna Chitrakar, who has showcased her art in Australia, USA, England, France etc. Mamoni has been practising the Patua artform since childhood, mastering in painting and singing about her paintings. She specialises in Manasha Mangal and Chandi Mangal. She learnt Mansha Mangal and Chandi Mangal from her mother Swarna Chitrakar, her mother, who specialises in the same, and even won the state award in 1994. Mamoni’s also art revolves around social issues like HIV, 9/11 & tsunamis. 

She keeps alive the other female traditional deities and their folktales that aren’t popular with the rest of India and the world. Manasha Mangal is a snake goddess worshipped in Bengal; she is non-Aryan and one of the oldest goddesses worshipped. Chandi Mangal is another female deity, she is associated as the descendent of Manasha in non-Aryan folktales and a deity similar to Durga and descendent of Parvati in Hindu mythology. 

Bahadur Chitrakar

Bahadur Chitrakar is a leading Patachitra artist from Naya village of Pingla block in Paschim Medinipur district. Patachitra is an ancestral practice in his family, having learnt from his parents who learnt from theirs. His mother, wife and other members of the family practice this art form too, his mother and wife are recipients of the state award for their art. He adapts the traditional Kalighat style and merges it with the likes of Jamini Roy, creating his own unique version of the art. Jamini Roy ditched his western training in art, turned to Bengali Folk Art, and established his style with bold lines and merging traditional patua and Kalighat.

Bahadur paints on traditional Bengali folklore and mythology, as well as classic Indian stories. Above (left) is titled Tribal Freedom Fighters, which is a rebellion led by tribes against the babus and colonisers for exploiting their agricultural gain, while leaving them in poverty. Above (right) is a classic story from Hindu Mythology of Radha and Krishna’s union: the star crossed lovers of Indian Mythology who never got to be together. His art keeps alive the traditional aspect of patachitra.

Anwar Chitrakar

Anwar Chitrakar from Naya, West Bengal is one of the faces of the community that paved way for the preservation of patachitra culture. He had a passion for the art since childhood, yet due to socio-economic reasons pursued tailoring for 10 years before coming back to the community to pursue patachitra art form. His art stems from a combination of western and traditional methods, while painting and shading are more aligned with wester, he paints on traditional idea mythology. He also paints on contemporary social issues related to gender, environment, surrogate mother, transgender issues etc. 

Above (left) depicts the Babu culture, the life of Indian clerks in British India which has evolved into the general critique of middle-class society in the contemporary. Above (right) is a classic portrayal of two Hindu deities, a married couple, Shiva and his wife Parvati. 

The Takeaway…

These are only a few names in a community that is filled with artists and fighters, who are in a battle every day to preserve their culture and way of living. They all embody unique artistic abilities, some retaining the traditional patachitra art form while others adapt to contemporary times. Their art and adaption are a testament to their resilience and ability to keep this art form alive from the 13th century to the 21st century. The pandemic, again, tests their resilience and the least we can do is buy and support their art, so it can go for centuries more. 

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