Thought to be one of the oldest forms of audiovisual communication, with their traditional presentation involving storytelling and songs, patachitras are deeply embedded in the vernacular traditions of West Bengal.
Patachitras or ‘pats’ are scroll paintings from West Bengal, in eastern India, that are intimately bound up with itinerant storytelling and song. Historically, pats were cloth scrolls on which mythological or epic stories were painted as a sequence of frames. A Patua would travel from one village to another, slowly unrolling the scrolls and singing songs known as ‘pater gaan’. In exchange, they would receive rice or other food and goods. Patachitras have been compared to cinema frames or animation and are said to be one of the oldest forms of audiovisual communication. Never a courtly or aristocratic tradition, patachitras remain deeply embedded in the vernacular traditions of the region.
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Following a meticulous artistic process, the artists extract natural dyes from local flowers, leaves, minerals and spices (such as turmeric, teak, soot and bel fruit) and store the colours in coconut shells. The scrolls are made from sheets of medium weight paper, with individual panels sewn together and glued onto a piece of patterned sari cloth, making them durable enough to withstand frequent rolling and unrolling. Artists begin by drawing lightcoloured pencil outlines, tracing the story and its characters, then use a handmade brush to apply colour. Lastly, black outlines are added to delineate the forms.
Many of the artists who practice this style are from the Chitrakar community in Naya Village, in West Midnapore, West Bengal. Self-designated Muslims, they nonetheless follow local Hindu customs and their pats often have largely Hindu themes. ‘Patua’ is the popular name for these artists, but ‘Chitrakar’ is considered a more respectable term, and has also been adopted by the artists as a surname and caste title. Pats were traditionally created only by men, but many female artists are now leading this art form.
With the rise of cinema and the collapse of the zamindari (aristocratic) system from which the artists received patronage, many were forced to look for alternative employment. In recent decades, government and social enterprise organisations have helped them in an attempt to keep the art form alive. Through workshops and art fairs, artists have also come into contact with urban audiences, and patachitras have begun to appear in international contemporary art contexts.
Contemporary local and global events have become subjects for painted scrolls. Artists have addressed the Indian Ocean Asian tsunami of 2004, the Gujarati earthquake, and the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi, as well as subjects such as birth control, the spread of HIV/AIDS and religious conflict. They have also been commissioned by organisations such as the American Red Cross to educate villagers on these subjects. The art of singing the scrolls, however, has declined as commercial demand has grown. Traditionally, they were not sold at all — scrolls would be retained for performances until they became old and faded, at which point they would be ceremonially gifted to a river.
Chitrakar’s scrolls feature multiple subjects from the mythical to the contemporary, from the 2004 tsunami and the events of September 11 to local stories concerning the West Bengali goddess, Durga, and tales from the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana.
Abigail Bernal is Assistant Curator, International Art., QAGOMA
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These works are on display in ‘Work, Work, Work’ which features creative output across a range of media. ‘Work, Work, Work’ is in the Marica and James C. Sourris AM Galleries (3.3 and 3.4), GOMA
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Feature image detail: Jaba Chitrakar’s 9/11 2012