x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Selling their scrolls

For eight centuries the Patuas, a community of Bengali artists, have maintained a distinct storytelling tradition, painting scrolls and performing songs to illustrate history and myth. Then came television and the global art market.

The looming tower: Durgasham Chitrakar, (left) whose pat commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution inaugurated a seismic shift in Patua art.
The looming tower: Durgasham Chitrakar, (left) whose pat commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution inaugurated a seismic shift in Patua art.

Every time it rains, the paths in the Indian village of Thekuachak turn slick and gray with loose mud. During the week of my last visit, the monsoon was particularly severe, and a haymaker of a rainstorm hit the state of West Bengal squarely on the nose. Kolkata was afloat, flights and trains were cancelled, and the highways were barely navigable. Walking in Thekuachak called for patience, vigilant eyes and nimble feet, and I looked up only occasionally, to see Mairun Chitrakar ahead of me, leading the way to his house.

Mairun, a short man with a wizened face, is a Patua, a member of a community of artists spread across the Medinipur and Birbhum districts in West Bengal. Since at least the 13th century, the Patuas have practiced a version of show-and-tell, wandering from village to village singing stories from the religious epics and unfurling painted scrolls to illustrate their tales - a form of static cinema long before cinema itself. Every Patua's last name is Chitrakar - a word that means, quite literally, "artist." Mairun, who is 57, is one of around 500 Patuas in Medinipur, and there have been artists in his family for more than 200 years.

Over the last decade, as global tides have washed upon Indian shores, the art of the Patuas has changed radically into a curiously appealing hybrid of folk tradition and the world's pop culture. From painting and narrating religious myths, Patuas have now begun to mine newspapers and cable television for inspiration. Their pats depict the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, and even more remarkably, the cricket World Cup and the films Titanic and Godzilla. This is folk art strained through Pixar.

As these new-age scroll paintings have captured the attention - and, as importantly, the dollars - of buyers and exhibitors abroad, the tradition of the accompanying song has waned. The Patuas have become scroll-sellers, whereas earlier they never parted with their work at all. Now there is a market for the art but not the performance, and pats are exhibited without Patuas next to them chanting their singsong stories, and if some artists like Mairun continue to compose soundtracks for their images, they have begun to find themselves in a distinct minority.

Mairun's house is a mud-walled cube next to a pond, and a weary bicycle leans on the frame of the door. Inside, a scroll, or pat, lies half-finished in one corner, thick outlines drawn but the colors not yet filled in. In a sling of cloth suspended from the ceiling, a baby sleeps right through the din made by Mairun's six other children and his wife. Mairun assures me that every one of them can sing and paint, and they immediately whip out their scrolls for me from long cylinders of cardboard. There are stories of the Goddess Durga, and paintings of scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha, and tribal myths from the surrounding regions. And then there is a painting of two devil-faced aircraft smashing into two tall glass buildings, killing hundreds of people. It is a pat of September 11.

Asis Chakrabarti, the curator of Kolkata's Gurusaday Dutt Museum of Bengali folk art, is an ardent enthusiast of Patua art. He oscillates between two seated positions; either he is leaning forward, reaching out to me across his desk as he gesticulates, or he is sitting back and looking out of the window at the incessant drizzle. He is an entertaining speaker. Every story of his seems to start with "Once upon a time" or "Thirty-five years ago." He interrupts himself only for a sip of tea or an occasional pinch of snuff.

"The Patuas' art has always been a social one," Chakrabarti says. The community used to form one of the lower castes of Hinduism, but when Muslim rulers came to Bengal and offered them concessions to paint for the regime, the Patuas became Muslims. "Once upon a time, during the Raj, the British used the Patuas to spread information about agricultural topics, and after 1947, the Indian government asked the Patuas to spread messages about family planning, and the eradication of untouchability and dowry," says Chakrabarti. "That social component is not new. Why, once upon a time, legend has it that even during the time of King Chandragupta Maurya" - in the third century B.C. - "his adviser Chanakya used the Patuas as spies, to convey accurate information about enemy formations."

Mairun, who began painting at the age of 10 under his father's tutelage, remembers that his family did a lot of singing for the government. His wife Serifan says: "We made up songs about home remedies and Ayurveda medication, and a popular one about family planning." She unfurls the family planning scroll and, quite unaware of the irony of being surrounded by her seven children, begins to sing about the hunger and misery that come with large families. As she touches upon the merits of vasectomies, she points to a panel showing a smiling man perched gingerly upon a clinic bed, presumably having just undergone the procedure. Her next song, advocating polio vaccinations for children, seamlessly threads English words like "double antigen" into the Bengali lyrics.

The historian Malini Bhattacharya described the Patua as "the entertainer, mass-educator and newsmonger rolled into one. He was the magician giving sight to the blind ancestor groping in the darkness of the netherworld. He persuaded men and women to the path of virtue by depicting the horrors of hell. He went around disseminating illustrated accounts of sensational events in the recent past. The scrolls were not for sale, but for demonstration."

"Even 35 years ago, the Patuas lived that traditional life," says Chakrabarti. "They would set out before dawn and return after sunset, or be away from home for many days or a couple of weeks at a time. They would go from village to village, sing their stories and show their scrolls, and get handfuls of rice or potatoes or pulses in return. Some of it was bartered, some of it was consumed. The songs would be passed down through the generations, and never written down. That was how they lived."

The first sign of change came in the late 1980s. The privately owned Crafts Council of Bengal, working with the Alliance Française to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, paid a Patua named Durgasham Chitrakar to produce a pat celebrating the event. "It was the first time a Patua drew a scroll on such an alien theme, imported specifically into the art for commercial purposes," says Chakrabarti. "You should have seen it! Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wore Indian clothes, and not perfumed wigs!" It was the start of the process, he says, that today produces Godzilla and Titanic and tsunami pats.

A couple of hours' journey from Thekuachak, in the village of Naya, I tracked down Durgasham. He is now a bearded pard in his late sixties, living in a hut that is dark and gloomy under the ferocious monsoon skies. Durgasham remembers the French Revolution pat well; an art historian told him the story of the revolution, and he worked on it for just over two weeks. There was no song to accompany the pat, however; the buyers, after all, wanted just the painting, not the performance.

"These new pats based on films, however, I don't consider true pats," Durgasham says; standing nearby, Mairun shuffles in discomfort. "Pats should come some time after the event, so that an artist has time to think about it, mull over it." He pulls continuously at his beedi as he talks. "This is what changes the style and the art form. People begin to call themselves Patuas just to get into the business, to make money."

Durgasham has heard of one man with a doctorate in art history who has studied Patua art academically and then begun to sell his own paintings. "He doesn't even include a narrative - he just does still-life paintings in that style," he says. "Is it any wonder, then, that the original Chitrakars are beginning to return to work in the fields, to earn their livelihood?" Mairun first heard the plot of Titanic on the radio; before then, he had never encountered the story of the ship. The Titanic scroll is characteristically Patua - bright, solid blocks of colour, kept in place by strong black lines, and slimmer lines crossmatched to indicate texture. People have huge, almond-shaped eyes, wide open when they're alive and shut peacefully when they're floating lifeless in the sea. For some reason there are many cows on the deck of the Titanic, a historical detail that James Cameron seems to have overlooked.

The original Chitrakars made their colours entirely out of vegetables, grass, mud and stone. The colour black is made out of the burnt husk of coconut or paddy. For red, artists use ground vermilion; for yellow, turmeric; for green, grass or cow dung. Using these natural pigments is still a matter of pride for many Chitrakars. One Patua, at the beginning of our conversation, huffily dismisses pretenders who bought oils and watercolours at the store. Within half an hour, though, he has admitted, reluctantly, that age had caught up with him. "I buy a couple of my colours in the shops now," he says. "But only a couple."

Patua scrolls are made out of thick, handmade paper backed with cloth; in Mairun's house, Serifan pastes the paper onto torn-up segments of her old saris. To bind the colours to the scrolls, the Patuas use a viscous glue squeezed from bel, a local fruit that resembles a wood apple. The longer scrolls, rolled out and rolled back up many times over the years, have become springy in nature, eager to return to their state of concavity. Out of a waterproof sack that was formerly a bag of cement, Mairun extracts an old family scroll that he claims is more than 200 years old, which depicts a creation myth of the Santhals, a large tribe in eastern India. It is cracked and almost uncared for, backed recently by a few sheets of flimsy newspaper.

Mairun's soundtrack to Titanic, unlike the one composed by James Horner, is only eight minutes long. He sings in a strident nasal voice, his eyes closed, of the stolen love of Jack and Rose. The song sounds more like an incantatory dirge than anything else, with a refrain that recurs every few lines. Serifan points to the appropriate panel on the scroll as Mairun moves through the story, humming along under her breath.

Patua narratives of pop culture and current events are really reinterpretations, curved like light through the prism of their own folklore and history. In Serifan's version of the tsunami, an open-mouthed demon released the tidal waters in anger, slaying people and fish and even bringing down a helicopter. The tsunami has become a cosmic retribution rather than a natural phenomenon. A sociologist named Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, in an essay titled "Dream Kitsch", describes the Americaner Pat of an artist named Madhusudan Chitrakar. "Once upon a time, there were two grandees called Bush and Laden who were good friends… One day, Bush made an off-the-cuff snide comment about Laden which deeply upset him." The pat, Mukhopadhyay writes, includes panels on bin Laden's "clandestine preparations: the ritual of Taliban terrorists drinking the blood of a slain dog and taking an oath of allegiance to Laden."

Subsequently, the terrorists fly aircraft - demon-faced jet liners, to symbolise their intent - into the World Trade Center, beginning a wave of violence that spreads across the world. "The narrative of global terrorism," Mukhopadhyay writes, "is thus reabsorbed in the traditional fairy-tale anthology of pat and its visual repertoire." The office of the Folk and Tribal Cultural Center of West Bengal, in Kolkata, is on the second floor of a building that looks curiously deserted. Gorachand Chowdhary, the Administrative and Program Officer, is tucked away in one corner, behind a classic, glass-topped bureaucrat's desk, with three telephones in front of him. He seems too young and fresh-faced for this job; his hair is combed, like a schoolboy's, neatly into place, and he wears a bright blue T-shirt.

"Around six or seven years ago, when cable television really began to take hold in India, it spread rapidly through the villages in West Bengal," says Chowdhary. The Patuas suddenly had competition; instead of raw-voiced singing, familiar myths and scroll paintings, people began to prefer the orchestrated music, fresh stories and graphic imagery of television. "That was when the Patua tradition really began to lose its importance."

There is a generational divide as well. "Today, some of the older generation may still prefer the traditional Patua performance, but the youngsters don't, and they're the ones with the money. They'd rather spend it on a mobile phone or a DVD player," says Chowdhary. "Even if the younger kids listen, they'd rather hear stories about Bollywood, and about what the actress Shilpa Shetty did in Big Brother."

The Patuas are, as a community, not well off; Chowdhary describes their financial condition as "just about above the water." But when the subjects of their scrolls began to change, hard commerce crept into the art, and a resale market started to develop abroad. "Among the Patuas in East and West Medinipur, you do see some who earn handsomely. Some have gone to Switzerland, Paris and London with their exhibitions." He pauses for effect, and then adds: "But only some."

A pat takes, on average, two weeks to make, and the artists themselves will sell one for as little as Rs 200, or Dh18. Middlemen in Kolkata, though, can resell the pat, especially to buyers overseas, for Rs 20,000 (Dh1,800) or more. "Art-lovers in Kolkata don't seem to buy their work. Foreigners form the majority of the buyers of Patua art," says Chowdhary. "That forms the basic problem. The Patua are all good artists, and prolific. But there is a gap between buyers and producers. The reseller for the most part appropriates the profits."

Of the 500-odd Patuas in Medinipur, Chowdhary estimates that only around 100 are able to even sell to middlemen in Kolkata. "Out of those 100, 20 or 25 have their own channels, which they keep to themselves," he says. "The other 400-odd survive - just about. Some have land, and they work as farmers. Some don't have land, and they hire themselves out as agricultural labourers. In the lean season, they just about scrape by."

In the urgent desire to create scrolls for sale, some observers have also seen stylistic changes creep into the paintings produced by Patuas today. The original style is by no means dead, but it has become rarer; when it emerges, though, it remains impressive. "Last year, I met a Patua girl who was merely 14," says Chowdhary. "She had painted a scroll showing the origins of the Santhal tribe. It was awarded first prize at our state handicrafts fair, and the government bought it for Rs 4,000. I don't understand these pats; I'm not an artist. But even I was mesmerised. It was so beautiful, so unique. And yet, to deal with their hunger, they are painting 9/11 pats and Cricket World Cup pats."

"There are two sides to this, of course," he says. "The one is that it is a negative trend, because they are shifting from mythological themes, and because they are destroying the original art form. But it is positive because at least the new themes are keeping the Patuas and their art alive." The Gurusaday Dutt Museum, which Asis Chakrabarti curates, is named after a prominent Bengali reformer of the early 20th century. Dutt, the first villager in Bengal to pass a university entrance examination, went on to study in Cambridge and then returned to work in the Indian Civil Service. During his travels, he became fascinated with the folklore of Bengal and its "extraordinary genius for 'colour music' and rhythmic expression which marks our Bengali race and which is still preserved intact by the unlettered men and women in our villages who have yet remained unaffected by the modern education in our towns and cities."

Dutt was one of the first promoters of Patua art in urban Bengal, calling it the "oldest school of national art in India." In his quest to buttress that formidable claim, Dutt traced the lineage of the Patuas back to an ancient, well-known, pan-Indian caste of painters known as the Chitrakars, thus giving them a "classical" past as well as their present surname. It was a dubious claim; not only is that lineage uncertain, but the Patuas exist, even today, in what Ratnabali Chattopadhyay, an art historian, calls "a religious twilight zone."

Having turned Muslim centuries ago, the Patuas found themselves in an odd situation. In the first half of the 20th century, riots between Hindus and Muslims began to break out in Bengal, and religious identity became a matter of life or death. The Patuas, as Muslims who sang Hindu stories for largely Hindu households and villages, realised the danger of that median position and opted to return into the Hindu fold and the safety of the majority. Within the larger Hindu caste system, the Patuas, drawing on Dutt's efforts, identified themselves as Chitrakars, respected artisans of a considerably higher status and class.

In the Indian census report of 1951, the Patuas were classified as Chitrakars, but subsequently many reverted to their previous Muslim customs. Every Patua today has two names - one Hindu and one Muslim. "It is a strange system," Chakrabarti says. "A Patua named Harendranath Chitrakar, for instance, will call himself Hussain Chitrakar once he is back in his village. They perform some Islamic rituals, but at the same time, they don't eat beef, which is a Hindu trait."

The historian Binoy Bhattacharjee, compiling his study on Patua culture, chose to term this identity crisis a "cultural oscillation," and it is an apt phrase. In the villages on the road between Thekuachak and Naya, I can easily pick out the Hindus from the Muslims, from their attire or their appearance. The Patuas, on the other hand, seem to have cultivated a look of careful neutrality; they sports no religious talismans or lockets, and none of the men wear the headgear common to Muslims in the region.

Mairun now says he is a Muslim Chitrakar, a classification that should theoretically be an oxymoron but that now seems to be the norm with the Patuas. Gorachand Chowdhary, who travels to the districts of Medinipur and Bhirbhum often on work, thinks that he spots a newly emerging trend. "Till around four or five years ago, there was no willingness on the part of the Patuas to say that they were either Hindu or Muslim," he says. "But my premonition is that they are now leaning towards one or the other of the particular religions."

Another emergent trend is the far more visible participation of women. Even 30 years ago, when the Patuas still depended on their village-to-village peregrinations for their livelihood, women weren't allowed to go out and sing. "We used to simply sit at home and mix the colours, and maybe do a little of the painting," says Rani Chitrakar, one of the better-known Patua artists. When she was once asked to sing at a seminar in a nearby town, her husband forbade her to go. Rani still remembers her anger and tears at the time.

But as the demand for song waned and that for paintings increased, Rani and other women Patuas came into their own. Suddenly more scrolls had to be produced, and in the face of unlimited commerce, social restrictions crumbled. In the 1980s, Gauri Chitrakar, one of the first prominent female Patuas, received the President's Award for her paintings - and not, Rani points out, for her singing. "After Gauri got the award," Rani says, sitting up in her bed, where she is sequestered with a high fever, "we all felt encouraged. Now, in the Patua community, both young boys and young girls learn the art."

A couple of months after my trip to Medinipur, Joydeep and Moina Chitrakar, from the village of Nirbhaipur, conduct a workshop for schoolchildren in the South Indian city of Chennai. The workshop is organised by a publishing firm called Tara, which uses vivid, bold Patua illustrations for some of their children's books. In a large, concrete building that bakes under the noonday sun, Joydeep and Moina move among 20 children, guiding and watching their efforts at recreating the Patua style of painting.

Joydeep, a fit-looking, fast-balding man, is wearing a white kurta, or tunic, emblazoned with one of his own painted designs; Moina, his wife, is wearing a similarly adorned pastel sari. This novel canvas for Patua art was suggested by the West Bengal government in an effort to preserve the tradition. Mairun and Serifan design art for greeting cards and stationery, and Chowdhary has helped organise workshops for Patuas to learn how to paint on linen, apparel and even furniture.

"In the late 1990s, after the cable television explosion, we thought we were done for," says Joydeep. "Nobody wanted to listen to us, and even my eldest son began to question the tradition. 'Sing and paint?' he used to say. 'We used to do this to beg for rice. But these are different times now. I'm not doing that.' We had to learn to tell new stories, and to do things differently." Asis Chakrabarti, in his 35 years with the Gurusaday Dutt Museum, has witnessed the entirety of the shift. Despite his regrets on the artistic front, he also reluctantly admits to seeing benefits. "Earlier, big landowners often gave Patuas grants, so that they could concentrate on their art," he says. "Now they have nothing, so it is natural that they become more commercial. The emphasis on art, rather than song, has actually made them better off. I have seen their earlier misery, I have seen how they lived."

"The truth is, I never thought it would go this far - that Patua artists would go abroad, exhibit their work, and be recognised," says Joydeep. "It makes me happy. And better still, my son is learning the tradition now, the painting but also the song." He smiles at that. Then his eyes narrow, and he instructs one of the schoolchildren painting on the floor beside him. "Thicker. You have to make that line thicker."

Samanth Subramanian, a New Delhi-based journalist, has written for Mint, The Hindu, The New Republic, and the Far Eastern Economic Review.