FOLK ART: Sounds of Silence

The lyrical and visual genius of patachitra folk artists is poised at a threshold of being and nothingness 

Aritra Bhattacharya Medinipur/Kolkata (West Bengal) 

A shy, mischievous smile lights up Suman Chitrakar’s face as he recalls the fights that he’s had with his wife, Rupsona, over their ‘work’. “I might have begun painting a snake with the intention that I would make the eyes open upwards, signifying anger,” says Suman, who is visiting his in-laws in Naya village, located in the Medinipur district of West Bengal. “But when I was taking a break, Rupsona might have finished the painting, giving it a gentle peaceful feel by making the eyes open downwards.”

Such fights are common between them, he says: one-half of the husband-wife duo might have begun a painting with a specific idea, only to end up with the final image a sharp dislocation from the beginner’s intention, courtesy of finishing touches by the other half. Perhaps every image they create together has a similar back-story about painterly intention, creative disagreement, and mock domestic discord. At the same time, it is also a repository of local myths, symbols and stories; and a link to collective memory and tradition.

As patachitra artists or patuas, they follow a long line of ‘folk’ artists whose occupation is to paint patas (long, vertical, scrolls) and compose verses; in the past, patuas would go around from village to village, singing along as they unfurled their scrolls. These wandering minstrels were among the earliest artists to bring together the aural and the visual to narrate powerful tales, almost 2,500 years before cinema perfected the art of audio-visual storytelling.

The ancient roots of patachitra are attested to by the fact that one of the contemporary religious rivals of early Jainism (sixth century BCE) is described as the son of a mendicant who showed religious pictures and sang to them. Among numerous other references to the wandering singer-artists is their depiction in the 10th-century Mukteshwar temple in Bhubaneswar. The exquisite carvings of female figures holding patas on the temple precincts points to the art form’s popularity and continuity.

The lyrical and visual genius of patachitra folk artists is poised at a threshold of being and nothingness

Despite the popularity, however, patachitra was never part of any aristocratic or courtly tradition, neither was it canonised or even recognised as ‘art’ till a few years ago. The artists, consequently, existed on the margins of society, dependent for their living on the kindness and willingness of fellow villagers.

“We would leave home at sunrise with our scrolls,” says Ajoy Chitrakar, taking a deep drag of his bidi, as if it were a link to his memory of the years he spent as a child, ferrying tales with his father and uncles. “We would go around villages showing the patas and singing in groups. In return, we got rice and dal.”

As Ajoy grew up, and then married and ‘settled down’ in Medinipur’s Naya village, the returns from his trade hardly changed. “He would typically gather two kilos of foodgrains in a day, of which he’d sell one kilo in the market, and buy vegetables and groceries with the money from it,” says his wife, Karuna Chitrakar, recalling the ‘hard times’ in their lives.

The coming of television further plunged patuas’ fortunes. Their hand-painted images and voices sans the embellishment of musical instruments were no match for the sophistry of expensive studio-produced fare. Many families moved to other occupations, where at least one meal a day was guaranteed.

Ajoy’s son, Rahim Chitrakar, remembers those years of struggle. “I would keep asking father why he stuck to being a patua despite so much poverty,” he says. As he speaks, a power cut plunges the village — home to 52 patua households — into darkness. “We did not have enough to eat, and despite my father saying that working as a patua meant holding on to our tradition and respecting our forefathers, it did not make sense to me.” At the age of 16, like many others in his community, Rahim migrated to Howrah to earn a living as a zari worker.

These wandering minstrels were among the earliest artists to bring together the aural and visual to narrate powerful tales, almost 2,500 years ago

Moyna Chitrakar flinches while recalling how non-patua villagers would treat them during those years. “When we went around villages singing with our patas, people would grudgingly give us some grain and say, ‘You are not physically handicapped, then why don’t you work?’ What we were doing was not work, certainly not respectable work, for them,” says Moyna, her face distorted in imitation of ‘those people’.

Then, an incredible thing happened that completely changed the way these other villagers looked at the artists. “Some patuas were featured on television, and on seeing this, the same villagers would go out of their way to call us. They would offer us puffed rice, and say, ‘You people have become big artists, being featured on TV; why don’t you sing something for us...,’” says Rani Chitrakar.

 

This coming-on-TV happened against the backdrop of government interest in the ‘crafts’ of the country. In the late-1970s, the West Bengal government started organising workshops and instituting handicraft fairs where patuas along with other folk artists could show and sell their work. The fairs offered an avenue for a better livelihood and, crucially, brought the patuas in contact with urban audiences. At the same time, television coverage — it was only Doordarshan then, which beamed to all homes with a TV — reinstated some respectability to the art form. Artists who had migrated to other occupations gradually drifted back into patachitra. Those who had ‘forgotten’ the basics or had grown up outside the influence of familial patachitra education were helped by government — and NGO —  sponsored training sessions.

There was something fundamentally different, though, about this revival in patachitra. Patas were now seen as stand-alone objects for sale rather than a medium to earn with. This change brought about a shift in the scale of patas: long scrolls, expensive and difficult to create, gave way to smaller, quicker and more manageable patas, which were affordable for buyers without deep pockets. With buyers and exposure to urban markets came media attention and foreign funding aimed at preserving/reviving dying folk
art forms.

Consequently, patuas, who were pushed to the brink in their struggle for a livelihood, found a toehold and more in the aspirational landscape of globalisation. These days, hardly anyone goes around villages with patas. Instead, the artists focus their energies on creating patas of different sizes — the smallest being the size of a postcard.

These changes become more and more evident as one travels around the village of Naya. Kids as young as 3-4 years are painting patas, which will be sold in fairs, at any time of the day. They know the stories behind what they are painting, but not so much the songs. “It was the opposite for us,” rues Shyamsundar Chitrakar, who is in his late sixties. “As youngsters, we knew all the songs by heart before we even held a brush.”

He thinks that the primacy of the visual, and the fact that patachitra painting now finds its way on to material as varied as T-shirts, lampshades, pen stands, jewellery cases, liquour bottle cases, table lamps, saris, kurtas, bags and other accessories might hurt the very basis on which itdifferentiates itself from other practices. It might delegitimise patachitra’s status as a ‘traditional’ art form. It’s a view that purists and urban painters that I spoke to seem
to endorse.

The question of commoditisation and tradition, however, is slippery. As Dukhushyam Chitrakar, the oldest patua in the village, pithily observes, “What’s new about commoditisation? Earlier, zamindars would regularly buy patas from us to adorn the walls of their temples... Durga patas for Durga temples, Laxmi patas for Laxmi temples, Manasa patas for Manasa temples. Those days, we sustained ourselves mainly through these sales, going around villages would only get us a handful of grain.”

He also questions patachitra’s classification as ‘traditional art’, reinforced by its entry into the art market. “Patachitra was never simply patachitra; it was part of a range of practices that are today labelled as baul gaan, palligeeti, lokgeeti and so on. Boundaries were fluid; practices were borrowed from each other,” he quips. To demonstrate his point, he proceeds to sing a song, and then asks us if we’ve heard something similar. Of course, the tune is recognisable from Runa Laila’s Bondhu Teen Din that became a hit a few years ago. Dukhushyam says the version he sang dates back to his childhood; it is a pater gaan (song sung with a scroll painting) on Krishna’s raaslila.

“The problem is,” he says,” that practitioners accept these categorisations blindly today because they are so keen to sell their work. The quest for wealth (baari aar gaari — house and car), is responsible for a lot of counterfeit in the name of patachitra.” 

 

Montu Chitrakar is busy getting his documents in order to apply for a visa. He is due to travel to Australia in a couple of months. Following the Australia trip, his second, he and his wife, Jaba Chitrakar, are slated to travel to Japan and Canada. All trips are paid for by organisers of art fairs and exhibitions.

Sonia Chitrakar, their daughter, is a patua too. Still in her early teens, she has garnered considerable ‘fame’. Montu says that curators he has met at international art fairs have promised to take her abroad once she turns 18, and a book on her is already in the making. How come their daughter, along with them, is such a big draw on the ‘international’ scene? After all, their work is not distinctly different from other patuas?

“Unlike urban artists, who work in personal studios, we work in a community setting, where what one person is doing is visible to all others in the neighbourhood,” says Montu, referring to the communally-owned nature of patuas’ designs and songs.

The tune is recognisable from Runa Laila’s Bondhu Teen Din that became a hit a few years ago. Dukhushyam says the version he sang dates back to his childhood; it is a pater gaan on Krishna’s raaslila

In such a scenario, networking plays a crucial role: one who has gone to cities connects with members of the urban intelligentsia, and through them, international organisations working to promote ‘folk’ art which then take the artist and his/her family abroad, many times over. This ‘good artist’ also gets top billing in government handicraft fairs, is roped in by NGOs to train other artists, and gets featured every time the media reports on patachitra.

Conversations with such internationally exposed artists are peppered with references to patachitra as ‘international art’ and ‘folk/traditional art’ in the same breath. This universalisation of the particular is part of the globalisation discourse, and patuas — eager to be a part of this discourse — have brought about a shift in the subjects they work with. Instead of the largely mythological and moral narratives of yesteryear, contemporary social issues dominate patas painted today. Practically every patua has patas and songs on 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, the 2002 Gujarat carnage, communal harmony, HIV-AIDS, environmental protection, polio eradication et al.

Says Manu Chitrakar, “To an extent, I am bored of doing mythological patas. In patas on contemporary subjects, there is scope for play.” Manu painted a scroll on Martin Luther King that was published by Tara Books, and is now working on a book on child marriage and women trafficking. “These subjects give a lot of publicity to patachitra,” he notes. In a similar vein, Montu says, “We are able to attract attention when we work on these subjects, and they sell well.”

One of the ways of selling well, it seems, is keeping politics out of contemporary happenings. “In works like 9/11 and Nandigram, we don’t point fingers at people. We don’t mention who did what, but say what happened, and how it is bad for society,” says Jaba Chitrakar.

Despite the deeply political nature of incidents in Nandigram and 9/11, and consensus on who the guilty were, stories of the peasant struggle focus only on the aspect of human suffering. “If we point fingers, we might antagonise some people, which would be detrimental to our sales,” notes Montu.  This is something other patuas who regularly travel to cities attest to: the content and themes of a majority of their work is dictated by what the city folk will readily consume.

However, all of them seem to go back to pre-modern roots and the mythological narratives that populate the patachitra landscape in order to legitimise their practice. Moyna Chitrakar puts this succinctly when she says, “The ‘pouranic’ (mythological) is what attracts people in fairs, but when it comes to
buying patas, people prefer contemporary themes.”

Earlier, zamindars would buy patas to adorn the walls of their temples. Durga patas for Durga temples, Laxmi patas for Laxmi temples, Manasa patas for Manasa temples

Not everybody is comfortable with these currents of change, even in a small village like Naya. “So much of what is going on is an abuse of our tradition for money,” says Khandu Chitrakar, who has been a practising artist for well over five decades. “We are doing ‘samajikpatas because our customers like to adorn their drawing rooms so that they can earn praise from friends and neighbours,” he says by way of criticism, though he regularly travels to fairs to sell such fare made by his family.

Conversations with artists like Khandu point to the thin line patuas tread. While they may be extremely critical of what passes for patachitra, it’s the very same thing that’s often a ticket to their gaining a toehold in the global marketplace. Those who don’t manage to secure this toehold are left pleading with visitors to buy ‘something’ from them, their relative poverty being the sole plank on which the sale is sought to be sealed. Like in every other case, patuas — who only marry within their community—too are beginning to realise the deep inequality the market brings about in people’s lives.

 

There’s one positive aspect that can’t be ignored. Even in the worst-off cases, where poverty is ‘played out’, the revival of patachitra is bringing about a change. Gender relations, once steeped in patriarchy, are beginning to give way. Women are not only playing a part in the art-making process, they are also stepping out of domesticity and battling abusive relationships, thanks to the art form’s revival.

Take the case of Sonali Chitrakar (name changed). A victim of an abusive marriage, she made her peace with daily beatings by her husband for eight years, and bore three kids with him, the eldest being six. When things started looking up on the patachitra front, she moved back in with her parents. Today, she actively participates in creating patas, and travels to fairs once in a while — this is a departure from the times when men alone would venture out with patas to earn a living.

“When things started improving by virtue of government-sponsored training workshops and NGOs showing interest in folk arts in the 1990s, we started getting invited to handicraft fairs in Kolkata,” reminisces Sonali’s mother. “The audience in the cities like to listen to women singing,” observes Jaba Chitrakar. She, along with other women in the village, regularly travels to fairs and exhibitions. On most occasions, the men stay back to take care of the children and the household.

Older male artists who have taken this ‘equality’ in their stride are not averse to talking about their earlier misgivings. “Initially, we resisted the idea of our women going out to big cities,” says Ajoy Chitrakar, in his 60s. “Then we realised that no ‘respect’ was lost in the process. We only stood to gain.”

Perhaps, patuas’ role as social communicators (through NGOs and government agency grants) who paint and sing about the torture of women and female infanticide, among other things, played a part in this transformation, as also the reformist zeal of some artists like Khandu Chitrakar. “The role of an artist (‘shilpi’) is to hold a mirror to society,” he notes, “...as patuas, we have to see what is going on around us and work to rid the society of evils.”

In works on 9/11 and Nandigram, we don’t point fingers. We don’t mention who did what, but say what happened, and how it is bad for society

It is arguable as to what will fall in the spectrum of reform for patuas in the coming years. Will they critique the system that creates an artisan underclass of them, which services the need for decorative material? Will they ask why most of them have to remain content selling small patas to deal-seekers in handicraft fairs, often on the plea that they are poor? Will they question why they must struggle to claim the government-sponsored per-day allowance of Rs 75 for participation in such fairs, while a select few among them travel across the world, attending international fairs, and get represented at premier art galleries? Will their art becoming a commodity in the marketplace gradually destroy its complex and intricate essence and inheritance?

Will Suman and Rupsona, working together as equals, in a way that was not possible 20 years ago, produce a work — sparring about its intent, content, meaning and lyrics — that question this behemoth called the market, even as they try and place their bets on it? Will the snakes they paint together expose the perils the market holds in its belly? Will its eyes open upward or downward? 

‘Written under the aegis of ComMutiny Media Network for ComMutiny - The Youth Collective, a collective of professionals advocating for 5th Spaces for young people — www.5thSpace.in • www.facebook.com/5thSpace • www.youtube.com/user/the5thSpace’

 

BOX

The Artist with a Signature

Two things stand out in Anwar Chitrakar’s work. The first is that, even though he calls himself a patua, and the iconography in his work draws distinctly from the patachitra universe, he borrows from other traditions like mithila painting in order to, perhaps, underline his difference with other artists, and imbue his work with layers of meaning. The second aspect that stands out in his work is his signature --since the designs and songs in patachitra are communally owned, an artist signing his/her work is very rare.

“Even though songs are integral to patachitra, it is the visual that attracts people,” says the young artist who has exhibited his work in Delhi’s Devi Art Gallery, and counts the Delhi Metro, the Tata Hospital at Rajarhat  and Kolkata’s Vedic Village as his patrons. In accordance, his paintings — like the one on the Santhal creation myth, or Krishna’s raaslila — are characterised by minute brush strokes and attention to detail. He rarely paints long scrolls like his forefathers, and doesn’t care so much about the patachitra songs.

Anwar is an example of the ‘artist as an individual’ in a community-based practice. But that, he feels, does not make him any less a patua.  “I am someone who is from within the tradition; my family is a family of patuas,” he says by way of explanation. This legitimisation of his practice as a patachitra artist is what gives him purchase in the art market. Without it, he would be just another artist borrowing from and experimenting with painting styles.

Most of his work draws on mythological themes. That’s yet another step in legitimising himself as a patua. After all, older artists like Dukhushyam Chitrakar vouch for the timelessness of mythology, and underline how it precedes modern science. Dukhushyam and others of his generation narrate how mythology predicted that one day it would be possible to extract water from beneath the ground — didn’t Arjun shoot a bow into the ground to bring forth a jet of water, so he could quench the dying Bhisma’s thirst? Only centuries later did science perfect this very thing.

Anwar is among the ‘good’ artists mentioned by Amitava Bhattacharya, who heads the NGO Banglanatak, which works with the patuas of Naya (where Anwar lives) under its ‘Art as Livelihood’ project. The NGO sends artists like Anwar and others to national and international fairs, while trying to ensure that the same people don’t travel again and again. However, there are accusations of favouritism from within the community. This perhaps reflects how the lines of hierarchy are getting redrawn as tradition comes in contact with the art market.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2013