Known for their intricate details and vivid colours, the traditional folk art of Pattachitra is said to be one of the oldest art forms of Odisha and West Bengal that has existed for centuries. The term is derived from the Sanskrit word patta, meaning silk cloth or a kind of fabric, and chitra meaning painting, and the scroll painters are known as Patuas, Chitrakars, Patikars and Patidars, varying from region to region. These painted scrolls carry a narrative with religious and social motifs, a moral or mythological tale depicted through rich colours and designs. The story is sung as the scroll is unravelled in sequence with the visual depictions. The origin of the folk artists is quite debated, on one hand it is said that they have been present since the Mauryan period, while on the other, they’ve been referenced to in different Sanskrit texts of the 2nd century CE. Whatever their origins may be, the Patuas have a long tradition of travelling from village to village as a source of entertainment for the village dwellers as they sang their tales while unwrapping the scrolls scene by scene, combining storytelling, painting and singing for little money in return—they were mostly paid in kind and care.
These travelling entertainers caught the fancy of everyone, from adults to children, with their moral stories of reform and songs to go along with it. There are two main formats followed by the Patuas in making Pattachitras—one is the long form vertical and horizontal scrolls, called Jodano pata, and the second is a smaller square or rectangle, a single panel with a specific deity, mythical creature, an animal or social issue called Chouko pata. A lot of time and thought goes into the creation of a Jodano pata—once the Patua decides his subject/narrative, painting of the scroll is started which at times even becomes a communal activity with people, usually family members, assisting the Patua with painting. It takes precision and skill, mastered by the Patua over many years, to perfect the Pattachitra which is painted using indigenous paints made by the painters using gum from the kaitha tree as a base and mixing locally-found ingredients for pigments, such as turmeric for yellow and lamp soot for black, for example. The length of the Jodano differs depending on the story with some even going on as long as twenty feet.
The ends are strung onto thick bamboo sticks which enable the entire scroll to be wrapped effectively while holding the form and structure together. When the Patuas performance begins the scroll is unveiled frame by frame as the tale is told, alongside audiences get vivid visual imagery through the song and lyrics. Jodano pata’s would never be sold, but in fact, passed down through generations, carrying on the traditions and family profession, while the Chouka pata could be capitalised on.
But not all Pattachitra’s were seen moral and social betterment, or even just entertainment. In Scroll Paintings of Bengal: Art in the Village, Amitabh Sengupta writes: “During the Colonial period, some of the social themes, such as, Khudiram pat and Sahib pata were interpreted by the British administration as propagating protest as the songs raised considerable emotions; so these were banned for a while.” Commenting on the changing roles of pattachitra and the Patuas, he adds, “In recent times, many of the governmental programs, such as environment protection, family planning, education, or the life of national leaders have been popularised with the help of folk media. An outline of information is given to the Patuas. The folk artists create songs and pictures based on those themes, to show around government sponsored areas, to elevate awareness among the rural community.”
What’s interesting about the Patua community is that most of the surviving artists in West Bengal today are Muslims, though most of the popular subjects have always been related to Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The story behind the mixed-identity, according to the Orissa Reviews, goes back to the mention of the Patuas in the 10th chapter of the Brahmavaivarta Purana. “At a certain time, the celestial artist Vishwakarma descended from heaven and took birth in a Brahmin family. Simultaneously, the celestial dancer, Ghritachi took birth as a daughter of a Gopa (milk producer) family. They got married and gave birth to nine sons–Malakara, Karmakara, Sankhakara, Kundibaka or Tantubayee, Kumbhakara, Kangsakara, Sutradhara, Patuaa and Swarnakara. According to mythological story, Vishwakarma and Ghritachi were the original parents or ancestors of the Patuas or Patuaas. In this regard, they are as honourable as any other artist or artisan of the Hindu society. In reality, however, Patuas are considered to be untouchable and ostracized,” states the report.
Often referred to as ‘Muslim untouchables,’ the myth behind the ostracising of the community states that an ancestor of the scroll-painters once drew a portrait of Mahadeva Shiva without His permission, and feared the anger of the God if he chanced upon the picture. “Incidentally, Mahadeva was just then coming by. Then the painter hid the paint brush inside his mouth. Mahadeva asked the artist that why had he made the brush unclean by keeping it inside his mouth. The Patua replied that he had done it out of fear. Mahadeva got angry and said that the Patua could have thrown it away. On the other hand he had made it unclean. So he had to accept the punishment. Then Mahadeva imprecated that from then on, the Patuas would be ostracized from the society. They would neither be Hindus nor Muslims. They would have to perform Muslim rites and work like the Hindus i.e. they would draw pictures and read or sing. As far as mythology is concerned, this is the reason behind the ostracism of the Patuas due to the imprecation of Mahadeva. So the Patuas now go to Mosques like the Muslims and draws the pictures of Hindu deities, sculpt out their images and sing the praises of Hindu deities presented on the scrolls,” states Asis K. Chakrabarti for the Orissa Review.
The Pattachitra artists are extremely fluid in their religious beliefs and practices. They may be Muslim but they follow several customs and traditions that are distinctly ‘Hindu.’ For example, in the Nyaya village in the Midnapore district of West Bengal, every individual in the fifty odd families living here have two names—Hindu and Muslim. The Hindu name is the professional name while their real name is Muslim, and they all use Patua as their last name.
Over the years, as new sources and avenues of entertainment came about, the Patuas slowly began to lose their primary source of income, many of them were forced to give up their age-old traditions to improve their economic conditions. Painting for many in the Chitrakar community became a secondary activity as more and more people turned to other occupations. Themes and topics for those remaining folk artists began to expand as they continued the effort to make money from their artform–subjects ranging from rural and urban events, social issues, religion and at times even natural disasters and significant political events, like the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In today’s age of smartphones and internet, Pattachitra has become a dying art form whose beauty may soon be lost to future generations of Indian citizens.
Click here to read an in-depth report about Pattachitra by the Daricha Foundation.