Not only the stories are diverse but also the storytelling traditions. From ancient period to now, storytelling has gone through a lot of changes. Also different communities have their own way of telling a story.
This paper basically focuses on Bengal Patachitras which garnered huge attention during the middle ages. How did the storytelling through Patachitra, which includes both ‘audio’ and ‘visual’ medium evolve? Who were the audience and what tropes were used to make a better form of storytelling? What kind of stories were being told and how is it different from the modern Patachitra storytelling? The paper addresses all of these questions and many more on the visual storytelling apart from the oral.
Patachitras are also seen as precursor of many other forms of storytelling such as Cinemas.
The storytellers of Patachitras are known as ‘Patuas’. Gender identity plays an important role inside the stories and outside them as well. Gender and communal identities of these Patuas can also be a matter of interest and study.
In trying to understand the multiple interesting methodologies of storytelling in Bengal Patachitras, the focus has been on ‘Dukhushyam Chitrakar Patua Sangeet’ edited by Sujit Kumar Mandal, ‘Pachimbanger Sanskriti’ by Binoy Ghosh and few other texts.
The storytelling of Patachitra falls under the folk tradition. As time passes by, new inclusions have been made to make it more relatable for the people belonging to this modern age. Also this paper talks about the influences and receptions of Patachitras in this modern era. A comparative study on Patachitras, accentuates the similarities and dissimilarities which can be helpful in tracing the long journey throughout the time, which is still going on.
Bengal is the repository of many different indigenous storytelling traditions and it has an enriched history of oral narratives. There are a few mentions about Patachitras or scroll-paintings in the Puranas of ancient age as well. The Kathas of Lord Buddha and in the medieval age, the sayings of Sri Chaitanya dev were being spread with the help of these scroll-paintings. The medieval age in Bengal is well known for the ‘Mangal kavyas’. From Chandimangal to Annadamangal and many more, gradually the focus started shifting from the devi and devatas towards the common folk. The glorification of Shakta Goddesses and different panegyric songs by the authors, attracted many people regardless of their class-caste identity. Also several adaptations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata came to the fore and the love stories of Radha and Krishna became the center of attraction. People from the lower classes, including the indigenous communities didn’t have any formal education or direct access to the resources. Also due to the lack of sufficient copies as there were no printing press back then, people were not able to read and enjoy such texts. To entertain and also to educate people, the Patachitras or the scroll-paintings accompanied with the Patasangeet (songs), became extremely popular. The artists and storytellers are known as ‘Patuas’, originating from the Sanskrit word ‘Patta’ which means ‘a piece of cloth or silk cloth’. Patachitras are mainly of two types – one is the ‘Chauko Pat’ or square-shaped paintings which focuses on one or two gods or goddesses, socio-political events or any other legendary characters. The other one is called ‘Jorano Pat’ or scrolled paintings which is usually three feet wide and ten to twenty feet long and it describes any legend, puranic story or a narratives related to indigenous deities or Mangal kavyas. In the modern times, the content of this scroll-paintings are changing according to the socio-political changes. Awareness regarding environmental issues like global warming, corona virus pandemic, deforestation, pollution, or even different societal issues like child-marriage, caste-class oppression, women oppression and also political war or events like 9/11 is getting included in these Patachitras.
Before the accessibility of paper, the scroll-paintings were only painted on silk clothes or clothes made of jute. Organic colors were used for these paintings. In many areas the Patuas still prefer organic colors over any other artificial colors. Colors are extracted from different vegetables, flowers and color stones. For instance, yellow color is made from turmeric, deep blue from blue pea, red from betel leaf and many more. Also the brushes are made from squirrel’s tail fur. Nowadays, to maintain the balance of ecosystem, Patuas are adapting themselves with the modern paint-brushes. Besides organic colors, they even use modern paints and paper has replaced the cloth in most of the cases.
Along with the paintings, the songs play a very important role in the storytelling. The songs describe the paintings and narrate the story. These songs have been passed from one generation to another.and they have changed a lot with the passage of time. In the present times, the language of the songs is more refined and pure and civilized. Words like ‘Dhyamna’ which are considered as slang words have been omitted from the songs by the Patuas or the storytellers by themselves.
Sometimes six or seven Patuas together go for a joint performance and the songs are sung with the music of flute, tambour and many other instruments. This joint performance is known as ‘Payar’. After the performance ends, the performers ask for something as ‘Madhukari’ (earnings) from every audience and the people give them rice, clothes, sometimes vegetables and fruits and very rarely few coins. What is interesting is that there is no division of class-caste-gender among the audience. Anyone and everyone is welcome.
In this modern age, rather than entertainment, artistic or aesthetic purpose, the storytelling of Patuas have been more economy centric. That is the reason for cutting down the songs into smaller versions. Also some of the Patuas present two or more paintings while singing only one song. To make the songs more catchy for the audience, contemporary movie songs and their melodies are getting mixed up with ‘Pater Gaan’. Hence, the authenticity of those old songs is diminishing day by day.
Patachitra storytelling is actually a type of performance art where the story-teller has a unique role to play. The songs are sung in a high-pitched tone. The storyteller, while singing the song, unrolls the lower portion and re-rolls the upper portion of the scrolled paintings. In this way the entire story is being told to the audience. Patuas can be both female and male. Mostly the man of the house draws the outline of a picture and the woman of the house fills it with colors. There are Patuas who consider themselves as Hindus and want to retain their lost heritage in Hindu society as ‘Chitrakars’ (People who are considered to be the sons of Lord Viswakarma and his wife Ghritachi). Also some Patuas live like Muslims but they are not accepted entirely by the Muslim community. Patus, instead of their surnames, use ‘Chitrakar’ (Swarna Chitrakar, Dukhushyam Chitrakar, Mayna Chitrakar etc.) to go beyond their Hindu-Muslim identity. Both male-female Patuas use the same title ‘Chitrakar’.
The Popular Patuas
Among Bengal Patachitras, Bankaura, Midnapore, Murshidabad, Kalighat Patachitras are the most popular ones. As we focus mainly on Dukhushyam Chitrakar and Swarna Chitrakar, we note that Dukhushyam Chitrakar is a resident of Naya Village in Pingla. As he lost his father at a very early, he got introduced to the world of audiovisual storytelling through his maternal uncle. He considers himself a Muslim. His works include- Killing of Taraka, Kidnapping of Sita, The Bridge (Ramayana), Death of Ravana, Krishna’s leela, Karna, Rasleela, Manasamangal, Chandimangal and many more. Apart from Hindu Gods and Goddesses, the focus has also been on Satyapir’s story, Gazibaba, Hanifa’s dream, so on and so forth.
At the end of every song there are two lines in which Dukhushyam Chitrakar mentions his own name and village. This is known as Bhanita. It is quite similar to what we find in different Charya songs. At the very outset of the Pata song ‘killing of Taraka’, Dukhushyam Chitrakar talks about how Rama adored Guhak who belonged to the Chandals (lower class). According to my observation, this is a trope to convince the audience who might critic him later for his class-caste-religion identity.
Pata songs of Krishna have some similar descriptions in almost every single song. Also in the description, there are many similarities with Jaydev’s Geetagovinda from the middle ages, which marks the influence of Jaydev on Dukhushyam Chitrakar.
The language for the songs is not very ornamented. Rather it is written in a very simple, everyday language to make it understandable and enjoyable for all kinds of listeners. Local dialects or tone can be found in the songs as well. Also a sentence or two are repeated after every few lines which helps in people’s engagement. This special technique in oral storytelling is known as Dhuyar. Repeating the same words or same sentences can create an enchantment that helps in audience’s participation. The songs are basically written on themes which are part of an entire Kavya or Mahakavya or any other Purana stories. Also Dukhushyam has composed songs on political issues, eminent personalities who were connected to the social reform or independence movements.
The paintings are quite intricate and the colors used for Patachitras are very bright. There are some similarities between the paintings of Patachitras and the graphic novels. In graphic novels we can see the gutter space and usually it is kept white. In Patachitras we can find something identical to this gutter space which also helps to move from one painting to the other one. Sometimes the flowing rivers, roads, running trains and train-lines are used to move from one painting to another. This helps the audience to understand the flow of story and to give it a motion which helps to get closer towards reality. In the paintings, the characters do not coincide with real human faces/structures but some methods are used to make the audience understand the identity of that specific God or Goddesses or characters. For instance the clothing style, the hair style or it can be the expressions, some unique physical characteristics related with the real ones, the background that remains the differentiating marker. No space is left blank. Almost everywhere there are some artistic touches and detailings. Stylistics of caricature artform can be noticed in some of the Patachitras.
In earlier times, irony, sarcasm or criticism of the society by way of metaphors was used in songs. In the song called ‘Fish Wedding’ (Macher Biye), the small fishes represent the working class people. The big fish is the metaphor for the ruling upper class people. The song describes how this uninvited big fish comes into the wedding and eats up all other little fishes which actually delineates the exploitation of the working class people by the ruling class. In the modern day, the protest against these ruling classes or the criticism of the same has been more direct and firm.
Dukhushyam Chitrakar also composed a Pata sang on himself. It is actually an autobiography where he tells his life story through Patachitra storytelling.
Because of cultural contact, many different artforms of storytelling got exposed to the outside world. Dukhushyam Chitrakar has worked in collaboration with European visitors. The story of Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, half mortal and half immortal, was told to him and after that he composed a Pata song on Helen and Troy. In this way, the east and the west are getting connected through the cultural and artistic discourses.
Such multiplicity of voices also emerges in the works of another illustrious Patua and woman activist named Swarna Chitrakar. She is also from Naya in Midnapore. She inherited the storytelling art from her father. Through her remarkable Patachitras, she tried her best to protest against child-marriage, women oppression and many more such issues. Her Patachitras and Patasangeets have helped to grow consciousness among the villagers regarding women education, protection from HIV etc. Some of her distinguished works are Durga, Manasha Mangal, MahisasurMardini, Owls, Pakhir Biye (the marriage ceremony of birds), Dariya Macher Biye (the fish wedding), tree plantation and a lot more.
There are many paintings which are on brown colored paper. The detailings of her paintings are very attractive and the sides of the Patachitras are filled with different designs which make it more enriched from the artistic viewpoint.
Who is not familiar with the Hollywood movie ‘Titanic’ directed by James Cameron. It is the love story of Jack, an artist cum wanderer and Rose who is engaged to Cal. They met for the first time in the huge ship called Titanic which at the end, sank into the North Atlantic. Jack dies but Rose somehow survives. This tragic story was inspired from a real incident which took place in 1912 AD. Swarna Chitrakar made a scrolled Patachitra on Titanic where she painted some of the memorable scenes from the deck of Titanic. The west has been portrayed from the artistic viewpoint of the east, which gives birth to a hybrid kind of a storytelling. Swarna Chitrakar has exhibited her Patachitras in France, Germany, USA, Australia, Sweden, China and England. She has also worked as an artist for the graphic novel called ‘The Patua Pinocchio’ which is written by Carlo Collodi. Patachitras are never confined to the clothes or paper anymore. On the walls of house, bags, jewellery we can easily find this art. Graphic novels are getting more popular these days and the adaptation of Patachitras from clothes or Pata to graphic novels, especially into the panels divided by the gutter space are becoming areas of interest for the researchers.
Songs or the art – which is more important? This has been a very controversial question throughout the years. But the truth is, both are equally important in the storytelling. Without the Pater Gaan, we cannot even think of Patachitras.
From twentieth century onwards cinemas came to the spotlight. Patachitras started losing its fame but it never faded away from the society. The Patuas tried to adapt themselves into this contemporary society as much as they could and also tried to make their storytelling art much more attractive and accessible to the people around the world. They started working in collaboration with other foreign artists and storytellers. Jamini Ray’s paintings were highly influenced by these Patachitras. While studying the paintings of 1943 Bengal famine by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, I came across some paintings in which reception of those can be traced vividly. While Churchill was the British Prime Minister, Bengal faced the most horrible famine in its entire history. The 1942 Bengal Famine was a manmade famine. During this time, partisan artists like Chittaprosad tried to depict the hunger and artists like him wanted it to be free from any kind of colonial art influences. That was one of the reasons for going back towards the roots.
As we speak of Patachitras of Bengal, it is unfortunate to note that many Pata Songs and Patachitras have been lost or destroyed forever only because of the lack of interest in collecting and preserving them. Ojas Art is a platform which is trying to explore the contemporary artforms of storytelling and bring forth many different indigenous artists and their performative arts. The platform is trying hard to bring recognition to those artists who with their creative art of storytelling are helping the people to understand their culture, preserving it and presenting this precious heritage before the world.
- McCutchion, David, and Suhrid Bhowmik. 1999.Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal. Calcutta: KLM Private Ltd. ISBN 81-7102-061-5
- Carlo, Collodi, and Swarna Chitraklar, Patua Pinocchio. https://tarabooks.com/shop/the-patua-pinocchio/
- Satrangi Bengal Patachitra, Ojas Art, New Delhi. August 10 – September 02, 2018, ISBN: 978-81-908019-9-7. com
- Chitrakar Dukhushyam. Mandal, Sujit Kumar(Editor). January, 2011. PATUASANGEET, Center of Advance Studies, Comparative Literature Department, Jadavpur University
- Ghosh, Binoy. January 1950, Paschimbanger Sanskriti , 8/1 B Shyamacharan De Street
- Websites- https://www.bengalpatachitra.com
- Wikipedia- Bengal Patachitra
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