On a scroll, Manu Chitrakar has painted a vision that he says is a dream common to all Patachitra artists, or patuas as they are known. The scroll depicts a fairy who appears in a patua’s dream and transports him to a bountiful land where other fairies paste stars in the sky and trees are weighed down by fruit. In the new land, the patua finds wings but doesn’t want to fly back to his native place.
When we met at Naya village in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, Manu was busy packing for an exhibition in Paris. The Patuar Swapna (The Patua’s Dream) and his other paintings were going with him for the show, which is on till mid-April.
An earlier exhibition in Sweden had resulted in sales of Rs1 lakh. This time, Manu expects more. “Two decades ago, a Kolkata professor would buy a pat for Rs25. Now, it would cost Rs8,000,” he says.
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Despite the new-found confidence, Manu belongs to the old order in Naya—a village which reportedly has the largest patua concentration in West Bengal. He goes back to the time when patuas, most of them Muslims, would move around villages with hand-painted scrolls depicting scenarios from the Ramayan, Mahabharat and Hindu mythology, singing as they unfolded the 20ft-long scrolls. The moving spectacle, through largely Hindu-inhabited villages, would find the patuas returning with rice and money received as donation.
Today, it’s become a rare sight. “Most patuas being Muslim, it was necessary to take up Hindu names,” says Manu. “After all, we were dealing with Hindu religious iconography.” The common patua title Chitrakar, while establishing them as artists in rural societies, also defied religious bracketing.
As we speak, the only hint of Manu’s faith is a framed photograph of the Kaaba in Mecca on the outer wall of his village home.
Close at hand is Manu’s younger brother, pat artist Sanwar—a strapping youngster who has seen the change over the last decade. Patua earnings have multiplied; pats have begun selling in metropolitan cities; art-inclined Westerners have begun visiting their rural hamlet; and Hindu mythological content is now often replaced by contemporary subjects. With much of his income coming from urban markets, Sanwar no longer has to continue the family tradition of going from village to village. Causally, he doesn’t feel the need to deny his Muslim identity.
At the village of 53 all-Muslim patua families, Sanwar is joined by others such as Rejab, Shahjehan, Rahim, Jamal, Yakub, Anwar and Ibrahim—patuas who feel confident now about disclosing their religious identity against the backdrop of greater economic interaction with secular urban markets. They live alongside the homes of Ganga, Gurupada and Ganesh Chitrakars, among those who continue with assumed Hindu names. It’s generally the older generation which still uses Hindu names.
Since 2004, Naya has been the focus of an art revival initiative by Banglanatak.com, a Kolkata-based NGO supported by the European Union, which claims to have brought all 53 Naya families back to Patachitra after many had taken up other livelihoods. “We’ve created market linkages and not as middlemen. While a patua would earlier earn Rs500 a month, now their average earning is Rs3,000. Medical insurance cover, a resource centre, an annual fair and cultural tourism projects have also started,” says Amitava Bhattacharya, director of Banglanatak.com.
Rapid changes notwithstanding, patuas continue to extract the natural dyes to colour their canvases from local flowers and leaves and their art betrays rustic simplicity.
But Dukkhushyam Chitrakar, a veteran artist in Naya, rues the increasing competition among patuas for lucrative contracts and foreign trips. Helped by his sons Rahim and Rahaman, Dukkhushyam brings out a 25ft-long pat portraying the story of Sita’s abduction by Ravana, and laments the loss of the distinctive style of pat singing. With pats now decorating vases, table lamps, curtains, greeting cards and saris, songs are often sacrificed.
He starts singing—in a high-key nasal voice that narrates the story through a cyclic melody, while Sita, in the opening scroll, sits forlorn behind the Laxman rekha. As Rahim and Rahaman join in, a purely secular moment unfolds at the patua village.