The Chitrakars of Naya
by Christine Style
Mantu Chitrakar, his wife Joba, their 15-year-old youngest daughter Sonia, her newlywed husband and Mantu’s 75-year-old mother comprise one of the more than 50 families who live in the village of Naya, near Pingla in the district of Medinipur, West Bengal, India. The Naya villagers are all Patua painters and all have the name Chitrakar. Patua painting is a form of scroll painting native to West Bengal. "Pat" means "scroll" and "Patua" or "Chitrakar" means "Painter.” Scroll painting is an ancient method of story-telling, in which a painted vertical scroll is unrolled panel by panel while the artist sings the story. Patua art has also been called the “Singing Scrolls.” The scrolls can be three to 16 feet-long, and one can think of the scrolls as a form of graphic novel.
Traditionally, Patua artists would travel from village to village trading their performances of singing and sharing their visual scroll presentations for money or in-kind food and lodging. Today, they travel to various art and craft markets in the larger city centers such as Dilli Haat in New Delhi or to local fairs to sell their paintings. About four years ago, the small village of Naya became the site of its own festival – the Pot Maya, which is a festival featuring the scroll paintings, music, dancing and singing.
During our visit to India last fall, my daughter Sarah Davitt and I stayed two days with Mantu Chitrakar and his family in their village. I was told about the festival in Naya and introduced to Mantu through writer and folk art advocate Minhazz Majumdar from Delhi, who I’ve known since my late husband Tony Rajer introduced us in 2001. Majumdar had written an article for the Folk Art Messenger about the singing scrolls [FAM #69, Fall/Winter 2007], in which Mantu and nine-year-old Sonia are pictured. To visit the village of Naya was part of my quest to see and learn more about these beautiful images and their stories.
The festival of Pot Maya in the village of Naya was held on November 22-24, 2013. We traveled three hours west from Kolkata on Highway 6 to the town of Debra and then took the only main road south (Debra-Balichak road). At Mundumar we headed east to Pingla and then arrived in Naya. Getting there was an adventure in itself. Our driver was not familiar with the area but was more than willing to ask directions. I knew we were getting close when we drove under large digital Pot Maya banners announcing the festival and pointing us in the right direction.
Upon arrival, we saw long entry pathways flanked with brightly printed designs. Marigold leis were put around our necks. Fresh-crushed, red clay had just been laid down on the walkways. Wood ramps led inside the now dry rice paddy where the performances were held. In fact, many of the walkways were actually the high-mound paths of the harvested and dry rice paddies. Colorful flags and small clear lights were strung above from trees to posts to homes. The welcome mat was out, and hundreds of visitors came to celebrate the local arts and crafts of the area.
There were many hours of theater performances and music. At night, dancers in outstanding masks and costumes performed. At one point, 14 Chitrakars (including Mantu) were on stage. While one sang verses of the story and pointed to the various characters, another helped unroll the scroll and the rest sang the chorus in unison. This was all done in Bengali so I appreciated being told the key thrust of the story by a kind Englishman sitting next to me.
During the day, there was also live music, but we were mainly there to see the paintings. Some of the Patua artists from other villages set up their work in tented booths while the Naya Chitrakars displayed their work outside the front and back of their homes. Visitors were directed along colorful paths through the village. Scrolls were strung up on string with clothes pins, and piles of single-panel paintings were arranged beside them. Many men, women and children were collaborating on scrolls or individual paintings, completing different parts of the whole as they waited for people to view their work. Some artists seemed better at laying down color, while others exhibited better control of the black brushwork.
Most who came to the Pot Maya were the more well-to-do Indians from Kolkata, but students and local families also attended. We were among the small handful of visitors from outside India. The next Pot Maya Festival will be held November 14 -16, 2014. The Pot Maya is organized by banglanatak.com.
Mantu and Sonia described the process of making paints from natural plants and minerals, including bel fruit (the gum binder), turmeric (yellow), aparajita (blue), segun/teak (red), kusum mati (white), soot (black), among other pigments. The scrolls are made from sheets of medium-weight white paper. First, drawing in light pencil outlines the story and its characters. Then brushing on the color in patches fills in the figures and ground. After the color has dried, drawing with black paint creates the black graphic patterns and flowing lines that give the scrolls their distinct character. Usually, the segments of paper are sewn together after most of the single panels have been painted. The seams disappear in the scroll borders, only visible if you look for them. Then the entire paper scroll is glued to a piece of patterned cloth from a recycled sari. This makes the scroll quite durable and helps it withstand the many times it is rolled and unrolled.
Some scrolls require months to complete. Generally the artists do not sign their work but will when asked. Some of the early scrolls, made before fine paper was easily available to the artists, were made from stained paper sewn together with the end pieces made from recycled plastic bread bags or cloth saris. These generally displayed little color and were smaller than scrolls are today.
Mantu also told me that many of the Chitrakars first followed the Hindu religion but then changed to Muslim and then at some point changed back to Hindu again. He now considers himself Muslim. This blending of faiths is consistent with the mix of subjects in the paintings as they depict elements of both Hindu and Muslim customs. Their adaptable faiths are also in character with their desire to survive, make the best of the politics of their community, and work toward a more prosperous and successful life. They are determined and hard workers.
The life of the Patua artist is centered around the many aspects of painting – collecting materials for making their paints and handmade squirrel-tail brushes (although some use store-bought poster paints and brushes), singing and telling stories, and traveling to sing the stories of their scrolls and to sell their paintings. They sing in their native language, Bengali. While some songs are handed down through the generations, many are their own original interpretations.
In addition to the scrolls, the Chitrakars also paint single-panel images of traditional subjects, such as a cat eating a lobster or fish, tigers, rows of cows or white owls. Some figures or animals may also represent a hidden story. For example, the cat eating a lobster represents a priest in disguise eating what he should not eat. This image is one of the oldest visual metaphors dating back to colonial times to the Kalighat tradition of drawing and painting. The Victoria Memorial Museum in Kolkata has a lovely wood block print of this cat. The white owl is a symbol that some believe can win favor from Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Joba and Sonia Chitrakar are among the few who have begun to use textile paints for their designs on silk scarves and saris. One, in particular, “The Fish Wedding,” painted on a creamy-white sari, is quite beautiful.
Mantu Chitrakar is one of the few painters in Naya who has traveled outside of India. He went from West Bengal to Australia with a number of other Indian folk artists through the assistance of a grant and the help of Minhazz Majumdar. [See Folk Art Messenger, #74, Fall/Winter 2009.]
The narratives and images by the Patua artists continue to be based on themes inspired by the sacred Hindu or Muslim texts from history and myth. Examples are such epics as Rama’s search for Sita or the marriage of Lord Shiva to the Goddess Parvati. Today, the scrolls may also reflect social issues, such as literacy, health and the environment. Subjects range from Indian historical epics to such international events as the French Revolution, the bombing of Hiroshima, the life of Mother Teresa, the tragedy of the World Trade Center, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the search for Osama Bin Laden and the 2012 Delhi Rape Scandal. They also depict political subjects like the regrouping of the lands or family planning. Globalization has afforded a multitude of new topics.
The Patua art tradition customarily was passed down from father to son, but today it is also being taught by fathers to daughters and mothers to daughters. Many of the works created by Patua artists are variations of traditional themes simply created by different artists as a means to make a living. It takes a special artist to take the risk of developing his or her own non-traditional subjects, stories and painting style.
In addition to their work as painters, there are many everyday village duties that the Chitrakar families are required to do, such as washing dishes or clothes, bathing, getting water from the central water pumps of the village or cooking rice grown in the surrounding fields. Cooking is done over an open fire- cooking station in an open-air kitchen. They take care of extended family and guests staying in their homes. Houses in the village have most everything one would expect. Electricity is available for lights, fans, a small TV, radio and plugs to charge the necessary mobile phone.
The houses have clean, packed-mud floors and walls (yes, the mud floors are cleaned), shelves and poles for storage and enough furniture for their needs. Furniture consists of bed platforms about a half-meter off the ground that also double for a couch for guests, a table for eating and a place to paint inside at night or when it’s too cold. It is amazing how they do so much with so little.
Most have the space they need and, by Indian standards, more than many who live in the slums of larger cities. Being able to stay in their village and make a living seems far better than moving into the big cities where the surroundings are new and the path of one’s occupation less clear. Mantu and Joba don’t complain, but their daughter Sonia longs for a larger home with windows and maybe a second floor. Mantu and Joba’s front entry exterior wall has a large, brightly painted image by Mantu of a tiger head with two bodies coming out from either side. In fact, most all of the house exteriors in the village of Naya are painted with amazing, playful designs of plants, animals and nature. Our short two days in Naya with Mantu, Joba and Sonia made for a most memorable experience that is well worth repeating.
CHRISTINE STYLE is a Professor of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She is currently on a one-year sabbatical.
As seen in:
[#85] Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 2014$15.00 ppd