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Patachitra

Patachitra (pron. Pawtochitro) known for its brilliant play of colours, is a traditional folk art form of rural
Bengal that has been in existence for many centuries. Patachitras are painted narrative scrolls executed
by a class of itinerant singing scroll painters variously known as Patuas, Chitrakars, Patikars or Patidars
and characterised by religious and social motifs and images painted on cloth. The word Pata (Pot) is
derived from the Sanskrit word patta meaning a kind of fabric or silk cloth. There are two schools of
thought regarding the origin of the Patuas. One links them to a tribal background while the other points
to their presence in the Mauryan period as well as references in Sanskrit literature from the 2nd century
CE.

Patuas were the chief source of entertainment in the villages and their art was a combination of
storytelling, painting and singing. Since their stories carried an overtone of just and moral behavior, the
Patua played the dual role of mobile entertainer and social reformer. Their art appealed to everyone
and could be understood by even a child. For his efforts, the Patua would receive a little money but
mostly payment in kind.

Patachitras are made in two formats: the vertically scrolled paintings, the horizontally scrolled ones,
both referred to as Jodano or Gutano Pata and the smaller square or rectangular formats, known as
Chouko Pata.

Before creating a Jodano Pata, the artist selected a subject and composed a song on it. The actual
painting was often a communal affair with members of the family assisting the master artist. The story
told in a Jodano Pata is always in painted panels or frames and the size of the Pata generally varies from
one to three feet in width and six to twenty feet in length, depending on the length of a story. The two
ends are attached to two bamboo sticks and the whole length would be rolled up tightly. During the
performance, the Patua would sing his story while slowly unrolling the scroll, one frame at a time,
pointing to the various characters in each panel of the story. The story would emerge from a
combination of the verbal images in the song, the pictorial motifs in the frames and the viewers
imagination. Traditionally, the Jodano Pata was never up for sale - it was a continual hereditary
profession. The Chouko Pata, however, could be sold.

It is said that Patuas of the early days painted on palm leaves. Later processed canvas made from cloth,
gum, eggshells was used and subsequently, handmade paper from cotton pulp. More recently, machine
made paper, backed with cloth forms the canvas for the Patua. Pieces of paper are joined end to end to
attain the desired length.

Brushes are made from animal hair and the ingredients of the colours are always indigenous - for
example,yellow from turmeric, blue from indigo, black from lamp black etc. The colours are blended
with natural gum or boiled tamarind seeds to provide the glaze and coherence to the base. Figures are
painted in at solid colours and then outlined in black. While some of these techniques are being revived
today, many Patuas had taken recourse to buying paints and brushes from the market.
The traditional themes of the Jodano Pata, which have passed from generation to generation, were
based on popular episodes from Indian mythology like the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Puranas or the lives
of female folk deities from the eulogistic Mangal Kavya narrative poems. There are also paintings
depicting the lives of religious gures like Sri Chaitanya, Satya (Shotto) Pir and Gazi (Gaji) Pir as well as
region specic patachitras based on local deities like the Bonobibi Pata. Alongside these were also the
dramatic scrolled Jom Patas exhibiting ghastly sights of hell the realm of Lord Yama or Jomraj, the God
of Death the intent of the grisly torture scenes in hell being to warn off sinners.

During the British Raj, some Patachitra themes like Khudiram Pata and Sahib Pata were seen as
propagating protest and were banned for some time.

An urban incarnation of the Chouko Pata in nineteenth century Kolkata was the Kalighat Pata. The
themes represented by Kalighat Patuas were not merely mythological but also came from their own
contemporary social life, often with satirical ends which remains a signicant source of the social history
of that period.

Traditionally, Patuas were to be found mainly in various villages in Medinipur, 24 Parganas, Birbhum,
Bankura, Howrah, Murshidabad and Bardhaman districts of West Bengal.

But gradually, barring Medinipur and Birbhum, dire economic circumstances together with modern
forms of entertainment forced many artists in the remaining districts to give up their traditional craft.
Banku Patua was a very famous patua from Birbhum who had been invited abroad several times. His
sons struggled to uphold this tradition - but the recent death of Shantanu Patua in February 2017, has
dealt a blow to this tradition.

Abject poverty notwithstanding, a couple of villages in Medinipur Naya in West Medinipur and Hobichak
in East Medinipur, managed to hold on to their art. Sustenance came their way in the eighties when ,
the state government and NGOs, recognising folk art as an effective tool to reach out to the grassroots,
started utilising them to educate the masses on subjects like family planning, immunizations, literacy
campaigns, etc.Though this was a move away from tradition, it was welcomed by the Patuas as it meant
regular income for many of them. With the increased exposure came an increasing demand. More and
more Patuas, in the regions where the art still prevailed, learned to rhyme and paint. State patronage
and new market opportunities paved the way for a resurrection of sorts. They began receiving
international attention too.

The outcome of this was that the Patua tradition gradually began to be identied not as an oral and visual
performance and as a story-telling aid but with a particular kind of painting. Thus while traditional
themes were still being painted, very few Patuas earned their livelihood in the traditional manner a
phenomenon that exists to this day.Though the composition of narrative songs still accompanies or
precedes the painting of the scrolls, the Patachitra has become a visual art. The song has become
secondary and is often abridged; narratives that required an extensive story were neglected so that over
time some of them disappeared. Often a song would be sung during the transaction of a sale as an
added bonus. Its new identity as a commercially viable form led to innovations in the painting style of
the Patachitras.