Unique art forms, novel styles of craft, and very special artisans – all these come together to create the remarkable Bengali Patta chitra.
Bengal has a rich folk tradition, product of the innovative resourcefulness of her people. Bengali artists developed different arts and crafts at different stages in history, both for recreation and livelihood. One of the outstanding forms of traditional folk art is scroll painting or patta chitra which emerged and flourished all over Bengal in the late medieval period and continues to flourish even today. Its survival has been helped by its wonderful capacity to blend tradition with changes in taste and fashion.
Scroll painting is more a craft than an art. In the past, the scrollpainters variously called patidars or patuyas, inhabited separate localities, mostly rural, and formed guilds of their own to protect their interests and help each other in every possible way. The craft received popular patronage in those days, although the patidar community was never an affluent one. In order to enlist larger patronage, the patidars moved from door to door showing their pictures, accompanied with narrative songs of ballads explaining the themes depicted. They either composed the versus themselves, or collected them from folk singers in an attempt to impress their customers. The paintings were also sold to art lovers and people who simply bought them to beautify their homes. As a means of augmentation of their income, the patidars also made clay image and terracotta dolls.
Today, scroll painting has lost its glory to the burgeoning modern entertainment industry. Consequently, the lot of the patidars has suffered a serious setback. Their number has shrunk to a negligible figure, and those who still carry on this craft as a vocation live in dire poverty and inconceivable misery. Their efforts to popularise the craft by making use of current topics and important modern personage seem to be of little avail. However, scroll painting as an art may endure, thanks to a revival in interest for traditional craft forms. Yet the patidars as a community of scroll painters stands on the brink of extinction.
The scroll painters gleaned their themes mainly from ancient Indian mythology and the mangal kavyas of medieval Bengal. The Puranic gods and goddesses like Siva, Chandi, Manasa appear repeatedly in their pictures. Scenes from the Ramayana, the Savitri-Satyavana episode from the Mahabharata, the Behula-Lakhindara episode of Manasa-Mangala and the Kamale Kamini vision of the Chandi-Mangala are common themes. In modern times, they have used important historical events and cult figures to cater to contemporary tastes. Episodes from India’s struggle for freedom hold sway in modern scroll paintings. This is a clear proof of the ability and flexibility of the painters to move with the times.
The style of the painters varies from place to place and group to group. Generally, they depict heavy monumental figures of deities with rich ornamentation in bright deep colors with the intention of making an immediate and abiding impact on the minds of the simple rural folk.
The Kalighat patas mark a modern development in this field. They use the old style with bold outlines and broad modelling, showing their distinctveness. Most modern painters, however, employ less ornate styles and use light water colors to create a certainserenity and sobriety, reflecting an awareness to live up to changed modern tastes. Another style of pata painting is current in Vishnupur, which appears to be more lyrical than picturesque, the figures being drawn for no real iconic effect. For instance, a scroll depicts the Goddess of Learning-Saraswati- seated on a throne in a lotus pond with the sky above her head sketched in shades of appropriate color. A halo heightens the grace of the goddess.
The scroll generally consists of a piece of paper of equal size pasted to it on one side. Two wooden rods are attached at two ends of the scroll to facilitate smooth and quick folding and unfolding. Sometimes durable paper scrolls are also used, as in the case of the famous Kalighat patas.
A noteworthy fact about the patidars is that they transcend religious barriers. Though most of them are Muslims, they use Hindu gods and goddesses and the stories from Hindu mythology for their art. They also observe Hindu marriage rites. Many of them have Hindu names by which they are commonly and affectionately known. Thus, they offer a unique example of religious tolerance. This wonderful intermingling of Hindu-Muslim cultures is, of course, a familiar feature in many parts of rural India.
Scroll painting forms an integral part of the Bengali culture. It has not only popularised stories from Indian mythology in Bengal, but has served to generate, among its people, a sense of oneness with the rest of India as well. Patta chitra has great charm and grandeur, in addition to a flavour of creative imagination. It has tremendously enriched our folk culture and the skill displayed by the painters is simply astonishing; patta art speaks volumes for their innate gifts, which compel spontaneous admiration. It is a pity that the limited numbers of patidars, who still follow their traditional craft in a few pockets, have been languishing on account of social neglect and lack of appreciation. They no longer go from door to door displaying their paintings, as they did in the past. Today, they mainly depend on the sale of their works to art lovers and research scholars.