By Monidipa Dey
An ancient performing art of India that has withstood many centuries of various social and religious upheavals and continue to be an important part of the country’s intangible folk heritage is the Patachitra. The patachitra or scroll painting is an essential part of eastern India’s religious and cultural scenarios, where a traditional art was combined with narratives and songs, thus turning it into a performative art. This process of combining art with narratives and songs, that gave patachitra its unique identity, is seen in West Bengal, Odisha, and in some parts of Bihar and Jharkhand.
From the ancient times patachitra has provided a platform to many rural bards or wandering artists to communicate and give out visual messages through painted scrolls, and recite stories from the epics and puranas following the age-old oral traditions, which included narratives and music. This way patachitras helped to teach common villagers about the prevalent religious and cultural traditions, while also preserving various ancient stories, folklores, and traditions; thus, providing us with a beautifully preserved historical narrative, documented through song, stories, and paintings. Not only did the patachitras preserve stories of the various social and political changes and shifting religious narratives, they also documented a largely voiceless section of our history; the unheard stories of the common man.
While there are various theories on the possible period of the origin of the patachitras, there are various textual references to the Bengal patachitra that date back to 1st-4 th century CE. However, the process of using patachitras as performative art most likely dates to the Pala era of around 10 th century CE; that gained greater popularity during the 15 th -18 th century CE Bhakti Movement of Bengal. The patuas or patachitra artisans during this period would travel from one village to another holding shows, while especially visiting the palaces and mansions of rich zamindars and wealthy merchants during various pujas and other religious ceremonies.
The scrolls or patachitras, which were hand-painted on palm leaves, handmade paper, or clothes, were long narratives that often stretched to more than 20 feet. Sometimes the paintings were made on scrolled clothes, and these were known as jorano patas. In a patachitra, each section was referred to as a pata, and the travelling patuas would roll open the scrolls singing one pata at a time. During a show the patuas would set their colourful scrolls, slowly unfolding one pata at a time as the narrative went (stories from Chandi Mangal, Manasa Mangal, Ramayan, etc.), and singing songs in praises of the deity being worshipped, as the overwhelmed mostly illiterate peasant folks saw and learned about their religious and cultural practices.
The Bengal patachitra can be categorized into various types based on their differences in style, such as, Durga Pat, Chalchitra, Medinipur Patachitra, Kalighat Patachitra, and the tribal patachitras. Among these the last one to evolve out of changing social conditions and largescale migrations was the Kalighat patachitra. Kalighat paintings, as clear from its name, originated near the famous Kali temple, which is located on the bank of the Adi Ganga in south Kolkata. While the exact origins of Kalighat patachitra are sketchy due to a dearth of historical records, based on the type of paper used in the early paintings the historians say that it started sometime in the first half of the 19th century. It is believed that sometime in the middle of 18th century, many rural based patuas migrated to Kolkata from the Midnapur and 24 Paraganas areas, and settled around the Kalighat temple.
In this new setting the patuas realised that long narrative scrolls were not viable anymore, and they soon shifted to making small cheap scrolls in large numbers that were painted on mill papers to meet consumer demands. However, the patuas still continued with their tradition of using natural dyes that were made from different vegetables and plant extracts mixed with natural binding agents, such as, bael fruits and tamarind seeds. Later with coming in of water colours from England, the painters slowly shifted to synthetic paints, which were more easily available and cheaper. The Kalighat patuas had no set rules of art but depicted contemporary social life, thus giving us a wonderful insight into the religious and social life of Bengal during the 19 th and early 20th centuries.
These paintings showed a skillful amalgamation of the European style and Bengal techniques in their bold colours and strong lines, which presented simple settings with minimum characters. Kalighat patachitra themes vary widely and it is seen that while early patachitras (early 19 th century) focused mainly on religious subjects, in later part of 19th century the themes became more contemporary and sometimes famous social events and scandals were also painted.
Well known characters, such as, Rani of Jhansi and the wrestler Shyamakanta who fought a tiger, are among more famous Kalighat paintings. Humorous scenes also find a place here, especially while depicting the ‘Babu Bibi culture’ that reflected the changing socio-cultural landscape of Kolkata under colonial influence. The popular religious themes of Kalighat patachitras were Kali devi, Durga as Mahishasurmardini, Shiva, Vishnu, tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata, and stories of scenes from Krishna’s life.
The Kalighat School of painting slowly died out owing to the influx of oleographs that reproduced the Kalighat patachitras. The cheap oleographs from Mumbai and Germany blatantly copied the patachitras, and flooded the markets with their machine-made prints, ruthlessly killing the flourishing Kalighat patachitras. The patuas with their creativity and skills failed to cope up with the rapid speed of the machines, and by 1930 the school of Kalighat patachitra completely vanished. The early paintings and whatever were later found are now considered as prized art collections, and are seen in various museums and private collections of art connoisseurs.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. All images provide by the author. Views expressed are personal.)