India: Scrolling Through Life

By Soma Mitra, Womens Feature Service

They came as refugees from Bangladesh in 1949 with nothing but some scrolls tucked under their arms. Now settled with their families in East and West Midnapore districts of West Bengal, these Muslim women continue to earn their living using the very scrolls they had brought along with them.

The scrolls, or ‘patchitra’, are part of a 1,000-year-old traditional art form involving story-telling through scroll (‘pata’) paintings (‘chitra’). The stories told are from Hindu mythology and literature – mostly from the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’.

Today, second- and third-generation women descendants of those Muslim settlers carry the tradition forward with about 190 groups performing in and around East and West Midnapore districts as well as elsewhere in Bengal, other states and even abroad.

“Our ancestors in Bangladesh also told stories from the ‘Ramayana’ and the ‘Mahabharata’. It is not the religious overtones that matter here. The issues that are tackled in our stories are what count,” says Noorjahan Chitrakar, 45.

Noorjahan, from Halichowk village in East Midnapore, says she started ‘patchitra’ door-to-door storytelling when she turned 12. Her “favourite stories are that of ‘Sita Haran’, where the focus is on abuse of women, and the ‘Lav-Kush’ episode, where the details are regarding a single woman raising two children all alone”.

Draupadi’s ‘Vastra Haran’ and her consequent vow for revenge also figures prominently in the ‘patachitras’. The women storytellers love her spirit. Another favourite from this epic is Kunti’s inner struggle regarding her illegitimate son, Karna.

The women paint the scrolls in natural vegetable dyes. They sing songs that elaborate the paintings, as they unfold the scrolls before the viewers. The scrolls are made from paper and old bits of clothes smeared with mud, after which the women paint the background and characters of the stories of which they sing. The dyes are made from natural ingredients, such as local flowers like ‘juhi’ and ‘bela’; and coal dust, lime, soda, raw turmeric, clay and straw that are mixed in coconut shells. The women and their families do the entire job and the process becomes a good learning ground for the children.

“My mother had no formal training. She learnt the art of making scrolls and the related songs from her mother. However, I have a formal training in art, having attended several government-sponsored art workshops,” says Fateja Chitrakar, 24, Noorjahan’s daughter. “Along with the traditional stories, we also paint and sing about modern social evils, such as drug abuse and dowry. We also tell stories to create awareness on HIV/AIDS, polio, the environment and water conservation. I have performed in Germany and the US, too,” adds Fateja.

Carrying this art form forward on modern issues has been lucrative for these artisans. “After the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack, we were asked by government agencies to perform at various workshops across the country for creating awareness against terrorism. During that time, our individual monthly earnings touched Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 40) as compared to the average of Rs 500 per month,” says Sahida Chitrakar, 45, from Muradpur village in East Midnapore.

These women, however, find it difficult to raise money in the form of loans simply because this art-industry has not found a place within the small-scale or cottage industry segment. Yet, the door-to-door storytelling has its benefits. Aside from money, says Sahida, the villagers make offerings of food grains, vegetables, edible oils, brushes, coconut shells and clothing.

But the new generation artisans are now targeting a better means of earning. “After the formation of groups, we negotiate with the ‘gram panchayats’ (village councils), district administrations and government agencies to book our performances for various fairs across the country and abroad. We are taken free of cost and the stalls are also given to us at no cost. We have also found a huge market for our paintings. Besides storytelling through our scrolls, we also sell etchings to ethnic art aficionados. We are trying to bring our art out of its rural image and give it a contemporary, universal appeal,” says Rukmini Chitrakar, 22, of Nankarchowk village in West Midnapore.

“It’s amazing that these women themselves prepare the dyes, draw the paintings, write and compose the songs to go with the scrolls. That’s true, all-round artistic talent,” says Khushi Manna, a folk-art collector. “The charm of these scrolls lies in the song and the story-telling art of these women. But the paintings themselves are also very vivid and alive,” she adds.

Diversification in this art form has taken many turns, the ‘pata’ chitrakars now also make flower vases, miniature paintings, wall-hangings and even complete Durga ‘pandals’ (dais) in traditional designs and colours to augment their income. “Whatever we make, is immediately identified as a ‘patachitra’, as we do not compromise on the traditional aspects of our skill and always retain the unique identity of the art form,” says Meher Chitrakar, 35, who specialises in making items other than scrolls.

While a wide variety of traditional art forms across the globe are seeing a conscious revival, the ‘patachitrakars’ of East and West Midnapore have never needed such an intervention. These uneducated Muslim women have on their own initiative brought about an evolution in their skills and presentation, moving with the times, meeting new demands and tackling modern issues to keep their tradition alive and kicking. With educated, trained future generations now being readied to continue this art form, one can only admire the survival skills and foresight of these simple but highly talented and creative women.

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