Art is something that unites communities. When one sees an art piece, one does not care what community the artist belongs to. Everyone appreciates good art, and artists come from all communities and backgrounds. The artists’ only identity in the moment that someone sees their work is the art, and this results in a pure connection between the artist and the spectator. The art of India, particularly is something that unites people of vastly different cultures and religions together, considering the diversity of the subcontinent. One such art form is the Patua paintings of West Bengal.
History and culture of the Patua community
Patua paintings originated in West Bengal centuries ago, as a part of the Patachitra scroll paintings tradition of West Bengal. The Patuas are a community who were originally involved in making Hindu Gods’ murtis for worship- the name of the community is a corruption of ‘Pota’ or ‘engraver’. A lot of the Patuas converted to Islam in the mediaeval times under Islamic rulers, but they, however, stuck to their craft of making Hindu Gods’ murtis. They have also been known to be Buddhist at some point in time, but are mostly either Hindu or Muslim today. They practise traditions of both religions even today.
Anyway, in addition to their original occupation, they also began to make scroll paintings since they were skilled at painting the murtis. This demographic of the Patuas are known as ‘chitrakars’ or ‘picture makers’. They would paint long panels of scroll paintings and travel from village to village, narrating stories as they uncovered the scrolls. The show would also include singing and dramatic voice effects for engaging the audience. This was a form of education and entertainment.
The unifying effect of Patua paintings
Patua paintings originally stuck to Hindu mythological stories, but as the times changed, the community also began to incorporate tales from the Sufi tradition. Sufi stories were also similarly narrated frame to frame, and these were a great source of wisdom and entertainment. People of all communities would listen to the different communities’ tales of wisdom, and this would bring a sense of togetherness amongst the different peoples in rural society.
Style of Patua art
Like other styles of Patachitra art, Patua art looks simple, but it has an ornate beauty to it. Bright, natural colours are used, to ensure the audience’s attention during the performances.
Materials and process of making Patua paintings
Traditionally, Patua paintings are done on a type of cloth called Patti or Patta. The paintings were painted upon this cloth, which would be reinforced by old sarees on the back. They are painted with brushes made of Bamboo sticks and goat hair. The dyes are made using vegetable colours and are mixed with resin to make it waterproof and lustrous. The different paintings would then be glued together using glue derived from, again, vegetables. This long scroll is called ‘jorano patta’.
First, the design is sketched lightly using a pencil. The borders are an integral part of Patua paintings, as with all forms of Patachitra art styles, and are drawn first. They are elaborate and beautiful, with borders consisting of two or three lines depending on the size of the painting. Then, the colours are filled in, and a final outline is given using black paint. Despite sounding simple, Patua art requires great skill and is time-taking.
Current state of Patua paintings
The art has lost its popularity, as a result of the decline in the interest in traditional crafts, and also as a result in the decline of the singing – storytelling tradition, with the evolution of more modern forms of entertainment. The few skilled artists who have remained in this tradition are impoverished and are struggling. Younger generations are discouraged from getting into the craft and are told to find more lucrative jobs. The art was at the cusp of death, but a government initiative breathed a new lease of life into it.
The art itself had evolved to meet the demands of the market today- evolving from the scroll art complementing storytelling to being made on individual sheets of paper or canvas for display. However, rising costs have forced artists to resort to making the paintings with synthetic paints and brushes. Then, the art’s condition became better when the Government of West Bengal’s Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles collaborated with UNESCO to set up a Rural Crafts Hub in Midnapur district. As a result of this enterprise, the artists reverted to using traditional colours and methods. In the Naya village of Midnapur, a three day art festival, called Pat Maya is held annually, turning the village into a hub of song, storytelling and visual arts. The artists’ homes turn into makeshift stores and the village becomes alive with the art.
The Patua paintings are a beautiful folk art form, uniting the cultures and practices of two of India’s biggest communities. The art is a testament to the unity in diversity of India, and, for this reason, is a great representative of Indian art forms. Apart from this, it represents layers of the history of our country. Hence, it is important to preserve this ancient art form and support its artists, for it represents the true diversity and history of India.