Pattachitra: Where paintings tell a story Hindus and Muslims sing and paint together, and hope that the tradition survives

10, Jan 2022 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Till even a few decades ago, the tradition of Pattachitra locally pronounced as ‘pottachitra’ (fabric painting) and the music that accompanied it was thriving in many villages of West Bengal. Many are still known as the village of patta chitrakar, or artist. However, very few artists in these villages are seen drawing patta, most have chosen alternative livelihoods. They say, “No one likes pattachitra anymore,” and this means they have no buyers So are forced to look for other work to survive.

The word patta itself stands for the cloth, on which the chitra or painting is drawn, most are religious in nature, images on Hindu deities or an Islamic verse. The artists who make these paintings are called Pattua. Pattuas once used to make a living by showing their paintings in a ‘performance’ to potential buyers. The artist would narrate the story depicted in the picture to the audience with the word set to a traditional melody, and these songs are known as ‘pattua geet’. This is how the Pattachitra tradition survived for hundreds of years in Bengal.

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The shape and colour of the patta varies. There are mainly two types of pattas, the long ones that can be rolled up and small square ones that are often framed. The long ones can be as much as 15-30 feet long and are 2-3 feet wide. The fabric is first coated with mud, cowdung, layer by layer as many as 18 coats of this applied and allowed to dry. The artists then draw on it with a fine brush, using a variety of indigenous colours extracted from leaves, flowers, husk ink, kajal, red vermilion, white chalk, alta, wood-coal etc and bound with a natural resin. The patta is usually divided into several sections and painted in themes of red, blue, yellow, pink, brown, white and black.

Some examples of this unique art may be viewed here:

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One such area is Kusumgram in Sainthia block of Birbhum district, which is famous for pattachitra. This village has kept the ancient style of pattachitra alive. One of the neighbourhoods of this village is still known as ‘Patuapara’, there are 40-50 Patua families here. However, in spite of having so many artists, only a few of them still continue to paint, and they fear that the future is slowly getting darker.

A history of harmony

Interestingly, not many know that though many of the artists, of Medinipur district, are followers of Islam, they have a deep knowledge of Hindu dieties, folkore, and mythology too. They are adept at drawing stories depicting  various deities like Rama, Hanuman, Krishna, Sita, Shiva, Parvati, Jatayu, and Manasa. Art here is a lesson in diversity and respect for all religions. It is also a symbol of unity as these artists joyously sing songs such as “Krishna Lila” when working on artworks depicting  Lord Krishna playing the flute as even the herds of cows are depicted to be moved by the divine music. The artists have also composed songs about the Corona pandemic.

“The irony is, that due to the lockdown, people are not coming over to listen to these songs,” said Joba Patua, an artist who has been associated with this industry for over 35 years, adding. “The respect that we the Patuas had before, is not there today.” Artists recalled that once, when they went to show the paintings and perform the sons in the villages, they were hosted to a meal by the master of the house and at the end of the show, would be given bags of rice, pulses, salt, oil, vegetables, and even some token money as a gift. “But all this is now over, no one wants to pay for our songs, which are now almost lost to modern entertainment,” recalled Joba. Once Durga Puja would be heralded in the villages with pattachitra performers singing about the Goddess arrival.

There are also some basic elements in the songs based on Pattachitra that make note of the level of social structure, and culture. In Bengal, these artists live in East and West Midnapore, Bankura, Birbhum, some border districts of West Bengal. They made their living by painting pictures of folk and mythical deities and singing their descriptions in songs from house to house.  At present, the practice of singing at home is almost non-existent. For the past few decades, the government has been subsidising all kinds of industries, especially the lost ones. As a result, these artists make a living by selling their pot paintings at village fairs, religious fairs, government-organised fairs and selling pot songs along with pot paintings. These paintings are bought for home decor. Before the pandemic some artists were even invited to show their work abroad, Joba Chitrakar and his family have performed in many countries such as America, France, Bangladesh, Singapore. International and local scholars would also visit their villages to research, and spend time with the artists. Now they sing and paint in the hope that days like those come back soon.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people.

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.



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