The Bengal patachitra scroll tradition is an ancient one, featuring long vertical multi-panelled scrolls known as patas (paintings) or jorana patas (rolled paintings) since the scrolls are rolled up for storage and transportation. The word patachitra literally means painted picture. Interestingly, the community that is associated with this art-form name themselves as Patuas (painters) or Chitrakars (makers of pictures).
Mantu Chitrakar, an eminent patachitra artist explains how their art was born, “Once upon a time, there was a demon who terrorized the people of a region. They tried their best to get rid of him but could not. Suddenly, one of them had a bright idea. They made a huge mirror and put it in the jungle where the demon lived. The demon saw his own reflection and thought it was another demon challenging him. So, he charged at the mirror, breaking it and cutting himself badly. He bled to death and the people were free. In order to let others know, people who were present painted the story on a long scroll and took it around the region. Thus was born the art of scroll making and singing.”
In the patachitra scrolls, as described by Mantu, each panel represents a particular sequence in the story and as they are unrolled for viewing, the accompanying couplet or story is recited. Painted on sheets of paper glued at the edges to form one continuous roll, these scrolls are backed by cloth (usually old saris) for greater strength and flexibility.
Traditionally, the patua would carry these scrolls from door to door, and depending on people’s request, particular stories would be sung out for a small fee, either in cash or kind. Earlier, these scrolls were seldom sold and were retained for performances and repaired occasionally until they became old and faded when they were ceremonially gifted to a river or water-body. Today, scrolls are mostly made for sale as television has replaced the need to be entertained by the patua.
Like others in the community, Mantu began learning how to paint and draw when he was very young. Both men and women paint—but not all painters become bards. Typically only men roamed the countryside singing out the scrolls. Mantu explained that bold swatches of color punctuated by thick black outlines are a defining characteristic of this folk art. The forms are fleshed out, the lines gently undulating—the overall impact is dramatic and sensuous, with no hint of sharp angles or rigid geometric forms. He works on a scroll by first making a pencil sketch and then filling in the different colors. All colors are painstakingly extracted from roots, shoots, leaves and flowers and later mixed with a fruit glue to form these bright hues—turmeric for yellow, bean leaves for green and so on. Once all the figures are colored, he takes a fine brush and dips it into the black color prepared from charred rice powder and proceeds to both outline and embellish the figures.
The themes of the scrolls vary greatly: they can be religious or secular. Mantu paints both traditional scrolls, which have religious stories and contemporary or samajik scrolls. Typically, traditional scrolls depict episodes from the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, local folklore as well as religious stories linked to the worship of Goddess Durga or the Snake Goddess Manasa.
Contemporary or samajik (literally about society) scrolls feature topical issues such as the evils of dowry, communal riots, terrorism, environmental degradation and female foeticide. Mantu has painted several scrolls on recent events such as 9/11, the devastating tsunami of 2006 and the assassinations of former Indian prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
Mantu is a composer too and finds it rewarding to create scrolls and songs based on his experiences such as his first airplane ride to Australia. A highlight of his trip to Australia was a visit to the Melbourne Cricket Ground which finds pride of place in his Australia scroll. He has also created scrolls on HIV-AIDS and on women’s rights. Within the spatial confines of the scroll format, Mantu is busy exploring new worlds and vistas.