Bengal’s 12th-century Patachitra art moves from paper to metals, wood & ceramics to reach global markets

Partho Burman
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Bengal’s 12th-century Patachitra art moves from paper to metals, wood & ceramics to reach global markets

Bengal’s 12th-century Patachitra art moves from paper to metals, ceramics, wood & fabrics to reach global markets painting trays kettle tea pots 30stades

As the day breaks at Naya village in West Midnapore district, about 107 km from Kolkata, Chandan Chitrakar rolls out a mat in his workshop and readies his paints and brushes. He takes a copper kettle and in the next few hours, his deft hands turn it into an exquisite piece of art painted with bright yellow, red, green and blue colours. The result is a depiction of Lord Ganesha with his mother, Goddess Parvati, and other demi-gods who are believed to inhabit Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva in the Himalayas.

Chandan, belonging to the Patua or Chitrakar community, is a Muslim and so were his ancestors, whose history goes back to the 12th century when the art of making Patachitra or scroll paintings took roots in what is now West Bengal. Patachitra remain an integral part of India's rich art and culture heritage.

Naya Village in West Midnapore is home to 87 Chitrakar (Patua) families who make Patachitra.  Pic: Partho Burman
Naya Village in West Midnapore is home to 86 Chitrakar (Patua) families who make Patachitra. Pic: Partho Burman

Ballal Sena (1160–1179), the second ruler of the Sena dynasty of the Bengal region, and his son Lakshman Sen (1178–1206) are said to have patronised Patachitra about a thousand years back.

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But while Chandan’s father and grandfather painted only on paper, his canvas has expanded to include metals, ceramics, wood, leather and fabrics like cotton and silk.

Patachitra – paintings with a song

Patachitra paintings depict stories from folklore, Hindu mythology, Sufi traditions and even social issues. The art is characterized by bold natural colours and sharp lines.

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The word ‘pata’ means cloth and ‘chitra’ means picture and Patachitra are scroll paintings made by Patuas – the singing painters who use the Chitrakar surname.

Before the advent of television, Patuas went from village to village with their Patachitras, each of which has a song behind it. They would slowly unfurl the painting while singing pater gaan (narrative songs).

Patachitra painted kettles and glass depicting tales from Hindu mythology. Pic: Partho Burman
Patachitra painted kettles and glass depicting tales from Hindu mythology. Pic: Partho Burman

“The art of story-telling with Patachitra has been an integral part of Bengal’s rural community life. The vertically painted scrolls are called Jarano-Patachitra. Jarano means spool. Recycled cotton fabric is pasted on the reverse side of the paper to make the scroll stronger,” says Chandan.

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The art has been passed down from generation to generation through the word of mouth. “We don’t have anything documented. The objective of a Patua is to create awareness through paintings and to entertain people,” says Ajay Chitrakar, a veteran artist in Naya village, where even the mud houses are beautifully painted with Patachitra.

Around 86 families live in Naya village (Balichak area), which is now world-renowned for Patachitra.

Apart from Bengal, the art is also practiced in Odisha and some villages in Jharkhand. In Odisha, the Patachitra paintings done on palm leaf are called Pothichitra.

Odisha’s scroll art is called Pattachitra (with a double 't') and differs from Bengal’s art form as it is centred only on Hindu mythology and folklore. The lines are bold and sharp and each painting has decorative borders, not always present in Bengal’s Patachitra.

Recipient of a national award, Gurupada Chitrakar (57), says, “We are ‘Patiduar’ -- an amalgamation of ‘pati’ meaning scroll and ‘duar’ meaning door – as we carry social messages door-to-door. Over time, the word became Patua.”

Putul Chitrakar continues to sing songs with her Patachitra scrolls even today. Painting a wooden ladle here. Pic: Partho Burman
Putul Chitrakar continues to sing songs with her Patachitra scrolls even today. Painting a wooden ladle here. Pic: Partho Burman

As Patuas went singing door-to-door, they were given alms in cash and kind.

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“I accompanied my father when I was seven. We left home at around 7 in the morning. My job was to carry little bags to collect puffed rice, pulses, rice, potatoes and the money we received,” recalls 35-year-old Putul Chitrakar, a Patua singer.

“We would get up to 5-10kg of food on days we went singing with scrolls. Some villagers even provided us lunch. We would return home by 4,” she adds.

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How Patachitra reached global markets

The artists no more need to go out as their artworks have gained worldwide recognition with huge demand in the global markets. 

Chandan Chitrakar with a Patachitra tray. Pic: Partho Burman
Chandan Chitrakar with a Patachitra tray. Pic: Partho Burman

Putul was recognized for her skill in pot painting by the West Bengal State Akademi of Dance, Drama, Music & Visual Arts in March 2011 and by Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal in February 2015.

Putul told 30 Stades that she has never been to school and learned the songs by just listening to her father. “The song isn’t mandatory in most art forms like Madhubani, but it’s important for us. Each Patachitra story has a song and this is our tradition,” she says.

Putul has learnt 14 songs, which her father had composed. “I still sing them without any instruments though we don’t go around villages anymore,” she adds. In West Bengal, the art is concentrated in the districts of Hooghly, Howrah, Birbhum, Malda, Murshidabad, South 24-Parganas, East and West Midnapore.

“The Patachitra paintings also have some similarity with the paintings of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa,” says Gurupada Chitrakar, who received the national award from the then President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, in 2004.

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To make it durable, glue prepared with flour, arrowroot and copper sulphate is used to stick the cotton fabric at the back.

Chandan says it takes a day to complete a 14x11 inch painting. The outlines in black paint are directly drawn with brush and black paint. Other colours are filled later.

But Patuas did not have a market for their products until about 50 years ago. Their art received attention during the 1970s when some of these painters began to visit cities. They participated in fairs organised at the district and state level like the Kolkata Hasta Shilpa Mela.

This gave them recognition and they soon began to get international orders. The large orders can bring in even Rs 2 lakh in one go but the incomes aren’t fixed. “On average, we make about Rs 20,000-Rs 23,000 per month,” Chandan says.

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How Chitrakars contemporized the thousand-year-old Patachitra art

Since there aren’t many buyers for large scroll paintings, Patuas now make Patachitra on items of daily use as hand painted household items have a wider market.

They include metallic, ceramic and wooden teapots, kettle, cutlery, trays, tea sets, coffee mugs, water bottles, terracotta household items, hand-fan, kulo (winnowing clatter), T-shirt, kurta and kurti, dupattas, sarees etc. Among fabrics, they now work on Kerala cotton, tassar silk and Murshidabad silk. With COVID, Patachitra handmade face masks have gained popularity.

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Prices range between Rs 40 and Rs 40,000. A hand fan costs Rs 40 while an 8x6 feet wall hanging painting is priced at Rs 40,000.

“We contemporized the art, making smaller paintings, depending on market requirements. Some art lovers of Kolkata suggested we shift from paper to furnishings. Some preferred designs on doors, bathroom, tablecloth or mat, etc.,” says Chandan.

How are natural colours made for using in Patachitra paintings of bengal. infographic information organic colours for paintings. 30stades

A primary school dropout, Chandan, who learned the art from his grandfather and father, has won six state-level awards. “I have travelled overseas many times. My paintings have been exhibited and sold at London, the USA and China.”

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Orange, yellow, red, ash, pink, black, blue and green – the bright and beautiful colours are the key to making Patachitra.

Most of the colours are made from natural products. Yellow is derived from raw turmeric paste while kundri (ivy gourd) leaves are crushed to get green shade.

Colours are also extracted from rose, beetroot and carrot while petals of Aparajita flower are crushed to get blue. For black, sunned rice is baked till it turns black or soot from lamps is used. Special glue made using wood apple pulp is mixed with the pigments to make colours long-lasting. Artists apply fabric colour for art on metal, textile, wood and leather items.

Award-winning Gurupada Chitrakar with his Patachitra. Pic: Partho Burman
Award-winning Gurupada Chitrakar with his Patachitra. Pic: Partho Burman

The colours of Patachitra not only narrate divine tales but also raise social issues like afforestation, polio immunisation, adult literacy, HIV AIDS and Coronavirus (COVID). 

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Meanwhile, Chandan is all set to finish a unique painting using fabric colour, where he has designed an imaginary temple of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balaram and Goddess Subhadra situated deep within a forest. All the figures will be two-and-a-half inches in height. “The painting will be ready in the next six months,” he says.

(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)

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