In August 1690, the British East India Company founded a trading post in a cluster of rural marketplaces on the east bank of the river Hooghly (otherwise called the Bhagirathi) that would soon mushroom into Calcutta. Perhaps a religious centre was already present a few miles south in Kalighat, where a sacred relic of the Goddess Durga, or Kali in her incarnation as Sati, was worshipped. In 1757, the East India Company’s army defeated Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, at the battlefield of Plassey. Calcutta became the new centre of India’s colonial power. In 1765, the East India Company, in a puja of thanksgiving at Kalighat temple, celebrated its accession to power.

In the hundred years following Plassey, Calcutta developed into a metropolis unmatched in southern Asia, and part of an arc of trade and political power that swept from Aden to Hong Kong. Calcutta became the city through which profound cultural influences from the West and the world at large entered the Indian subcontinent. Apart from the great growth of the influence of English language and literature, an overwhelming influence was felt in fine and applied arts. Thousands of books and prints were imported from the West and circulated, eventually finding their way to booksellers, bazaar stalls and auction-houses. The English also introduced their art schools to teach drawing and painting according to Western traditions of realism and naturalism. They brought watercolours and oil painting, Western papers and canvases, along with woodcuts and metal engraving, and similar new techniques to Calcutta. European artists practised and taught their art in Calcutta, thus becoming extensively and directly influential on the new local art.

These new techniques met with traditions of painting and performance that were centuries old. One tradition they encountered was that of painted scrolls or pats. A pat ‘scroll’ today is a painted paper scroll (cfr: Skt Pata: painting, against a cloth or other background, and Pat kara: a painter), prepared by stitching together four factory-made paper sheets (each 14 x 22 in.), locally known as ‘cartridge’ paper, at times pasted onto discarded cloth. Such a scroll is divided into ten panels (or ‘registers’) of pictures of different sizes, designed to be unrolled vertically. The larger size is a deluxe edition, whereas the common ‘fools-cap’ size is smaller (13 x 16 in.), and of a thinner paper quality. The painted panels are uniformly eleven inches wide and come in two sizes. The first and the last illustrations are larger (11 x 12 in. each), whereas all others are six to seven inches in length. When the scroll is unrolled, the first panel shows the complete traditional iconography of the deity, usually illustrated on the appropriate vahana or mount. The first panel (11 x 12 in.) unrolling from the top, that is from the direction in which it would be opened while the accompanying song was sung, usually shows the fully armed form of the divinity the scroll is about, usually also mounted on a scripturally appropriate mount.

Courtesy DAG.

A pat or scroll-painting today is painted by a patua, a patidara or a chitrakara (picture-maker) by caste. The members of this painter-performer community travel with their repertoire of patas and sing while unrolling the scroll panel by panel, in exchange for money, food or some other form of payment. The patuas are an endogamous caste living, among other areas, in the vicinity of Tamluk in the Medinipur region of West Bengal. They are found scattered all over the state, except for the more northern districts. Their population is concentrated in Medinipur and Birbhum districts, organised in mutually exclusive circles.

The status and origins of this endogamous caste are unresolved mysteries. Mainly on the strength of citations in the ritual text called Brahmavaivarta Purana (in the chapter called Brahma Khanda) they are viewed by some as members of the nava-sakha or nine-branches of the sat or ‘good’ Sudras (or Shudras), together with potters, blacksmiths, barbers, garland-makers and other similar professional castes. Their identity is hybrid, located somewhere in between Hinduism and Islam. Men, in accordance with Islam, are circumcised. Likewise, a Muslim kaji attends their weddings and funerals, and talaq or divorce is legally possible. Contrarily, their life rites are arranged by consulting the panjika or almanac according to Hinduism, and additionally Hindu wedding rituals as astamangala and vadhuvarana are observed.

Courtesy DAG.

They venerate all the gods and goddesses of Hinduism popular in rural Bengal, and sing in Hindu and Muslim households as invited. Their repertoire clearly contains much more Hindu than Muslim material. As a final ambivalence, most patuas have two given names, one Hindu and one Muslim. Painting scrolls and singing with them hardly provides a sufficient living today, and it is doubtful that it ever has in the recent past. The artist-performers practise a variety of other trades: making the clay images of Hindu deities, ornaments and decorations for religious rituals; making and selling clay dolls and toys; peddling cheap goods, alternative medicine, or even working on construction sites as day labourers.

One group of the famous Kalighat painters, who sold watercolours of divinities and notable Calcutta iconic figures painted on single square or rectangular sheets of paper to nineteenth century pilgrim-tourists at the crowded temples of Calcutta, certainly came from the Medinipur Patua community.

The exhibition, The Babu & The Bazaar, is on display at DAG, New Delhi until July 1. This article is an excerpt from the accompanying book, edited by Aditi Nath Sarkar and Shatadeep Maitra and published by DAG.