“Taari Te hobe Maa Tara, hoyechhi swaranagata, tumi Na taarile Tara, dube jaayi jonomer moto…” sang Swarna Chitrakar. “In this verse, the demon Mahishasura surrenders to the Goddess, he implores Devi Durga to salvage him from his sins.”

Swaying to the rhythm of this moving appeal to Durga, Swarna Chitrakar rolled out a scroll that portrayed the goddess as Mahishasurmardini, the slayer of the buffalo demon. She had painted a splendid image of Durga in vibrant colours made with ingredients like raw turmeric, marigold, Aparajita flowers, burnt rice, soot from the hearth and fruits from the Lotkon tree outside her hut in Naya village in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district.

Swarna Chitrakar’s family has engaged in this folk tradition for generations – the performative art of storytelling through hand-painted scrolls and songs passed down orally. This tradition of narrating myths and accounts of contemporary society through serialised visual narratives painted on scrolls, unrolled frame-by-frame, to the accompaniment of sequenced lyrical commentary is perhaps among the earliest predecessors of sliding audio-visual infotainment.

Given their deep knowledge of Puranic tales and their incredibly detailed illustrations of ancient Hindu myths, it might be hard to believe for some that the Chitrakars, like the rest of Naya’s Patua community, are Muslim.

Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

Beyond boundaries

Swarna Chitrakar had been running a fever for a few days, but for the 48-year-old Patachitra artist, this was no time to rest. For weeks now, Chitrakar and her family – her daughters, son-in-law and husband Shambhu Chitrakar – had been working hard, recreating ancient mythical narratives on canvas. She had been entrusted with the mammoth task of creating a series of Patachitra illustrations depicting ancient lores of the mother goddess. The paintings would adorn South Kolkata’s Rupchand Mukherjee Lane Sarbojanin Durga Puja pandal this year.

For generations the patuas have painted narratives from Hindu mythology and popular folklore. Their lilting ballads, the their treasured aural inheritance, recount dramatic tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata: they describe in vivid detail Krishna’s leela or his mischievous love games and miraculous feats, eulogise the piety of Raja Harishchandra and praised the benevolence of Durga. “We have absorbed these tales, they are a part of us,” said Manu Chitrakar, who painted the 15-foot long scroll used in Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav’s election campaign earlier this year.

Called patuas, they were traditionally roving performers who would travel from one village to another presenting their scrolls and performing in the open. In his book Scroll Paintings of Bengal: Art in the Village, Amitabh Sengupta writes that during special occasions like Durga Puja, patuas would be invited to the local zamindar’s place to present the scroll with group songs known as payar gaan.

“Again when a rich married woman is bereaved, owing to her husband’s death, she may invite a Patua, especially to sing Savitri-Satyaban pat.” 

— Amitabh Sengupta in 'Scroll Paintings of Bengal: Art in the Village'
Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

Nowadays, the patuas mostly sell their scroll paintings to connoisseurs or at fairs and festivals, often overseas. The Chitrakars, along with other patuas of their village, perform at the local Kali Puja every year. “My brothers help organise the Puja,” Swarna Chitrakar said.

Religious boundaries are incredibly porous for the Patuas. In the past, they would straddle both religions, living a dual life of sorts. Nonetheless, the community has for generations been plagued by the effluvium of religious discrimination.

“The Hindus condemned us for embracing Islam,” said Manu Chitrakar. “Muslims, on the other hand, refused to accept us because we make idols, paint and sing about Hindu deities.”

“Many of us would have two names, a Hindu name and a Muslim name, so that both Hindu and Muslim households would let us perform for them,” added Shambhu Chitrakar, who grew up on stories recounting his forefathers’ struggle for acceptance.

As author Urmi Bhattacharyya writes in From Primitive to Culturally Distinct:

“Ascribed to the caste of the Patua, who are hereditarily engaged in the illustration and performance of Patachitra, it is their association to this traditional occupation that characterises their social identity.” 

The patua’s predicament has evolved into a statement on communal harmony. “On one hand we recite the namaaz and keep roza, on the other hand, we tell the tales of the gods and goddesses of the Hindus, derive strength from Mother Durga – to me it’s a shining example of respectful co-existence between two religions,” said Manu Chitrakar. The common title of Chitrakar helps reject a socio-cultural identity based on religion.

Durga in Patachitra

In Bengal’s Patachitra, Durga in her many avatars is a recurring icon. “Sometimes we paint her as the fierce Kali, sometimes as Ganesh Janani, the affectionate mother of Ganesha, sometimes as the consort of Shiva,” said Swarna Chitrakar, referring to the pile of chouka pata stacked against the wall. There are several other themes – Durga’s quarrel with Ganga depicted in the Ganga Durga Bibad Pata, Shiva and Parvati’s wedding, Ganesha’s birth from the dirt of Parvati’s body, and Akal Bodhon, the genesis of autumnal invocation of the Goddess – that make for popular scrolls.

“A particularly interesting and intricate Durga scroll depicts Dashamahavidya or the ten aspects of Shakti,” said Swarna Chitrakar, and then rattled out the names of Shakti’s incarnations without a pause. These include Kali, the devourer of time, the terrifying Chinnamasta, blood squirting out of her headless torso with her self-decapitated head clutched in her fist, the serene Kamala, the hypnotic Bagala, the old widow Dhumavati riding a horseless carriage, Bhuvaneshwari, the embodiment of the cosmos, Tara, the saviour, the fierce Bhairavi, Tripurasundari, the most beautiful in all three worlds and the emerald-skinned Matangi.

Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

The Mangal Kavyas, a significant genre of medieval Bengali literature, make for some of the most popular Patachitra themes. At his home in Naya, Manu Chitrakar unfurled a striking scroll, a jodano pat, depicting a narrative of the Chandimangal Kavya. Often dubbed as a literary masterpiece, it is the dramatic account of how Devi Chandi (a folk deity identified with the Puranic goddess Chandi) forces the merchant Dhanapati to acknowledge her divinity and the travails of Dhanapati’s son Srimanta in his quest to earn the benediction of the goddess and rescue his father from Chandi’s wrath.

Manu Chitrakar’s scroll, 16-feet long, depicts in flamboyant colours the story of Srimanta one frame at a time – his tryst with the goddess in the guise of Kamal e Kamini, seated on a lotus devouring a baby elephant, Srimanta’s appeal to the King of Shalibahan to accompany him to see the astonishing sight, the fury of the king when he fails to spot the goddess hidden among a 1,000 lotus petals, and finally Chandi’s appearance as the 18-armed Durga to rescue Srimanta from sure death at the hands of the royal executioner.

Photo credit: Rana Chakraborty.

Queen of social consciousness

Chitrakars are not mere raconteurs of ancient tales – they also act as conscience-keepers and agents of social change. Their repertoire of scrolls and songs frequently address pressing social issues. However, religious icons like Durga and Kali often feature with secular themes.

For instance, in the Kalighat Pat tradition that evolved among patuas who migrated to the city during the colonial era and settled around Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple, a popular depiction of Kali, the prime symbol of Bengal’s Shakti cult, depicted her as the powerful goddess under whom the colonised powerless native could take refuge for protection and power. Bhattacharya has also written how “Kali as the supreme goddess was linked to the idea of the nation as the motherland”.

Durga and Kali continue to be shining symbols of power in contemporary scrolls. The opening sequence to Manu Chitrakar’s intricate scroll on women’s empowerment Durga stands as Dashabhuja – the ten-armed goddess.

“I have often used the image of Durga as a metaphor for feminine strength or the victory of good over evil in my scrolls designed to raise awareness on various issues including my series on HIV Aids,” said Manu Chitrakar, who gave ten-arms to the nurses tending to patients of the notorious disease, evoking the affection and the power of Durga.