As I approached the art gallery at the Delhi’s India International Centre to interview an aboriginal scroll painter, I heard a song. The song was melodious but I couldn’t make much of the lyrics as it was in Bengali. On following the sound I found out that it emerged from the gallery’s basement where the artist I was supposed to meet was singing for a TV channel. The ten-minute song recited by the scroll painter, Sahajan Chitrakar, told a story of the Goddess Durga which was the theme of one of the scrolls made by him.
“This was a Bengali song which I made. We often sing at fairs, haats [weekly markets] and bazaars,” says Chitrakar. “The practice of singing songs has lessened nowadays, but you will still find artists singing songs and selling their scrolls, or patas, in some places in Bengal. We travel from village to village to sell patas. People get entertained with the display of songs and many of them buy patas to hang on their walls at home.”
Talking about how he got his name, Sahajan Chitrakar says that a scroll painter in West Bengal is known as patua, Chitrakar, patikaar and patidaar. He goes on to explain the entire process of the oral tradition. He says, “We paint and sing the mythological stories illustrating scenes from mythological stories. During the performance the patua or Chitrakar would sing the story while slowly unrolling the scroll, one frame at a time, pointing to various characters in each panel of the story. The story would emerge from a combination of the verbal images in the song, the pictorial motifs in the frames and the viewer’s imagination. The scroll paintings (pata) are made on paper or cloth illustrating scenes from Ramayana and Bhagvata Purana and other popular Hindu mythological texts. In the scrolls one can also find studies of birds, animals, snakes and fishes.”
Chitrakar aims to sell his paintings worldwide. He says, “If given a chance I would like to travel and sell my paintings outside India as well. My paintings range from Rs 600 to Rs 6 lakh. The smallest patua I have drawn is on an A4 size sheet and 12 feet is the longest painting I have made. I am working on a 150-feet-long painting which will take five years to complete.”
Practicing this art form since quite a young age, Chitrakar learnt the skill of making a pata from his father Bahar Chitrakar. He says, “Since the age of ten I have been making patas. I used to sit with my father and draw and paint. I am the seventh generation of pata artists. I have studied till class eight. As soon as I learnt that I enjoyed making patas more than studying, I quit studies and decided to be a scroll painter. My son has also studied till class ninth and he too has been making patas since an early age. I have attended and participated in a number of workshops on scroll paintings.”
However, scroll painting in not the only thing Chitrakar does. He practices farming in his spare time. He says, “I am still in some amount of debt after buying equipment for my painting. I practice this art for three hours daily and the rest of the day I spend in farming. It helps me to increase my earnings as the income from scroll paintings is irregular.”
Patachitras or scroll paintings are made in two formats: the vertically scrolled paintings and the horizontal scrolled ones, the former referred to as “jadano” or “gutano pata”, and the smaller square or rectangular formats known as “chouko pata”. Before creating a jadano pata, the artist selects a subject and composes a song on it. The actual painting is often a communal affair, with the members of the family assisting the master artist. The story told in a jadano pata is always in painted panels or frames and the size of the pata generally varies from one to three feet in width and six to twenty feet in length, depending on the length of the story. Traditionally, the jadano pata was never up for sale — it was a continual hereditary profession. The chouko pata, however, could be sold.
Chitrakar aims to sell his paintings worldwide. He says, “If given a chance I would like to travel and sell my paintings outside India as well. My paintings range from Rs 600 to Rs 6 lakh. The smallest patua I have drawn is on an A4 size sheet and 12 feet is the longest painting I have made. I am working on a 150-feet long painting which will take five years to complete.”
The patuas originally used to paint on palm leaves, processed canvas made from cloth, gum, eggshells and handmade paper from cotton pulp. More recently, machine-made paper, backed with cloth, forms the canvas for the patuas. Pieces of paper are joined end to end to attain the desired length. Brushes are made from animal hair and the ingredients of the colours are always indigenous — yellow from turmeric, blue from indigo, black from lamp black etc. The colours are blended with natural gum, or boiled tamarind seeds to provide the glaze and coherence to the base.
Despite being in debt, Chitrakar pursues his art with zeal. During the course of his conversation he reminds me of Rashid Khalifa, the father of Haroun Khalifa from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. He is in love with the stories as Rashid is. He says, “I am fascinated with the entire trend of storytelling while looking at your paintings. You are the master and you are the creator. Listening to the stories from quite a long time, the tales have somehow become the part of me. If we will not tell the stories, the stories will die.”
Tales of the Goddess – Deviyon ki Kahani, an exhibition of scrolls, will remain on view from 8 to 14 June at the Art Gallery, India International Centre, Delhi