The art of storytelling has been intrinsic to the culture of the region since days of yore and this has manifested itself in diverse art forms, Patachitra being one of them.
Pats were scrolls on which mythological or epic stories were painted in a sequence – this would then be carried by Patuas who would travel from one village to another unrolling and showcasing these and singing of various mythological stories, say, the saga of Behula Lakhindar or the abduction of Sita. Spellbound by the mesmerizing story telling technique of these troubadours, villagers would sit around them as they listened to his engaging stories, further colour to which was added by the depiction of the colourful sequence of frames or pats.
However, the use of pats was not only limited to storytelling – this form of art was a part and parcel of the people’s daily life. Almost every house had its share of pata chitra. Especially the Lakshmi patachitra, depicting the goddess of wealth Lakshmi was a must keep for most houses in the state.
Patachitra, known for its luminous play of colours, is of two kinds— art on a broad sheet of folded cloth and ‘eye-art’ on a short piece of fabric. The fabric in fact forms the base for pat art. Clay, cow-dung and some sticky elements are skillfully added to the fabric. When dried, the fabric becomes tough but mellow enough to sustain the stroke of the artist’s brush. Pata artists draw on it religious motifs, such as gods and goddesses, Puranic stories, slokas, etc.
The most famous school of pat art is definitely the Kalighat School. In 1809, a Kali temple was built in Kolkata, which gave the place Kalighat its name. The temple grew to be so popular among pilgrims and tourists that it spawned its own genre of art and craft forms. And the Kalighat school of painting came into being. The pats were very popular among pilgrims who brought these as auspicious souvenirs. In the 18-19th century Kalighat became a thriving centre of trade and many patuas, the hereditary scroll painters of Bengal, migrated from their native abode to Kalighat in Kolkata in order to make their paintings and have a better business. The themes of the pat too deviated from the regular scope, as the Patuas initiated a different class of painting with bold strokes, where the prime focus became a satirical discourse on the Bengali Babu Culture that was in vogue then.
Mostly however, it is the religious motifs and themes that were depicted on the pats. So be it the Dasavatar (10 incarnations) cards are of Bishnupur in Bankura or the manuscripts of Mahishadal which is a rare genre of multi-coloured Ramayana that is predominantly two-dimensional and painted with vegetable colours or the Durga Patachitra done by the Sutradhar community of Birbhum district – it is primarily the religious motifs which dominate this form of art. Further there is also the indigenous form of patachitra which are very different from the others in terms of subjects and dramatization.
The patachitras usually conform to a distinct set pattern. The paintings reflect some kind of abstract symbolism following a formalized structure and simplicity in composition. The number of figures is usually restricted to one or two per painting. In this art form there is very little scope for innovation. The style of art is essentially handed down over generations and consists of set patterns, lines, colours and the poses and postures of the trends left by the forefathers. Despite some limitations, the style shows unique formal simplification and superb colour orchestration.
The use of indigo is a characteristic feature in many of the pats. This blue colour pigment that was traditionally manufactured in Bengal gains its name from the Greek indicon (a substance from India) which points to the fact that the blue natural pigment was one of the largest exports from India between the 12th century to the mid-1800s. This colour pigment that saw a great surge of demand in Europe post the Industrial Revolution was initially mainly planted in parts of Punjab and Agra in Uttar Pradesh. It came to Bengal during the 1700s and was firmly established after the Battle of Plassey. Various indigenous art forms used this natural colour , patachitra being one of them.
The patuas of West Bengal are an extraordinarily creative community. A traditional patua is not only a painter but a performer as well. He paints the sequences in a series of frames as a scroll painting while he weaves a tale mostly around a mythological story. As his audience sits in rapt attention listening to his story – he unfurls the scroll frame by frame.
Over the generations the patuas have made their living by the craft of narrative scroll painting and patachitra has been famous for the beauty of their flowing lines, simplicity in figures and for their technique of achieving modulation . But with the rise of cinema, the collapse of the zamindari system from which they received patronage, rapid urbanization and the lure of more paying professions the demand for the traditional art form has waned.
The Biswa Bangla initiative that aims at reviving, preserving and promoting Bengal’s heritage has preserved all these diverse techniques of patachitra making and taken initiatives to showcase them under one umbrella. They have adapted PATACHITRA art form on Garod Silk Sarees, which are supposed to be the purest form of fabric for all Bengali rituals. The wide arrays of Pata furniture and leather bags are also included in their portfolio. Under Biswa Bangla’s initiative the story of pat continues to be told to the future generations.