Pathachitra

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.

The Mask

“In the deep of a jungle in Bengal, tucked miles away from the reach of human civilization, a coven of witches, in giant painted masks dance in frenzy around a big fire; some have swords in their hands, others have axes. In a corner bound and gagged is a pretty young lady – the offering to Satan.” depicts a Bengali novel, written as early as 18th century.

Mask or Mukhosh, as it is known in West Bengal has a mysterious history, too vague to be chronicled in perfect sequence, both in terms of advent and influence.  Rumour has it that in ancient time the witches started the practice of wearing the masks. In an attempt to camouflage, the witches built a sublime weapon, a facial veil that prevented them from getting exposed.  These were colorful ornate faces made from wood or paper, a bait to attract innocent people, who were then sacrificed with the belief that their life span would be transferred to the witches grating them immortality. 

However, there are various other theories regarding origin of mask culture in Bengal - one of this propagates that mask wearing started during the time of the great migration that took place in Bengal delta during pre-historic times; another associates masks with symbols of negating geo-political boundaries of the world.

Diverse civilization and cultures met in the Bengal delta. Various races entered India during pre-historic times through the north-west of the Indian sub-continent and lived there until they were driven further east.

The ancient people of Bengal were different in race, culture and language from the Aryans. The original inhabitants of Bengal were non-Aryan. And it is this culture that is largely reflected in Bengal’s long running tradition in mask artistry. Though is a lot of ambiguity about the origin of masks in Bengal, it is evident that masks were of great religious importance owing to the belief in spells. Tribal priests would wear these masks and exhibit various magical skills. 

Thus over the timescale of hundred thousand years, masks became a popular prop in Bengali culture , many of them being used in various dance forms performed to appease the demon gods and to usher in peace as well as prosperity. 

For instance the Gamira mask, which is the ecstatic wooden mask of Kushmandi primarily associated with the Rajbangshi community of the area, is an essential part of the Gamira dance performed in the northern parts of the state. This mask is used to depict various epic characters, of animals such as the tiger and deer as well as of gods and goddesses to act out Mythological stories that are the main theme of this dance. Popularly known as Mukha Khel’ meaning the game of masks this particular dance form is dedicated to Gramchandi, believed to be the saviour of a village. Similarly in other local ritualistic dance like Gambhira or Bakpa we find significant use of masks all establishing the fact that the ancient world treated masks as instruments of revelations - a pathway to the world of gods and other invisible powers - by giving form to the formless. 

Thus though primarily, the industry of mask making was dictated by demands of religious functions, folk theatre and folk dance – yet even in other facets of regular life masks held a special significance.  Owing to its multifarious uses, the kinds of masks in vogue are diverse- each of it fulfilling a particular purpose or function. So while the shola (sponge wood) masks are used often for decorating the deity, especially the mother goddess, the terracotta or the Dokra masks are used for décor and as symbols to ward off an evil eye. The clay masks of kumortoli on the other hand are being used to craft figurines uses in worship or décor purposes. 

The mask artisans shape out the desired model from materials like bamboo, wood, sponge wood, clay, paper, etc. and then paint it with different colours. Each mask has a different craftsmanship technique that is typical to the art form and known only to the select local community of artisans. The Biswa Bangla initiative that aims at reviving, preserving and promoting Bengal’s heritage has preserved all these diverse techniques of mask making and taken initiatives to showcase them under one umbrella. 

The masks of Bengal are acclaimed for their craftsmanship. However no concrete initiative had been taken so far to revive and collate this art form and give it a comprehensive marketing platform. Each of these techniques of mask making survived in localized pockets. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla this signature craft of Bengal is being showcased across the globe with an aim of giving recognition to this art form and at the same time uplifting the life of these talented craftsmen by providing them sustained means of livelihood. 

Jamdani

ong back there was a prince who was known to be a connoisseur of all things fine in life. One day, during his royal travels in the land of Bengal, he met a princess renowned for her ethereal beauty and impeccable taste in clothes. Awestruck with her charm the prince vowed to give up everything to marry her. The prince was no other than the famous Mughal Emperor Jahangir while the princess was Mehr-un-Nissa who was later named as Nur Jahan owing to the aura she shone with when wearing the brilliantly woven Jamdani, which happened to be her favourite attire. 

The story of Jamdani however dates back much before Jahan and Mehr-un-Nissa - The timeline for jamdani can be traced as early as c. 321 -185 BCE.  Megasthenes, Greek ambassador in Chandragupta Maurya's court writes vaguely - "Their robes are worked in gold, and ornamented with various stones, and they wear also flowered garments of the finest muslin."

The finest muslin as Megasthenes calls it refers to one of the most time and labor-intensive forms of handloom weaving, renowned throughout the world as Jamdani. Originally extracted from Karpas cotton and currently worked on cotton-silk blend, Jamdani weaving is like tapestry work where small shuttles of colored, gold or silver threads are passed through the weft. An eco friendly art, Jamdani is spun by hand and foot tools and may take up to 13 months to complete, if two full time weavers work on it. The vibrancy of colours and the richness of motifs help identify a Jamdani from the variety of other handloom produce.

Though the origin of the art remains rooted in Bengal, the name is shrouded in mystery. Some believe it to have originated from Persian language, where Jama relates to cloth and dana means dots. Hence, it refers to a type of dotted cloth which was popularized in the Indian sub-continent by the Muslims. Another version has it that the word comes from the Persian words Jam and Dani which mean a superior variety of liquor and the vessel, respectively. It is said that the female bartenders used to wear a kind of muslin that gave way to this name.

The journey of Jamdani began in the middle era. It was a combination of Parsi and Mughal cultures that bore its fruit in Dhaka and the consequence was to the development ofa special form of jamdani known as Dhakai Jamdani the use of Jamdani was restricted only to the royals and the landed class Though the Jamdani business was monopolized by the Muslims in the early days, it was traded by the Europeans, Iranis, Armenians, Mughals, Pathans and the Baniks later on. It was the most exported item from Bengal in the 17th and 18th century.

One of the traditional weaving forms of Bengal, the art of jamdani making steeply declined with the fall of the Mughal Empire . Slowly the market lost enthusiastic craftsmen because of the imbalance in production cost and entailing wages. While the international market sold it at steep prices the craftsmen earned not enough to sustain themselves. To bridge the gap, Biswa Bangla has steppedforth to uphold and revive the tradition of Jamdani, by providing the community of artisans a lucrative overseas market; a market that will not only sustain their livelihood but promote the art internationally. The aim is not only to restore and revive the near extinct art form but also to ensure that the artisans are empowered and have the means to earn a decent livelihood. 

Kantha - The Art of Story Telling

A poet wanders off to a remote village and meets an old widow; her skin hanging loosely on a bony frame, eyes pale, mouth dry and wrinkled. She sits solitary in the uthon (courtyard) with an enormous rug spread beside her. The poet intrigued, sits down and takes a look at the rug. Mysteries unfold. The rug or the kantha isn’t simply a quilt, it is much like a diary containing scenes and snippets of the old woman’s life – all weaved and stitched, as if one someone has neatly and meticulously drawn her life on a white canvas. 

This famous tale by Abadindranath Tagore talks of an 87 year old woman from Srihatta, Bangladesh, who seemed to have recorded her life story, a period starting from her marriage to old age, in the elaborate Kantha that she had crafted for years. But she is not the only one with a marvelous tale; she is a part of a sorority which has played big role in making kantha an indigenous cottage textile industry of Bengal.

Within the context of Indian embroidery, the kantha is a living tradition. Kantha making in Bengal is a ‘Women’s art’, that has flourished under the creative nuances of rural women of the state. Like cavemen’s depiction of their lives through painting, kantha is also related to story-telling – kanthas in Bengal tell the stories in the daily lives of women of Bengal, each kantha being a chronicle of an individual’s life story.  Not surprisingly thus expressions are often personal and at times whimsical lending the art form a great diversity in terms of patterns, intricacy and structure. 

Take for example the legendary Nakshi Kanthas which is one of the best examples of embroidery from kantha league, done with 50 different stitches. The chief idea is to recycle old and worn out cloth by sewing them meticulously and embellishing them with saree borders, motifs, ritualistic symbols or imaginative scenes. Similarly there is ‘Bostani’ which is the small size and square format kantha used as an all-purpose wrapper and which unlike Nakshi Kanthas uses only three kinds of stitches pattern-darning stitch, satin-stitch and button-hole stitch. It does not boast of intricate detailing but is simpler in design and stitching pattern – what is common however is the aspect of storytelling. The boundary of the kantha’s shape is perhaps the only constraint to the embroiderer, all else is left free to her imagination – to use language and imagery from the storehouse of memory.  The kantha stitcher’s own dreams are patterned in the form of the diverse images that adorn the kantha. 

Kantha quilting is first a domestic, utilitarian art intended for personal use. Whether as an ornate wedding quilt or a simple cover for daily use, the kantha remains one of the most illustrative quilts in India. Kantha takes a number of forms: as quilted bed covers; pillow covers, seats for guests, prayer mats or as padding in bride’s palanquin. The motive of kantha making traditionally was thrift and economy combined with aesthetics, the idea being to utilise old and worn out cloth by sewing them together meticulously with close stitches and embroidering them so that not a single piece of fabric was wasted.

 Today, owing to rapid urbanization and lack of recognition this art of kantha making is a dying art. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla however this near lost art form is being given a platform to be showcased so that the artisans finally get the recognition that they deserve. Various near extinct techniques of kantha making are being researched and restored – new techniques to use the kantha in an innovative fashion are being explored. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla the untold stories of the kantha craft are finally getting to be heard. 

Muslin

Muslin, one of the costliest fabrics in the world, was developed over a challenge - a challenge between a king and a poor artisan.

Several hundred of years ago, a poor old man decided to visit the king with a goal to procure work at his court. Stopped at the gate by the guards, the poor man came up with a sudden trick. He told the guards, that he had something immensely valuable to show the king. Intrigued, the guards took him to the darbar or king’s court.  Unfortunately he had not with him anything that was either expensive or of value. As a punishment the king ordered his men to banish the artisan. Understanding that he was in grave trouble, the poor fellow promised to return to the king’s court after 30 days with an expensive gift, a gift that he challenged the king has possibly never seen.

For 30 days nothing was heard from him. On the 30th day, a haggard old man entered the court. It was the same old artisan who had promised to bring his king an expensive gift. He brought out from his bag a glittering cloth, so soft, light and smooth that it could be pulled easily through the loop of a finger ring. This was indeed a cloth that the king had never seen or heard of in his life. Thus was born the Muslin, an object of desire and a symbol of luxury for Kings and Nawabs of ancient India.

There are many such stories that surround the actual origin of Muslin which remains to be  a much debatable topic for historians. Some historians believe that muslin of the finest weave was found from the excavated sites as the Indus Valley Civilization some 5000 years ago. However, the most acceptable one is that along the reach delta line of river Brahmaputra, grew some fine quality cotton plant.  Craftsmen spun delicate yarns from these plants which they called muslin.

There are also some controversies on the origin of the word Muslin. Some say it was derived from Mosul, an old trade centre in Iraq, while others think that muslin was connected with Musulipattam, sometime headquarters of European trading companies in southern India. Because muslin is not a Persian word, nor Sanskrit, nor Bengali, it is very likely that the name was given by the Europeans to cotton cloth imported by them from Mosul, and when they saw the fine cotton goods of Dhaka, they gave the same name to those fabrics.

History records proofs of Bengal’s muslins being exported to far off Rome under the name ‘textalis-ventalis’ – ‘woven air’ and other fancy names like ‘evening dew’ and ‘morning mist’. The best quality muslins had such fineness that it was a very highly valued item which only the very rich could afford. Involving highly intricate processes of spinning, weaving, darning and washing, the celebrated muslins of Bengal attained the status of an art. A standard piece of fine Bengal muslin measured 60 feet by 3 feet. The textile was so fine that a small hollow bamboo tube could contain a whole piece of the finest muslin.

Unable to compete with machine-made products and because of lack of support to weavers and insufficient market promotion, the muslin industry hit rock bottom sometime in the 19th century. However, this ancient and near extinct trade has now been revived under the aegis of Biswa Bangla which is committed to promote it worldwide again.

Project Muslin is a revival package for this uberfine cotton-thread by the Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Textiles, Government of West Bengal. Its primary objective is to revive the muslin industry and ensure that the artisans get proper returns and appreciation for their unique skills.

West Bengal produces nearly 55% of the muslin made in India. But out of the thousands of muslin weavers that were engaged in this craft, just 780 remain. Project Muslin aims to revive and promote Bengal muslin through a holistic approach like skill development, technology support, design inputs, product diversification, credit linkage, marketing support and encouraging the rural young to take up the craft.

INDO-PORTUGUESE QUILTS AND SHAWLS: Three-way influences merge into one

Indo-Portuguese quilts and shawls hail from a period in history when textile industry of India reached its peak of sophistication. The era coincides with invasions from European colonists, the Mughals' demand for luxury items and a host of new artistic influences. Patronised under great kings like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, the Indo-Portuguese quilts were produced for a select, upper-class clientele in India and abroad although most of them were traded to Europe.

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Later on tussar came to the forefront and became personal favorite to the then Nawabs and their Biwis (wives). Amongst this group the best-known quilts are the monochrome, tussar silk embroidered coverlets made in Satgaon and Hooghly Bengal; specifically called ‘‘Bengalla quilts” and “Satgaon quilts”. The tussar silk embroidered quilt represents one of the most important schools of Indian embroidery, which flourished before the arrival of the Portuguese. Under the patronage of the latter the designs showed strong impressions from Christian biblical sources and Italian Renaissance.

With India’s cottage industry taking a dip in the international market, Indo Portuguese shawl weaving has also witnessed a great set back. The art has suffered mainly because of craftsmen choosing to opt for different livelihoods than investing time in this exhaustive art. To boost the revival of India’s dying traditional art forms, Biswa Bangla has come forward with potential marketing ideas to evoke the lost golden era; this apart, it also aims to showcase India’s innumerable talents to the world.

Balaposh - Quilted to perfection

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Finery and complexity are always intertwined as they set the standards for a high life. Take the faintly fragrant Balaposh for example; whether these silk quilts got the word posh into it for the same reason is for the user to decide. Actually, it's quite hard to differ after you have used one; you won't have too many options.

A surprising thing about the balaposh is its usage as an elegant shawl. This proves furthermore the fine craftsmanship that originated and still exists in Bengal, Murshidabad district. A sweet-scented warmth its characteristic, the balaposh is a spread of layered, attar-scented cotton wool between two layers of silk stitched at the edges.

The Nawabs of Bengal are to be given credits for the advent of the Balaposh in the 18th century. Nawab Sujauddin's sense of perfectionism (then ruler of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa) and his demand for an extravagant quilt is said to be what brought the balaposh into existence. He wanted something that's soft as wool, warm as the lap and gentle like a flower" to wrap himself in. Needless saying, this tall order was way beyond the reach of the then craftsmen of the region, except for one Atir Khan who took a vow to create that exclusive piece. Following the King’s specifications, the balaposh was quilted to perfection. Thus it was born and in its initial years, they only served the Royals. Today as well, the art remains a well-hidden one - a closely guarded legacy carried forward by Sekhawat Hussain Khan, Atir Khan's great-grandson, the only true karigar (craftsman) existing in this near-extinct trade. His production technique is vastly different from the commercialised variety. How the three layers (a thin sheet of attar-scented cotton snuggled between silk two blankets of silk) should be laid is still a mystery to the rest of the world but to one person.

WHAT SETS BALAPOSH APART?

Quilts come and go, but the balaposh is forever! Born in adroit and artful hands, the unsurpassable aesthetics of these lightweight, hand-crafted, exquisite creations never cease to intrigue. It's the quality that distinguishes the balaposh from other quilts and that's more than the stitches along the edges. The real secret is how not to let the middle layer of cotton wool lump up into a ball; so when you are looking at one, remember that just ornamental borders and contrasting colours are not the only defining criteria. They are not least responsible for the characteristic softness and its sublime fragrance wafting through the layers; a true balaposh must seep its sense of posh-ness  into the senses of the one who uses it. The art is, however, in a deplorable state as of now; close to dying and it's the deliberate conservatism of the artisans to blame.

All these years, the art of making balaposh has been passed on as a family heirloom; the only way to save the art is passing it on to the future generations. It's the only way to save the legacy from going extinct and the craft from fading into obscurity.  That's exactly what Biswa Bangla is up to; it has taken the initiative to train artisans on this art form, spearheading to protect the ancient  techniques and production methodologies.

Alongside, Biswa Bangla also aims at empowering and improving the livelihood of traditional craftsmen who, once trained in this art form, will be able to not only carry forward the legacy but shall also learn to sustain themselves on its basis and earn a decent livelihood.