A traditional folk form from West Bengal and Orissa found its way into the city recently, in the form of an exhibition and performance of patachitras (‘cloth-pictures’). Artists Radha and Khadu Chitrakar performed at 1 Shanti Road, and practise the patachitra form, which involves combining song and sight for a rich, audio-visual storytelling result.
Khadu and Radha both come from artist families. Khadu said his ancestors wandered from village to village, with paintings on scrolls. “They would use bamboo or wood to slowly turn the scroll and reveal more of the story.” Their children, too, are involved in the form – one of their four sons replicates Radha’s paintings on terracotta pots.
The subject matter of patachitras often involves popular mythology, such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. But the couple began to soon feel the need for more contemporary subjects in their work. “Mythological stories are old. There was a need for today’s stories,” Khadu said, relating that audiences would demand new subject matter. “The villagers in our audience started to get bored of the repetition. They would say ‘I know this. Tell us something new’”.
So the themes shifted, to more relatable stories to do with nature or the animal world, and even world events such as the 2004 tsunami or the 2001 attacks in the United States of America. “All these figure in our art now”.
Radha counts a story about Goddess Durga and one about the wedding of a fish as her favourites. For her, a typical painting takes not less than two months, with several even taking up to four months for completion. Displaying one vivid, detailed painting, she explained that the colours were all natural, using ingredients such as turmeric or other vegetable dyes. Khadu learned his singing by following his father around for performances. “He would come back in the evenings and make me sing,” he reminisced.
Radha, too, learned from her father and maternal uncle. Khadu’s father taught the patachitra style of painting in the village in exchange for rice. He laments that with very little resources remaining, his family was not able to attend school. “We have only studied till class four. So we are a bit weak in other things. This is the only thing we can do.”
But Khadu and Radha are happy that their art is finding takers in cities. “Delhi, Bombay, Nagpur, Bangalore...some awareness has been created, that this is the folk art from Bengal,” Khadu said. Their village Naya, in the West Midnapore area in West Bengal, is a village of artisans. Around 50 families exist, and most practice the patachitra form for a living. “Those who cannot, they do some cultivation. The livelihood is not much.”