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Image courtesy of MOIFA.

Village of Painters: From West Bengal to New West

If a scroll painting depicted a narrative of Frank Korom’s formative years, it might include the following scenes: A boy in rural Pennsylvania leafs through the pages of National Geographic, the books of Rudyard Kipling, and a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, which introduced millions to Eastern spirituality; A teenager is enthralled by the music of the Beatles and, especially, George Harrison’s sitar; After high school, a young man travels to Nepal, hikes around in the shadow of Mount Everest and spends nine blissful months wandering the Indian subcontinent.

“That trip sealed my fate.” Korom recalls, “When I came back, I decided to save for college, moved to Colorado and enrolled in a BA program at CU-Boulder, where I majored in religion and anthropology, with a concentration on South Asia.” Although he went on to serve as curator of Asian and Middle Eastern collections for Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art from 1993 to 1998 and write numerous books, Korom never forgot the Patuas he met in Kolkata in 1989.

The Patuas, also known as chitrakars (picture makers) are an indigenous group of Bengalis who specialize in the production of painted narrative scrolls and the performance of songs to accompany the scrolls’ unrolling. The scrolls resemble elaborate storyboards, with frames painted to depict key scenes.

  Patuas make most of their paint using materials that grow in their native land or that they can purchase at local markets: Yellow comes from turmeric root; green from bean leaves; red from pomegranate juice; and black from burnt rice ground into powder. Traditionally, they apply the paint with brushes made from squirrel tails or the bristles of billy goats, but synthetic brushes and paints are becoming common.

The scrolls are similar to elaborate storyboards, teeming with human and animal portraiture and bearing resemblance to Latin-American religious folk art, particularly santos. The narratives are usually laden with religious, social, or historical motifs and tell stories that play out on what look like long, narrow runners. The scrolls are actually made from many sheets of paper sewn together. Each sheet depicts a single frame of the story. A patterned border adorns the edges and helps conceal the stitching.

The songs that accompany the finished scrolls provide a narrative and a vitality that makes no two performances the same, “Although these days the … [scrolls] are painted primarily for commercial purposes, such as sale to pilgrims or tourists, the scroll paintings were not originally intended for sale,” writes Frank Korom in his book. “Instead, a Patua would use the finished product as a prop for his singing performances.”

“Here were these really poor guys and they knew that foreign students were here and they came and showed their scrolls and tried to sell them to us,” Korom says. “I liked what I saw I couldn’t really afford anything, and when I said so, I was told, ‘if you don’t like, I’ll make you something about whatever you want.’ These guys were savvy, they knew how to find clientele, but most intriguing, they could take this traditionally visual and verbal art form and apply it to any situation. I made a resolve to do a study on these people.”

The result was Korom’s 2006 book Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal and the exhibit by the same name currently showing at MOIFA until April 29 . Korom, now an associate professor of religion and anthropology at Boston University, serves as guest curator of the exhibit, which features 41 painted scrolls and some video footage of the artists performing songs.

Korom made four visits to West Bengal over five years to conduct research for the book and exhibit. He spent almost 12 months total in Naya, a rural village with a sizeable Patua population.

I have never seen any foreigners in this region of West Bengal,” says Korom. “It just isn’t hip or exotic enough to attract tourists to leave the well trodden path and explore something new.” Though the fair-skinned, blond-headed professor may have looked out of place, he didn’t feel that way. “The people were so warm and inviting that it always felt like a second home to me,” says Korom. “As one grandmother told me as I was leaving in 1993, ‘Saral [Frank], others come and go, but you always come back. You are like one of us!’”

It Takes a Village

As early as the 12th century, records show that the Patuas were low caste Hindu (and possibly Buddhist) itinerants who sang and showed their scrolls for bowls of rice. Sometime in the 13th century, angry Brahmans (a high caste of priests that determined artistic codes) kicked the Patuas out of social standing. Relegated to a position almost as low as the “untouchables,” the Patuas converted to Islam. But because Islam frowns on religious iconic imagery and songs of praise, the Muslim community did not embrace them.

The Patuas sought patronage—and took their religious cues—wherever they were received. Ultimately, they learned to survive on the fringes of society, where overlapping and sometimes contradicting cultural elements influenced their trade.

Korom chose Naya as the focal point for his research because it has one of West Bengal’s largest Patua concentrations. Of the 447 families who live in Naya today, 39 are Patua. They live in a cluster of ramshackle houses that form their hamlet. The first person Korom met when he stepped off the bus in Naya was a Patua man. That man, Gurupada Chitrakar, became Korom’s close friend, and he is one of the 15 artist featured in the MOIFA exhibit.

Patua artists still use traditional methods to paint traditional subject matter, such as stories of Hindu gods and Muslim saints. But, in fitting with their history of adaptation, they have updated their repertoire with contemporary subjects.

Tradition in Transition

In December 2001, Korom made his first research trip to West Bengal. During this first week in Naya, he attended a traveling theater troupe’s dramatic interpretation of the events of 9/11. In a land where frequent natural disasters take scores of human lives and where some anti-American sentiment exists, Korom sensed that 9/11 did not carry the same emotional urgency that it did in the Western world. It did, however, inspire the attending Patuas to incorporate the 9/11 story into their artwork.

“I have always been amazed by how innovative and creative the Patuas are,” Korom says. “They can take something completely out of their realm of experience and convert it into an interesting story that has local, contemporary appeal.” Patua artists have created works that address such subjects as HIV prevention, the December 2004 tsunami that struck India’s eastern coast, and the environmental efforts of organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.

During his time in Naya, Korom came to see some of the contemporary challenges the Patuas face in preserving their tradition, including urbanization and the lure of jobs in faraway cities. In Village of Painters, he writes, “Those who continue to perform the hereditary occupation of the caste, as many in Naya indeed do, find themselves sitting on the concrete sidewalks of Kolkata, in lobbies of five-star hotels, and at craft fairs all around India and even abroad selling their scrolls rather than singing about them.”

Though globalization brings a wider audience to the art, “it compels the artists to mass-produce scrolls to sell for cash, which results in a deterioration of quality,” Korom says.

Patua-inspired coffee mugs are not yet for sale at Starbucks, but reconciling an age-old folk tradition with the potential for economic empowerment and creative expression remains a concern for the Patua people and those who appreciate their work. Korom is optimistic. “I have hope for the future, since some Patuas continue to innovate while remaining guardians of the tradition,” he says.

As Korom’s time in Naya drew to a close, the art scholar became art subject. Artist Rabbani Chitrakar depicted Korom in Saraler Patua Svapna (“Frank’s Patua Dream”), a scroll that documents his trips to Naya. In one frame, Korom rides into the village on an elephant. In the final frame, he departs India in an airplane bound for the U.S. In time, some of the Patuas and their scrolls would follow him to Santa Fe to give others a look at their way of life in India.

This story appeared in the January/February issue of New Mexico Journey Magazine. It is used with permission.

About Ben Ikenson

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One comment

  1. Awesome story, ben…
    Great work.