After a war, comes hope. It explains why families still wait for their boys to come back home from the Indo-Pak War of 1971. And why, at sunset every day, people gather at the Wagah border to look at the other side of the gate. In the penumbra of desperate faith, Kolkata-based filmmaker Supriyo Sen has found some of his deeply moving stories — the film about families of PoWs is called Hope Dies Last in War and the one about the border gates is titled Wagah. When Sen took his parents to Bangladesh, the homeland they had left 50 years ago, and documented it in a film titled Way Back Home in 2003, his reputation as a “partition filmmaker” had already been sealed. It is a lesser-known fact that Sen’s oeuvre also stretches to the other extreme of life — art — and he spent some of his early years as a filmmaker visiting a village called Naya in the Midnapore district of West Bengal, which is home to generations of scroll painters. His latest film, Unfolding the Pata Story, is a part of a trilogy of films on the subject.
Pata art, in which stories unfold through a series of paintings, was facing extinction like many other traditional forms. “My 1997 film The Dream of Hanif, is about a man called Dukhushyam Chitrakar, who refused to give up. Twelve years later, I made Rupban, about a woman who had stemmed the decline of pata art by adjusting to the demands of a globalised world. How many traditional art forms have a positive story today?” says Sen, before a screening of film as part of Delhi-based film organisation PSBT’s Open Frame festival of documentary films.
Unfolding the Pata Story begins with wide view of a field covered by hard stumps of paddy after harvest and a song in a crackling male voice. This is Dukhushyam, the hero of The Dream of Hanif, who sings of the exile of Lord Rama as illustrated in his scroll. A few minutes later, he says, “The pata has three aspects — painting, music and story. If one of them is not perfect, then the pata is not perfect. A pata is not a painting, it is a live painting, it has stories.”
In 52 minutes, the film takes viewers into the homes of various chitrakars, whose walls and lives are alive with paintings. When Rani Chitrakar talks about the past, travelling in the rain with her patua father to earn enough for a “bit of rice”; and Swarno Chitrakar recounts how a pata painting by her sold for Rs 1.65 lakh at an auction in New York — they chart the trajectory of the art.
Other protagonists complete the story, from struggle to adapting to market realities (subjects for pata art now include HIV and the Delhi gang rape). Between conversations about art, viewers also learn about women’s education and early marriage, the influence of religion on art and the changing dynamics of feminism. “I had gone to film a story on pata painting, I did not know that it was also a story of feminism. Women have been at the forefront of this traditional art form. When we talk of ‘changing India’, a term that has been used many times in the last decade, we refer to urban areas, yet, here, women have negotiated gender gaps and kept their art alive,” says Sen.
A political activist during his student days and a journalist for a while later, Sen soon realised that his place was behind the camera. “Pata is so common to Bengal that I began exploring the subject only out of general interest,” he says. When he made The Dream of Hanif, Sen found in Dukhushyam’s conflict between tradition and the market, a metaphor for his own life. “I would ask myself, ‘should I respond to the market or stay true to my artistic ideals?’,” he recalls. Sen remained in contact with the patuas, which is evident in the casual way in which they speak into the camera. “That spontaneity would be difficult to achieve if I didn’t know them very well,” he says.
Sen has won won several National Awards, as well as awards at the Berlin Film Festival and Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and the BBC Audience Award at Commonwealth Film Festival, among others. In Patuapara (the village of patuas), their reward is that youngsters are scrambling to learn the art. Here, hope has won.