The atmosphere on the streets of south Kolkata’s Bhawanipur is buzzing with anticipation and excitement for the biggest festival in every Bengali’s year. The lanes are cluttered with posters and banners for the upcoming five-day gala and inside the pandal, where preparations are on in full swing, three artists are busy painting canvases with images of Parvati, Shiva, Ganesha, Ram, Sita, et al. Clad in a floral sari, matching green bangles, a black dupatta draped around the shoulders, a middle-aged woman is busy finishing painting the top knot of Lord Shiva.
Led by Swarna Chitrakar, 48, seven members of this Muslim family is responsible for the decorations of this year’s puja pandal at Rupchand Mukherjee Lane’s Sarbojanin Puja. While it may be a surprise to many that the painters of the Hindu gods and goddesses across the pandal are Muslims, this is not that unusual in West Bengal during the auspicious Durga Puja, when hundreds come together to beautify the city to welcome the goddess, and religious differences play no role.
The artists, who have been in town for the last couple of days, are residents of the state’s famous pottery village of Pingla in Paschim Medinipur. The village is known for its Patachitra and Pater Gaan — unique cultural traditions of Bengal. It is home to more than 250 Patachitra painters, or ‘Patuas’, living in Naya Gram in Pingla. The artisans – known as the chitrakars (painters) – are a unique tribe of folk artists, who are not only painters but also lyricists, singers and performers — all in one. They paint narratives from Hindu mythology on leaf scrolls called “pata” and sing along with the visuals to explain and provide an in-depth story.
Swarna Chitrakar has been a pata-artist all her life and has learnt the art from her father. Talking to indianexpress.com, the 48-year-old says it all comes quite naturally now. “We are ‘patua’ and that is our identity, it’s true we follow the faith of Islam but that is it.” The mother of five daughters says the artform has been in the family for generations, and she doesn’t know who had started the tradition of painting Hindu gods and goddess and narrating scripts from the Ramayan and Mahabharat.
“Our father’s or grandfather’s generation did face problems from the community and they objected to us singing and narrating stories from Ramayan and other Hindu fables, but now we have moved ahead. It’s really not a big deal now,” she says.
All her daughters have been married within the Patua community as she hopes to keep the traditional art alive. “Earlier, there may have been a reservation about our daughters getting married outside the community but not so much now. People from outside now want their daughters to marry our sons, maybe seeing the exposure and respect we get.” A renowned artist, who has merged the Pingla artwork with the Kalighat Patachitra style, has given rise to a beautiful amalgamation and has travelled around the conducting workshops even in the prestigious Brown University, US.
When the curator of the pandal Saumik Chakraborty visited Pingla in search of artists to turn his concepts into reality, he visited many homes, checking out the many artists. But when he finally came across the work of Swarna Chitrakar, he was mesmerised. “Her work was so good and unique, her technique…how she merged both the stylistic of Kaligat pot and Mednipur pot is mind-blogging,” Chakraborty said over the telephone. “Seeing her art we even cancelled our drawings of the idol and now it has been build in her style.” Moved by her art, the
Moved by her art, the organisers have named the theme of this year’s puja as ‘Swarna Chitra — Sonar meye r anka chobi (paintings by the golden girl)’, to honour the artist.
Another female artist is at the helm of creating the larger-than-life idol. Piyali Sadhukhan is making the colourful and beautiful idol based on Chitrakar’s drawings. “As Durga Puja is a festival to honour the power and strength of a woman, it was only apt that these two women lead and carry out the project,” Chakraborty said.
For this year’s Durga Puja, they have painted scenes from Chandi-mongol, Ganesh janma, Akal Bodhan from the Ramayan and other similar stories. The songs that have been passed down from one generation to other orally have been recorded for this grand occasion. There is no such repository of written lyrics that has been maintained but the songs remain alive through their singing and performances. “It’s not as exciting to read and learn the songs and it requires much more effort, instead of singing it together is easy and is quite enjoyable,” Swarna Chitrakar says, explaining how they keep the ancient performing art alive.
The works in the pandal have been done with eight artists, all related to Chitrakar. Along with her husband Shambho Chitrakar and daughter Sonali, nephew Hashir and sons-in-law — Uttam, Rakhibul, Sameer, Samir — too have participated. Though traditionally they use vegetable dye and natural colours to paint, they have used acrylic and fabric colours to draw on the canvases for the mandap.