Updated: April 25, 2020 7:06:52 pm
Amid the gloom of the pandemic and the frustrations of isolation, the role of art and artistes have become more central to people’s lives, whether they realise it or not. From creating awareness to making political statements, Covid-19 has become a subject of topical and attention-grabbing art across the globe. From beautiful murals dedicated to health professionals to opera performances via video conferencing — art has been used as a poignant tool to convey important messages. A recent entry to that list, a Patachitra on the pandemic by veteran artist Swarna Chitrakar from Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal, is going viral.
Patachitra is a unique folk tradition — a perfect amalgamation of aural and visual storytelling. For generations, Patachitra artists known as ‘Patuas’ have been painting and composing songs on social issues to easily pass on meaningful information.
Bengal Patachitra is known for its long scrolls depicting a story, where several frames are painted to narrate different parts of the tale with vivid imageries, explained through a catchy tune. Chitrakar, in her early 50s, has painted a detailed narrative with figures donning not just masks but even PPE suits to capture the mayhem and sadness caused by the virus outbreak. A big monster in red depicts the virus.
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The word ‘Pata’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Patta’, meaning cloth, while ‘Chitra’ refers to painting. In Patachitra, stories are painted as frames vertically, and the Patuas gradually unfurl them while presenting the story through their songs. The songs are known as ‘Pater Gaan’.
For her recent work, the artist painted an elaborate seven-frame scroll and composed a song with all relevant information. From highlighting how the virus may have originated in China but the sufferings are felt throughout the globe, through her recent artwork, the award-winning artist talks about a ‘universal pain’. And that’s not all. In her vibrant and informative artwork, she talks about different precautionary measures along with the selfless work and sacrifices by medical professionals.
“It took me about 15 days to write the lyrics, compose the song and paint the scroll,” Chitrakar told from her village, Pingla. She got help from her husband, who prepared all the colours and natural dyes, extracted from flowers and plants. Pingla is famous for its Patachitra and Pater Gaan — unique cultural traditions of Bengal and is home to more than 250 Patachitra artists.
Although Patuas mostly paint and sing on various themes like mythological tales, contemporary and social issues too have evolved in recent times.
The artist said the scale of the pandemic made it hard to ignore. “Every conversation in the world is currently dominated by this infectious disease, and seeing everyone go through the same pain, I thought I too must do something to capture that as well as use it to raise awareness,” she said over the telephone.
“In the past, I have painted and composed songs on other diseases like Tuberculosis, HIV-Aids among others issues. So, I used my prior knowledge to make this new artwork,” she added.
Her over 7-minute long song not only talks about the problems but also solutions and measures taken. From highlighting how lockdown helped to flatten the curve to different initiatives taken by state and central government, her latest Patachitra covers it all.
“I know, lockdown is essential, but so many people have been left without jobs and are being pushed into poverty. So, I thought it was important to highlight why no one should die in hunger while already being scared of the disease,” added the artist who has travelled the world.
The mother-of-five daughters, all Patuas, shared what a relief it was that she hadn’t travelled recently. “My daughters keep telling me, it’s good I wasn’t abroad, or I wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the country, forget the village. They say, they would have just cried and without seeing me,” she said. Chitrakar who is revered around the world for creating a unique style of her own — merging the styles of both Kalighat Patachitra and Medinipur Patachitra, has conducted workshops and exhibited her works at various prestigious institutions.
“I was supposed to travel to the US, my daughters were scheduled to go to Australia but all plans have been cancelled now. I still have some savings and can help my family, but there are many poor artists in our village who are struggling to make ends meet,” she informed.
The artist said some artists in the village have been getting the free ration announced by West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee for the low-income families, but other than that no additional measures have been taken up for them.
“There are some small NGOs and groups that operate here, they have been inquiring about our wellbeing regularly. Today, our Patua para received a donation of essential supplies — from rice to lentils and even soap,” she added.
However, despite all the gloom, she continues to be optimistic. “I just hope we all can defeat this virus. If we are all well and alive, he can perform and earn once again by travelling the world, just like before,” she said.
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