A scroll down the art tradition of Bengal

The Kalighat School of Bengal Art has been a glory of Bengal's culture. Noted Bengal painters like Jamini discovered their style in Kalighat paintings. By around 1925, Roy began experimenting along the lines of the Kalighat idiom, and by the early 1930s he had made a complete switch to indigenous materials. He was fascinated by the indigenous art of Kalighat painting. The bold simplicity, linear flow began to suffuse his work.

Artist Archana Hande has recaptured an important element of Bengal cultural heritage, the pata paintings (Pata chitra). She has encapsulated the fascinating art form by documenting its history and the present plight in a video art documentary, 'Tales of the Pata Chitrakars'. She has chronicled the art and artists' struggle.

It has taken her two years to produce the documentation of the exquisite paintings that are characterized by religious and social motifs and imageries. These feature all the traditional qualities of Bengal folk art. This art is addressed to a culturally homogeneous public that is accustomed to the images. Once extremely popular and popular, it is now mostly confined to museums.

A large number of Pata artists from the western districts of Bengal started migrating to the city of Kolkata from the beginning of the 19th century and settled in and around the city. Many of them settled around Kalighat. The essentially rural art form underwent a change under the impact of the urban milieu.

A new hybrid style of Pata painting originated and developed, mainly under the influence of the then European artists and their art-works. The artists then designed not only to educate the masses but also to earn their living. That put extra pressure on the artists who found it difficult to survive. They took to lithography to raise their productivity.

These paintings were not just the product of a particular era; they constituted the mirror of the times. The style shows unique formal simplification and superb color orchestration. It features all the traditional qualities of Bengal folk art. Black lines around the contours show linear divisions within the form. The palette contains pure pigments and vegetable dyes.

Archana Hande has dug deep into history to depict how these scroll painters combine their oral songs, passed from one generation to another, with the age-old style of Pata painting. They are now mostly concentrated in a village called Noya in Midnapur, West Bengal. Pat making is still prevalent though there is a considerable decline in its popularity. Most of the members of the community have shifted to other and more lucrative professions. The rest who have stuck to the artistic tradition are struggling to keep it alive. Hande has brought out their struggle vividly through her documentation.

It was only after several meetings the artists opened up and interacted with Hande for her project. It took a while for her to win their faith. All these painstaking efforts have ensured that the work is not just a plain documentation of the art. Hande, as she puts it, has reacted to them, as a fellow artist would do.

Employing her artistic sensibility, Hande has given a human touch to her project. She has used an innovative visual format to narrate their tale. By using a split screen broken into seven separate images, she has made her digital art project to resemble a pata chitra scroll similar to a series of rectangular frames in vertical format of a scroll painting that depict the sequences as the artist unfolds them - frame by frame - adding an element of drama to it with his lively narration. He rhymes a narration around an episode of some Hindu mythology that imparts a moral lesson.

These painters are keen on giving a contemporary touch to their work, responding to political situations like the Afghan war, the Gujarat carnage and 9/11 in their narratives. Having maintained detailed account of her interaction with the humble artists, Hande is keen on publishing them along with the illustrated story of the art and the artists.

'Tales of the Pata Chitrakars' is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art from October 20.

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