Down the ages, the Ramayana has retained its distinct ethnic flavour in the rural backyards of West Bengal. One of the oldest forms of the ancient epic is traditional scroll art. This oral tradition of folk art rendered by a community of itinerant painters, or chitrakars, is a complete performance in itself.
The episodes, steeped in colour, drama and earthy fervour are recounted through rolled out paintings in long scrolls called pata chitra, in tandem with the corresponding pata gaan or repertoire sung by patua artistes. Although the artistes have largely retained the conventional interpretation of the Ramayana, they exercise their own rationale in their depiction of the protagonists. This is especially evident with the women painters and their unmistakable empathy for Sita.
The tradition of singing pictures, passed on down the generations, survives largely in the villages of Medinipur and Birbhum and adjoining districts. Since pata chitra is not static but performing pictures, it has an audio visual impact on its audience. And so, even if scroll painting has lost out to the growing influence of cinema and television in urban areas, for the rural population of these interior villages it is still a popular form of entertainment. The content of the paintings or ‘picturisation’ of subjects is akin to cinema.
The Ramayana occupies centrestage in choice of subject for the patua artists of Medinipur, largely due to its dramatic value. According to tradition here, the epic is broadly divided into three parts. The first includes the Rama Vanvas and Sita Haran (exile of Rama and abduction of Sita), the second is the Lanka Dahan (burning of Lanka), while the third and concluding cycle is Ravana Badh (the slaying of Ravana).
But what is really fascinating is the art of patua storytelling — the manner in which the episodes are built, eventually reaching a crescendo in full theatrical glory.
It’s a rare experience watching a group of patua artistes perform the Ramayana, especially if they’re from the village of Thekuchak in West Midnapur district of West Bengal. From a group of about five-six, a lead singer usually sings a line which is then repeated by the other singers. In some cases, light cymbals are used to emphasise the beat, but the narration is normally without the embellishment of musical instruments.
Ganesh Chitrakar and his team are getting ready for their performance of the day. A slightly elevated piece of land on the outskirts of the village makes up the stage. The audience trickles in. Ganesh is trying to set the ambience with the episode on Lakshman and Surpanakha (Ravana’s sister).
Taking his scroll, Ganesh begins the narration whilst simultaneously pointing to the corresponding paintings: “… (translated) Surpanakha transforms herself into a beautiful woman and approaches Lakshman… but Lakshman is not deceived… he instantly sees that she is a demon in human form… his hands reach for his sword… and before he knows what he is doing he chops off Surpanakha’s nose… she screams… she flees to Lanka to her brother Ravana… king of Lanka… she is bleeding… she cries out to her brother and her enchanter uncle Maricha… ‘avenge my insult… kill Lakshman and capture Rama alive’…”
Ganesh’s pitch rises; so do cheers from the audience. Their day is made. The Chitrakar team expects to earn enough to last them the next few days.
Patua repertoires reflect a continuity brought about through the use of key frames inserted at the beginning and at the end of an episode that lead on to the next series of events. Hence, a Ramayana narration is seldom completed in one sitting, as one episode flows into another. Further, a recital of the Ramayana by patua artistes is expected to induce mangal or wellbeing in local households.
The dusty road outside Thekuchak village lead us to a series of mud-baked huts each one a treasure trove of this traditional art form that has been preserved down the ages. In one of the huts, a small boy aged between 5-6 years is seated on a bamboo mat spread out in the courtyard. On a course off-white sheet, he is trying to scribble a sketch of Jatayu, the mythical vulture in the Ramayana. The experienced eyes of his grandfather, Madusudan Chitrakar, follow the boy’s naive strokes as he tutors him enthusiastically, helping him improve his drawing.
“My grandson Sushanto is the sixth generation of patua artistes,” says Madusudan proudly. To this, an encouraged Sushanto blurts out the narrative of Jatayu which he has already memorised. Translated, it reads: “When Sita stepped out of the circle, Ravana abducted her… took her in his chariot… Then Jatayu, friend of Rama, began to fight with Ravana to save Sita… But Ravana shot a special arrow and the bird fell to the ground dead…”
“I had already started my paintings from the age of nine,” says Shovon, Sushanto’s father.
In another home, we find two sisters Pakhi and Parul stirring colours in hollow coconut shells, ready to begin work. They tell us the secret of their scintillating colours. “We use only vegetable dyes derived from nature,” says Pakhi. The leaves of the broad bean plant give the colour green that is used to paint sketches of Rama. Blue/grey is derived from indigo which is the unmistakable colour of Ravana, in their paintings. Grated turmeric forms the characteristic yellow colour used to paint the figure of Lakshman. Sita, on the other hand, dons red or various shades of brown prepared from the extract of betel leaves, hibiscus flowers, vermillion, and burnt clay from earthen ovens mixed with several ingredients in varying proportions. According to Parul, powdered conch shells is used for the colour white, besides adding a gloss to the other colours.
An elderly patua artist — Shyamsunder Chitrakar — from Naya village (yet another hub for scroll art in Medinipur district) offers his explanation for the choice of colours used to paint the protagonists of the epic. Since green is largely identified with resurrection and regeneration, it is ideally suited for Rama — for the ultimate revival of goodness from evil. Sita meanwhile is the daughter of the earth and hence is painted in shades ranging from red to variants of brown. These colours (red in particular) also symbolise feminine feelings, Shyamsunder points out. The colour yellow expresses exuberance and optimism, all of which we associate with Lakshman. Shyamsunder puts forward an interesting explanation for the use of blue for Ravana. Though in the traditional Ramayana, Ravana is seen as the epitome of evil, Chitrakars do not necessarily view him in a completely negative light. “He was a scholar and a devout worshipper of Lord Shiva,” says Shyamsunder, “hence there were obviously streaks of goodness in him too. Blue, therefore, suits him well.”