There are nearly 2,000-2,500 patua families scattered in the villages of Medinipur and in a few pockets in the interiors of Birbhum and Murshidabad districts.
Even though, traditionally, it is a male artist who draws the main outline of the characters, with the women and children of the household filling in the colours, women patua artists are emerging in their own right. Making waves in national and international circles is Moyna Chitrakar, a celebrity scroll painter from this village. The graphic novel Sita’s Ramayana not only uses this traditional art form through her illustrations but depicts the epic in the first person, from Sita’s perspective.
The narrator in this rendition of the epic is Sita.The novel opens at the point where the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her plight, she recounts the events leading up to her condition. It begins with Rama’s exile into the forest, followed by her abduction, and the war thereafter. Throughout, the episodes are narrated as seen through Sita’s eyes. For instance, after her abduction the story does not move to Rama meeting Hanuman; instead, it describes Sita’s imprisonment in Lanka and Hanuman’s appearance.
The first pages remind us that Sita is not only Rama’s wife but also “daughter of the earth,” who has made her own choices in life and who has her own opinions to voice on the events that follow. Unlike in the traditional Ramayana, Sita’s voice as depicted by Moyna is a feminist one that empathises with other victimised women in the story — Surpanakha, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. About the Surpanakha incident, for instance, Sita claims: “As violence breeds violence, an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped Lakshman. Instead, he spurred him on.”
Other female characters too are presented in a strong light. After Bali, the monkey king of Kiskindha, is killed by Rama Sugriva acquires both his kingdom as well as his wife Tara. Tara questions Rama: “I have just been made a widow and now I am to be a bride. All this in the course of a single day! Is this right or just, Rama?”
“Had Sita or the other female characters been there today, they would obviously not have been as meek and submissive as portrayed in the traditional Ramayana. It is natural for them to be more assertive and discerning,” say Pakhi and Parul, justifying Moyna’s feminist concept of the Ramayana. “We women try to draw courage from such episodes. Being surrounded by so many dangers, we also have to voice our concerns,” they add.
Have a look at Moushumi’s photographs in our photo essay section!
Moushumi Basu is a documentary film maker and lives in Kolkatta.