The word ‘Pat’ means ‘piece of cloth’ in Sanskrit. Those who painted on these pats are known as Patuas or Patidars. The Patuas of west Bengal live in the outlaying districts of Medinipur, Birbhum, Purulia, Budwan, Mushidabad, Nadia, Howrah, Hugli and 24 Parghanas. Traditionally their main source of livelihood is based on painting and story telling. Earlier, they moved from house to house performing and telling their stories through paintings and also received a small fee in kind or in cash.
The pats or scrolls narrate both Hindu mythologies and stories of Muslim pirs. There are also larger social, political and secular themes, which are portrayed. It is very interesting to look at the range of themes in the pats. With colonization new themes came up, which were political in nature such as redistribution of land. In recent years, with the intervention of NGOs and individuals engaged in reviving the art form, there has been an upsurge of many other new themes such as- the death of Mother Teresa, HIV prevention, the 9/11 disaster, Gujarat earthquake etc.
Patua art has always been dynamic, constantly changing and adapting to meet the need and interests of audiences. These changes occur due to crisis faced by the Patuas or even due to the changing society or economy itself. It is said that urbanization and advent of other forms of entertainment have swallowed the traditional audience.
The Patuas of Naya were nothing more than an artisan community for me, before I set foot in the small village of West Bengal. I had read about them on the internet and in some books. I had gone on this trip, with certain objectives in mind, as a rational and non-biased researcher. But what unfolded on this journey was much more than a researcher’s quest for ‘information’. It was also a very personal journey of discovering a whole new world of the Patuas, not just as artisans but as people.
The Patuas have been artists and storytellers for generations now. Their art has evolved and adapted over the years. For them, painting is a source of livelihood. They provided a source of entertainment for people, going from house to house, but this has changed over the past few years. Now, their paintings are for sale. The new generation of Patuas has been able to see an influx of huge amounts of money into the community. This money enables them to buy their food, build houses, buy clothes, send children to school, get medical facilities etc. But it is also the same money which has created conflicts and jealousies within families.
The Patuas do not own land, most of them are illiterate and do not have a fixed income. They are, however excellent composers and can document any new phenomena well. But what they still haven’t understood is how the market functions. Since the market is competitive and does not view everybody’s work of art as the same, there is a disparity created between artists. As a result, some Patuas with better contacts in the big cities and business skills are doing well, while, the others are unable to comprehend the phenomena, and this sudden widening of the market. They still want to earn a livelihood through the art, which was earlier not such a complicated affair.
The Pata-chitra, is a very interesting form of art, the themes are varied. From the legend of Durga, Krishna or Manasa to today’s 9/11, or the tribals and their stories, the themes have always been changing and adapting. The pats however are hardly a reflection of their own lives. The paintings also do not have hidden symbolisms or meanings. Most paintings are very self-explanatory and easy to understand. They cater more and more to the needs and tastes of urban audiences. Many of the new themes in the paintings have been made on order or have been commissioned such as the ‘Tsunami’, ‘AIDS awareness’ etc. However it is important to note that the Patuas are the ones who then execute the work with their own imagination and the paintings definitely reflect their own world-view. For example, when they first drew a pat on AIDS awareness, the information given out in the pat was incorrect, it had to be corrected later when the pats were used to spread awareness by organizations.
As I went about interacting with more and more Patuas in the village, I learnt a lot about their lives and their art. The children enjoyed playing with colours which were made at home from leaves and flowers. They learnt the art just by watching their parents. Most children start helping parents at a young age. They hardly go to school after a certain age due to financial constraints and responsibilities at home. Marriages at a young age are still very prevalent within the community.
Some of my most memorable experiences were interacting with the children and the youth. I remember watching an18 year old girl paint. She was so happy to see me, and excited to tell me about her life. Unlike a lot of other girls in the village, she was extremely ambitious. She wanted to travel abroad and be famous. And yet it seemed that she was burdened by the responsibilities of her home. She had a 3 year old son to look after and had to run her house. This was the status of most young women in the village. There was so much energy and talent within them, just trying to find some space.
Most Patuas try to make ends meet by doing various other small jobs. Such as working in the fields of Hindu landowners, some are rickshaw pullers, making small clay-dolls. Few have even gone to the cities to find jobs. However, Naya is slowly becoming the hub of the most flourishing Patua artists, unlike a lot of other villages where the Patuas stay.
At the end of my stay with the Patuas, I had built personal relationships and had got a glimpse into their community. I had seen another side of life, where painting and art meant life. I remember watching them sing or just explaining their paintings, it brought such joy to their faces. They enjoyed singing and even though painting is a matter of livelihood for them, yet it manages to bring out the lighter side of life. I came back with many questions unanswered, many new questions in mind, and memories of the different kinds of people I had met. Somehow, I could not understand how a small pat that I had brought back with me, to be hung in my room, could ever reflect or encompass within it the story of where the pat was comes from.