- 1 Chitra is a Bengali word for “picture”; pata or patachitra are ways of naming paintings.
- 2 This article is based on a study of the MNE Bengali patachitra collection, which I conducted in 200 (...)
- 3 Chitrakar means “the one who paints”. It is also the common surname of a group of people also known (...)
1Patua patrachitras are a component of an ancient Bengali narrative art, originally serving as a visual device during the performance of a song.1 The activity is a form of storytelling used in itinerant shows traditionally performed by patua men in their own village and throughout their region. Through the current collection of patua paintings from the village of Naya at the National Museum of Ethnology (henceforth MNE) in Lisbon, I discuss cosmopolitan impressions that emerge from the work of rural patuas.2 I will particularly focus on the recent emergence of chitrakar women as painters and performers of this folk craft, examining their current activity in an expanded market.3
2I begin by summarising the acquisition process of the current MNE patachitra collection, since this will make it possible to situate the actors, paintings and events under discussion, and to present a series of circulations and encounters between people, paintings and places. I then highlight some of the recent trajectories of the main painters represented in the MNE collection, a group of chitrakar women who have formed a cooperative since 2001. The women painters are based in Naya, a village situated in an agricultural region relatively close to Kolkata, the capital city of the West Bengal state. I will design a manifold map showing the dialectical conjuncture of internal and external factors interweaving differently with local, regional, national and international flows, informing various traces found in Naya patuas’ contemporary paintings.
- 4 Cf. Rapport and Stade, 2007, and also Rapport, 2007: 109.
3Since I will be discussing this group of women painters and this community of storytellers through their various encounters with the world, I consider cosmopolitanism as a relationship mutually constituted between local and global dimensions (Beck, 2002). But in order to assess cosmopolitan impressions as they relate to these women, their paintings and their occasional performances, I will sketch more than a landscape of connections and impacts. I will discuss meanings underlying these various trajectories and encounters and show that they are rooted both in people’s will and in each person’s confrontation with themselves and others. In this way, I strongly identify with Rapport & Stade in their discussion about cosmopolitanism and their perspective based on the agency of individuals within structural dimensions.4
- 5 For the household production dimension in Naya, see the family tree of patua artisans in the villag (...)
4I must also underline the particular patua artisans that I am bringing to the centre of the discussion, the women, as following the traces and trails of patua men instead would tell the story in a different way. Women provide a useful thread to follow the current proliferation of the patachitra craft, because becoming a patua has turned to be a successful activity to some of them and is therefore one of the recent changes that should be examined. Also, to focus on women is not to deny the relevance of men, particularly in the case of an art form that is very much based on household production and on learning to paint and sing from a patua master.5 I will therefore approach men from the perspective of the different ways they appear to relate to the current state of the activity of Naya patua women.
5The study that follows will be based on a combination of sources from academia, museums and the media; books, films, journals, newspapers articles, blogs and websites. Since this choice under-represents more informal venues of dissemination of contemporary patua art, it presents a methodological limitation. Despite this varying degree of visibility between local and global reach, I will give special attention to the specific network in which these people and their paintings circulate in the real and the virtual world, in their lives, and in the writings and imaginations of others as well, the places they occupy in the contemporary world, discussing the implications of the “cosmopolitan tradition” that exists in Naya.
6Generally, not only does the work of patua women currently fall under different categories depending on the specific context it navigates, their current activity is also composed of specific interrelations between different dimensions of the patua art and craft—painting, singing and selling. It is by revealing these interrelations that I historically situate events related to patua art and broaden the contextual understanding of the current patua craft in Naya. My approach will involve an exploration of uniquely constructed notions of rural locality, tradition and change related to this community.
7Naya Patua Mahila Unnayan Samiti (Naya Patua Women’s Self-Help Association) is one of several cooperatives in Naya (Korom, 2006), a village about 60 kilometres from Kolkata. It represents the artisans who created the approximately two dozen patua paintings acquired by the MNE in early 2007 (ill. 1). The transaction was carried out by Lina Fruzzetti and Ákos Östör, both academic researchers based in the United States. Between 2001 and 2005, while conducting research and shooting their award-winning documentary film Singing Pictures (ill. 2-3), they acquired the paintings locally from the artisans who had created them. Their film, set in the village of Naya, places the contemporary activity surrounding the patua craft in the context of the day-to-day lives of several women in the cooperative.
The main authors of the MNE collection at a meeting of a women’s association in Naya in 2005, collectively singing a story about the tribal-turned-Hindu goddess Manasa. Rani appears as the lead singer in this performance, accompanied by Rani’s brother Gurupada (offscreen). These siblings are the niece and nephew of Dukhushyam Chitrakar, the patua master I will introduce later.
© MNE, photo by Östör & Fruzetti.
Lina and Ákos with Swarna, Meena Chitrakar (mother and daughter) and family relatives.
© MNE, photo by Östör & Fruzetti.
8The MNE’s initial acquisition in 2007, mostly consisting of the narrative paintings that Lina and Ákos assembled in 2005, inspired the museum to organise an exhibition a short time later – Singing Pictures: Art and Performance of Naya’s Women (ill. 3), with Nina and Ákos in attendance at the opening. In conjunction with the exhibition, the MNE published a bilingual English-Portuguese catalogue that contained images of the paintings alongside translations of the songs used by the women painters in their performances, mostly in rural and urban Bengal. It also has portraits and profiles of the women painters. The field collectors also created a website, on which they shared this content and posted videos of performances by a few of the women painters, recorded during their trip to the opening of a museum exhibition in the United States a couple of years earlier (ill. 4).
Partial view of the exhibition Singing Pictures…, MNE, Lisbon: several jarano paintings, the documentary Singing Pictures screened in the background, and in the foreground a slideshow with details from the paintings on display.
© MNE, photo by António Rento, 2007.
- 6 I am following Bhowmik’s ( 1999: 7) and Ghosh’s (2000: 171, 2003: 844) distinction between ja (...)
9After the exhibition opened, the MNE acquired another set of paintings directly from the women’s cooperative in Naya. The order arrived a year later and it included other kinds of work by the women painters, namely a larger number of chauka paintings (single frame composition) as opposed to jarano paintings (narrative painted scroll).6 The museum added some of the paintings to the exhibition and offered some of the remainders for sale in its shop. These were bought by its visitors and employees. The exhibition closed in 2010. The website is still accessible, giving the world permanent access to Naya, the women artists and their work. Like the paintings acquired by museum-goers, the catalogue scattered the work of these women even more widely.
Homepage of the website about the women painters of Naya created by Östör & Fruzzetti (2007).
http://learningobjects.wesleyan.edu/naya/intro.html, last accessed 05/05/2015.
10Paintings by patua women exploring various themes are currently found in museums and private collections worldwide. They have recently been on display at museums, galleries, art markets and fairs in various parts of the world. Today’s patua women have participated in a wide range of artistic and social projects, and some have been either the central or secondary subjects of academic research. In recent decades the dissemination and recognition of these women’s work have been impressive. This is particularly true not only in terms of its global reach, but also from the perspective of the diversity of the venues that have shown an interest in the women’s work.7 In their various live presentations locally and internationally, these women are capable of an exemplary interweaving of localism and cosmopolitanism when they perform traditional or contemporary themes while unrolling jarano paintings and singing in rural Bengali. A sketch of the recent trajectories of Naya women painters or their paintings gives the impression that the world has “discovered” these women and their patachitra work. However, by merely acknowledging these trajectories, one does not gain a sense of the subjectivities of Naya patua artisans, specifically in the case of the women painters.
11In his work exploring the existence of differentiated cosmopolitanisms, Velho (2010) emphasizes the relevance of stressing the various consequences of globalization dynamics in the world today. He offers the example of two people from different generations who live in the same urban setting but who have different trajectories and understandings of their own accomplishments. He points out that it is important to draw attention to the diversity of people’s trajectories, to the particular activities in their lives, and to the specific meanings people give to them. In rural Naya, women recently started pursuing trajectories similar to those of patua men. Thus, to begin my discussion of patua women’s own perspectives on what they currently do, I will first briefly introduce a figure who played a key role in establishing women’s visibility as patua artisans. Dukhushyam Chitrakar (ill. 5) is a patua master who exemplifies the supportive role played by some men in the development and recognition of the women’s activities, and his worldview frames the relationship between tradition and cosmopolitanism in the contemporary work of Naya’s patua. This will be followed by a brief exploration of some of the women’s own views.
- 8 See for example Karuna, Manimala and Radha, in Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007 and 2007a.
12According to Dukhushyam, to become a patua artist it is necessary to master a set of creative tools (Ray, 2001), including designing scroll paintings, composing stories that others might want to hear, and performing them. At a time when itinerant performances were not generating enough income and it seemed that people’s primary options were to either sell paintings at markets or find a new way of earning a living (Subramanian, 2008), it displeased him that those who dedicated themselves to patua art increasingly reduced it to the sale of patachitras. Having taught many of the women, he was not against their initiation into this art traditionally associated with men; rather he very willingly shared his teachings with his apprentices, including his nieces, sisters, sisters-in-law and other female relatives.8 Pleased by the possibility of rejuvenating the art he produced for a living and did not want to see disappear, Dukhushyam always encouraged all his pupils, including the women, to sing stories through scrolls.
Dukhushyam Chitrakar in his house, Naya, 2006.
© MNE, Photo by Östör & Fruzzetti.
- 9 Two texts by Singh (1995) show details of jarano patachitras made by Dukhushyam; while (1998) inclu (...)
Being older than the women, Dukhushyam’s work achieved a certain degree of visibility before theirs did; his charisma certainly facilitated his success. In recent decades, scholars researching the patachitra tradition have used Dukhushyam’s craft as an example.9 He is also widely recognised as one of the first patua artists to have travelled abroad in order to show his work. Naturally, he accompanied the women when they started taking part in international projects that did not involve gendered divisions.
- 10 See Mair, 1988: 87-9; Sarkar, 2003: 29 and Bhattacharya, 2013: 1.
13The adjective “cosmopolitan” was recently used to characterize Dukhushyam and his worldview (see Korom, 2012: 147). However, by focusing on his cosmopolitan character, we risk omitting to explain how patuas can be considered “on the margins of Indian society” (ibid.: 148), as they have often been seen up to now.10 It is perhaps necessary to identify the particularities of Naya’s cosmopolitanism, instead of holding up one of its influential members as an example of cosmopolitan. I suggest that it might be relevant to discuss Dukhushyam’s role as a mediator between notions of tradition and modernity.
- 11 See Swarna in Ray, 2001; Bloch, 1999: 6; Sarkar, 2003: 21; Mair, 1988: 87, quoting Banerji, 1957.
14It may be worth noting that in the rural context, performing sung stories is traditionally associated with begging. Scholars have indicated that in all of the villages, in exchange for performances a patua usually received rice and other foodstuffs, and also clothes if they were lucky.11 It was this economic incentive that motivated Jamuna, one of the women painters, to perform in her childhood, since she understood that it was a way to improve her results when begging (Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007, 2007a). There used to be patrons that provided patuas with some sort of income, but they have been disappearing in recent decades, making it harder to earn a living from patachitra art. These days, by connecting with new and more widespread audiences, and despite the fact that it is not a stable economic activity, “singing picture” performance has for some time been seen as a potential means of earning an income, particularly in association with the sale of paintings.
15In “traditional” terms, performers who combine storytelling with the use of images have usually been patua men; they provided powerful entertainment in rural areas through their itinerant performances done as a means of livelihood (Mair, 1988: 87-89). These days, due to the current role of women and their wider recognition alongside men, the expression patua encompasses a whole community of crafters and no longer designates the activity of strictly one gender. Even before, when the patua craft was one of the sources of family income, women already regularly helped make the colours. At that time they were not allowed to accompany men on their travels, something that Rani frequently mentions when asked about her performance history (Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007, 2007a; Subramanian 2008). Another situation is exemplified by Lufta, Snehalata and Guljan Chitrakar, who have all mentioned that their patua husbands have increasingly allowed them participate in the women’s committee, in order to further develop their painting skills, though it is still only the husbands who sing (Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007, 2007a). Performance raises the issue of female visibility derived from the Islamic principles that some patuas follow. In Naya, although some women in the cooperative have very supportive husbands (see for instance Hazra and Jaba, in ibid., ibid.), women’s performance is still very controversial.
- 12 See Ghosh (2000, 2003). Rani’s performances were the Hindu story of Rama and Sita’s wedding, and th (...)
16In the 1990s women carried out their activity at a more local or regional level. They travelled less than their paintings or stories, particularly prior to the establishment of the women’s cooperative. For instance, US-based scholar Pika Ghosh recorded Rani’s performance in 1995 at the Shantiniketan Poush Mela, a well-known Bengali folk arts festival; and later in academic journals she discussed two stories from the traditional patua repertoire through Rani’s paintings.12 During the 1990s, private collectors appear to have started acquiring paintings made by Naya women painters. This is true of the collection of another US-based scholar, Geraldine Forbes (n.d.; Sarkar, 2003), which includes patachitras made by patua men since 1980 and a painting made by Rani after 1999; it is also the case for Hervé Perdriolle’s collection (2006a, b), which includes some paintings by Manimala, and a smaller number by Swarna, Karuna and Rani Chitrakar, painted between 1996 and 1999.
17Let us go back to the 1980s when, in an important move, the Indian government not only recognized this traditional art, but did so through a female painter. In 1984 a patua artist was honoured with the President’s Award, a national prize regularly given to exceptional artisans (Hauser, 2002: 119). That year, it was awarded to one of the few women painters, Gauri Chitrakar, in recognition of her paintings (Subramanian, 2008). Gauri had learned to paint after the death of her husband and began performing later at folk exhibitions and markets (Hauser, 2002: 119). Would it be accurate to say that this was the first exception to the traditional principle that patua paintings were only created by men? In fact, according to Sarkar (2003: 23), the earliest reference to women’s involvement in this activity came in the form of sculptures of female figures holding patachitras in the Mukteshwar temple built in the 10th century in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital of Orissa. Yet the women appear to be performing rather than painting, that is, these ancient sculptures represent the other dimension of this craft in which only recently the women of Naya have been doing and accomplishing public recognition for it.
- 13 New developments of their activities should also not be dismissed, such as the recent contributions (...)
18Two years after that prize, beyond their affinity or alliance with patua men, women started to receive open recognition as potential patua artisans. A regional institution, the West Bengal Board of Handicrafts, organized a painting course in the village of Naya. The course was intended to empower existing painters of what was then considered a declining art (S. Sen, 2010). However, the students turned out to be the wives of male patua painters; the same happened later at another course (Hauser, 2002: 118). The course targeted patua men, but they thought the training being offered was worth less than what they earned in a day’s work, so they did not take part in the government initiative. They went to work and sent their wives instead. For their part, the women appreciated the opportunity to learn the painting technique and receive some money in return (ibid.). It was not long after those collective courses that Chitrakar women started achieving a certain visibility as patua artists/artisans. Through a gradual process, women increasingly claimed authorship and succeeded in attracting audiences.13
19There are currently some patua couples (Majumdar, 2004), and earlier cases might also have existed. At any rate, the women’s committee appears to have played a significant role in the growth of the number of women painters and performers. However, currently not all women both paint and sing. They mention two main reasons for their personal choice. Some women are embarrassed to sing either because they do not consider themselves good singers (case of Rukmini, see Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007, 2007a), or because they are afraid of performing in public (case of Meena, mother of Swarna, ibid., ibid.). But the “traditional”, or conventional, relationship between singing and painting does not require all patua men to be also both singers and painters. Hauser (2002: 107) noted that during the 1990s, few patua men were skilled in painting, basing their itinerant performances on paintings made by others; both Mair (1988: 216, n. 34) and Sarkar (2003: 25) mention that the ownership of songs was collective; and Korom (2006: 19) cites the case of a painting Rahman made based on a personal experience of his father Dukhushyam, illustrating a song Dukhushyam had composed. Like a few accomplished patua men, Swarna is one of the women who both sings and paints at a level that has impressed many audiences (see Das, 2002).
20Patua art is a multifaceted craft that is only practiced as a primary means of livelihood if the patua artisan manages to earn enough to live off of it. The women’s trajectories show that some, not all, have been quite successful at managing the patachitra art and business. Swarna, Rani and Manimala Chitrakar were the three Naya women painters who performed with patachitras in a few university halls on the occasion of the North American premiere of the documentary Singing Pictures (see Crane, 2005). Both Rani, as the leader of the cooperative, and noticeably Swarna Chitrakar, as a freelance artist, are the most successful cases of Naya women patua. Manimala’s work, though less successful than Rani’s and Swarna’s, is still in museums and private collections worldwide. Here she explains her reasons for painting, singing, and becoming an active patua.
The scrolls seemed to appeal to foreigners, and I thought that the income might help to stabilize my family situation. So I spent a lot of time observing painters and listening to their songs. I painted at night, and I begged during the day. […] My grandfather Dukhushyam said it wasn’t enough simply to paint—we had to learn to sing, too. My aunt, my mother and I learned from him, and eventually he invited me to several different fairs to display and sell my work. If I hadn’t learned this craft I couldn’t have gone to the United States. I tell all of the young people in Naya to learn this skill if they want to travel and earn a living. My abilities have allowed me to develop a broader sense of the world - my life has not been restricted to the confines of Naya (in Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007 and 2007a).
21Given that women’s “traditional” contribution to the patua activity, as mentioned above, was to help prepare colours and fill in the designs, it is interesting that Hauser quotes the 1951 census report, which states that “the present Chitrakars cannot tell us what ingredients their forefathers used to collect for making the paintings” (Ray, 1951: 314, quoted in Hauser, 2002: 116). By contrast, in a recent newspaper article, Swarna commented on her use of “traditional” colours: “Buying colours from the market will make things easier. But then we would not be sticking to our tradition. We hold it very dear. Preparing colours is a part of the art. I am sure my children will carry on in this traditional way” (Yengkhom, 2010).
22According to the journalist, Rani said that years ago, she often used vegetable dyes, though she did not mind using the commercially produced variety for large projects (Das, 2002). I suspect that for the patuas, the materials used in their craft are intrinsically linked to the demands of their market. This issue of what materials are used for scroll-making appears to be a topic frequently broached by journalists and scholars interested in this folk art. In their view, tradition appears to be linked more to the question of the patua’s means of production, rather than to either a gendered division or the patua artisan’s dual role as performer and painter. It would seem that the type of dye used is a test for determining the boundaries of the patua tradition; it becomes a way of gauging the “authenticity” of an artisan’s practice (see for example R. Sen, 2010).
23The debate about changes and continuities in the painting materials used traditionally in the 1950s and since the 1990s reveals a fluid history of the patua craft. I will examine why the emergence of women as traditional artisans has still never been significantly contextualized: why is it more relevant to discuss a change in the patuas’ means of production than the recent emergence of Chitrakar women as performers, painters and sellers? The craft, its themes and the dissemination of the patua art have changed over time. To understand how the meaning that patuas have attached to their activity has changed over time, we should also look at how their changing audiences have understood their activity. Below I will analyse this through contemporary Naya patua painting themes.
24At this point I will set aside my exploration of the dissemination of this craft and of the subjective experiences of its artisans in order to address the thematic scope of Naya patachitras. The question of traditional versus innovative themes, as well as the interpenetration of archetypes and contemporary themes, is another dimension that creates cosmopolitan impressions about the women and the Naya patua paintings appearing in collections across the world and in recent patachitras exhibitions. An analysis of the 2007 MNE collection will enable me to discuss some historical and contemporary aspects of current themes painted by Naya women.
25One might be surprised by some of the themes that today’s Naya patuas paint, sing and sell. Bin Laden and the September 11 attacks on the twin towers (ill. 12-13), the 2004 tsunami (ill. 15), or a local adaptation of the plot of the film Titanic (1997) (ill. 6) are some of the topics that might cause surprise, particularly considering the rural location of their craft community. One might marvel at their openness to the world, their access to major transnational events, things that are associated with cosmopolitanism, and more generally with urbanity, and it is all the more surprising because in this case, the portrayed “other” is partly “us”—in using this word I am particularly thinking of an urban reader who would presumably identifies more closely with these themes than someone who fits the general archetype of the rural Indian.
Jarano painting based on the film Titanic, by Swarna Chitrakar, 2004-2005, Naya.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
I will instead argue that Naya patuas cosmopolitanism may result from an attitude of openness in this specific community, one that enabled it to gradually appropriate themes that are further and further removed from their “traditional” local reality, and to react in a traditional way to their own contemporary reality. I suggest that in Naya one observes traditionally cosmopolitan behaviour in some of its members, Dukhushyam offering an excellent example of this attitude.
- 14 Jadu means “magician”. For more details on the jadupata (locally meaning “the magic painting”) and (...)
26This ability has not developed in all patua communities in the course of their long existence, nor in all of the various places where the patua craft has been kept active. In a regional comparison of various patua communities in the Medinipur district where Naya is located, it is mentioned that the Naya patua community has a historical predisposition to appropriating new subject matter while preserving their artistic style (Singh, 1995: 93). The increased painting sales appear to be linked to the successive legitimization of various themes by the Naya patuas’ changing audiences. A recent exhibition in an ethnographic museum in Zurich (Kaiser, 2012) aimed specifically to explore the impact of modern times on Indian rural communities. The exhibition appears to reject the term “tradition” because of its potential “freezing” connotations. It contrasts two customary forms of patachitra craft and their current situation: Naya’s success versus the decline of the Santal jadupata. Jadupata is the name given to a particular kind of painting whose customary audience is the Santal, an ethnic group commonly recognised as tribal.14 It is worth mentioning that the Naya patuas also currently make and sell jadupatas.
- 15 Initiated by patua artisans that moved to Kolkata and settled near a Hindu temple dedicated to the (...)
- 16 The collections that are recognised as the oldest started to be assembled around 1860; one ended up (...)
27Naya patuas’ current paintings undermine the above idea that they have a conservative style. While this holds true even for some “innovative” subjects such as Swarna’s depiction of Titanic in her painting (ill. 6), it leaves unexplained both the external references used locally and a range of other current themes. An example of the latter is provided by recent paintings influenced by the kalighat style (ill. 7). The kalighat style was developed in the late 19th century by an émigré patua community in Kolkata. It emerged under the influence of a British style that was popular at the time and led to the development of an urban seller’s market for kalighat paintings.15 Due to its urban crafting and commercial character, the chauka paintings of the kalighat style were appreciated, collected and displayed earlier than jarano paintings.16 Later in the 20th century, the kalighat style and technique, known for its simplified brushstrokes, was a source of inspiration for several Indian artists, particularly Jamini Roy (1887-1972). Roy’s kalighat-inspired work, particularly that produced in the 1930s, brought wide recognition to these paintings as folk art. Sarkar & Mackay ( 2007: 8) and Sarkar (2003: 29) mention that the Naya patua community maintains relationships with this urban community, and this probably facilitated Naya’s appropriation of this urban style.
Chauka kalighat-inspired painting of Ganesh, Hindu God, by Swarna Chitrakar (2004-5).
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
- 17 It is worth mentioning that Dutt’s year of birth already marks an earlier phase of recognition of t (...)
- 18 The Asutosh Museum of Indian Art is linked to the university; its current collection consists of ka (...)
28Regarding the rurally produced jarano patachitras I should mention the contribution of a local ethnographer in the early 20th century, Gurusaday Dutt (1882-1941), remembered as one of the first villagers to attend university, having earned a scholarship to study in London, England.17 In 1905 Dutt began working as a public official in Bengal and throughout the rest of his life he researched and promoted folk art and culture, collecting regional art and oral literature. In the 1930s he collected patachitras that are currently in a museum in Kolkata (Singh, 1995), and also organised a public exhibition of patachitras in Kolkata at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, as well as a second exhibition in Shantiniketan (Hauser, 2002: 112). In the same decade, Sudhangshu Kumar Roy—a friend of Gurusaday Dutt and one of the authors of the 1951 West Bengal Census Report—collected patachitras from several Bengali villages (McCutchion & Bhowmik, 1999: 159), some of them currently making up the patachitra collection of another museum in Kolkata (McCutchion  1999: 128).18
29In the 1970s it was the turn of English-born academic David McCutchion (1930-1972) to organize an exhibition of patachitras in the literary academy in Kolkata, which was visited by Bengali intellectual and filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). For its opening, a few patua men told stories with the help of their paintings (McCutchion & Bhowmik, 1999: 163, 167). In this decade, while Dukhushyam’s work was on display at a famous art gallery in London, England (Sarkar, n.d.: 22), it became common for rural patuas to sell paintings in Kolkata (Hauser, 2002: 110). Moreover, Sarkar suggests that the development of the paintings’ market helped ease restrictions on women’s performance (2003: 25). It was around this time that women painters began to emerge as individualised artisans, as in the case of Gauri Chitrakar.
30In addition to these individuals, I should also specifically mention the support of the national and regional governments over the last three decades, particularly in the form of occasional awards, courses and folk art revitalization projects that were implemented when people voiced concerns that patua art was almost dying out. Paradoxically, it was in this period that women’s participation in patua activities became increasingly visible. Governmental and non-governmental organizations began—again only occasionally—using singing pictures as an information medium in the 1980s (Hauser, 2002: 114 and Wadley, 2009), taking advantage of their ability to communicate messages, circulating them throughout the rural areas patuas were already familiar with. Themes such as literacy, public health, the condition of women (ill. 8), slowly but increasingly started to emerge in the work of Naya patuas and to be used in their selling and singing activities. In the 1980s, the demand for paintings eventually increased substantially (Hauser, 2002: 115): in addition to succeeding in reaching an urban “buying” audience, Naya patuas also managed to obtain a series of commissions to make paintings and perform in rural areas.
Detail of the Discrimination of Women, a jarano painting by Rani Chitrakar, 2004-2005.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
31Using the traditional communication media of the jarano patachitra, the participation of Naya women in social projects dates back to Rani’s involvement in the 2001 AIDS Awareness Day. At that time, Naya patuas started making paintings on this subject to occasionally either sing or sell to audiences; years later, the original commissioner, founder of a NGO, developed new campaigns in which Rani, Manimala and Swarna participated along with Rani’s husband Shyamsundar and Swarna’s brother Manu (Panda et al., 2007 and Gere, 2007). This local project also expanded internationally, leading an American university museum to assemble a patachitra collection that dealt exclusively with this theme and to organise a related exhibition (Abarbanel, 2008).
- 19 See Hauser, 2002: 100 and Singh, 1995: 103 n. 3 for the case of jadupatas made by various patua com (...)
32Another significant dynamic has also played a major role in the current proliferation of themes in the work of the women painters. One specific cause of the gradual introduction of new painting subjects has been the regional diversity of the patuas’ socio-religious statuses. This made it possible for the Naya patua community to develop a repertoire that included various traditional themes associated with other regional patua communities. This has been increasingly legitimized by the urban audience, which members of the Naya patua community have been able to reach from time to time, particularly since the 1970s.19 Thus in recent decades, in addition to the villages that the Naya patuas, including women, currently continue to visit, they have gradually reached other audiences at the regional and national levels, as well as at international fairs and festivals. In places where they were not labelled as belonging to a certain patua tradition, they took the advantage of the situation and turned themselves into representatives of a wide popular and traditional culture. They could use any of the three traditional cultural matrices of various patua communities and their respective associated storytelling traditions (Hindu, Muslim and tribal or Santal; ill. 9-11) and still be seen as legitimate subjects of their rural localism (see Bloch, 1999: 7).
ill. 9 – Opening frame of jarano paintings (1)
Chandi Mangal, by Meena Chitrakar, theme from Hindu mythology.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
ill. 10 – Opening frame of jarano paintings (2)
Shoto Pir, by Jamuna Chitrakar, about a wise Muslim.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
ill. 11 – Opening frame of jarano paintings (3)
Tribal Life, by Swarna Chitrakar, theme of Santal inspiration. 2004-2005, Naya.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
- 20 Exhibition organized in 1989 by the Alliance Française of Kolkata and by the Crafts Council of Beng (...)
33Between 1990 and 1992, Beatrix Hauser collected data among the patuas for her doctoral thesis. She focused on the relation between the oral tradition of their art and their current occupation as painters (2002: 120 n. 1). Hauser stressed that at that time, all patuas looked for a way to live exclusively from producing and selling their paintings (ibid.: 115), and noted that itinerant performance was increasingly deprecated. Searching for commissions is one of the strategies that some patuas have actively pursued, at least over the past two decades. The commissions they found sometimes required them to make paintings on themes more or less removed from the patuas’ local cultural context—about the French Revolution (1789) for example20 or illustrating Rabindranath Tagore’s poems. However, although the topics could be removed from the patuas’ local context, painting various kinds of topics by commission had always been usual practice in Naya. For these more recent commissioned paintings, the Naya patua did not always need to sing a story about them. It appears that these recent commissions are dependent on the Naya patuas’ wider connection to Kolkata, and that these urban audiences may or may not request a painting with an associated song.
34Non-traditional themes—such as those inspired by important local and social issues or by personal, regional, national and global stories (some older than others but all designed to have an impact on their audience)—appear already to have been commonly considered by patuas to be usable in the creation of stories and paintings. This was especially the view of those who followed the principles that Dukhushyam established for the practice of this craft. Though the practice may not be widespread enough to call a “tradition”, various collections around the world contain “non-traditional” narrative paintings, depicting stories that patuas could perform for (or sell to) any of their audiences, locally or internationally. Examples of this repertoire are paintings based on personal experiences, such as impressions of the contrasts between rural and urban settings (ill. 12); paintings that criticise the government’s reaction to local disasters such as floods (notice the potential overlap with the more recent paintings on the 2004 tsunami); paintings that speak about conflicts between communities—primarily between Hindus and Muslims; as well as paintings dealing with historical subjects such as British colonialism (see also Bhowmik,  1999), Indian independence (1947) or Bangladeshi independence (1971).
- 21 See Ray, 2001 for the Jurassic Park theme and Sengupta, 2004, and Singh, 2007, for the Titanic them (...)
35In the context of patuas’ rural activity, the thematic diversification has also been initiated as a strategy to fight the decrease in the popularity of their performance component due to the modern media (e.g. cinema, television, newspapers and printed images). According to Korom (2006), one reason why the Naya patua community started to paint and sing the story of the September 11 attacks (ill. 12-13) was that a group of patuas attended a travelling theatre play that came to Naya recounting precisely this story. Thus, Naya patuas appear to have managed to take a possible advantage for their business of local accesses to the media, which was responsible for a previous decrease of their audience’s interest in their craft (Subramanian, 2008). Another example is Swarna Chitrakar painting her own interpretations of the films Jurassic Park and Titanic, after having become familiar with their “imagery” through conversations with foreigners.21
Two panels of a jarano painting about the September 11 attacks, showing urban life, by Mayna Chitrakar, 2004-2005, Naya.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
36Thus contemporary Naya patuas make use of a broad spectrum of thematic possibilities ranging from the personal to the global—themes have been proliferating in line with the broadening of their audience. There has been a gradual acceptance of this expanding repertoire, and some have even requested it. This would seem to translate the relational movement between the three constantly negotiated components of the art of today’s patuas—its visual medium, its performance and its sale. Transformation is the dynamic structure necessary for the vitality of their business (McCutchion and Bhowmik, 1999; Yagna, 2010), as repeatedly asserted by several of today’s Naya patuas (Korom, 2006: 24).
Opening frame of a jarano painting about the September 11 attacks, by Mayna Chitrakar, 2004-2005, Naya.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
37A final remark about how the increasing recognition of the work of the Naya patua community has also been changing the way patuas are seen locally. As Rani explains: “[Recently] Some patuas were featured on television, and on seeing this, the same villagers [that used to mistreat us] would go out of their way to call us. They would offer us puffed rice, and say, ‘You people have become big artists, being featured on TV; why don’t you sing something for us…’” (Bhattacharya, 2013: 1).
38In the 1990s, some researchers focused on this art’s historical context and its periodic decline (e.g. Singh, 1995, 1998; Ghosh, 2000,) or emphasised the disappearance of tradition due to changing practices (e.g. Hauser, 2002, while in the following decade other scholars discussed its innovation and rejuvenation (e.g. Korom, 2006). In parallel with their insights into the patua craft, in various ways these scholars also influenced how it was made. For example, over the last two decades, the Naya patua community has gradually gained access to other audiences and stakeholders in their activities. Rani and Manimala Chitrakar do not fail to mention that one of the reasons for the renewed interest in patua art is the gradual appearance of national and international researchers, some of whom come in order to document the more “traditional” features of this activity (in Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007 and 2007a). Various patua artisans have gone outside Naya or ventured outside of their usual regional routes to showcase their work, while others have developed work with national and international contemporary artists, and have formed successful partnerships both inside and outside Naya. Many people and institutions have shown interest in the folk nature of patua art, e.g. museums, galleries, collectors, art projects, as well as projects revolving around research or socio-economic development.
39The Naya patuas’ determination to persevere in their activity harmonised very well with efforts by these various stakeholders to research and appropriate this local practice. The more the sources of demand, the greater the chances of continuing to be a patua. This could be understood as a form of “resilience”. And it has also made it possible for women to achieve and maintain a role in the contemporary production and dissemination of the patua craft. In this sea of trajectories it is important to emphasize how these artisans appropriated these local, national and international demands, incorporating them into their socio-cultural reality—a process of which their current paintings are the result.
40By not rejecting any of the opportunities that arose, the Naya community has followed a certain trend of seizing them. It appears that their innovations ambiguously result from the patuas’ perception of themselves, others, and their surrounding reality, as well as from the unique way they use their own resources to respond to the challenges they face. One example of this is Dukhushyam’s strong insistence that this art should not be made for sale, and should continue to include sung storytelling. To keep the practice multidimensional (singing and painting), Dukhushyam did not mind motivating a new generation of public patuas, that is to say women.
41In relation to the social use of the patachitras by NGOs in the 1980s, Korom (2011) points out the frequent disparity between the message and the messenger, as in the case of an illiterate person conveying a message about literacy. Similarly, Subramanian (2008) also highlights the irony of patuas singing about family planning when they themselves have unplanned children. However, today there are patuas who invest in their children’s education, such as Rani or Jaba (in Östör & Fruzzetti, 2007, 2007a); Swarna invested her earnings in improving her house (Shukla, 2012). Naya patuas expect to change things, to improve their lives, but some changes need time.
42Several recent development projects have targeted Naya patuas. A workshop that took place in 2004 aimed to provide women patuas with another source of income. It was co-organized by a research centre and a government centre, both in Kolkata, as well as an English university in London, and it was also funded by the British Department for International Development. It offered the women new techniques and methods of artistic production, such as t-shirt stamping using synthetic dyes. The Naya women attended and learned the skills being taught, presenting the new artifacts alongside their “traditional” ones: chauka paintings of traditional and contemporary themes and songs (Sengupta, 2004). They subsequently continued to sell the more familiar smaller paintings (ill 14-15).
Krishna’s Trick, chauka painting by Jaba Chitrakar, 2004-2005.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas.
Tsunami, chauka painting, by Guljan Chitrakar. 2004-2005.
© MNE, photo by Ana Varandas
43Naya patachitra art was later encouraged by a governmental initiative, managed through an NGO, Banglanatak.22 Between 2005 and 2009 support provided to patuas once again included training in painting in a variety of mediums, as well as in composition, spoken English, design and marketing. It was followed by another program, Ethnomagic Going Global (Banglanatak, n.d.), which also focused on expanding the international audience. This program gave rise to an annual patachitra mela (festival) that has taken place since 2010 (ibid.); Korom (2012) has characterised this festival as the “museumification” of Naya and, subsequently, of its art. Though the future is uncertain, this most recent program explores the constitution of potential audiences within reach of today’s patua, in places where producing paintings on other mediums might further increase the income of patua families (see Shukla, 2012), and perhaps, become a common practice.
44In addition to showing the widespread presence of women, I have shown that the increased recognition of the contemporary patua craft has occurred in parallel with the broadening of their audiences, shaping various co-dynamics between painting, singing performance and selling. To a certain extent, art as a business has always been dependent on the will of its audience. I do hope this increasing trend of attracting audiences continues to grow in the future for chitrakar women and men alike. As Naya opens up to the world, the world is opening up to Naya, and it is in light of this relationship, this demand for each other, that the Naya paintings can be seen as the creative results of such opportunities. The Naya patua craft, subject to a diverse set of dynamics, has been moving through larger circuits outside Naya because it has responded to both local and international markets, uniquely incorporating and interweaving the traditional and modern dimensions. In this process, the work of Naya’s village artisans appears to result not from a cosmopolitan modernity, but rather from what could be called a cosmopolitan tradition.