Over the last 10 years or so , a small village in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal comprising of Bengali artisans named Potuas alias Chitrakars (picture makers) specializing in creation of painted narrative scrolls (pot) is getting famous. The Potuas paint tales from Mangalkavyas (narratives of Hindu Bengali religious Text), Hindu Epic Ramayana and Mahabharata, even incidents like 9/11 attack, and social messages on long canvas fixed on scrolls of cloth and sing them as they unfold the scrolls. The Potuas have their own songs written by them. These songs are known as Poter Gaan.
This is the village of Naya in the Pingla block of West Midnapore district. With the support of NGO banglanatak dot com and the European Union, the narrative scrolls have found new markets and new audiences. Since 2004, banglanatak dot com is working with the Patuas to bring life to this dying art form. Since 2010, a three day festival at the end of November named Pot Maya is being held at Naya, where the artworks are being displayed. Usually it takes place during end of November.
Many of the Potuas do not sing anymore, but do paintings only. Apart from painting scrolls, they paint their house walls; make wooden painted souvenirs and images. Addressing current affairs as well as events from folklore and epics have made their product more relevant to the present generations. They even give roadside stalls at Kolkata Book Fair .
I have been aware of the village of Naya and especially of the Pot Maya festival which has been attracting visitors since its inception. However this year was the first time when I visited the village just one day before the festival. This year the dates are from 22nd to 24th November.
After a two hour journey from Howrah, I reached Balichak around 11:30 in the morning. There were buses available to the village, but I chose to ride on a trekker to save time. The journey should be actually of 20 minutes, but the trekker took around 40 minutes as it started late than it’s scheduled time and gave a break of 10 minutes in the middle.
In the trekker I was acquainted with the sister of one of the renowned Potua of Naya – Anwar Chitrakar who won President’s award in 2006. She lives at Medinipore town and was visiting her brother’s home with her husband and two kids. There are many Patuas at Naya who has won several awards and have gone abroad to participate in many ceremonies.
The road to Naya is bad. Also Trekkers and buses in the route are less. Perhaps that is why many visit the place by their own vehicles or co-ordinates with representatives of banglanatok dot com to arrange for conveyance.
I reached Naya around 13:00. The village was in a festive mood with huge gates being erected and painters busy giving last minute finish to their work. They had their names and phone number imprinted even on their house walls along beautiful designs.
I met one of the representatives of Banglanatok dot com – Tapan, who said this year the crowd is going to be more than before. The festival is inaugurated on 22nd November, with the maximum crowd attending will be on 23rd November which is a Saturday. Workshops are held during Pot Maya for artists to participate at nominal cost. The festival will be over by 24th noon. Workshops are held at Pot Maya, which are attended by tourist at a fee. From the evening till night several musical performance are held at the venue performed by eminent artists.
The scrolls are of mainly three different types :
1. Jarano (Rolled)
2. Chaukosh (Square or rectangular)
3. Kalighat (style of Patuas residing near Kalighat temple of Kolkata)
The process of creating a Pot involves several steps.
- First the canvas of the scrolls is created sewing multiple sheets of commercial poster paper or on recycled paper. In early days jute fiber paper was used.The canvas is rolled up many times to give it a proper shape.
- Next the outline of the images is done using kerosene lamps black soot, vermillion paste and more recently simply using a pencil. This follows with demarcation of the individual frames by outlining the borders.
- Finally the painting ! The Primary colours used in the paintings are white, yellow, black, red, blue and green.Mineral or Plant based colours are being used with sap of wood apple tree (bel) as a binder.
- After finishing, a thin cotton cloth is glued in the back to provide longevity. Next the completed scrolls are kept in the sun to dry.
Most of the plants required are grown locally and materials like turmeric for yellow, indigo for blue are available in the local market. Some patuas forego this laborious process especially when they are painting on other medium like tin doors or plastics. Senior Patuas insists on using of natural paints. Often natural paints are prepared in advance in coconut shells and stored in plastic jars for year round use.
I met a senior Patua, Ranjit Chitrakar who was standing in front of his house with some rectangular patchitras. It may be worth mentioning here that the original scroll paintings were not intended for sale. A Patua used it as a prop for singing performances. The first frame of the scroll would tell about the major character of the story. The Patua would then expertly manipulate the scroll and sing the narrative plot, frame by frame. On my request, the senior gentleman sat down in the pat and gave me a singing performance.
Ranjit has been making Patachitras since long. He has two enormous large rolled patachitra alias Pot of 24 feet each. One took 6 months to prepare and the other around an year. At present though Potuas are more interested to make Choukosh Pot and in many sizes as they are more likely to be accepted easily by potential buyers. Getting a buyer for for a 24 feet is not easy. Nevertheless the work is one of a kind. The artist later had demonstrated me both the pots during the festival of ‘Pot Maya’. Its details are intricate and the geometric proportion is awesome. It reminded me of work of artists at Raghurajpur at Orissa.
At the end of the village there is the house of another veteran artist Nanigopal Chitrakar. In his possession lies another such giant scroll which was made by Nanigopal’s Grandfather. The scroll is 125 years old! Nanigopal does not usually showcases it . He displays it only on request as most are not aware of its presence. When I visited his house with Tapan, he was very glad to display it. The colours were still intact and I was amazed to realize the importance of natural colours. However, the condition of the scroll was not good . It was torn in many places with the cloth getting loose in several place. The problem of preservation of the scrolls is a recurring one for the patachitrakars as most of do them do not have enough space to store such work of art carefully. Plus they get damaged by rain.
Outside one Chitrakar’s house, Bullock cart wheels were being decorated by a young woman. Opposite to it was a huge wooden palanquin which was decoratively painted too. Two children were playing inside it, one of them pretty cheerful.
The people of the village are warm and friendly. Every family has a patua. Earlier women used to be more involved in making dolls . However under guidance of two senior potuas, Dukhyshyam Chitrakar and Shyamsundar Chitrakar, now a majority of Naya’s women folk are into Patachitra designing. There has been innovative thinking as well. Souvniers of different kinds are also made keeping the commercial aspect in mind.
Although the population of Potuas at Naya have even distribution of Hindu & Muslim population, they are fond of saying “Na Hindu Na Musalman”. That is why you will see a Muslim Chitrakar drawing Kalighat Pat and even Jesus Christ.
Walking through the village I landed up in the house of Yakub Chitrakar, who had flown to London and Liverpool to display his work. The interior of the house was a typical Patachitrakar’s House. Yakub himself was busy giving finishing touch to some of his Kalighat Patas, while another lady was busy painting some vases / Pen stands. There was some painted hand fans lying around too. Just opposite three kids was busy studying. One of them was really small , who had a small slate in front of him. The kids were reading loudly “Haradhaner Dasti Chele” ( an age old Bengali nursery rhyme). Yakub was even correcting the mistakes made up the kids while reading.
The Next house was an all woman scenario, where Svarna Chitrakar was busy painting a scroll on art paper. She had just started painting after completing the pencil part. Two junior member of the household was busy painting on cylindrical wooden flower vases. Svarna is reputed to be a good singer as well.
One of the household members displayed a fruit in their garden which looked a bit like pomegranate from inside, but there were many thorns on its exterior. He cracked the fruit and the red powder which came out inside of its seeds was deep enough the colour his skin in red.
Finally I visited Anwar’s house. He delightfully showcased some of excellent works. Some of his Kalighat Pat, one modern art and the Jesus painting are the one I remember fondly. Also some of his paintings using Lamp Black were excellent too. He asked whether I had lunch, to which I replied in the affirmative. I had lunch at the Spartan Hindu hotel down the road, which gives a typical village roadside eatery meal.
One can stay a chitrakar’s house at Naya especially during the festival. Many of them have become affluent with concrete houses being inside the village built up with modern amenities.The sun was setting down and it was time to go. Promising Anwar and many others that I will visit the village at least one of three days of the festival I left for Balichak. The return journey was not very comfortable as I had to travel sitting on the rooftop of a Trekker. However, it was fun and I was still in a dilemma as to how to find time to visit the fair in the coming two days.
Pot Maya 2013
I finally visited on Sunday, the last day of the fair. This time I went by road in my friend’s car. It was nice meeting the artists once again. Being the last day of the fair, the crowd was relatively less compared to the last two days. A workshop was held where eminent potuas like Gurupada Chitrakar, Svarna Chitrakar, Anwar Chitrakar and others were helping young lads to create natural colours followed by basic painting skills. I had my name registered, paid the registration fees , gave some time to the workshop and strolled around the village.
I have seen Potuas selling their stuff at Handicrafts fair and Book Fair. However I always found that they looked odd and somewhat out of place there, specially in the Kolkata Book Fair. It gives that feeling when you sing the line from that famous bengali rural song ” Hithae Toke Manaiche na re,/ Ikkebare Manaiche na re” ( You are misfit here , yes you are definitely a misfit here).
At Pot Maya, the Chitrakars are very much at ease. They are always smiling and looking jolly , occasionally singing songs too.
It was around 12:00 when I realized that apart from taking may photographs , I have purchased quite a number of Pots. Most importantly it had not made any significant damage to my cash reserve. There are several sizes of Pot here, which is the improvisation the Potuas have made to make their product more acceptable to the buyers. As you will get artworks costing Rs 35000 here, similarly you will pots worth Rs 100, even of Rs 50 here. As a result, now urban customers are regular visitors at the festival.
It was time I decided to have lunch. There was comfortable arrangement of food here, whose price was included in the registration cost . I had a sumptuous meal. By 13:00 we took good bye from Naya after meeting the founder of banglanatok dot com Amitava Bhattacharya, commending on the good work his team has been doing on.
Coming back from Pot Maya festival I was thinking what an important role does branding plays to put the right price on an artist’s creation. Poor Van Gogh! During his lifetime, he received little recognition and sold only one painting. If only he had someone to brand and market his creation when he was alive.
How to Go
By Car: Drive to Debra along NH6 and turn left to Balichak, drive towards Mundamari crossing and reach Naya at Pingla
By Train: Reach Balichak from Howrah by a local train, then 30 -40 minutes by road. If you are not comfortable in the shared trekker or bus, you can book a car for pick up and drop. A round trip costs about Rs 500 – Rs 600. Shared Trekkers Charge Rs 10 for one way fare.
By Bus: Take a bus from Kolkata towards Kharagpur and get down at Debra. From Debra take bus for Mayna and get down at Naya.
Where to Stay and Eat
Naya is an ideal day-trip. During Pot Maya festival you can avail hot cooked Indian food and mineral water throughout the day at the village. Arrangements are there specially during Pit Maya for night stay at tent/ artists’ houses on payment of a nominal amount. Toilets and clean drinking water available. Hot cooked Indian food and mineral water are available throughout the day during the fair on payment.
Village of Painters by Frank .J. Korom
Published by : Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe