A little over 100km from Kolkata, from the highway, Naya looks like any other village of southern West Bengal. Surrounded by agricultural land, the village lies half-hidden among banana and other trees, the homesteads sharing space with ponds and wells. But that is where the similarity ends you realise as you enter the village.
Colourful paintings adorn the walls of the thatched cottages. The courtyards are strewn with artistic stuff, such as pots of colour, paint brushes, and unfinished scrolls. Do not be surprised if you find a woman wielding the paint brush to complete a square frame while the rice boils on a clay oven in an open kitchen. A stop in front of a house may find you being invited inside and as you enter, your host quickly tries to unclutter an old wooden chair or the corner of a bed by shoving away piles of painted scrolls to offer you a seat. A wall on the far side has painted scrolls hanging from wires. As you look around the village, you realise you have reached a place where nearly every household boasts of several artists in the family.
The Patua or Chitrakar are a clan by themselves once found across the districts of Midnapur (now split into two), Birbhum, Bankura and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. Essentially artists, they prepared the painted ‘pata’ (pronounced as ‘pot’) or square-shaped paintings. Although little is known about the origin of the ‘pata’, it is believed that the word originated from the Sanskrit word ‘patta’ meaning cloth. The pata would be made of specially treated stiffened pieces of cloth and painted with natural dyes. One section of these artists, who doubled up story tellers, would make a long scroll divided into many frames depicting scenes from the narrative. These scrolls could be folded up and thus called ‘jorano pata’. In fair weather, especially during festive season, they would travel from village to village, with their portable scrolls. In front of a suitable gathering, they would unfold the long scrolls, frame by frame, and narrate the stories painted on them. In ancient times, tales from religious texts, epic poems and mythologies, formed the bulk of the narratives. Later, they would draw upon contemporary events too to spice up their repertoire.
Not only as traditional painters or narrators of tales, these patua or chitrakar have a unique identity too that speak volumes about India’s religious tolerance. Although the patua or chitrakara paints and narrates stories about Hindu gods and goddesses, they are Muslim by religion. But neither the patua nor their audience have had any problem with that. In fact, during Hindu religious or social functions, they would be invited to perform.
However, incursions by modern forms of entertainment gradually began to take their toll on this traditional practice. Rising costs also forced the artists to abandon their use of the traditional dyes in favour of synthetic colours. Many, especially from the younger generation, began to migrate to more paying professions. Those who continued in the family profession began selling the pata as a decorative item. There were sporadic attempts by welfare organisations to employ these people during campaigns involving nature conservation, health and hygiene, anti-superstition, etc. But there was not enough work to go around.
The art got a fresh lease of life when the Government of West Bengal's Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in association with UNESCO, decided to develop a Rural Craft Hub in Pingla in Midnapur. Spearheaded by a social enterprise called banglanatak dot com, the artists of Pingla not only began to use traditional dyes but also learned how to market their products as well as use their traditional art in other mediums.
Naya village of Pingla developed into an artists’ village where banglanatak dot com held its first annual craft fair called Pot Maya in 2010. Usually held in winter, the three-day fair is one of the best times to visit the village. Artists turn their courtyards and verandas into sales counters. The itinerant artists give impromptu performances with their jorano pata. Apart from traditional square patas or jorano pata, you will find the art form being used to decorate tee-shirts, caps, umbrellas, bags, lampshades, saris and shawls, book covers, kettles and tea pots, etc. You may also attend workshops to learn how to prepare natural dyes and the traditional style or technique of painting.
Getting there: Naya is 130 km from Kolkata by road. Nearest railway station is Balichak from where you have to travel onwards by road. The best time to visit is winter and during the annual Pot Maya festival (in 2018, the festival will be held from November 16 to 18). Limited accommodation. Tour East (http://toureast.in), an arm of banglanatak dot com conducts package tours during the festival. Carry drinking water and mosquito repellent cream. During th festival, you can have meals at the community kitchen for a fee.