The ancient craft has been around since the 13th century

On the pristine whitewashed walls of a Salem, Massachusetts museum hangs an old Bengali couple’s art waiting to educate visitors about the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Early in their careers, the artist-couple Madhusudan and Hazra Chitrakar decided to use their ancestral skill of patachitra to illustrate themes beyond Indian folklore. Patachitra is an indigenous form of scroll painting popular in West Bengal. Usually, the proficiency in the art form is borne by those with the last names—Patua or Chitrakar. These communities have been practicing the ancient craft since the 13th century.

In Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal, as soon as Hazra Chitrakar wakes up she goes hunting for an assortment of plants to make paint for her patua story scrolls. Tucking her pallu in her petticoat, Chitrakar reaches for the twigs and begins breaking them. She stockpiles the different leaves and vegetables and grinds them into separate pastes. In hollowed out coconut shells, the artist mixes the different coloured pastes with the sap of the bel tree, which acts as an adhesive.

The scrolls are made of separate handmade paper panels that are stitched and assembled with thread and scraps of old sarees. As soon as the paint is ready, the Chitrakars splay the handmade paper across the floor of their verandah. The story is sketched on to the paper and soon after, strokes soaked in ink fills the gaps.

The Chitrakars have painted a variety of stories from Krishna Leela to the depiction of the 9/11 attack that sits inside the Peabody Essex Museum in the U.S. Madhusudan said he first stumbled upon the idea of illustrating a current affair during the showing of a play in his village. The play depicted the different scenes leading up to the twin tower blast in Manhattan.

An inspired Madhusudan along with his wife recreated the play on the handmade paper panels. What started as a way to pass time became the duo’s most sought-after piece. The first painting was given away as a token of remembrance to a neighbor, the next left for another home as a gift, and soon, calls came from Kolkata to seek a glimpse of the couple’s creation.

An additional attraction that the painting boasts is Hazra’s poem. Hazra composed a pater gaan or narrative song to go along with the painting. At exhibitions, she unrolls the hand-painted scroll, frame by frame, and sings the pater gaan to narrate the story.

After twenty years of painting, the couple eyes still light up when asked to describe the contents of any of their paintings.

A 51-year-old Madhusudan said he has been in a state of art-induced intoxication for as long as he can remember.

“It’s in my heart, my soul,” Madhusudan says while explaining the impact of patachitra in his life. “It’s everywhere.”

The couple recently exhibited their works at an exhibition in New delhi.


How an artist-couple uses Patachitra to illustrate themes beyond Indian folklore

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