Amongst the several art forms in Bengal and Odisha, Pattachitra stands out as one of the oldest ritualistic art forms. Painted on cloth, these paintings are consciously sophisticated, aristocratic and draw upon the tradition of scriptures and folklore. There is a great amount of ambiguity though surrounding its origin - some have traced it back to the Mauryan period while others refer to 2nd century CE Sanskrit texts. No matter its origins, these paintings are vibrant, unique, have a traditional appeal and are an ode to the dexterous craftsmanship of the Indian artist.
In Odisha, Pattachitra is steeped in legend and has an incredibly close connection to Lord Jagannath. The paintings were substituted for the deities so that the devotees could worship the Gods when the idols were inaccessible during ceremonies. The artists, called “Chitrakars”, who lived in the outskirts of Puri, namely Raghurajpur, drew inspiration in Lord Jagannath and Vaishnavism. The spellbinding architecture of the temples in Odisha have also contributed their bit. In Bengal, Pattachitra paintings are a poetic synergy, where oral tradition meets visual narrative. Artists depict mythological stories and tribal folklore in long scrolls and sing songs known as Pater Gaan as they unfurl the scrolls.
Pattachitra excels in style and theme. Its style consists of a unique blend of classical and folk elements but inclined more towards folk. There is subtlety and precision: a visual delight made up of an amalgamation of effortless style of drawings and colours. Rich colours, creative motifs and designs and simple mythological themes make these patas stand out. Traditionally, cotton or silk cloth would be glued together to create canvas for painting these Patas and the artists would use vegetable and mineral colours derived from leaves, flowers, stones and lamp black to produce masterpieces.
Naya Gram in Bengal is home to approximately 100 odd Chitrakar families who have followed this family tradition for generations. It’s a unique community of wandering minstrels who are painters, lyricists and singers all rolled into one. Traditionally the men painted and sang while the women helped in making colours but today many women paint the Pata themselves. Modern day Chitrakars have diversified from the original scrolls to paint souvenirs, fans, glasses, trays, decorative hangings, sarees, dupattas to appeal to a wider clientele.
The story of the Patua community is one of mixed identities. It’s one of the few living communities that derives its essence from Hindu-Muslim syncretism. Many converted from Hinduism to Islam. They follow Muslim rituals but paint Hindu deities. They are marginalised and live on the fringes of society. Their religion is their art. These Chitrakars are traditionalists who have overridden communal tensions to express themselves through their paintings.