The crowded bus hurtles through narrow lanes of the Bengal countryside, interspersed by thatched huts, fields, and a few one-floor concrete houses. The lurching, jolting journey is playing havoc with my back, already suffering from a two-hour train ride. Several curious looks are coming my way. “You must be coming from Kolkata,” a woman asks as she catches my eye. “Going to Noya?” Yes, I say, as the woman nods at her companion, satisfied that she had guessed right. I can barely see through the mass of people, and have to shout out to the driver to let me know when my stop arrives. Twenty minutes later, my cue comes from several people — “this is your stop, this is Noya.”
I get off on a dusty sand road with shacks on both sides selling tea, and sundry groceries. Far away on the horizon, an orange gateway made of cloth and bamboo catches my eye. The words Pot Maya is printed on it with a huge fish motif.
A man in a blue lungi comes up. “Are you here for the ‘chitrakars’?” he asks. I nod and he offers to show me the way. We take a narrow bylane into the countryside. Through the trees, I can see flashes of bright colour on mud walls. A short walk brings us to a clearing where another man in a lungi is stooped over a long strip of paper, painting. Scattered around him are more scrolls drying in the sun. Around this space are houses which stand out with their striking wall murals — two tigers in luminescent yellow with vivid red tongues sticking out. A corrugated tin wall is embellished with a brown crocodile swallowing a green tortoise. Sunny flowers, owls with gigantic eyes, birds, planes — it is like being in a giant public art space. This is Noya, a village in Medinipur, West Bengal, inhabited by “chitrakars” (folk artists). Every year Noya sees a flurry of activity and visitors for Pot Maya, a three-day community festival of art, music and dance that celebrates the success of the chitrakars in reviving their heritage of “potochitro” art.
The word “pot”, is derived from Sanskrit and means cloth, and “chitra” is picture. “Potua”, “potidar”, “pot” are the names by which a “chitrakar” is known. In Noya, almost every house has a “chitrakar”, folk artists who are poets, painters, and singers rolled into one.
The potuas of Medinipur district of West Bengal have been practicing their craft for generations. Pot Maya is a chance to see the “chitrakars” on their own, very atmospheric turf. Now in its fifth year, it attracts an intrepid crowd of art lovers and tourists from neighbouring towns, cities, and also from abroad.
“This is our ‘bongsho porompora’ (ancestral tradition)”, says Rupsona Chitrakar. Rupsona’s daughter Suhana, follows me around clutching a pot she has created, eagerly lisping out a popular folk song. Inside their hut, things are in disarray. “Sorry about the mess,” says Rupsona. She is busy packing as she is leaving for Kolkata that night to take part in the Hasta Shilpa mela, an annual handicrafts fair. “We have hired a car.”
As I am about to take a picture of Rupsona with a beautiful 15-feet scroll, Suhana toddles into the frame. She too wants to be in the picture, but prefers to pose with her mother’s longer painting rather than her smaller pot. “Yes, she is already learning the art,” Rupsona says, “I teach her as I work.” Potochitro is a living tradition, responding to current social issues as well as to myths and stories handed down for generations. The skill that Suhana will hone over the years includes singing, learning folk stories, as well as memorising set patterns of this folk art, its distinctive language of lines, colours and characters, all handed down by ancestors. Pots are essentially a narrative painted in a sequence in separate frames arranged in vertical format as a scroll painting. The scroll is unfurled frame by frame, as the story unfolds in song narrative. It is like an ancient form of graphic art, a storyboard, or a comic strip. The scrolls do not have any text as the narrative is provided by the song. Every figure in the paintings is flat and two-dimensional. To bring in some depth and variegation in the background, lines and circles are used. Characters from mythology and religious motifs are common. So are animals from the artist’s natural habitat — fish, tigers and owls are almost always present.
Then there is the process of creating the base materials — the scrolls and the colours. Traditionally “potuas” prepared their own base from cloth or handmade paper, stiffened with glue from materials like rice, or certain kinds of clay. Now almost all “potuas” use poster or art paper purchased from Kolkata. Several layers are sewn together and backed with protective cover of sarees. “A mix of bael resin and indigo sticks the paper and cloth, and wards off pests,” says Rupsona.
During Pot Maya, the most popular events are the colour extraction workshops. I witness one where a “chitrakar” rubs a bunch of “sheem” leaves (hyacinth beans) between his palms, to make a paste. He then squeezes out the green juice. This is mixed with strained cream of coconut and resin, and left in the sun. Similarly, the vivid reds come from “lotkon” (annatto). The luminescent yellows are extracted from turmeric; browns from the “shegun” tree, whites from ground rice and “ghusum” clay; blacks from charcoal or burnt rice, blues from Aparajita flowers or the fruit of the Nilmoni tree.“We have planted trees in our village so our supply of colour is constant,” says Manu Chitrakar. Some “potuas” have begun using commercial paints, but many still stick to the tradition of using colours from nature.
Meanwhile, I see that I have attracted some more girls all clutching small pots, eager to show their work. They rattle off their names — Sampa, Rupa and Sophi, adding the Chitrakar suffix proudly. “Line up next to the tiger,” their grandfather instructs, indicating the striking mural on a wall of their mudhouse. Whose daughters are they? “My daughter Susama Chitrakar’s,” says their grandfather. “Their parents have gone to Kolkata for the handicrafts fair.”
Next door, Mamoni paints on a white saree with gold borders. The saree is part of a consignment order for a boutique in Kolkata. A few yards further, Mou Chitrakar is painting clusters of multicoloured fish motifs on scrolls. The order is for an exhibition in Bahrain, her father Manu tells me. Manu’s house is made of concrete, unlike most other houses in the area. He is one of the most prolific “chitrakars” from Noya with several awards, international projects and exhibitions under his belt. One of his most well-known works is a book. He has created the art for a stunning graphic novel about the life of Martin Luther King Jr — “I See The Promised Land”. Published by award-winning Indian publisher Tara Books, it is a collaboration with African-American writer and blues singer Arthur Flowers.
After talking to a handful of “chitrakars”, it is obvious that almost everyone in this village is busy with projects, orders, or travelling for exhibitions and workshops being held in India and abroad. Many of their passports would put a jet-setting executive to shame. Noya is a thriving hub of folk art with 78 “chitrakar” families and a total of 262 “chitrakars”. This is a big change from 2004, says Bangla Natak founder Amitava Bhattacharya, when there were barely nine “potuas” in the village. Most had turned to other professions to earn money. Potochitro had lost its charm when the country was transitioning, and traditional village audiences were eroded with the entry of television and other media. “Potuas” were traditionally minstrels who travelled from village to village, with a bagful of scrolls, telling religious stories and also informing people about important current events. In return, the villagers would provide accommodation, and give them rice and money. But this way of life was eroded as India progressed. Illiteracy made things worse — most “chitrakars” have never attended school. Many left the profession in order to sustain themselves. “I started working as a tailor,” says Anwar Chitrakar. Anwar returned when things changed. He is one of the most in-demand “potuas” now, with a national award under his belt.
The tide was turned mainly due to the efforts of the government’s craft-support organisations, and NGOs, as well as independent entities like Kolkata-based Bangla Natak who have collaborated with the European Union on a capacity-building project to help train the trainers, nurture direct market linkages, and initiate collaborations with artists abroad which exposed “chitrakars” to new ideas. For instance, the “chitrakars” picked up installation art after a collaboration with visiting British artists. “The impact was seen from 2009 at Durga Puja pandals where they put their newly acquired knowledge of installation to good use,” says Bhattacharya. “So many people in rural India have deep knowledge of traditional art and crafts. Unfortunately, the educated world considers only BA, MA, MBBS degree holders as ‘skilled’. We wanted to help start enterprises that would tap into traditional skills.”
At Pot Maya this year, the “chitrakars” earned Rs1.1 million (Dh64,780), he says. Noya’s potuas have embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and attracted international attention. The village sees a constant stream of people through the year, coming to buy scrolls or to commission paintings. Manu tells me they are expecting 15 students from a university in Milan in December. “They want to see how an Indian folk art has sustained itself through the years.”
Commissioned works range from painting clothes (sarees, stoles, T-shirts etc) and interiors (lampshades, curtains, walls) to major projects like designing panels for the Mumbai airport or the Delhi Metro. NGOs and government agencies also engage them in their projects and campaigns against HIV/AIDS, female infanticide and human trafficking. A huge volume of work comes from designing Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata and other metros.
“We travel through the year for workshops, handicrafts fairs and art exhibitions here and abroad,” says Manu, who has been to Paris, London, Sweden, Berlin and the US. “Paris was lovely — so many people came to see our work, and attend workshops.”
Women at work
An interesting element that stands out in Noya is the number of women chitrakars. “Potuas” have traditionally been men. But as demand grew, and the art transformed from a nomadic, performative avatar to its current exhibit version, women gained access to the process of creating and selling. Many “chitrakar” women have now taken up the craft and in Noya, about 70 per cent of the “chitrakars” are women, says Bhattacharya.
Recently the women formed a painters’ cooperative which was the focus of “Singing Pictures”, a film by Lina Fruzzetti, an American documentary filmmaker and professor of Anthropology at Brown University. The film follows the women’s daily lives as they paint, sing, cook, tend to their children, and meet with the cooperative. They discuss the problems and rewards of practicing their art, and speak freely about the social, religious, political changes in the village and the world beyond. Women have begun employing the art form to promote awareness about gender issues.
I meet Swarna Chitrakar whose works feature female foeticide, trafficking, child marriage, and violence against women. She brings out a pot she has made on the Delhi rape incident and sings the song of Nirbhaya, pointing to pictures and details in the panels as she narrates the story. One panel has Nirbhaya, hair in disarray and enveloped by a blue bird-like shape. That is the plane they took her to Singapore in, she says. “There must be more people like these men out there — I hope the painting and my song will change them. My song echoes the horror of what she would have gone through.” She has collaborated on several award-winning books with Tara Publishing. She brings out a book that she has done the artwork for — “The Patua Pinocchio”, an Indian version of the much-loved children’s classic.
A woman “chitrakar’s” work day begins at 6am, after completing house chores. She takes a break at 11 to cook, eat lunch, and do some more chores. Work resumes at 3pm and continues till 5pm. “If I have any work left like cutting paper, or preparing scrolls, I do that in the night,” she says. It takes her about 15 days to do an average scroll. And three months if it is intricate, like the 15 to 20 feet ones.
Swarna’s work has taken her to the US, Paris, Italy, Sweden, Berlin, and London. “Sweden was my first trip outside India. The food was so bad, I couldn’t eat anything. In Paris at the Louvre, people were looking at me, not the Mona Lisa.” Paris, she says, may be the city of artists, but people are strange — “they never look you in the eye, do not smile much, and keep saying ‘bonjo bonjo’ instead of ‘hello’,” she laughs.
The light is now mellow as the sun prepares to set in Noya. Some of the “potuas” are wrapping up, getting ready for their namaaz. A unique aspect of this community is that “chitrakars” straddle the two faiths of Hinduism and Islam, practicing customs from each. Some have syncretic names. Hindu and Muslim customs are often blended. Swarna too is getting ready for namaaz. She calls out to her husband Shombhu, insisting that he accompany me back to the bus stop.
As we wait for the bus, and Shombhu treats me to a steaming glass of tea at a shack. I too have won a national award, he says. “Earlier, we used to take our pots to villages and towns. It was a good life on the road,” he says wistfully looking at the Pot Maya banner in the distance. “But it was hard too. Now our art travels to places most of us are unlikely to ever go to.”
As my bus lurches off for the station, I remember the visits from travelling “chitrakars” to our old house in Kolkata. Our huge verandah would resound with wonderfully rich tones as they sang about the wedding of fishes, a common folk song. My son, barely three, would clutch my hand, his fascinated eyes following the “chitrakar’s” finger as it pointed at the huge fish swallowing the smaller fishes. I had bought that scroll and it had lit up my rented matchbox flat in Mumbai for five years. Now the pot, along with my other stuff, is packed up in a warehouse. I hope the bael and indigo mix is keeping the pests off.
Anuradha Sengupta is a writer based in Mumbai.
Martin Luther King’s life through the eyes of a ‘chitrakar’ and an American griot singer
Manu Chitrakar had never heard of Martin Luther King Jr. But when King’s story was narrated by the people at Tara Books in Chennai, he was mesmerised. “I had no idea that a person like Gandhi existed in America, and that he fought to free the black people.” He returned to his village, and spent three months illustrating his first graphic novel. The result is “I See The Promised Land” published by Tara, an independent press in South India that specialises in handmade books using folk art.
The art is by Manu and the text is by Arthur Flowers, a fellow storyteller living far away from Manu’s village — in New York. Flowers is a modern-day griot (a class of travelling poets, musicians, and storytellers from West Africa) and a blues-based performance poet, a founding member/director of New Renaissance Writers Guild, and the Pan African Literary Forum. “The story was in English, so it was translated to Bengali for me,” says Manu. “After a workshop in Chennai with Tara, I came back home excited and full of ideas. I would sit for hours by the rice fields near my house, working out the pot in my mind.”
“I See The Promised Land” has been hailed as a standout book by critics, as a distinctive graphic narrative that combines two world storytelling traditions. New York’s Syracuse University’s Writing Programme chair and director Eileen Schell said that one of the most interesting things about the book is its fusion of traditions — “literature in the 21st century needs to fuse.”
“I have never met Arthur Flower,” says Manu. “But I hear he is a storyteller like me, he sings and tells stories. I believe that he uses my pot now when he sings about Martin Luther King.”
Manu sourced his images from his world — from the faces which look Bengali, to the choice of props and scenery that speak more of India than America. They juxtapose and amplify Flower’s text. His background and fresh perspective allowed for interesting visual interpretations of the narrative. In an interview, Flowers said he learned to better appreciate King as a global voice after working with Manu. “In the back and forth the sophistication of his images evolved into something special. There were all sorts of unorthodox interpretations — his slave ships look like Viking ships to me, and his idea of an underground railroad is a train snaking across the page. He manages to capture the essence in a way that makes it some kind of wonderful.”
It took Flowers a while to get used to Manu’s interpretations, but once he realised that Manu was telling stories in his traditional storytelling format, he asked Tara Books if he could do what he calls his “delta storyteller thing”. “I come out of the griotic tradition in African American lit. In my novels I have to be subtle with it.” But Tara told him to go all out for the book. “So I did my delta storytelling — Martin Luther King as an instrument of the gods and when they were through with him they offer him up as a sacrifice for all the generations. I had a ball. I love this book. They let me do things an American publisher would not have allowed. Also I like to think of myself as a global artist and this one is global by definition.”
You can watch Arthur Flowers read from the book on YouTube.