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The Patua Community of Bengal: An Appraisal on Patachitrakar and Bede

This article deals with the origin and development of the Patua community, in particular its uniqueness of social and cultural identity on which their social structure is based. The uniqueness of their social and cultural constructions also determines the Patua’s social position in a stratified, rural society.

Antiquity of Patachitra and Patua

 Before delving into the development of patachitra, I will explain what is definitive about the lives and work of patuas, past and present, to provide the groundwork for the complex history of their art. Before British colonialism, before Islamic invasion, there were practicing patuas in the villages of West Bengal. This article covers the last one hundred and eighty years in which scholars and politicians, both Indian and foreign, have written and discussed Indian folk art. But before them, the practice of the patuas, as far as scholars know, had remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Patuas traditionally worked by traveling from village to village with paintings of epic stories done on scrolls. In each village, they would sing songs narrating the stories on the canvas while unfurling their work at the same time, creating a dynamic oral tradition enhanced by visual art. The majority of their subjects were religious in nature and both Hindu and Muslim tales were depicted, the most famous being parts of the Ramayana and the lives of popular Islamic saints. Their objective was not to sell their artwork. Instead they made their living from donations for their performances, often making appearances at local fairs where people came from many villages, increasing their audience base. Often a family or individual singer had a single pat which they would perform. Though the stories that were painted were repeated from artist to artist, each singer wrote their own melody to create a signature style. The two religions depicted in their work expressed themselves in the lives and culture of the patuas as well. A recent anthropological case study on the self-identification of patuas found that many of them identify as Muslim, though when asked about their religious practice, they professed to celebrate an equal number of Muslim and Hindu religious holidays. This dual identity is not uncommon in West Bengal where as early as the 12th century, rural people were influenced by the influx of Muslim invaders from the West. For patuas this means that while they identify as Muslim many of them have the last name Chitrakar, identifying them historically with the caste of folk painters, a move that some scholars think may have been socioeconomic in nature, to gain more respect in the Hindu community. Though much of a patuas work depends on regional and personal preference, similarities of style and subject matter have and do exist throughout the patua community. First of all, there are two main types of pats: jadano or scroll pats, which can be painted horizontally or vertically, and chouko pats which are generally single square panels with an individual scene or deity depicted on them. Patachitra is distinguishable by the sinuous and bold black outlines of major figures then filled in with bright colours with ornamentation and details done in black or white paint. This combination creates a two dimensional effect with the figures pressed up against the picture plane. Traditionally, all of the patuas paints 
 were handmade from naturally occurring sources such as indigo, turmeric and other plants, and many rural patuas continue to make their own paints to this day. Some of the earliest pats were painted on palm leaves, though pre-19th century patuas also produced their own scrolls in a process connecting strips of paper end to end to achieve the length of the scroll necessary, taking up to a week to finish. Today the majority of patuas come from the districts of Medinipur and Birbhum in West Bengal, though historically there were also patua villages in Bankura, Howrah, Murshidabad and Bardhaman districts. Slight differences in style exist from district to district and it is also easy to tell the hand of one painter from another when pats are compared side by side. Because traditionally pats were not sold, to this day many of them are not signed, and the identity of the artist is recognizable only by their style. In this way, patachitra is a primary example of folk art that has as much to do with the individual talent and vision of the artist as it does with the tradition that it honors. We need to understand that patachitra is both the living work of modern day artists and also a way of serving a historical precedent. The evolution of the form and the fight to keep it alive throughout time are ways of sustaining the livelihood of individual artists and also the culture of their community.

Mythological origin
The origin of these patuas is shrouded in mystery. In the Brahmavaivarta Purana, which was written in the middle of the 13th century A.D., their origin has been explained thus:

The patuas are one of the children of Viswakarma, the Lord of Creative Art. They belong to the Nabasakha group, who are all children of Viswakarma and Ghritachi, the spouse of Viswakarma. In the Nabasakha group, the other artisans are Malakaras, (engaged in shola craft) Sutradhararas, (carpenters) Swarnakaras, (goldsmiths) Karmakaras, (blacksmiths) Kumbhakaras, (sculptors and potters) Sankhakaras, ( those who work on shells including conch shells) Kangsakaras (those working on metals) and Tantubayas (weavers). The Chitrakaras (patuas) form the youngest of the lot. Thus, their origin relates to the union of Viswakarma and the Apsara woman, Ghritachi. It is said that all the nine children of Viswakarma were cursed by Lord Brahma that they would be eternally involved in manual labour. Later on, all the eight children could purify themselves except the Chitrakaras. Viswakarma was the God of the Dravidian community and was an enemy of the Vedic God, Indra. Thus, the patuas belong to the Asura group and have an Austro-Asiatic origin (Mc’Coutchin and Bhowmik, 1999).
Research has revealed that the Dravidians were far more advanced in art, architecture and sculpture than the Aryans. In the Vedic society, there was a lack of artisans and nothing has been mentioned about art and architecture or about the life of the artisans in Vedic literature. The artisans had existed much before the new society was born. Hence, in the absence of creative artisans, the Vedic society had to accept Viswakarma as the Lord of Creative Art (Dey, 2008).
The patuas of West Bengal have never enjoyed a respectable position in the society. They were neither accepted by the Hindus nor by the Muslims. The story goes that Lord Shiva had forbidden the patuas to draw His portrait. But one of the patuas disobeyed Him and as he was drawing a portrait of Lord Shiva, the Lord chanced to pass by. The artist immediately removed the painting brush and put it into his mouth. As a result he was cursed by Lord Shiva for making the brush polluted. So naturally, the Hindus have a grudge against this community. They were also cursed by the Brahmins for drawing untraditionally, for instead of following the ideals of Devkul, they worked on folk ideals. In this way, they have been made outcastes by the entire Hindu society. The Muslims also refuse to accept them because while embracing Islam, they draw portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. The outcome is that the Chitrakaras are neither Hindus nor Muslims, but follow the rituals of both religions. The patuas of Medinipur (East and West) read the Namaz. The married women use vermillion. But they marry within their own Muslim community and the wedding rituals are conducted by the Kazi, according to Muslim rites. However, many patuas declare themselves to be Hindus and adopt Hindu names such as Chitrakara and Pal.
Sri Lakshmi K. Pal (Bhattacharya, 1972) expresses another opinion. He says that there were certain things in the dye (colour used for painting) which were not touchable by the Hindus. It is for this reason that they were made outcastes by the Hindu society. To save themselves from prosecution, the patuas have converted themselves time and again. Whenever a particular religion came into prominence, they adopted that religion. According to some, they took up Buddhism when this religion was dominant in India and identified themselves as Buddhists, but continued to suffer from identity crisis.
Initially, the patuas were not Chitrakaras by profession. Later, they merged with the Chitrakaras (Mc’Coutchin and Bhowmik, 1999). Actually, when the positive impact of the Brahmanical religion became strong in Bengal, the patuas got themselves named ‘Chitrakaras’ in an epiphytical way. This was possible because their occupation was similar and they could identify their taxonomic position with that of the Chitrakaras. But the Hindu society was adamant. It did not accept this move and since there was no distinction between the Chitrakaras and the patuas now, the entire Chitrakara community was declared corrupt.
Most probably, the patuas were originally Hindus. When they were degraded by the Hindu society, they converted themselves into another religious community. In the Islamic period, the Murshidabad patuas became Muslims and they have remained so ever since (Choudhury, 2004).
Some scholars are of the opinion that the patuas of Bengal migrated to this place from the Mal Paharia region. But another group has dismissed this probability. This group of scholars say that the patuas have an Austric stock and became Aryanised Hindus after Aryanisation. Again when Buddhism flourished, they became Buddhists and this practice spread out to Java, Bali, Malaya and Tibet. Again, during the Islamic period, they embraced Islam.
In the first half of the 20th century, when riots broke out in the Bengal, the patuas, who had become Muslims by then, were scroll painters singing patuasangeet and showing their scrolls to the audience, moving from one house to another in the villages of Bengal. Since these were Hindu households, the patuas found this occupation risky at that time. It became essential that they stick to one religion – either Hinduism or Islam. For all practical purposes, they decided to side with the majority. So a large number of patuas in Bengal took up Hinduism at that time.
Owing to this type of conversion time and again, the patuas now belong to a society that is neither Muslim, nor Hindu, nor tribal. Therefore it is quite natural that they suffer from an identity crisis with regard to their religion. However, it has been observed that the patuas who belonged to the Santhal, Bhumij and Kheria classes, enjoyed a more respectable position than the non-tribal patuas. That is why they claim to be of tribal origin.
The common view is that the patuas are a subaltern community, involved in low-caste activities. But this is a myth, arising from the idiosyncracies of the Indian society.
Kaushik Bhattacharya (2008) expresses the opinion that the patuas belonged to the Sutradhara caste and were also stone carvers by profession. Their occupation has some similarity with the wood carvers and stone carvers. Hence, their transformation from the Chitrakara to the Karigara. In fact, in the caste-based society of India, all the nine sons of Viswakarma have been declared as Sudras (Dey, 2008).
In the first half of the 20th century, a large section of the patuas of rural Bengal identified themselves with the Hindu Chitrakaras. This is because since the patuas were said to be involved in low-caste activities, their identification with the Hindu Chitrakaras – a group of rather respected artisans, offered them a role model, with an honourable status (Bhattacharya, 1980). In the Census Report of 1951, the patuas were finally recognised as Chitrakaras (Hauser, 2002). Later on, this identity helped them to improve their position as painters among their new urban patrons, as the Chitrakaras were known as craftsmen or ‘shilpi.’
In later years, the Hindu social reform organisations performed large-scale conversions. Included among these organisations were the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Bharat Sevasram Sangha. The motive behind these conversions was manifold. These organisations wished to re-convert apostates and strengthen the Hindu majority. Another aim was to persuade the low-status and Muslim communities to identify themselves with the Hindus (Hauser, 2002). In fact, the patuas themselves also showed eagerness for these conversions because they wanted to get their religious rites and funeral ceremonies performed by the Brahmin priests.
However, conversions and purification movements could not improve the plight of the patuas. They still suffer from acute economic crisis and social degradation. They have failed to find an identity of their own. The patuas still have a peculiar lifestyle and form a community of their own – a community based neither on caste nor on religion nor on social hierarchy, but tied together by a common profession.

Bede ‘Patua’: The Snake Charmers

A section of Patua community identified them as Bede and practice snake charming as a means of livelihood alongwith patachitra. Snake charmer patua is an ethnic group who practice snake charming traditionally which is the practice of apparently hypnotizing a snake by simple playing an instrument called ‘bin’. A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or performing other seemingly dangerous acts, as well as other street performance staples, like juggling and sleight of hand. The practice is most common in India, though other Asian nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia are also home to performers. Despite a sort of golden age in 20th century, snake charming is today in danger of dying out. This is due to variety of factors, chief among them the recent enforcement of a 1972 law in India banning ownership of serpents. Today only about one million snake charmers remain in India (Wikipedia, 2010). A recent study by the Wildlife Trust of India revealed that more than 40 percent of them have turned to alternative professions (Bose, 2003).

At the outset, it is pertinent to first understand the cultural status of the Bede community in order to fully appreciate their real meaning and demography as well as their legal status. Culturally, Bede are semi-nomadic and inter-religious, symbolising a mix of Hindu and Muslim traditions, and are very close to the Sufi or mystic tradition. Although they consider themselves as Sunni Muslims, they also follow Hindu traditions. This is illustrated by the fact that the Bede charm snake, which has a very significant and revered place in Hindu tradition, is an integral part of the mythology associated with the Hindu god, Lord Mahadeva (Shiva/Shankar). The Bedes have excellent magical skills and also perform magic shows on streets by using snakes as props in the show. They have also inherited knowledge in traditional medicine and treatment for snake-bites. They form a useful, symbiotic relationship with the other peoples around them, but it is their traditional work as snake charmers which informs their identity as far as outsiders to the sub-caste are concerned.
  1. Bhattacharya, Benoy (1972)- “The Patuas - A Study of Islamisaiton.” Folklore, Volume – XIII, No. 10, October, 1972. Publisher: Indian Publication. 3, British Indian Street, Calcutta-700001.
  2. Bhattacharya, Kaushik (2008)- “Patakatha” (in Bengali). Ajkaal (Bengali Daily), Kolkata, November 16, 2008.
  3. Choudhury, Dulal (Editor) (1410 B.S.) (2004)- “Banglar Loksamaskritir Biswakosh” (in Bengali). Publisher : Academy of Folklore. P-162, Jadavpur University Co-operative Housing Complex, Kolkata-700094. 1410 B.S., 2004. Pages - 160-161; 370-374.
  4. Dey, Harihar (2008)- “Shilpe Parampara” (in Bengali). Publisher : Harihar Dey, N.G. Art Studio, D.N. Sarkar Road, Barddhamaan-713101, 2008.
  5. Hauser, Beatrix (2002)- “From Oral Tradition to Folk Art : Re-evaluating Bengali Scroll Paintings.” Asian Folklore Studies. Volume – 61, 2002. Pages – 105-122.
  6. Mc’Coutchin, David and Bhowmik, Suhrid (1999)- “Patuas and Patua Art in Bengal.” Publisher : Firma K.L.M. Pvt. Ltd. 257, B.B. Ganguly Street, Calcutta-700012.

Arindam Ghosh
Consultant Agriculture / INRM expert under MGNREGA - NRLM convergence CFT project
State Rural Livelihood Mission, Rural Development Department, Govt. of Jharkhand
Photo: Arindam Ghosh

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