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Visual Storytellers

One of the many joys of collecting folk art is stumbling upon a new culture with its own unique art.  Doing this while traveling is particularly exciting, but in lieu of these direct experiences eBay provides an opportunity to “travel” and explore (and buy!).  One such occasion occurred some years ago when I came upon a piece of artwork that captivated me with its vibrancy and complexity.  It was a single image of Indian scroll painting from the West Bengal area of the country.  I clicked on “Buy it Now” and received the artwork several days later, even more captivating in person. To my delight, the seller sent the piece along with a picture of the artist (Karuna Chitrakar).  As background information, she shared that the artist visits the seller’s friend’s shop in Calcutta once a month from her rural village to sell scroll paintings depicting mythology or to chant Hindu mythology while showing a scroll of the myth.  She was taught by her father and has taught her three children to paint and chant.  The seller added that there are only 45 families left in W. Bengal who support themselves as scroll painters/story-tellers and that my purchase might help to keep the tradition alive (!). 


My small painting (shown below) depicts a great upheaval, possibly a flood or earthquake with people and animals topsy-turvy and a demonic god presiding. 

Since my purchase, I pursued my interest in this folk art form by buying a book, Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal, by Frank Korom and I have since bought two longer pieces-- actual scrolls -- from Indigo Arts Gallery in Philadelphia, a wonderful folk art store with an exceptionally knowledgeable owner, Anthony Fisher. 


What I have learned, in brief, is that the Patuas of West Bengal India are an itinerant group of artisans who occupy a subcaste comprised of both Hindus and Muslims.  They are marginalized and forced to live on the outskirts of villages, going by the second name Chitrakar which means “story teller” or Patua.  Traditionally, they travel from village to village chanting stories that range from religious (often epic stories of gods and goddesses) to contemporary political events such as September11, tsunamis, or AIDS.  The paintings are done on cloth, often repurposed from saris, using natural pigments or dyes.  This tradition is believed to date back at least to the 13th century and likely before that.  Traditionally artists were men but women are increasingly being trained and are often tackling stories of greater concern to women and families.  While the general style is consistent, differences can be observed between artists in their use of space, depiction of figures, and details, among other elements.


One particularly compelling example of a single image is this depiction of the Indian ocean tsunami (Gurupada Chitrakar)

A stunning example of a very detailed scroll painting by Madhu Chitrakar is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, depicting the September 11 attack and warrants close examination.

Another example of a contemporary theme, this by a female artist, is the Funeral of Mother Teresa in Kolkata (Rani Chitrakar)

As you can see from this brief smattering of images, immersion in folk art and the people who create it can provide a wonderful opportunity to "visit" different places and people far from our everyday lives and to learn about their histories and cultures.

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Fabulous to learn . . .Thanks, Jonathan Miller

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