A village in potochitro stories

Tania Banerjee | Updated on September 04, 2020

True colours: Intricate paintings with older themes — such as tales from Hindu mythology — are more expensive than the ones that have modern motifs   -  TANIA BANERJEE

Naya in Bengal’s Midnapore district is home to potua artists and their repository of songs and traditions

The veins on Bapi Chitrakar’s throat swell and collapse in rhythmic motion. His voice pierces the silence of the misty morning. In his left hand, he holds a scroll painting, known as potochitro or pot. He uses his index finger of the other hand to point out elements in the painting — the characters and events he is singing about.

I am in Naya, a village in Midnapore district about 110km from Kolkata. Fringed by cropland and canopied by lush foliage, Naya is a huddle of one-storey houses. Every wall in the village tells a story. Vibrant colours and elegant brushstrokes vie for attention. Only 80-85 families, each nurturing at least one potochitro artist or potua, inhabit Naya.

A kaleidoscope of patterns and hues overwhelms the floor when 40-year old Bapi, a seventh-generation potua, displays scrolls. While modern narratives hover around folk tales and breaking news, intricate paintings with older themes — such as tales from Hindu mythology (Manasamangal Kavya, Savitri Satyavan and Krishnaleela) — fetch the highest price. You can buy a scroll for just ₹400 or pay ₹40,000 for a finer and more detailed piece.

Inside Bapi’s humble dwelling, a woman, seated cross-legged on a mat, bends over a piece of paper. She sways a pencil on the canvas leaving behind a well-choreographed trail that assembles to form an image of Durga slaying Mahishasur. The woman potua — Bapi’s mother Radha — received sponsorship in 2006 to participate in an art fair in Frankfurt, Germany.

As the call to prayer from the nearby mosque streams in, Radha pulls the free end of her sari over her head and tucks in the straying strands of hair. Like Bapi and Radha, many scroll painters of Naya, who know Hindu lores, scriptures and mythological tales by heart, are followers of Islam. The village is also home to Hindu potuas.

According to one legend, potuas are descendants of the Hindu god Vishwakarma. Mentions of Bengal potochitro have been found in literature from as early as 1st century CE. In the days before cinema, television and radios, potuas were invited to perform in community programmes, village fairs and private functions of the rich. They were rewarded with clothes, food, brass utensils and other necessities.

Poter gaan or the songs associated with individual potochitro(s) were also used as a medium to convey messages of harmony, peace and brotherhood across villages. An ideal potua is a painter, lyricist, musician and singer rolled into one. Typically, potuas unfurl scrolls gradually, singing songs with lyrics that resonate with the stories narrated in the paintings. Bapi, for instance, performed a song titled Machher Biye (marriage of the fishes).

Like potua communities in other parts of Bengal, the artists of Naya have inherited a repository of stories and songs from their predecessors.

I trail Bapi to his relative Bahadur’s house, passing by the Potua Songhrohoshala — a building that hosts potochitro workshops in collaboration with IIT-Kharagpur. The students and professors of the IIT teach these artisans ecologically sustainable ways to evolve their art, such as in the use of natural colours. In a sun-dappled yard in Bahadur’s abode, a woman draws irises in the bulging eye-sockets of the characters in her painting. She dips her paintbrush in a coconut shell, refreshing the spent colour. She is using natural colours — ones that are manufactured from plants such as the aparajita (Asian pigeonwings).

Pigments are extracted by crushing flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds. The liquid is then boiled to increase consistency and finally transferred into a coconut shell and left to dry. The longer the exposure to the sun, the darker the shade. After drying, water and gum of the bael (wood apple) is added to the colour. The concentrate is stored in the shell.

“My parents told me that in the old times, goat hair was tied to bamboo sticks to serve as paintbrushes. Paper was made by rolling cotton and adding starch to it,” says Bahadur Chitrakar. From the womb of a metal trunk, he pulls out a sepia-tinted scroll. It depicts a scene from the Mahabharata. Bahadur asserts that it was painted 800 years ago, using the kind of paper and brush he’d just described.

Bahadur has also collected over 10,000 scroll paintings and specimens of various other forms of art (Madhubani and Warli, for instance) from other parts of India and even abroad on his travels. His private home-museum is called Potochitro Folk Art Museum.

Potochitro is no longer restricted to scrolls. They are now seen on hand-held fans, T-shirts, clay utensils, saris and decorative items such as coasters. Bahadur’s courtyard is filled with such creations. Here, as I relish a meal of rice, dal, vegetable and eggs cooked by Bahadur’s wife, I see a clutch of visitors buying from his collection.

While it brings in the money the potuas need for sustenance, not everyone in the community is happy about using household objects and clothing as canvas. One of them is Dukhoshyam Chitrakar, an elder who grumbles about gods and goddesses appearing on T-shirts and saris. “They deserve a place in temples; not on regular items of use,” he says. He corrects me when I presume that he is a Hindu. A man like him is an artist above all.

Tania Banerjee is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Midnapore and Kharagpur-bound local trains from the Howrah and Santragachi railway stations halt at Balichak. From Balichak take a Pingla-bound bus for Naya.
  • Stay
  • Bahadur Chitrakar hosts tourists overnight in guest-rooms and serves tea, breakfast, lunch and dinner. The nearest hotels are in Kharagpur city.
  • BLink Tip
  • Pot Maya is a three-day festival held in Naya every November to celebrate potochitro art and artists.

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Published on September 03, 2020