The Patuas (Scroll-Painters)
A scroll-painter is known in West Bengal as Patua, Chitrakar, Patikar and Patidar. In North-West Bankura and Purulia the Patidar name is more popular, in Birbhum and certain areas of Midnapore the Chitrakar name is more current and in south-west Bengal the Patua name is more widely known. Birbhum and Midnapore districts have the majority of Patuas in West Bengal, distributed over a large number of villages. The Patuas are generally very poor and socially outcast.
The Patuas in West Bengal may be divided into three groups, according to the theme or subject they represent on their scrolls.
1. The Patuas who represent mainly Hindu mythological themes.
2. The Patuas who represent the conception of Heaven and various kinds of tortures inflicted by Yama the Lord of Death, on the sinners.
3. The Patuas who represent the theme of the origin of a tribe (which is mainly the Santhals in Western Bengal) and the passage of the Dead from this mortal world to life beyond death.
The first group of scroll-painters who deal mainly with Hindu mythological themes, constitute the most advanced' Hinduized' group. The terms 'Hinduized ' here does not mean their actual Hinduization, but their more frequent contact with and economic dependence upon the surrounding Caste-Hindus who dominate their social environment.
The second group of scroll-painters are Yama-Patuas. The Yama-Pat is an adaptation of the Chakshu-dan pat for the consumption of the Hindu. In the Yama-Pat popular Hindu morality tales are included and 'magic' is totally excluded.
The third group of Patuas are largely found in Jhalda, Barabazar, Manbazar, Jaipur, Raghunathbari and other areas of Purulia district, in some villages in north-western part of Bankura, such as Bharatpur near Susunia Hills, in Kalipahari and Geramdi and Salberia. This is predominantly a tribal zone and among the tribes the Santhals are in majority. In the past, they used to paint scrolls on the theme of the origin of the Santhals. The story of the origin of the Santhals was pictorially depicted through stages on the scroll. The Patidars of this region also demonstrate a kind of scroll, known as Chakshudan Pat (eye giving scroll), after the death of a person, before the members of the deceased's family. The Patidar here performs the role of a tribal magician-priest.
In the traditional style of the Patuas, a fresh spontaneity of conception and execution can always be discerned. They are never drawn with the meticulous perfection. It seems there is some influence of Muslim Calligraphy on the bold and vigorous brush lines of the traditional Patuas. Pat-Painting can be traced back to the Buddhist and the Jain tradition. It the richer among the Jains than among the Buddhists.
The Patuas are dying group of folk artists. Those who are still clinging to the traditional profession are not painters and do not know the art of painting. They are simply wandering minstrels, roaming and begging from village to village by entertaining the poor illiterate villagers with Hindu mythological songs, illustrated on scrolls. These illustrations or paintings were done by their fathers and grandfathers.
The traditional myths of Krishna Radha, Kamalay Kamini, Manasa etc, represented in the scrolls were being replaced by newly created myths of British rule generated by the babus and babu-culture. There are also studies of birds, animals, snakes and fishes.
A large number of Patuas from the western districts of Bengal started migrating to the city of Calcutta from the beginning of the 19th century and small settlements of Patuas (like Patuatola of central Calcutta, Patuapara of Kalighat) sprang up in the neighbourhoods of important centres of pilgrimage. In these new centers of pilgrimage in Calcutta a new hybrid style of Patua-painting originated and developed, mainly under the influence of European artists and their art-works. One of such notable centres was Kalighat, the most important centre of pilgrimage in Calcutta.