Tagore makes his way into scroll art

Gurgaon: The traditional `patachitra` artists-cum-performers of rural West Bengal have adopted Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore as their muse on his 150th birth anniversary this year.

One hundred families of scroll or `pat` painters in the Pingla block of West Medinipur district, the largest bastion of the traditional scroll painters in the state, are painting chronological sequences of the poet`s life since his birth in 1861 to his death in 1944.

The artists, who also narrate the stories that they paint in colours through songs, have composed ditties to accompany their scrolls.

"It takes us three weeks on an average to paint a 15-foot scroll depicting the life of Rabindranath Tagore," veteran `pat` artist Manimala Chitrakar told IANS.

Manimala and fellow-artist Rani Chitrakar, natives of Pingla, are part of a group of seven painters who are exhibiting their work in an exposition of regional and traditional art, "Vernacular, In The Contemporary," at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon.

The exhibition, curated by Annapurna Garimella of the Bangalore-based Jackfruit Research and Design, has brought centuries-old vernacular art traditions to chronicle contemporary realities and urban landscapes. The works on display have been sourced from the personal collection of connoisseurs Lekha and Anupam Poddar.

The Tagore scrolls are in demand, artist Rani Chitrakar said.

"I have sold three scrolls since January - one in London, one in France and one in the capital," the artist said. Each scroll is priced Rs.15,000.

She said the 100-odd families of `pat` artists in Pingla have dedicated 2011 to Rabindranath Tagore to commemorate his 150th birth anniversary.

"Several cultural organisations and non-profit groups in West Bengal have commissioned scrolls on Tagore`s life and his literary legacy. We have a busy year," the artist told reporters.

Rani and Manimala break into a song as they unfurl their scroll.

"It is performance art at the roots. We narrate the stories that we draw," she said, explaining the essence of her art that began as an early religious folk performance tradition in the villages of eastern India.

Their crystal voices soar in unison as they sing of the poet`s life in a colloquial Bengali dialect spoken in the countryside of Medinipur.

"Mahan Kobi, Rabi Thakur, Thako go tumi amar hoye, Yuge yuge tomar naam ti choriye aache, Visva jure ... (great poet Rabindranath Tagore, remain immortal, may your name spread through the centuries all over the world)," the duo sang in refrain.

The lilting verse, punctuated by the refrain, tells the story of the poet`s birth at Jorasanko in Kolkata in 1861, the early demise of his mother, lonely childhood, love for nature, early writing, journey to England, years of literary activity, his creation of the open university at Santiniketan, his Nobel Prize and - his passing away.

They also sing of his commitment to the teaching and promotion of traditional and tribal art, handicrafts and folk literature of Bengal.

The scrolls, divided into 10 segments, span nearly eight decades of the poet`s life.

"The fact that he encouraged folk art and performance traditions makes him special to the communities of `patuas` and `pata chitrakar` in Bengal," Manimala Chitrakar said.

The artists use natural colours made out of leaves, wood, turmeric, spices and flower extracts and the pigments are made at home, Rani Chitrakar said.

Most of the Tagore scrolls being painted at Pingla follow a pattern. They chronicle the poet`s life in a free-flowing narrative, the artists said.

The lines are simple and the figures almost child-like in their flat uni-dimensional forms, typical of the Kalighat and the Gaur (ancient Bengal) "pats".

The colour palettes is a vibrant combination of ochre, red, indigo, green and black.

The Tagore "pat" is manifest of a new trend in the nearly 2,000-year-old history of the art form in Bengal.

In the last three decades, the traditional scrolls which once narrated epic and mythological stories accompanied by musical narratives, have been documenting contemporary events like the 9/11 World Trade Centre blasts, 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai, the American war against Al Qaida, snapshots of Indian politics, endemic corruption and gender struggle.

Lekha Poddar, who owns the Devi Art Foundation with her son Anupam Poddar, told IANS: "Regional or vernacular art is very contemporary as it stands today. It is all because of the whole change in the oeuvre of works by regional artists in the 1980s when the Indian government started hosting festivals of India abroad.

"The traditional, ethnic and vernacular artists were brought out of their villages and exposed to the world. They were also given new material like paper and paint."

According to Poddar, regional art was no longer ethnic.

"The artists are interpreting urban surroundings around them in their own way," the collector and connoisseur said.


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