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Bengal’s Veteran Scroll Painter sings of Rabindranath

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The most diverse clan amongst the folk artists of West Bengal is that of the patuas or the scroll painters. Their profession is that of rendering the countless miracles of divine gods and goddesses in paint. In practice, they are Muslims. In their own words, they sing of Hinduism while following the rituals of Islam. With regard to their origin, many theories abound from being cast out of Hindu religion and society by the orders of the Sen Monarchs to being the descendents of one of the six cursed sons of the divine architect Vishwakarma. Nowadays, the patua community can be seen as a living testament to an enduringly harmonious sentiment of fraternity. They chiefly reside at the Naya village of Medinipur. And during their wedding ceremonies, the maulvi comes to recite the Six Kalimas and the bride and groom are anointed with turmeric according to Hindu traditions. Thus, with their everyday practices, the patuas continually promote communal goodwill and solidarity.

An old and veteran artist of the patua community is Naya village’s Dukhushyam. Once upon a time, he used to roam the countryside singing with an arsenal full of painted scrolls to tell stories with. Those days are long gone. But, he still paints scrolls for special occasions like fairs and annual festivities, and also composes original songs to accompany them. He also dedicates his time and skill to the training of young, upcoming artists. He explains how to sketch an initial draft, how to change scenes as the story progresses and how to create the maximum impact as an effective story-teller. His scrolls depict men as characteristic heroic figures and women as curvy, graceful ones. Recently, he has consciously evolved his style of drawing to include the soft, rounded features of the Kalighat style of scroll-painting.

Dukhushyam’s vast repertoire of rolled up scrolls contains stories from the Puranas, the Gita, the Chandimangal as well as various socially relevant issues. Recently, he has crafted two scrolls based on the lives of Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore. Simultaneously, he has also written two musical verses to go with them. He has depicted the respective childhoods of these two Bengali stalwarts in a remarkably prescient manner with special emphasis on the former’s Azad Hind Fauz and the latter’s Shantiniketan. The tales told via long, winding scrolls are indeed quite endearing.

Dukhushyam had gained considerable fame during the 50s and 60s by composing political anthems. He had painted a “Congress Revolutionary” scroll which consisted of persistently biting satire against Atulya Ghosh and Prafulla Sen. He also used to perform these compositions at different meetings and rallies. These notable activities had made him a well-known name amongst his peers. At present, Dukhushyam has been carefully keeping the age-old heritage of making organic paints from various herbs, trees and soil alive.

According to Dukhushyam, once the patuas used to make paint brushes from goat or squirrel hairs tied together on top of slim bamboo twigs. And all the colours were sourced from nature. He is a veritable encyclopaedia when it comes to learning the ancient yet environment-friendly and scientifically sustainable methods of creating art.

And despite being almost 80, he is still inimitable on account of his unending enthusiasm for life and his craft.

Video Phpotographer - Bishnu Mukherjee
Translated by Mayurakshi Sen