West Bengal: No End to Patua Artists' Financial Woes As COVID-19 Rages

Patuas practice the ancient folk art of painting scrolls and presenting them before the audience with a song. However, the pandemic has snatched away their livelihood.

Pingla (West Bengal): “I watched a film in which the customer tells the milk seller that you are putting too much water in the milk to which he replies ‘no, we are not putting water in milk, we are putting milk in water. These days we also mix milk in water and give it to our grandchildren when they ask for it,” says 56-year-old Gurupada Chitrakar before bursting into laughter.

Gurupada is one among the 250 artists hailing from Pingla village in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal. One of the most senior Patua artists, Gurupada is sharing with us the dire situation he faces because of the Pandemic. Gurupada has 11 family members – his wife, three sons, daughters-in-law and their children out of which 8 members practice Patua art.

Not just Gurupada, 300 artist families in Pingla – once a sought-after tourist destination – are leading precarious lives today. This is the reality of not just Patua artists but lakhs of traditional artists all over India.

A Patua artist painting before performing it with a song. Photo: Author provided.

Patuas practice the ancient folk art of painting patachitra or scrolls. Based on the painting, the artists also compose a song that accompanies the painting when presented before the audience. Patuas depend on their art for livelihood and the pandemic has snatched it away.

No tourists, fairs, domestic and international exhibitions, workshops in universities meant no income.

“Almost every artist has taken debt from moneylenders or buying things on debt. I have a debt of Rs 20,000. Didi (West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee) has been giving us ration, wheat and rice, but it doesn’t suffice for the whole family. We have to buy vegetables, oil, sugar, fruits so we have to take a loan,” adds Rahim Chitrakar. Rahim is a 45-year-old artist who has five family members in his household.

In the increasingly polarised atmosphere of today, the community of Patua artists becomes a perfect example of syncretism. A large number of Patuas happen to be Muslims who paint and sing the mythological stories of Hindu deities with reverence.

This is the holy month of Ramzan and many of them are fasting from dawn to dusk. After sunset, they resort to a lavish iftar that comprises fruits, dry fruits, sherbets and desserts. This year Baharul and her husband break their fast with just water and dates.

“There are eight of us and there is no way we can afford a decent iftar. Sometimes it is just water but what to do? It wasn’t that bad last year as NGOs donated us money and also some patrons but all of them have dried up. The future looks very uncertain,” says an anxious Baharul. With eight family members to support, Baharul and her husband had to work on agricultural land to earn some money.

In normal times, an artist’s family is able to earn anywhere between Rs 10000 and Rs 15,000. Rahim says, “Imagine not earning anything for months. Sometimes we have to think about the next meal for the elderly, the sick and children. It won’t be Eid like before.”

In order to market Patachitra better, the enterprising artists of the village formed a Chitrataru Cluster in 2011 and even got a GI tag for the art form in 2018.

Rahim who is an active member of the cluster explains, “We got by last year because of our marketing efforts all these years. Last year we managed to sell a few paintings as well which doesn’t seem possible this year. Last year, our patrons, individual contacts and NGOs helped us but now when we call them they express inability to help which is understandable.”

Though Patachitras are traditionally based on Hindu folklore, in the last few years, the artists have adapted the art form to contemporary realities. The artists also respond to the issues of the climate crisis, socio-economic issues through their art. In the initial days of the pandemic when little bit of work still came their way, the Chitrakars painted on the theme of Covid 19.

Coronavirus kotha sune, dhara bohi jaye (Listening to the story of Coronavirus, tears start flowing) is how begins the song of Mamoni Chitrakar, posted on YouTube by Banglanatak.com. The song is accompanied by her painting which shows Coronavirus as a demon, people falling sick and wearing masks.

Despite their own fears and insecurities, the artists organised an awareness programme for people last month. “The cluster with whatever limited resources we have, put up a stage, displayed paintings based on the theme of Covid highlighting the importance of masks, social distancing. We are artists and we can’t sit quietly. It is our duty to spread the message.

“Tabē āmarā du: Khita, āmarā an’ya kā’ukē ēṭi samparkē jānātē dēba nā (However sad we are, we won’t let anyone else know about it).”