Scroll Paintings in Lord Jagannath's Orissa, Part 2


Rama and Laksmana
Pataua Painting

Feb 21, KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL (SUN) — The last in a two-part review of the tradition of scroll paintings with special emphasis on Lord Jagannatha.

Historical Backdrop

Let us now go into an historical introspection of the Patuas and their creations. The oldest information regarding Patuas dates back to 200 B.C., when Patanjali had mentioned the Chitrakara tribe in his writing. We get more detailed information in the Jataka stories of the Buddhist religion and Kalpasutra, the holy book of the Jains.

In the 5th century A.D. the great poet Kalidasa mentioned the Patuas in his famous dramas, Abhigyanam Shakuntalam and Malabikagnimitram. In the first part of the 7th century A.D., Vanabhatta mentioned Chitrakara in his Harshacharita - a biography of King Harshavardhana. The story goes like this:

Once, while returning from the forest, King Harshavardhana sighted a Yamapattika or Yamapatta merchant exhibiting his scrolls to an enthusiastic audience, being surrounded by groups of eager boys. The main image on the patta was that of Pretnatha, who was riding a buffalo. Besides this, there were other images also. The Yamapattika song -

    "Matapetri sahasrani Putradwear Shatanecha Yuge Yuge byatitani kasya te kasya ba bhaban"

Apart from this, in the 8th century A.D. drama Mudrarakshas, written by Vishakadatta, we find the presence of Yamapattika. In this drama it was written that the Patuas or Yamapattika merchants had to perform the task of secret emissaries, by order. This shows the arrival of the Patuas at Pataliputra in Chanakya's residence, after they had collected secret information in this way. Chanakya used to gather information from Yamapattika merchants and collect paintings which revealed the presence and location of his enemies.

In the Uttara Ramacharita written by Bhavahbuti in the 8th Century A.D., Chitralekha and Chitradarshana, i.e., scroll painting and exhibition, have got much importance. Patuas and their art forms have also been highlighted in some Middle Age literatures, like Parashuramasmriti, Srila Rupa Goswami's Vidagdha Madhaba drama, and Srila Gopal Bhatta's Haribhaktivilasa, etc.

Through analysis of all these available sources, it is found out that the Patuas mentioned in Harshacharita and Mudrarakhshasas used to draw the image of Dharmaraja Yama and terrific sights of hell or Yamalaya on their scrolls. These paintings used to be exhibited, being accompanied by relevant songs, in residential houses for enriching their knowledge about forth-coming days. The mere intention of this mobile exhibition was nothing but to refrain the common people from committing any crime or sin. On the scrolls were shown the ultimate punishment to be given to the sinners on the earth.

It is quite surprising that even today, the Patuas show Yamapata. Their mode of exhibition is similar to that mentioned in Harshacharita. The only difference lies in the showing of Yamapata at the end of the scroll of Ramavatar, Krishnaleela, etc.

The Yampata is created only in the district of Birbhum. The modern Patuas conclude their patta exhibition by showing either the greatness of Lord Jagannatha in Srikshetra or the Yamalaya. The above introspection reveals that over the ages, the Patuas have been performing a dual role as entertainers and social reformers by kindling the flame of righteousness in the souls of the mass populace.

Identity of Pattachitra: Making and use of colours

Bengali patta chitra can be divided into two varieties a) Ekachitra: containing many small chaukas or square pattas with only one continuous story; and b) Dighal patta containing numerous paintings depicting an intricately interwoven story consisting of many parts. Since the Dighal Patta is rolled up, it is also known as 'Rolled up' or 'Jarano patta'. The Patuas also sing while showing the Dighalpat.

At either end of the Dighal Pata, bamboo sticks are fixed and the scroll is rolled up from the lower stick. The upper stick protrudes out from the top of the first picture. In the districts of Birbhum and Burdwan, the patta is kept on a bamboo stool during exhibition. But in other districts, the Patua holds the upper stick and then gradually opens out the scroll, revealing the pictures serially. Simultaneously, he points at the painting with his right hand, to describe the theme and tell the story. Then he folds the scroll downwards. This process goes on till he ends.

The art form of the Patuas is a metamorphosis of the traditional art form of the pre-Buddhist era. Comparative studies show that the originality of the scroll painters has retained the simplicity, the spirit of liveliness, the humour and vigour of the ancient art form. This art form is a synthesis of ancient art that was renovated later as modern art.

The art is created by the application of a few bold, skilled, emotional line drawings and depends on the use of a very few primary colours. The combination of colours, form and shape is one of its kind. These ancient pattachitras reveal great intrinsic skill and intricate imaginative spirit of the Patuas.

Bengal's pattachitras are quite replete with the wealth of humour, emotion and natural spontaneity. The appearance of human form is absolutely natural, devoid of any article, and self-created gestures. Even the flora and fauna have been depicted to their fullest details. The depiction of manliness in the masculine figures and feminine beauty has added an extra glamour to these pattachitras. Figurative mode of expression is a uniqueness of pattachitra.

Dighal Pat is quite long, sometimes stretching from 5 to 15 feet in length and 1 to 3 feet in breadth. The story continues in a series of boxes, either from the top to bottom, or from side to side. Initially. Pattas were made on cloth or hand-made paper. At present, they are written on mill-made paper. Earlier, the colours were prepared by boiling flowers, creepers, soil, rice, coconut choirs, etc. Then gum extracted from tamarind and wood apple seeds was mixed with the colours. Now, the Patuas collect the gum and artificial colours from the market. As a result, the brightness is doomed.

Theme of Pattachitra - Continuity

The Patuas have not restricted their theme to the boundaries of epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata or other historical epics. Rather, they have diversified into different directions, emphasizing on the mass educative side to promote public welfare. This has been done to educate the rural populace. The Bengali lifestyle has been reflected through Krishnaleela of Mahabharata, different stories of Ramayana, the putting on of Durga's white bangle by Shiva, farming, cattle rearing, etc.

To a Patua, Ayodhya of Ramayana, Krishna's Vrindavana, Shiva's Kailasha mountain, every place is located in Bengal. The characters may appear more human than divine, and they appear in Bengali forms. For example, Rama was married according to Bengali customs, Parvati's favourite decorations include shankhahathe white bangles of a married Bengali women and vermilion, the red powder put on the forehead of a married Bengali lady.

The Deities lifestyle has taken a form quite analogous to Bengali lifestyle, thus the Bengali society is uplifted. They have reflected the Patta as a medium to express many complex matters in a simple way. For instance, virility based on Karma yoga and ancient lifestyle has been expressed in Ramayana Patta, deep spiritual and philosophical truth has been conveyed via Saktipatta, and wavelengths of spiritual love vibrated through Krishnaleela. All these complex and deep matters have got a lucid and modest rhythm in the skillful hands of the Patus. They have never ever forgotten the story's bondage between religion and art. To awaken the ideals of righteousness and truth in the heart of common people, they have reminded us of the ultimate punishment in the court of Yamaraja, where all our earthly sins will be accounted for by Chitragupta, who is considered to be the ledger-keeper of the Yamalaya.

They have always sung the victory of truth and defeat of sin, thus kindling the flame of truth among the populace. On the other hand, the concept that a good deed can lead a man to heaven has been emphasized through the scroll paintings. To support this, the Patuas conclude their pattachitra by the story of a sex-worker, Heeramoni. To remove any kind of confusion among the common people, they end their pattas with stories of Deities like Balarama, Subhadra and Jagannatha in the background of Srikshetra.

Even today the Patuas are playing a great role in creating awareness in the society by pointing at the evil sides of many social rites and customs, political excess, etc. Keeping pace with the progress of mankind, the Patuas are here to besiege social decadence and upgrade the undeniable role of traditional values in forming and shaping a healthy, successful society.

So, many contemporary events are now chosen as the theme of Pattas, like the freedom movement, the steamer wreck at Kakdwip, the brutal murder of a taxi driver by a female, the everlasting quarrel among daughters and mothers-in-law, the advent of Kalikal, etc. On the other hand, as a part of social reformation they have created Vidyasagar Pat, with an intention to spread literacy. A protest has been heard through their creation against social ostracism.

In the rural field, pattas are creating mass awareness by focusing on issues like family planning, evils of the dowry-system, etc. Herein, lies the liability of the Patuas to the society. They have documented the exploitation of poor Indians by the British and the freedom movement in the Khudiram Pat and Saheb Pat. Today, to reach out to the mass, they are creating Banyar Pat which shows devastating floods and the necessity of relief supplies, so that the Government and common people can join hands to help the flood-stricken people.

Earlier, the Patuas were almost unable to read and write, but now they have become enlightened by the flame of knowledge. So they have entered the international arena, breaking all the barriers of regional limitation. They have depicted the role of disarmament and the historical event of the French Revolution through their pattas, thus symbolizing the victory of truthful mankind against injustice.

Emphasis on Lord Jagannatha

According to Dr. Manorama Biswal Mohapatra, Sri Jagannath is the terminal embodiment of the concept of a unitary confluence of all religions. He is also the melting pot and centrifugal meeting point of Aryan and non-Aryan civilizations. Lord Jagannath is the saviour of the downtrodden, oppressed and hapless people, assuming roles and enacting miracles. He is the depository source of the toil and work and endeavour, inspiration, reverence, faith, piety and progress. For these very reasons, the Jagannath consciousness has become ubiquitous, radiating near and far. He is the symbol of universal brotherhood. His principal preamble is, "Humanity on earth is but one family".

It is precisely for the very reason that various sects and religions such as Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Buddhist and Jain traditions have transcended barriers to mingle and blend immaculately in Lord Jagannath. Lord Jagannath also encompasses the animistic tribal religions. Before Him, starting from the tribals, others like the Brahmin, untouchables/chandals, sudras, or even the Muslims - all have become His children traversing on a single path.

Similarly Sarala Das in Mahabharat has [erroneously] conceived Lord Jagannath as the incarnation of Buddha. In Tirtha Chudamani of Mahabharat it is mentioned that in Purusottam Kshetra, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra reside amongst 40 lakh 32 thousand Gods and Goddesses. Indradyumna had received the primordial sacred log (Daru Brahma) from Jara Sabara and had entrusted the task of carving out the idol to an old carpenter-artisan. The three incompletely chiseled sacred log idols could not reach the final finishing stage since the vows made by Indradyumna were obliquely breached, as a fait accompli legend finds a place in Mahabharat, or Sarala Das who has unconditionally accepted Jagannath as Buddha.

The story of Lord Jagannatha has been depicted in Pattachitra in two different ways. In one way, the Patua painted the story of Lord Jagannatha, depicting several panels with colourful presentation of different episodes related with invocation of His Holiness's life, preaching for the best deal of human beings and arising human moralities through His blessings. In another way, He shows His super-eternal power for rescuing human beings from misfortune in life, if they will follow His preaching to sustain in life without hazards -- just after the panel depicts Hell scenes in the bottom part of the scrolls where He has been portrayed as Jagannatha Trinity, meaning one who has faith in Lord Jagannatha, could easily pass the hazards raised out of sin committed by he or she with or without conscious.

New Vaisnavite Movement launched by Lord Chaitanya for harmony

The good teaching and morals of Lord Jagannatha have been highly preached by Shri Chaitanya Deva, not only in Bengal but also in several parts of our country, with the aim of establishing a trans-confederation of harmony among the people, irrespective of castes and creed. For a better world of living with prema, or love, and ahimsa, or non-violence, the Lord paved the way of universal fraternity through Harinama Samkirtana - the eternal tune which causes the satisfaction of Lord Jagannatha as a means of worship through devotional rhymes.

The author, Asis K. Chakrabarti, is a Curator/Executive Secretary of Gurusadaya Musuem, Brahmacharigram, Joka, Kolkata, West Bengal. This article was edited slightly for spelling and readability.


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