The small village of Naya Pingla in West Midnapore is approximately a three hour-drive away from Kolkata. In this village, almost every resident is an artist. Several walls of their mud houses are covered in paintings and all of them use the surname Chitrakar. They practice the ancient folk art of Patachitra; ‘pata’, derived from the Sanskrit word ‘patta’ meaning cloth, and ‘chitra’ meaning painting. Traditionally, these artists or Patuas travelled from one village to another, unfurling long cloth scrolls they’d paint while singing a 'Pater Gana', composition that explains the story of the painting. Over time, these travellers settled in Naya, painting on themes ranging mythological stories, societal issues, and commentary on current events.

In 1980, Anwar Chitrakar was born into this community of practitioners keeping alive the oral-visual storytelling tradition. “I’ve been working since childhood,” he tells Firstpost. He started training under the guidance of his father Amar Chitrakar. Whenever his father stepped out of the house to go to the market or run some errand, Anwar would get to work and finish his father’s half-done paintings. “When my father returned, he wouldn’t be able to tell if he had finished it before leaving or if someone else completed it,” he recalls with a laugh. Sometimes, his father would realise and shout at him for doing that, and at other times, he’d appreciate that some of his work was being completed faster. “So secretly I’ve done a lot of work on my father’s paintings.”

As he grew older, at the age of 12 or 13, he started realising that although his father, elder brother, and sister were hard at work all day, their home wasn’t running smoothly. “Then, a lot of challenging times came and I thought ‘no, I don’t want to make paintings only’”. And with his father’s blessing, he became a tailor, a job he kept at for 10 years.

Eventually, he started noticing the growing interest of Kolkata’s art world in the Patuas. There was a handicrafts expo that brought the community much attention. Soon, people were visiting the village to better understand the art form and purchase their paintings. During this time, several people came to meet his father and took an interest in the family of artists. “I saw that they weren’t as interested in me as they were in my brother and sister. I’d feel really bad that I’m from a Chitrakar house but I don’t make paintings. Then I realised that working as a tailor is making me feel gloomy.”

Anwar's return to Patachitra was genuine and strategic. “I started thinking that I’m going to make paintings, but something slightly different and with my individual touch. So, whichever customer I show it to, whether they buy it or not, they’ll think that this painting is different. That’s the thought I started with.”

Anwar Chitrakar. Photo courtesy Emami Art Gallery.

Anwar Chitrakar. Photo courtesy Emami Art Gallery.

His individuality results from an amalgamation of tradition and modernity, reflected not just in his outlook, but his process as well. For instance, he makes natural colours in keeping with the Patua tradition. Turmeric and marigold lend the artist hues of yellow. White is extracted from the mud found inside nearby lakes. And black is taken from the ink of kerosene lamps. A total of eight colours is stored in coconut shells. When a colour is needed, bael-gum, which is collected and stored for years, is diluted with water and mixed into the colour, making it ready for use.

But on the other hand, he’s also modernising his practice and is one of the few artists of the tradition who adds his signature to paintings. And while he still paints on the traditional cloth-paper scroll, he also uses newer surfaces like canvas, British paper, and Italian paper. “I’ve put in so much effort to make the paintings. So I think about what I can do to keep it intact for years. Depends on customer demands.”

Soon after his return to painting, he noticed that Kalighat paintings weren’t being made anymore. “So I decided that since the Kalighat art practice is our tradition only, why not revive that?”

The origins of the Kalighat Pat tradition can be found in the 19th century. During that time, as alternate modes of entertainment like radio, television, and cinema started reaching villages, people's interest in the performances of the travelling Patuas started to fizzle out. Several artists then migrated to Kolkata and settled around the Kalighat area, making mud idols of Durga and other deities. Soon however, they started being influenced by their surroundings. They were exposed to the British paintings of the time and started copying those, but in their traditional style, with the amalgamation taking the shape of the Kalighat tradition. “So what’s created by mixing two different styles is Kalighat painting.”

These artists observed the world of 19th-century Kolkata around them, and created satirical paintings about the behaviour of the Bengali babus, the British, and the zamindars who fawned over the British. “A lot of things like these that one couldn’t say directly out of fear, the Patuas could convey through paintings,” says Anwar.

This idea of giving a voice to the vulnerable is also what he considers the role of art in society. “I think if you want to convey an important message to society and the painter doesn’t have the courage to say that, they can express their inner feelings through painting and hope to improve people.”

Over the years, his own paintings have spanned a range of topics, from traditional subjects like the depiction of Radha and Krishna to more contemporary issues like the Saradha scam, Maoist insurgency, HIV, child marriage, and surrogate mothers — often with a touch of humour. Recently, feeling trapped indoors because of the coronavirus lockdown, he couldn’t focus on his regular work. “So I thought I should do something that makes people think.” He then started work on a series of 13 paintings about the strange and transitionary nature of the lockdown. These were displayed as 'Tales of our Times', an online solo exhibition on the Emami Art Gallery website, from 5 to 31 July.

In one of them, policemen are upset since there are no cars on the road and they can’t take any bribes. In another, a Bengali babu is amazed by alcohol-based sanitisers and is trying to show his wife the usefulness of wine. His works also acknowledge the benefits being reaped by the environment during this period, how stifling wearing a mask can be, and the isolation, boredom, and hope for a better future that several people are experiencing. “Patua art is always like this. If there’s some big event or something happens in the world, or if we want to give a message for the betterment of society, all these things keep coming up in the work of the Patuas.”

Forging forward with this idea of outspokenness means that today, Anwar’s works are uniquely contemporary. They have been exhibited in major Indian cities and abroad, and are part of the collections of the Mumbai International Airport and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, among others. The National Award recipient is grateful for returning to painting, because not being an artist meant breaking his family’s tradition. “I feel that my name is Anwar because I make paintings, otherwise what does Anwar even stand for?” And today, even as the lockdown has left folk artists struggling, what stays consistent is his pride. “Before, I used to feel really bad that I’m from a Patua family. Now, I’m proud that I’m from a Patua family.”

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See 'Tales of the Times' by Anwar Chitrakar below. All photos courtesy Emami Art Gallery.

1

Bhalobashar chotto jaega (A tiny space for love)

In the painting, Anwar humorously depicts the new situation of young lovers during the lockdown. Having found coffee houses and public parks closed, they are left with no choice but to use their car as a place for romance.

2

Hot hero

The artist reinterprets the old theme of nayak and nayikas in the light of the lockdown. Unable to get out of the house, the hero appears in the painting not as a romantic person adept in the art of love-making, but rather as a smart cook in his kitchen; his heroines, on the other hand, are passing the time by playing cards.

3

Gari ashche (The car is coming)

In this satirical painting, Anwar makes fun of the policemen who are now upset about not being able to take bribes from the drivers, as there are no cars on the roads during the lockdown. Tired of waiting, they ask a village woman if any car is coming.

4

Aar hingsha noi (No more violence)

This painting, showing an imaginary coexistence of birds, tigers and deers, is underlined by a moral. It speaks of non-violence and compassion as the greatest virtues today to survive in a world neck-deep in crisis.

5

Kemon achen bondhu (How are you, my friend?)

During the lockdown, human beings are caged in their houses and the birds and animals, whom we have banished from our world, are coming back to reclaim their share. The painting captures the reversal of the situation.

6

Swapner songshar (Dream of a perfect household)

The picture is about the hope and desire of the common man, whose life has been affected by the pandemic and lockdown. The more the raging coronavirus threatens them, the more they see their dream of a happy family fleeing from their lives.

7

Sanitiser vaccine

The satirical painting by Anwar shows a 'Babu' or Bengali gentleman dancing with a wine bottle in his hand. Knowing that alcohol-based sanitisers work well against the COVID-19 virus, the alcoholic Babu is amazed, and is trying to explain the usefulness of drinking wine to his wife, who is furious and ready to flog him with a broom.

8

Shakti rupe (Goddess of power)

When the world is plunged into a deep crisis, a new god or goddess appears to rescue it. Every pious Hindu believes in it. In the painting, Anwar depicts the new goddess in the image of Durga, announcing her glorious arrival to kill the pandemic demon.

9

Mukhor dhari (Mask-clad)

Anwar’s sense of humour is brilliantly expressed in this painting, where he compares the face mask to the net with which farmers in villages tie the mouth of the oxen to prevent them from eating crops. The translocation of the animal heads on to the human bodies, and vice versa, indicate the changed perspectives with which they are now looking at each other.

10

Parijayi bondhu (Migrant friends) 

As the modern world suddenly stands still during the lockdown, we witness a dramatic recovery of our natural environment. Pollution is reduced and migratory birds from distant continents are spotted in a large number in our wetlands. The painting is a celebration of that extraordinary moment.

11

Amaar dushtu koi? (Where are you, you naughty?)

The face mask that protects us also hides a part of our faces. It is really difficult to identify even a known person when wearing a mask. The young lovers in the village enjoy this fact as the mask helps them escape the surveillance of their parents more easily.

12

Tumi toh jano (You know already)

We all know the usefulness of wearing a face mask, both as a protective measure and as a gesture of mutual respect. But as it takes time for a person to form a habit, we often forget to wear a mask when we get out and encounter embarrassing situations. One such funny moment is depicted in the painting, where two village women try to cover their faces when stopped by a policeman who himself is seen without a mask.

13

60 na 90 peg

The lockdown breeds boredom. The picture shows a couple engaging themselves in arm wrestling over an insignificant issue just to overcome the boredom in their lives.