People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 10, 2012



Tagore Tells and the Patua Paints


Malini Bhattacharya


RECENTLY, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) observed the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth in a novel manner. A workshop was held in Kolkata from May 11-18, 2012, with 11 patuas from the districts of West and East Medinipur in West Bengal. to illustrate three children’s texts by Tagore; these texts, in Bengali, English and Hindi, were then published side by side with the illustrations as three books. The books were launched by Sitaram Yechuri, MP, at Triveni Kala Sangam on May 31, 2012, at an exhibition of the original paintings which opened on the same day. Present on the occasions were the illustrators themselves, friends of SAHMAT and also the representatives of media. The vivid colours and strong lines of the illustrations made by these rural artists made the show most striking.


The patuas are a community of traditional performative artists whose skills have been referred to even in ancient Sanskrit literature. Today they still survive as close-knit communities in a few districts of West Bengal, making scroll-paintings with mythical and contemporary narratives and composing songs to go with them; it has been their wont for a long time to go round the villages with these scroll-paintings, singing their songs, providing entertainment as well as information and ideas. They may be described as ‘traditional intellectuals’ of the rural classes, taking Gramsci’s term in a somewhat broader sense. They are representatives of the oral culture of the rural poor in particular. Following the marginal improvement in the lives of the rural poor in the early years of the Left Front government in West Bengal, many of the cultural forms prevalent among them, such as the one pursued by the patuas, seemed to have acquired a new lease of life. The Left Front government had taken some steps to support them, but the real point was that their primary patrons, the rural poor, were in a stronger position.


In the era of globalisation, however, their style of painting found a niche in the metropolitan market for art and they were able to reach this market mostly through middlemen who helped them to improve their earnings somewhat even while themselves making huge profits as their agents by selling the paintings. But this market was only interested in their ‘ethnic’ paintings, not in the performative aspect of their art, which tends to fall into neglect with time, creating a rupture in their role as intellectuals. It was in this context that the SAHMAT project sought to enrich the repertoire of the patuas by exposing them to the world of literate culture that Tagore represents, so that they may interpret Tagore’s creativity in their own way and use it in the paintings and performances of their own; at the same time it also proposes to disseminate Tagore in areas of culture to which he has had little access so far. It is the objective of the project to make a breach, however small, in the walls separating elite culture from the culture of the people.