Folktales from the hinterlands
Folk tales are an integral part of any culture. There are various ways in which the tales have been kept alive through generations. The Patua painters-cum-storytellers of West Bengal in the Eastern part of India are custodians of many such tales and used a Pattachitra as a visual aid during their story telling performances. The Pattachitra is vertical scroll with depictions of key scenes of a story that are used as illustrative props during the narration, which is a mix of prose and verse. As the recontour regales the audience with a story, he unfolds the scroll to reveal each scene, called a Pat. These professional entertainers also gave private performance at the homes of wealthy zamindars, landowning aristocrats, who as the main patrons of the craft, provided a stable income for the otherwise itinerant performers. During grand ceremonies, the local populace would also be invited to witness this narration. In local parlance, the display of the scroll is referred to as pat khelano, literally meaning playing with the pat.
The craft has an interesting story of origin. Once upon a time, in a forest near a village lived an evil demon. His main source of food was the children he abducted from the village. The people lived in constant fear and did not venture out at night. A village elder came up with a plan to destroy the demon. The villagers left a mirror outside the demon’s cave. The demon upon seeing his reflection mistook it to be a rival. He shattered the mirror only to create shards with multiple reflections of himself which petrified the demon so much that his heart stopped, and he died. To record this triumph over the evil demon it is said that a painter created a patua which then was used to narrate the story.
Eventually others took to this profession and added their own repertoire of stories and accompanying pattachitras. Stories from Ramayan predominate; apparently West Bengal’s proximity to Bihar, supposedly the birthplace of Goddess Sita is the main reason for this preference over stories from the Mahabharat. Over the years they have also been used to raise awareness and inform the audience. The most recent versions include the perils of deforestation and HIV.