terra - firma
Retracing the history of pat-chitra in Bangladesh
History tells us that, since the second decade of the last century a large number of folklorists and experts have traversed the rural frontiers of Bangladesh and have been able to document and archive an assortment of artifacts and relevant data. But none have so far been able to provide any evidence to confirm the existence of the potuas who paint story-telling pats in this part of Bengal (now Bangladesh). Some researchers have attempted to put forward an argument for the relatedness of 'Potuatuli', a place in the old part of Dhaka, to the presence of the potuas, but there are little evidence to support the claim.
James Wise, in his book titled Notes on the Races: Caste and Trades of Eastern Bengal (1883), notes that there were 25 potoa* families living in Dhaka at the time of his visit during the 1860s; their trade, he points out, was dyeing fabrics and manufacturing hair ribbons. Hakim Habibur Rahman, a habitant of Old Dhaka, commenting on Dhaka of the last decade of the 18th century, perhaps made an allusion to the same group of people. But he testified, in a broadcasted programme, that they were only engaged in stonesetting – the art of setting gems and stones in gold and silver jewelry.
James Wise's text also focuses on the knowledge of two separate communities who were both quite renowned for their acumen as painters. Among them a family that bore the title of 'Muqabbir', who had already made a name for themselves, were known to have been engaged in portrait painting for generations. They had been producing works in the vein of Mughal miniature. This piece of information actually has a bearing on an unresolved issue: it helps to determine the provenance of the miniatures painted on the subjects of festivals such as Eid and Muharram – works that are now housed at the National Museum in Dhaka.
These paintings, each and every one of which dates back to the Company Period, were perhaps done by the Muqabbir family members, though these works are attributed to an artist named Alam Musabbir. We may perceive what Mr Wise mentions as Muqabbir is a close kin to Musabbir, assuming that they are simply two different pronunciations of the same name.
Wise also mentions in his essay about another community living on painting – who went by the name of the Acharya. Their main profession was to prepare horoscope for the newborn and the production of the Indian calendar mapping yearly rituals. According to Wise there were some 16 Acharya households engaged in jewelry-making, ornamenting the Hindu ritual-statues, painting chal-chitra or ceiling-painting – a decorative arch above the stage built for the idols, and in painting floral or faunal designs on walls or scaffolds of buildings for a living apart from the traditional trade of producing painted pictures. In fact they were renowned for their oil paintings. Gurusaday Dutt, too, at a later date, cited the Acharya family as being the principal painter-community living in Bangladesh. In an essay Dutt refers to them as experts in painting chal-chitra as well as pats.
In an issue of Bichitra in 1932, Gurusaday Dutt wrote that, 'Earlier they (the Acharyas) also used to paint a kind of scroll-pat called Gajir pat (the pat of Gazi) for the illiterate Muslim population. What is now passed off as Gajir pat these days in fairs and exhibitions across East Bengal actually lacks the technical finesse for which the Acharyas were famous.'
Four months prior to this essay got published, an article written by poet Jasimuddin, under the header of Palli Shilpo had been published in Probashi. The essay substantiates the fact that the Acharyas were the foremost painter-community in Bengal. But he could not confirm if those artists actually were engaged in painting pats. That pat paintings had almost disappeared long before the time of the publication of this article is a fact that also appears in this write-up. He wrote, 'Four years back poet Parimal Kumar Ghosh had said that some rural Muslims in the Bikrampur district used to present a particular pat named Gajir pat going door to door. We have come to know about one such pat only after a relentless search. We are yet to get our hands on it.' But he did not mention, even in later years, about the people who were involved in painting these pats.
The fact that Muslims were a majority in East Bengal squares with the availability of the Gazir Pat in countless numbers in the region. And there are evidence that the makers of these pats, – the Acharyas, have never participated in performances to present them to an audience. The lower-class Muslims such as the Baidiyas or Bed'yas (Bedes in urban parlance), Nagarchis and Gayens used to eke out a living by doing so. Though the source of the pats were the traditional Acharya painters and the subaltern Muslims were the ones who presented/exhibited them to a wider audience, this is a fact many researchers failed to notice. They have apparently confused the presenters with the creators, hence the concept of the Muslim potua.
For example, in an issue of Probashi in 1950, Amulya Gopal Sen let us in on the fact that, 'A scroll-pat painted by some Muslim artists from Comilla has been preserved in Ashutosh Museum in Calcutta [now Kolkata] University.' Probably the fact that the pats were about Gazi, the Muslim Pir or religious leader, also made Parimal Ghosh, another reputed researcher, assume that the potuas were also Muslims. It was perhaps not possible for the writer to crosscheck facts by travelling deep into the then East Bengal as the essay was written after partition. Since potuas with Muslim names were usually linked to this kind of pats in West Bengal, he had no second thought before inferring that the Gazi-pat in East Bengal was also the work of the Muslims.
A kind of Gazir pat the Acharyas used to produce – where stories were told in squirish frames arranged to depict various sequences, also included segments that the presenters could use to sing Laxmi panchali – a narrative folk song based of the myth of goddess Laxmi. Some researches observe that, Muslim beggars from the Dhol Shomudra area of Bikrampur used roam around Bengal to beg for alms chanting these devotional sagas for ages, one that later emerged in a particular segment of the Gazir pat. Perhaps, some of their close kin carved out a living by presenting pats at a later date in history. Most probably they never used to exhibit pats based on Hindu mythologies.
Drawing form his childhood memory, artist Shambhu Acharya, probably the only contemporary living potua in Bangladesh, testifies that those very poor gypsy (Bed'ya) singers would provide his father Shudhir Acharya their used gamchha, a towel of sorts made of cheap thin cotton, for him to prepare the pata. The actual preparation consisted of applying chalk powder and brick dust mixed with gum prepared from tamarind seeds to both sides of the gamchha.
Owing to the limited space of the gamchha, which is usually a rectangle, of the size no larger than a biggish towel, Gazi, the folk-hero, was placed in the centre and was painted larger than the remaining characters that were simply dispersed in smallish squire frames to fill out the top as well as the bottom. During the presentation, the singers would hang the pat from a pole called ashadando (pole of hope) and while narrating and singing the story to an audience they would stick the pole into the ground and would dance around it. Perhaps this is the reason that in some regions pat presentation is dubbed as pat-dance. A performance of this nature has already been documented by the National Museum; two of their photographers were able to capture some glimpses of such a performance in Narshingdi. We may conclude that it is due the fact that the entire story of the pat had to be accommodated in one rectangular space segmented in squarish frames a new form of pat was created.
Dr Tofael Ahmed chanced upon a similar type of Gazir pat from Mohanganj in Narshingdi during the 1980s. While conducting a survey on handicraft, he came to know about an artist named Konai Miah who hailed form Mohanganj. And with this piece of information as his cue he went about looking for him, and interestingly, in the village Kalindi, near Kathpatti Bazar of Bikrampur, he could spot a pat painter named Shudhir Acharya, father of today's reputable Shambhu Acharya.
The family history of that Acharya clan tells us that their original habitat was Mymensingh, though eventually they settled in Bikrampur following the flight in search of livelihoods via many other places. A paper by Rajatananda Gupta, published in a book entitled Bangladesher Loko Shilpa, from Bangla Academy, in 1983, edited by Mahmudul Hasan, also gives testimony to the fact that Mymensing has once been famous for pat paintings in East Bengal. The paper also mentions one artist by the name of Gauri Acharya, a woman belonging to the same family, who, during her time, earned a name for herself for her skill in painting the pats.
For a long period, besides doing pat painting, the Acaharyas remained engaged in producing design and patters for saris for the weavers of Narshingdi and Demra, and also in painting wooden-dolls in Sonargaon. Probably their pats are much more ornate than those of their forebears' owing to these professional experiences.
The human forms in their pats are rendered simplistic and rigid in the vein of the wooden dolls. But at the same time, the pats based on Hindu myths by the same group of people somewhat retains the characteristics of the original pats. Therefore, a question may be raised: did the painters feel the necessity of fashioning a pat of different characteristic for the Muslim community? Is it that the pat painters concluded that, in the Muslim community, due to their religious belief, the form of doll-like humans would be more acceptable than the usual life-like representation of humans?
If one examines the segments and how their arrangement gives a different look to Gazir pat and compares it to the pats available in the West Bengal, one will realize that Gazir pat bears little resemblance to them. It clearly has a distinct characteristic.
Interestingly, the features of the Acharya pat shares an apparent kinship with the pat painted by the Chitera community of Rajasthan. The very pattern of putting a central character in the mid-section and the other subordinated characters in squarish enclosures dispersed around it, is somewhat similar to the pats painted by the Chiteras (according to the above mentioned paper by Rajatananda Gupta). Interestingly, Chiteras, too, are well-known as 'astrologers' and are engaged in making horoscopes besides doing the usual pat paintings. The horoscopes, or the rashi-chakras, or zodiac wheels that the Acharyas make are also similar to that of the Gujratee painter community's.
It is interesting to notice that Gazir pat has some striking resemblance to horoscopes. Especially, the segment named 'shanghaari chakra' or 'the cycle of death' – the frame where a number of possible causes of death is depicted in a horoscopic diagram– is a part that takes after the segment called the 'The fate of the miser' in Gazir pat. In both works this segment is called shanghaari chakra.
In Rajatananda's writings we come to know that pats produced by all the other Acharya families used to carry texts under each segments of the story the pat contained; the same is evident in horoscopic diagrams. Yet, Gazir pat carries no such textual addition alongside the pictorial representation of the legend. Perhaps, it is due to this absence of written text that Gurusaday Dutta concluded with certainty that, as the pats used to be created for an illiterate Muslim audience, they bore no written expressions or words.
NISAR HOSSAIN is an artist and researcher, and teaches at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University.