Mamoni Chitrakar started singing. I held my breath. We were watching the unveiling of a traditional painted scroll called patachitra, months in the making, in the ornate Whitall Pavilion of the Library of Congress on this warm day in late June. I would hear the haunting minor-key song accompany the scroll again many more times in the next three weeks, and in my dreams for months afterward, but this was the Big Reveal. I almost forgot to hit the video record button on my phone.
The journey of mutual cultural discovery leading to this moment began on another warm day in February 2018 in Naya Village, Pingla District, West Bengal, India. As part of the exchange project called Communities Connecting Heritage: Learning Together for a Brighter Future, our group of two Smithsonian Folklife staff members and three American interns sat on the floor of the community center/museum amid the artists and singers who lived there. At least fifty men, women, and children of all ages grouped around us, eager to share their artistry and music. The sea of faces was more than a bit disorienting, but we were doing our best to stay focused after a long ride from Kolkata.
The group sang their version of a traditional Hindu story to the unrolling of a scroll, followed by a question-and-answer period through an interpreter. One of our group asked at what point in the tradition’s history the style of this artwork became fixed. This puzzled the group, since in their view, styles vary greatly from artist to artist. Five of them got up and partially unrolled scrolls that depicted the same story we had just heard, each in its own variation. While the story was still totally recognizable (the same song is sung to all of them), the visual stylistic differences were striking and delightful.
This was our “a-ha!” moment. We suddenly saw the individual artists behind the tradition, not just a community who all do “the same thing” in “the same style.” It was a powerful reaffirmation of what I learned way back as an undergraduate in Folklore 101 with my first mentor, folklorist George Carey, and what drew me to the field in the first place: the fascinating combination of old and new, conservatism and dynamism, passed down through time and space, and constantly changing creatively while retaining features that can be traced back to their roots even as many hands and minds add their own variations.
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Over the next two days, we spent many hours connecting with the villagers, touring their homes and workspaces, trying our hands at making paints from natural materials like flowers and berries, eating spicy potato curry and puffy puri bread in the open courtyard of the museum, and hearing traditional songs performed by everyone from toddlers to elders. We had been asked to bring a story with us, which village artists would interpret into visuals and a song. Back in the community center, we only had an hour to try to make the story come alive for the small group.
I had wracked my brain. What was an American story, exactly? Whose story would it be? How could it reflect all of America, or even the five travelers in our exchange project, who all came from different parts of the country, experiences, and family backgrounds?
An idea struck me, and I consulted the other four participants: how about the story of the history of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., from its days as Native American land to the present day? Although it was not a traditional tale, this stretch of land had many significant moments from which to draw. It was agreed, and I worked with the interns to prepare historic illustrations, photos, and text to share with the artists.
Still, trying to impart the nature and long history of the Mall took a great deal of creativity. Our colleagues from partner organization banglanatak.com did their best to translate the story from our static PowerPoint to a vibrant tale which encompassed such figures as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama, and events that ranged from women’s suffrage marches, to the AIDS Memorial Quilt display, to our own Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Although this tiny village of 75 houses and 400 scroll painters and singers is becoming well known for its vibrant artistry, only a few of them had traveled any farther than Kolkata, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride. Not one of them had ever been to Washington, D.C. There were wrinkled brows and many questions from the artists who would be involved with the scroll interpretation of this wide span of American history, including Mamoni Chitrakar and her sister Sonali and mother Swarna. They scribbled notes in Bengali script, drew sketches, and asked more questions.
All too soon, it was time for us to get back in our van and onto our next destination. We would not see the final product until Mamoni, one of five exchange participants who came to Washington, D.C., arrived in June with it tucked into her backpack.
And so, here we were at the august Library of Congress, listening to the song and watching as the scroll was unrolled by Mamoni. It was the first time any of us in the United States heard it performed. I could tell that she was nervous, but I knew that she was a seasoned performer with a strong voice, and she didn’t waver. The audience chuckled in recognition of familiar names, drawn out in a Bengali accent in the song, but mostly they were rapt, as was I. The skin tones, clothing, and architectural motifs reflected India, but MLK, Lincoln, Obama, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building were recognizable and artfully placed into historic context. To my eyes, the scroll was the perfect blend of the traditional patachitra style—eye-popping colors and stylized but very human figures arranged to reveal a story—and the spirit and majesty of the “sacred space” of the National Mall.
Mamoni gifted the scroll to the Smithsonian, and it will become part of our office collection. At a little over ten feet high, it will be a challenge to display, but we’re working on it. Every time I unroll it, I see something different and amazing, like the microphone and tape recorder nestled among the performers in the Folklife Festival section.
Although we only expected one version of the scroll painting, Mamoni also brought her sister Sonali’s version, and we have seen photos of a third painted by her mother. The National Mall may become a new motif interpreted by other artists in the village, each giving the story their own stylistic touches, all sung to the same song. We had seen various scrolls depicting the sinking of the Titanic, the 9/11 tragedy, and tsunami disasters. Now, the history of the National Mall would join these other epic stories in the traditional Bengali patachitra theme repertoire. This legacy of our visit to Naya Village boggles my mind at the same time it warms my heart.
As I showed Mamoni around Washington and the Folklife Festival in the summer, eating meals together and laughing over misinterpretations of her rapidly improving English and my abysmal Bengali, I better understood her as much more than a talented artist and singer. She is a patient teacher, an art enthusiast who would happily spend hours in museums, a mother who wants the best for her children, and a persuasive saleswoman who charmed shoppers in the Festival Marketplace. And she loves fireworks—especially on the National Mall, set behind the Washington Monument. I value the gift of our time together even more than I value the gift of the scroll.
Mamoni is home now, and perhaps working on a new version of a National Mall scroll, one informed by actually spending the majority of three weeks in that space, and no doubt it will be dazzling. But the “sight unseen” version that we now possess as a tangible reminder of this incredible exchange will remain the most charming and revealing. It’s testimony to how storytelling bridges culture, brings people from across the world closer together, and just might help make a brighter future by offering a new view of our collective pasts and shared present.
Translated Lyrics for the National Mall Patachitra
Come one, come all
Let us tell you the story of the Washington Mall
Oh! Listen one, listen all
This place was once home to the Natives
Native American folks, dear all,
But then came the whites, the Europeans,
And they soon captured all the land,
Dear all, oh! Listen one, listen all
Oh! Listen one, listen all,
Three kilometers in all is the distance
Covered by the Mall
And to the east is the Capitol Building
And to the west is the Lincoln Memorial
With a string of trees in between
With their long shades
It is a beauty to behold
And cherish forever, dear all!
Yes, we are talking about the
Washington, D.C., Mall!
And it was here in 1900
That women first raised their voice
To have the right to vote, dear friends, dear all,
And the women never wavered from their call
It was here dear friends
All here in the Washington, D.C., Mall
In the year 1963
It was here that the famous rights leader
Martin Luther King Jr. gave the call
To end racism and build a world of
Peace and harmony for once and for all
Oh! Listen dear friends, listen one, listen all
Let us cherish and remember this history
Dear friends, oh! Listen one, listen all
Betty Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and director of the Communities Connecting Heritage exchange project. She is grateful to the U.S. Department of State and World Learning for making the project possible and thankful for the hard work of the many other Smithsonian staff members and interns, and our Indian partners, banglanatak.com, for their help in making it a success.