“My heart is breaking,
How will I express my feelings?
The whole world is filled with sorrow everywhere.”
—Swarna Chitrakar, song sung to patachitra scroll on coronavirus
How do you artistically depict a deadly virus? For several patachitra (traditional scroll) artists from the small village of Naya in West Bengal, India, the coronavirus is personified as a huge monster with a gaping mouth, or the large round head of a beast with muscular arms menacing a terrified crowd.
I was not surprised when I learned that several artists in Naya had created scrolls that depicted the COVID-19 pandemic. When our five-person cultural exchange team visited the village in 2018, we noticed that the artists painted and sang about current events and issues as well as mythological and natural subjects. Some of their scrolls are commemorate tragedies like 9/11 and natural disasters such as tsunamis and floods. Others promote social and health education, such as those that explain preventive measures to take against HIV/AIDS or the deadly coronavirus affecting the world today.
The scrolls tell the story of the pandemic visually, and accompanying songs composed by the artists present the story in words; in this case, explaining COVID-19, its effects, and how to protect oneself against the disease. They also express the grief and sorrow of losing loved ones to the virus. The artists unroll the multi-panel scrolls as they sing. Normally, they would travel to different regions of India and even to other countries to present their stories, but the pandemic has grounded them to their local area.
In June, intern Jill Yanai and I enlisted the help of the staff of Banglanatak dot com to find out how the artists of Naya were coping with the pandemic. Banglanatak is an NGO based in Kolkata that works to document, promote, and create new markets for rural artists throughout West Bengal and in other parts of India. The organization partnered with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage during the 2018 Communities Connecting Heritage cultural exchange. Director Ananya Bhattacharya forwarded a video of artist Swarna Chitrakar’s pandemic scroll that had gone viral on social media.
We also learned that Swarna’s daughters, Mamoni Chitrakar (who visited us in Washington, D.C., as part of the exchange) and Sonali Chitrakar, as well as other village artists, had created their own versions of the COVID-19 scroll paintings. It is a common practice for several artists to do their own interpretations of the same topic.
With the aid of Bhattacharya and colleague Anandita Patra, we relayed some questions in advance for Swarna and Mamoni and arranged a Zoom call. It was the very first Zoom call that the mother and daughter had participated in, and although the connection was not of the best quality, it was still amazing to connect with artists over 8,000 miles away to discuss their work.
The pandemic has affected the village in many ways, especially economically. In the past several years, the artists had received many visitors seeking to buy their creations, but during the pandemic no one is traveling. Due to lockdown orders, all fairs and exhibitions were canceled. “We do not have much savings to continue for six to seven months without income,” they reported. Reductions in income has led to food scarcity in the village as elsewhere in rural India.
In her song, Swarna implores listeners to “please contribute some food to the poor and needy.”
Cyclone Amphan, which hit West Bengal in May, also caused many problems, affecting village artists who live in traditional houses made of natural materials. Roofs tiles were blown away, houses were flooded, and paper-based artwork was damaged, resulting in further loss of income and hardship.
Naya is a village of an estimated 500 artists from sixty-four extended families. Mamoni reports that many of the artists are “facing despair and are thinking ‘Why should I paint another scroll? I already have so much painted.’” Many of them are turning away from painting, and back to farming, to make ends meet. Others, like Swarna and Mamoni, are seeking new methods to get attention for their work and increase sales. Some turn to social media to showcase their art.
“Another problem I am facing is that schools are shut, so my son and daughter are at home 24/7,” Mamoni says. “I would usually paint when they would be at school, but now I am too busy taking care of them. There is also a problem of availability of art supplies like paper.”
There is an upside. Having the kids at home gives the artists a chance to teach them the traditions of painting and singing. Mamoni reports that the scroll artists have been organizing workshops for the children of the village at their community center.
Swarna, whose work is much in demand and who travels widely in a typical year, looks at the positive side of the pandemic: “In a way, this lockdown has provided me with ample time to compose new songs, work on ideas I have had for quite some time. I was always traveling for exhibitions or working on orders.”
Asked to speculate on the longer-term effect of the pandemic, the artists expressed doubt that people would resume travel quickly.
“It will take time for fairs and exhibitions to happen again. Even when fairs and festivals start, the footfall will not be as it used to be,” they said. Also, the artists’ domestic orders are down, as the pandemic has depressed the economy as a whole. “Every year by June/July, we would get orders from boutiques for saris and Durga Puja pandals (elaborately decorated temporary structures created for festivals), but this year we haven’t received any. Hopefully, things will improve before POT Maya, our annual festival held in November.”
We asked how the COVID-19 scrolls related to earlier work they had created about historic events.
“We as a community have been making scrolls on current events for a long time now,” Swarna said. “So, we thought that when such a virus has hit not only our country but the world, why not make a painting or song on it? Because patachitra is a medium of social communication, through our art and song, we reach out to many people.”
When asked why they think the COVID-19 scrolls have captured many people’s attentions around the world, Swarna commented, “I think they went viral because people could relate to them. Everyone was going through some sort of problem because of the pandemic. After my video went viral, a number of newspapers called me for interviews. Artists who I had worked with previously called to congratulate me. It felt good to receive such encouraging messages in difficult times. This is what helps me to work more, work better.”
Swarna’s artistry caught the attention of a small publisher, Tara Books. “[They saw] my work on COVID-19 online and asked me to make around 100 small frames on the different aspects of the pandemic, like labor migration, people living away from family, etc. for a book that they will be publishing.” She explained that her work for the book will expand to address how the pandemic is affecting the whole world, not just their village, helping tell the history of our current time.
In her song, Swarna expresses hope for the time “when we will all be together and spend time in happiness.” Mamoni is already planning a song and scroll imagining the post-pandemic world. Meanwhile, their hope is that their scrolls can travel the world, even if the artists, themselves, cannot. Social media provides one means, but I can attest to the fact that seeing these works of art in person makes a powerful statement.
As Mamoni says, “If the scrolls can go somewhere and an exhibition can be held,” they could spread not only the message of dealing with the pandemic, but foster an appreciation for their traditional art.
Betty J. Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is grateful to have reconnected with the traditional patachitra scroll painters and with Banglanatak dot com.
Special thanks to intern Jill Yanai, to Ananya Bhattacharya and Anindita Patra, and most of all to Mamoni and Swarna Chitrakar for sharing their time and information.