Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
A few months ago, I spotted a piece of vintage folk art and without knowing quite what it was, I acquired it.
It was a scroll, about 1 foot wide and several feet long, with cloth ends attached to both ends. The length had been created by stitching together smaller sheets of thick paper – painted with scenes from a folk legend. It was old, it was beautiful and it held some mystery and so I acquired it.
It stayed in my collection waiting patiently for my attention while my other engagements did not give me enough time to study this piece and its story.
Then on a recent speaking assignment on a cruise ship last month, the subject of one of my four lectures was ‘Folk Art’. To add some zing to the talk I had planned a ‘show-and-tell’ and needed to choose 3-4 out of 2 dozen pieces that I had easy access to at home. And it is easy to predict that one of the pieces that I took along was this piece.
What is not predictable is the story that followed on the cruise. It is a story of serendipity, of coincidence, of strange occurrences that I cannot explain that happen very very often to me. ‘Life’ seems to be taking wicked pleasure in shocking me with these coincidences!
So to continue with the story: One evening I notice an elderly Indian couple dining by themselves. I stopped and said hello for a minute. The next time we bumped into each other the ‘hello’ lasted 15 minutes. And by the third time they knew all my life coordinates and I knew theirs. And soon we would meet after dinner every night ( it was 10 long days in the ocean!).
It turned out to be an honor to know them, as they were distinguished people – Dr. M from the medical fraternity and a very known luminary in his field (got to know that later) and Dr. M – a physicist who had also had a sparkling career and was a known name in her field. Speaking to them, one would never have guessed they were such extraordinary people – their humility and simplicity is the greatest thing about them!
And then one day we were talking about their childhood and we talked of roving performers and their accessories …..the pattua painting. I could not believe that this was happening. I had the urge to run at the speed of light – in my silk sari and tiktok shoes all the way from the fancy dining room to my own room to go and bring down the pattua painting that was travelling with me and bring it down for them to see and explain to me. But such an action would have made me look childish and silly and these sweet people might have been shocked by such undignified running in the middle of a conversation. So I forced myself to calm down, banished such thoughts and spoke calmly about the pattua lying in my bag. I asked if I may bring it down the next day to show them so that I might receive some enlightened from their experience and they sweetly agreed.
And so the next day, after dinner, after dinner, we stood in the casino, and I unfurled the pattua and they examined it and with one view they knew exactly what it was. Here is what I learned:
In the olden days there was no TV or radio and the only human-delivered entertainment existed. So dancers, musicians, magicians all went from village to village performing their acts. And there were the legend-story-tellers – who had a greater purpose than just entertaining. They were also spreading the message – either religious or ideological or about some social message. ( See the articles on Pabuji ki Phad and Travelling Godmen for other references on this blog). In Bengal, these people would carry scrolls of paper, go house to house, sing and narrate the story and use these pattuas as visual aids. Voice + Visual + a little basic performance. And in return they would be given some money or food. Mr. M had experienced this in his childhood in East Bengal – that is now Bangladesh, before his family moved to West Bengal during the partition. As he spoke vividly and excitedly of his childhood, his hands starting moving and he almost demonstrated the little dance of the performers! The child in him had also awoken. His wife, Mrs. M sighted the single word ‘Monosha’ on the scroll and that told her what this story is about. She said this is the tale of Lakshinder and his wife Mehula and Goddess of Snakes who was very important in rural Bengal as many people used to die of snakebites in those days. Lakshinder was bitten by a snake and was presumed dead but his wife Mehula prayed and performed penance and brought him back to life. The patta depictes the various scenes from that legend. Mrs. M explained that another popular goddess was the ‘Small Pox Goddess’ and many such legends about her exist as well.
I was enjoying these explanations and stood mesmerised as the two of them spoke … not wanting to interrupt their flow of words brought out from the cauldron of their childhood memories. When they finished we all left the casino and went back to our respective rooms, me beaming having just hit the jackpot!
What a coincidence.
Here is a find from youtube that shows the actual demonstration of storytelling using a pattua. This video has hardly any views and likes – I request the readers to please ‘like’ it in order to encourage the makers.
If you know more about this subject please share the details – I would love to hear about it! Use the comment box below or write in.