The intriguing tale of the Patta Chitra Patuas of Bengal


THE intersection of art and the narration of epics, fables, lore, and religious tenets have an enduring antiquity in India. Over the ages, the arts of painted storytelling introduced pilgrims to the basic tenets of their belief, communicated momentous events and provided entertainment to the courts and the public. These tellers of tales were integral to the process of transmitting knowledge by providing lessons in an age of limited literacy, difficult travel, and poor communication.1

Evidence dating back from the 3rd century BCE attests to this method of telling tales and has been traced to the oldest extant theatre in India, in the Sitabengra cave on the Ramgarh Hill in Jharkhand. This amphitheatre holds an inscription on its wall referring to it as a lena-sobhika or a place for the performance of picture-storytelling.2 

Further architectural evidence is brought to bear from the magnificent remains of the 3rd c. BCE Barhut Stupa, in Satna, and the Great Stupa at Sanchi dated to 2nd c. BCE. Its grand sandstone gateways positioned at cardinal points are surmounted by dramatic slabs with sculpted scenes that include tales from the Buddhist Jataka. The furled ends culminate in whorls that give the impression of gigantic carved stone scrolls. That has led scholars to conjecture that these are monumental representations of the way in which picture storytelling was performed in ancient times. Other similar representations dot the landscape, attesting to not only a long, sophisticated, and evolved tradition but additionally to the geographic breadth of the custom.

By the 2nd c. CE pictorial storytelling was expressed memorably through murals. The rhetoric, with its vivid wealth of detail, now translated onto walls can be seen in the glorious murals in the rock-cut cave monasteries of Ajanta. Here, the Jataka tales and episodes from the life of the Lord Buddha were realized through large-scale painting that C. Sivaramamurti, the great art historian, eloquently described as ‘magnificent art galleries with the murals found there constituting an illustrative commentary of Buddhist Literature.’3

The remnants of the murals in the Buddhist rock cut caves situated in Bagh, Madhya Pradesh. These dated to the 5th and 6th c and were once also extensively painted in the 7th c. Jain complex of frescos at Sittanavasal in Paddukkotia district in Tamil Nadu which is noted for its paintings. Unfortunately, these are now largely defaced.

This custom continued well into the 16th c. and beyond, with instances from the Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, to the murals executed in the Rang Mahal Palace in Chambha, and the narrative wall paintings of the mid-16th c. at Lepakshi.

Literary references were an equally important source for tracking the narration of pictorial storytellers. The 4th century Chitrasutra of Vishnudharmottara Purana, the great treatise on painting and image-making, sets out the ideals and theories stating, ‘Even religious teachers use paintings as the most popular means of communication that could be understood by the illiterate and the child.’4

In parallel, the popular everyday folk tradition had an equally long antiquity and fulfilled similar aims. The visual narratives were integral not only to the process of transmitting religious knowledge, but equally for popular entertainment, teaching, and educating audiences across the region.

References to these itinerant picture-narrators are found in several ancient texts: Patanjali in the Mahabhasya, written in about 2nd c BCE using ‘the historic present tense’, speaks of the picture storytellers or saubhikas who, through their pictures presented the legends of the Hindu god Krishna.5 

Saubhikas are again mentioned in the Buddhist text Maha-vastu compiled between the 2 c. BCE and 4 c. CE where they are included along with other entertainers who flocked to see the Buddha in the city of Kapilavastu.6 

Kautilya’s treatise on statecraft, the Arthasastra, dated to around the 3rd c. CE recognized the potential of entertainers as spies, moving freely as they did without arousing suspicion. In fact, trained spies were recommended that they could be disguised as actors and other public entertainers to better discharge their duties. Also included in Kautilya’s list of entertainers were the picture-reciters – the Yama-patas who narrated the punishments awaiting the wrongdoer in the other world using painted picture scrolls.7 

The narration of stories through scrolls was a long and continuing tradition. In the 7th century CE., Banabhatt’s court biography Harsha-charita provides a vivid portrayal of the yama-patika in a bazaar surrounded by excited children. He narrates the retribution awaiting the sinners in the other world using a picture scroll.8 

In the classical Sanskrit play-wrights’ repertoire, the device of using the protagonist as a picture storyteller was a popular manner of introducing audiences to the backdrop of the story. This dramatic conveyance provided structure and context to the events ahead, hence adding to the dramatic tension. From the celebrated Sanskrit play-wright Bhasa’s 4th c. classical drama Dutavakyam and continuing to Bhava-bhuti’s 8 c. CE. Sanskrit play Uttara Ram Charitam, the trend continued until around the 10 c. This literary device is evidence of the picture-storytellers’ impact on society, cultural mores at large and their staying power.9

The development and spread of papermaking added on a more personalized form through the introduction of illustrated texts. The intersection of art and the narrative tradition of storytelling reached a high apogee in the time of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th c. Akbar was brought up in a highly literate environment and was endowed with a brilliant intellect that was formally unlettered – his quest for knowledge was reflected in the enormous outpouring of illustrated manuscripts from the huge artistic studios he established. Their output was eclectic, mirroring the emperors’ own interests. The tradition of oral recounting through illustrated pictures was an important part of their routine, as stated by his biographer Abul Fazl in Ain I Akbari.10

Among the many pictorial manuscripts was the Dastane Amir Hamza. These fantastical tales of the exploits of legendary heroes were captured in the spectacular Hamzanama manuscript comprising 1400 folios, which measured two and a half feet by two feet. As with any great performance of dance or music, no two performances of these tales would have been the same. It is almost certain that the renowned storytellers at court did not read verbatim the rather tersely described actions related in the text. Instead, they must have referred to them only as a narrative guideline, embellishing certain characters and situations as they dramatized the telling of the story.11

Now, four centuries after the passing of Emperor Akbar, how do the picture storytellers fare today? Changing mores and new avatars of relating picture-stories, have decimated both the audience and the picture-storytelling arts to obscurity. We can only conjecture on the multitude of these itinerant pictorial storytelling traditions that have possibly vanished over these centuries. In our time they are unwritten about and unsung.

Some, however, continue to be written about – albeit in a relatively more posed manner than in the hurly-burly of their earlier robust traditions. These regional traditions are performed in languages and dialects that contained the teller within specific geographies, informed by cultural contexts, with distinct visual depiction and style with tales specific to communities or castes; some to be told at defined moments in time and other occasions too.

Regional traditions once flourished throughout the Indian subcontinent. The all-night liturgical narration by the itinerant Bhopa, or priest-performer, in Rajasthan is accompanied by a depiction on a large horizontal painted cloth panel or the Phad. Dense with figures and events, the phads depict the legends of the epic hero-gods besides legends from the great epics.

In the Deccan narrative scrolls were painted in several villages across the region till the 1930s. As of now we know of only one family based in Cheriyal in Warangal district that continues to paint.

The narration of sacred stories through scrolls in Gujarat has vanished in our lifetime. These narrations by itinerant priest-performer-bards were done by the Garodas who travelled
across villages narrating sacred stories through song and recitation with the accompaniment of a painted scroll, the Tipanu.

Similarly, the Chitrakathi tradition, once found all over Maharashtra, has vanished in our lifetime. Although there seems to be a revival in Pinguli near Sawantwadi.

The Santhal Pat tradition extended across the habitats of the tribal groups of the Santhals and the Bhumijs in Bengal, was painted by the Jadu Patuas (‘magic scroll painters’). These Pats were of two main categories serving different purposes. The first was didactic, with themes specific to customs and beliefs. The second category was the Chakshudan Pat, part of the death-deliverance ritual of the Santhal people. Painted upon receiving news of a death, the pat portrayed the deceased complete in detail, except for the iris which was not painted into the eye. This represented the sightless wanderings in the afterlife. After the ceremonial offerings, the Jadu Patua painted it in the Chakushudan or ‘bestowal of eyesight’, bringing peace to the restless wandering spirit.

In some other continuing traditions, the telling of stories is accompanied by visual pictorial aids other than scrolls. For instance, the Kaavad which are the portable shrines of Rajasthan, have box-like painted narratives with folding, concertina doors. Additionally, the tradition of Mata-ni-Pachedi of Gujarat has a painted canopy and cloth hangings. The shadow puppets of Odisha, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra are among some others where the oral narrative depends on the visual pictorial imagery. A lot has vanished here, as the Chamadya Cha Bahulya or Dayati leather puppet tradition of Maharashtra is no longer to be seen.

Evidently, we continue to love the combination of pictures and storytelling, as can be seen by the rising subscriptions to Netflix and other OTT channels. Therefore, all is not lost as there are numerous continuing traditions that remain robust. In West Bengal, the community of Patuas or Chitrakars have traditionally been associated with the making of the Patachitra scroll paintings narrated before an audience through a story-song, the Patagaan. As the Patuas continue to paint their scrolls, compose poetry, and sing tales to their audience, their inheritance is continually negotiating between tradition and modernity.


However, unlike the Garoda, Kaavad, Phad, Chitrakathi, the Deccani scrolls, whose stories were all narrated by clan-priests to the communities they served, the Patuas’ audiences were the villagers across the interiors of Bengal belonging to different castes and communities. From writings dating back to 1888, and evidence of scrolls in museums and collections, it can be deduced that their subjects extended beyond the Hindu epics and purans, to the regional mangala-kavyas and the deeds of Muslim pirs. They also include contemporary events such as revolts against the British Raj, major mishaps, and ferry wrecks in the Hooghly among others.

In effect they were pure and simple professional picture storytellers, quite like the visuals and narratives of Netflix. This is because their telling of tales was suited to a wide audience with divergent interests, which allowed them ‘licence’ to relate to tales of the political, utilitarian, social or didactic while also fulfilling needs of the religious, to a Hindu, a Muslim, or a tribal audience but without the ritual – and of course – in a culturally appropriate manner.

 This remarkable ability that has its basis in the Patuas’ historical past continues to hold them in good stead today as can be seen from their interpretation of new ideas and events, incorporating the familiar with the new, and making complex notions explicable. This ability to make the unfamiliar less frightening, by explaining it through their perceptions and filtering ideas and events for their audiences, was extended to educating rural communities in Bengal on various issues including HIV prevention in the 1990s. As Samiran Panda, who was working in Midnapur in this period stated, ‘This scroll painting intervention made sense to me as a good public health tool… this art form is indigenous, culturally acceptable and evokes a sincere interest in the community.’ He further added, ‘You get the information you need in a form you can hear and absorb.’12

This adaptability has been unlike that of other picture storyteller communities, whose themes were inherently linked to the religious domain. Thus, giving the Patuas a staying power that perhaps their compatriots in the other traditions lacked.

Moving effortlessly between the sacred and the secular space has not been an issue for the Patuas, which is reflected in their dual identities as they seamlessly move from personal religious beliefs to professional lives. Their complex socio-religious underpinning lies between their adherences to both major religions of the sub-continent, and their ease of religious observance that serves the interest of the two. In their quiet, non-strident manner, they could serve as a teaching on syncretism for many of us today.

In other ways, the Patuas were unlike other pictorial storytellers. In the Deccani scrolls, Kaavad, and Phads, the painters of narrative scrolls and objects were not the reciters of tales who were traditionally the clan priest. For example, the phads are painted by members of the Joshi community, and the recitation is by the Bhopa clan priest.

Not only do the Patua community paint their scrolls, but they also compose the lyrics of their chosen themes and perform it for their audiences. Here lies their strength, and, as in the past, their independence in choosing themes, whether utilitarian, social, or didactic, from mythology, religion, folklore – politics, morality tales, or events of contemporary relevance – largely lay within their own control.

This spirited openness to ideas and themes, the acceptance and adaptation to change is reflected amongst the women of the community and their changing roles. The near apocryphal account of their start is ascribed to a government workshop in Patachitra skill development. As the Patua men were busy with other tasks and unwilling to miss the daily training stipend, they sent their wives and daughters to attend the workshop. From this modest beginning, that did not foretell the changes that would be wrought, started the active participation of women in the making, performing, and marketing of scrolls.

In addition, the dynamism of the community of Patuas who work within the tradition, produce work that is not a pale repetitive imitation of the past, but inscribed with vibrant expressions of a palpable creativity. This ranges from work created for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, the cataclysmic events of 9/11, the Titanic movie celebrated in a scroll, the Asian tsunami or Covid-19. By rendering the stories for children’s publications and making comics, they are building new traditions within the framework of the old.

Yet there are concerns about the future. The impact and influence of government policies in post-independence India has actively influenced the development of everyday arts including those of the Patuas. If we take a view of the strategic role of the government, the implementation of development initiatives through schemes was largely concentrated on product-centred craft development, with training and skill development programmes that enhanced earnings and improved access to markets. Through exhibitions it brought them audiences from beyond their villages and encouraged them to expand their oeuvre beyond traditional material and markets, thereby opening the floodgates with the art now expressed on paper, canvas, terracotta, wood.

The painting and marketing is now a full-time home-based cottage industry for the whole family with each member contributing to the family business. In addition, exposure to exhibitions, and their own astute observations of the workings of markets have resulted in some major shifts in the products available for sale that include single sheeter paintings, Kalighat pastiches, copies of jadu Patua scrolls and other objects that jostle for space from saris, umbrellas, T-shirts, mugs, and pots. The song-narration by the Patua holding up a scroll provides the marketing draw-in that adds a heightened sensory input to the sales pitch. As Radha Chitrakar commented when the sale of painted T-shirts was slow, ‘We need a song for the T-shirts to draw in the buyers.’

Though there is no doubt that this commoditization of scroll paintings has allowed a certain economic security and entrepreneurial as well as artistic freedom on the flip side. It can be debated that this dynamic combination of commerce and market demand has led to a pandering to the market with a certain level of proliferation of repetitive art production. This is vitiating the nature of ‘original’, with the replication of themes, the simplification of art, and its ease of availability, lending itself to a lack of differentiation between the artworks.

This has slowly but surely separated the tradition from its original impulse. By valuing the product and not its purpose, it has cut the creative, social, and cultural underpinnings. The one fixed aspect in the past was that the art was inseparable from the narrative ­ the one not to be cleaved from the other. There are many instances of this phenomenon, the Kaavad from its ritual telling, the puppets sold as objects, and the Phad evaluated as a painting. For the Patuas too, the transformative potential of the expanded domestic and international market has resulted in their Pats, like other narrative art forms increasingly sold as decorative items.

As the Patuas continue in an inexorable mediation with change, the question is what lies ahead. Without sounding simplistic or sophist, perhaps there are several routes to a future. And one of the answers to the future continues to lie in the cultural geography of Bengal that revels in its rootedness, regional myths, engagement with political and social happenings, celebration of the Bengali language through films, songs, literature, and the connectedness it gives Bangla speakers. With 60% of Bengal still located in its villages, the arts of the Patua have great potential as they draw strength from their historic past. Their proverbial adaptability to changing times has always held them in good stead.

The Patuas ability to compose, perform, paint, and transmit ideas to tell stories and simplify complex situations to Bangla speaking audiences, is a powerful form of teaching, learning and communication that I hope will continue to hold them in good stead. The advent of new and the continuing of traditional avenues may lead to a new future for the Patuas as they continue their work
and travels, grappling with their many worlds, multiple identities, and simultaneous modernities in these changing times. As a result of their historic past and the spectrum of spaces and avenues of potential growth paths, the Patuas proverbial adaptability to changing times and audiences has held them in good stead. 

Perhaps the way forward could be to focus on not just the product as a saleable item, but as a part of the whole process, recognizing the social and cultural contexts of the eco-system that forms the very reason for the birth and evolution and creation of the narrative painting.


*Talk delivered at the IIC, 13 August 2021, as a keynote for the annual ArtEast Festival. Transcribed by Muskan Kaur and Shreya Saksena, Jindal School of Journalism and Communication.

1.  Refer to Ritu Sethi, Painters, Poets, Performers: The Patuas of Bengal. India Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore, 2018.

2. Naseem A Banerji, ‘Representations of Scrolls in the Lithic Art of India’, Weber 15(2), Spring/Summer 1998.

3. C. Sivaramamurti, The Art of India. Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1977, p 176.

4. Stella Kramrisch (trans.), Vishnudharmottra. California University Press, 1926, p 62.

5. M.L. Varadpande, Traditions of Indian Theatre. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1979, p 11.

6. Ibid., pp. 25-31.

7. Ibid., p 11.

8. Ibid., p 86.

9. M.L. Varadpande, History of Indian Theatre Vol III, Classical Theatre. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2005, p 82.

10. H. Blochman and Col. H.S. Jarrett (trans.), Ain-i Akbari. Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 1873, pp. 102-15.

11. John Seyller (ed.), The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Azimuth Publications, Washington DC/London, 2002, pp. 41-42.

12. R. Solinger, Madeline Fox, Kayhan Irani (eds.), Telling Stories to Change the World:  Everyone Needs to Know Five Stories about AIDS and Art in India. Routledge, New York, 2008, pp. 152-153.