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On Turtles’ Backs: Paitkar Painting of Jharkhand

On Turtles’ Backs: Paitkar Painting of Jharkhand

“This (cash) is for satiating my worldly needs, my hunger. I believe I gain wealth when someone appreciates my art, when they feel my art and start engaging with it” — Bijoy Chitrakar (roughly translated from Bengali). In the words of Kishore Gayen, only he and Bijoy da, as he is fondly called, are practitioners of the Paitkar/Pyatkar Patachitra or Paitkar scroll paintings. Considered a variant of the Odisha Pattachitra and Bengal Pat, it is the traditional scroll painting of a small village, Amadubi, in Jharkhand. Amadubi, which finds mention even on Incredible India website, houses around 54 artist families. Unfortunately, however, only these two traditional practitioners carry on their backs the onus of keeping this art form alive. Unlike its more popular cousins the Kalighat Pat and Pattachitra, Paitkar is a dying art form. Owing largely to the complex and tiring process of creating natural colours, preparing the canvas, lack of basic amenities and abundance of cheaper fake Paitkar scroll paintings, more and more chitrakars have given up the practice. When survival itself is at stake, is it indeed possible to continue practising such a rigorous form of art?

The Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre is an initiative to encourage more and more people to stay at the cottages within the centre and interact with the artists throughout the day to gain an insight into their lives and work and the plight of this art form. The centre also aims at encouraging the sale of these artworks. The artists, however, lay out their artworks and their souls to the visitors without expecting anything in return apart from spreading word about them and their artworks. The Gurukul and cottage are nestled in the lap of a quiet, untamed garden. The fruit trees grow with careless abandon. The air hangs heavy with the smell of ripened fruits, from guavas to jujubes. It is against this backdrop that Kishore Gayen spreads out his Paitkar paintings and begins telling his tale.

Gayen’s artworks revolve around the traditions, rituals, village scenes, tribal dances, Hindu mythological stories and other themes based on his knowledge and experiences. Some of his most colourful paintings include the ones where tribal dances are depicted – from Baha to Sarhul and Dasai. As one gets an insight into the customs, traditions and costumes related to these dances, it becomes easier to understand which painting represents which dance form. When the figures on paper are women dancing with kalash on their heads, one can recognise that the dance form is Baha; while the elaborate headgear on men indicate Dasai dance. These paintings are mainly done on paper. In order to maintain the elasticity and ensure longevity of the paper, fabric is at times glued to the back of the paper and roasted on large flat iron pans. There are yet other paintings where the work is done after having treated the paper with cow dung and other local ingredients. It is believed that treating the paper with cow dung improves the colour quality and ensures its longevity. Moreover, this treatment ensures that instead of fading, the colour deepens and brightens over time. This kind of treatment is reminiscent of the way in which the original Ajrakh is made. Ajrakh is a unique form of block printing found mostly in Sindh province. Treating the fabric with camel dung is a crucial part of the process and it is believed that without this treatment, the colours of Ajrakh would fade over time and would not be as bright and beautiful. In reality, the dung aids in softening of the fabric (or paper) and works as a bleaching agent, thus improving the quality of the print or painting.

Paitkar painting is unique in its own way not only because of its stylistic features and themes but also because the original paitkar artists still use natural colours. The dyes from stones, fruits, vegetables and other natural resources are first extracted and then mixed or boiled with glue from Neem plant or Babla (Gum Arabic) tree. It is an engaging exercise to try to understand which colour is extracted from which natural resource. From my limited learning of the making and usage of colours, I have prepared the following chart to tabulate the same.

Natural ResourceColour ExtractedMethod
Pui mituli/ Malabar Spinach seedsPurpleBoiling the seeds releases a purple pigment. Once the colour is ready to be used on canvas, depending on the density of usage, it can be used as purple or even as pink colour.
Stones found on the bank of SubarnarekhaGolden yellow ochreLike sandalwood, when moistened with water and rubbed against a slightly rough surface, this stone releases a golden yellow ochre coloured paste.
Soot from the bottom of utensilsBlackDirectly collected.
StoneRedWhen moistened with water and rubbed against a slightly rough surface, this stone releases a red coloured paste.
Leaves of Sheem/Indian Broad Bean plantsGreenBoiled to release green pigment.
*Note: All the pigments or natural dyes need to be mixed and boiled with glue from Neem plant or Babla tree to prepare the colour which can be used for painting. 

These natural colours take on a darker hue in Bijoy Chitrakar’s paintings. His age and experience are evident in his confident, highly detailed artworks and deeper themes. A treasure trove of wisdom, ‘Bijoy da’, as he is fondly called, has travelled to various parts of the country to showcase his works and to share their stories. An artist to the core, he believes in leaving behind his legacy in his massive volume of artworks. He wishes to leave behind his thoughts, his inspiration and his methods for future generations to remember him by. Bijoy da always carries his notebook with him. He makes it a point to write down the story behind an artwork before he begins painting. Art, according to him, is divinely inspired and should he ever let thoughts of greed or other dishonourable thoughts seep into his mind, his brush itself rebels and the quality of his art suffers. His only wish is to remain alive through his artworks and be remembered even after his death. 

Bijoy Chitrakar holding an artwork which is discussed in details below

Bijoy Chitrakar’s artworks leave a profound impact on their viewers. He wants to inspire the viewers’ minds into a conversation with his artworks. When he lays out all his paintings, it is difficult to not feel a deep connection to one or more of his paintings. One of his paintings particularly stood out when I saw his huge gamut of work. This one had the figure of a turtle with its four limbs tied to four poles. On this turtle’s back rested a Nag with a plate on its head. This plate held two human figures. This painting intrigued me so much that I asked him for the story behind it. What poured forth from his mouth somewhat baffled me. According to him, what he has represented on paper is the tribal creation story based mostly on oral tradition. His story was a curious mix of tribal stories of creation and Hindu mythological elements. The story, incoherent in parts, is as follows:

Closer look into the artwork inspired by Santhal creation story. Art by Bijoy Chitrakar

In the beginning, there was only water. Lord Vishnu, the creator, had been feeling lonely. In order to alleviate his loneliness, he decided to create human beings. Only creatures of water like crocodiles and crabs thrived. Since human beings cannot survive on water, an elaborate plan had to be hatched. Lord Vishnu, in his Kachhop or turtle avatar, lay on the surface of the water with his limbs tied to four posts lest he floats away due to the water current. On his shell sat Shesh-Nag supporting a massive gold plate on his head. This plate was to form the foundation of the world. In order for the human beings to survive, the plate had to be filled up with soft, fertile soil. The soil was buried deep under the water and had to be brought to the surface by someone. The crocodile swam down to the bottom of the vast ocean, scooped up some soil in its mouth and started swimming up. By the time it had reached the surface, the soil had washed away from his mouth. And thus the duck, crab and others tried but all in vain. It was finally decided that the humble earthworm would shoulder this stupendous responsibility. The earthworm would traverse through the holes in a lotus stem and bring up the soil through the same route thus, ensuring the soil would not get washed away. This plan was then put into action and Lord Vishnu breathed life into two human beings, one male and one female. Thus, life on earth came to be. 

According to Bijoy da, it is believed that earthquakes occur when the turtle moves or the Shesh-Nag shakes its head. What is absolutely awe-inspiring and slightly uncanny (if I may use the word) is how many ancient, especially First Nation, creation stories feature the turtle as the foundation upon which we all live and thrive.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Canadian Indigenous scholar, writer and educator explores philosophies and pathways of regeneration, resurgence, and a new emergence through the Nishnaabeg language, Creation Stories, walks with Elders and children, celebrations and protests, and meditations on these experiences in her book, Dancing on our Turtle’s Back. The story of Resurgence in Nishnaabeg thought is also one which rests on a turtle’s back. 

“This narrative starts with a phase of destruction: the Nishnaabeg had lost their way; their relationships were imbalanced; and their lives were permeated with violence and conflict. As a restorative measure, Gzhwe Mnidoo (The Creator) brought a large flood to the lands, not as a punitive act, but as purification… Waynabozhoo managed to save himself by finding a large log floating in the vast expanse of water. In time, more and more animals joined him on the log. Floating aimlessly in the ocean of floodwater, Waynabozhoo decided that something must be done. He decided to dive down into the water and grab a handful of earth. Waynabozhoo dived down into the depths and was gone for a very long time, returning without the earth. In turn, a number of animals… all tried and failed. Finally Zhaashkoonh (muskrat) tried. Zhaashkoonh was gone forever, and eventually floated to the surface, dead. Waynabozhoo picked the muskrat out of the water and found a handful of mud in Zhaashkoonh’s paw. Mikinaag (turtle) volunteered to bear the weight of the earth on her back and Waynabozhoo placed the earth there. Waynabozhoo began to sing. The animals danced in a clockwise circular fashion and the winds blew, creating a huge and widening circle. Eventually, they created the huge island on which we live, North America.” (p 68-69, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back).

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From the West to the East, tribal creation stories have uncanny similarities which discombobulate and enthrall one in equal measure, especially when it comes to the characters and the theme of survival against all odds. It is stories like these that artists like Bijoy Chitrakar try to spread to the otherwise unacquainted people through their artworks. The prime struggles for both Gayen and Chitrakar are ensuring that the art form does not die out, does not get diluted through corrupt practices and to try to spread their stories beyond the boundaries of their small village. The two artists at Amadubi, the pillars on which Paitkar paintings rest, have but one aim—survival. They seek to live on through their artworks while also ensuring that the name of the quiet village of Amadubi remains in the collective public memory for eternity. Supporting the legacy on their backs, these two artists carry on the struggle for survival while trying their best to not be carried away by the current of oblivion. 

It is indeed brave, perhaps even audacious, but thoroughly inspiring and oddly liberating that these two visibly tired phenomenal artists from a seemingly unknown and sleepy, remote village dare to dream of immortality with such burning passion. As I come to the conclusion of documenting my experience with these two artists, there is a couplet—a ray of hope—that keeps coming back to me as I think about them and their artworks,

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

(Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare).

Doors leading to Amadubi-Panijiya Rural Tourism Centre
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