Traditional Patachitra Themes

Gazi Pir 

Gazi (Gaji) Pir was a Muslim saint who is said to have helped spread Islam in Bengal. In the regions of the Sundarban in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, where the river Ganga meets the sea, the story and images of Gazi Pir had earned much popularity among the forest dwellers like woodcutters, beekeepers and others. According to local myth, this warrior-saint was renowned for his powers to control elements of the natural world and could thus protect his devotees from attacks of tigers, crocodiles and other wild animals in the forests. These communities still believe in the supernatural powers of the Pir and utter his name when they venture into the forest.

The Gazi scroll paintings (Gajir Pot) presenting the valour of Gazi Pir appeared around the 15th century and seemed to be related to the rise of Sufism in Bengal.  In these scrolls he is shown riding a fearsome Bengal tiger while holding a poisonous snake in his hand.  Scenes from a Gajir Pot depicting various incidents in the life of Gazi Pir, include the Gazi fighting with demons, overpowering dangerous animals and miraculously causing cattle to give milk and receiving the homage of tigers. 

Jadu Patas

The Jadu Patas of the tribals are of 3 kinds. There are the Pouranik Patas or Jonmo Patas which depict the story of the origin of the Santals known as Karam Binti. The recitation of the Karam Binti is compulsory at a number of Santal rituals. According to one version of this oral legend of the Santals , in the beginning there was only water and the earth lay submerged. So Marang Buru, their god of creation made creatures of the water like the crab, tortoise, crocodile and earthworm. He then created two human figures, but they were destroyed. Marang Buru then created two birds, a gander and a goose, Hans and Hansil. So that they could get food, Marang Buru then created earth with the help of the creatures of the water. He then sowed seeds and the first grains grew. From the eggs laid by the female bird, emerged the first Santals – Pilchu Haram, a boy and Pilchu Buri, a girl.  

The children grew up and one day Marang Buru, in human form, taught them how to make rice beer (hnaria, a home brewed liquor much loved by the tribals). Intoxicated by the beer which they drank excessively, the couple made love and Pilchu Buri eventually gave birth to seven boys and seven girls. These children in turn married each other and gradually the population of the Santals started increasing. The first parents divided them into clans, so that in future a brother may not marry a sister.  But the people paid no heed and continued to commit incest.  Marang Buru then proceeded to destroy the people, save only Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Buri.  A fresh start was made, and twelve sons were born to them, who it is believed were the first ancestors of twelve Santal clans.  

Karam Binti Pata is the longest of all the Jadu Patas – sometimes as long as 15 or 16 feet. The last frame of such a pata often portrays the dreadful torture meted out to sinners in hell by Marang Buru, in tandem with the comfortable after lives of pious souls. These are similar to the Jom Patas where Lord Yama is featured in a similar role.

The tribals place a lot of faith on the Jadu Patuas - believing them to be the manipulators of life after death.  Modern Santals however tend to view them with more tolerance than faith - but do not turn them away. A second form of Jadu Pata deals with the location of missing people and is called the Mara Haja Pata. If a tribal did not return from a hunting trip and was presumed dead, the Jadu Patua was called upon to use his magical powers to paint the location where the man had died.  

The last kind are the Paraloukik Patas of which the Chokkhudaan Pata has special significance in the Santal community.  This is a very small pata with the portrait of a person whose eyes do not have the irises painted on. Carrying a ready stock of such pictures depicting men, women or children of various age groups, the Jadu Patua appears at the household where a death has taken place and picks out an appropriate pata closest in likeness to the deceased.  Also on the pata are images of what the Patua hopes to receive for his troubles.  – perhaps a chicken or an umbrella. The bereaved family is persuaded that the soul of the departed relative is unable to find peace and would remain blind in the afterlife until these gifts are handed over to the Patua upon which the irises would be painted on. The Jadu Patua thus played the role of spiritual guide. 

Though the tribals themselves did not subscribe to Hindu religion, Aryan and later Vaishnav influences on the Jadu Patuas presented themselves gradually. For example, gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon were often seen as depicting Santal ‘gods’ on the tribal Jom Patas; the dead tribal in the Chokkhudaan Pata was shown wearing a necklace of Tulsi (holy basil) seeds – a Vaishnav tradition and the words Hori balo mon  (“praise be to Krishna”) often painted on.

Of all the Jadu Patas, it is only the Chokkhudaan Pata that is square and not accompanied by song. 

Krishna Leela

Part of an entire sub-genres of pata chitras, the ‘Krishna Leela’ narrates the tale of Radha and Krishna’s love. This story is narrated with the typical playful humour associated with Lord Krishna, as he tricks Radha into  assenting to his advances, overcoming social boundaries and thus fulfilling the love they share.

Sahib Pata

The Sahib (Shaheb) patas depict the events around the Chuar revolt of the late eighteenth century. A famine, oppressive demands by the British and severe economic distress caused the tribals of the Jungle Mahal regions of Medinipur, Bankura and Manbhum to start revolting against the British in 1764. The tribals were disparagingly referred to as Chuars by the British and the zamindars of the time. The last wave of rebellion, led by Durjan Singha in 1799 was crushed by the British army under Lord Wellesley. Attacked from two sides, their villages were burnt and the rebels hung by their feet from trees till they died in excruciating agony.

Satya Pir

The antiquity of the worship of Satya (Shotto) Pir may be traced back to the 15th or early part of the 16th century A.D. Prevalent in the different districts of undivided Bengal, especially in the western and the northern districts till the first half of the 20th century, Satya Pir is a synthesis of Lord Satyanarayanan of the Hindus and the cult of Pirism among Muslims, a phenomenon that probably occurred when low caste Hindus began to convert to Islam. By combining the two beliefs, a new common god named Satya Pir evolved. Worship of Satya Pir was at par with worship of other gods like Manasa or Chandi.  Satya pir, the name combines the Sanskrit word for truth ‘satya’ and the appellation of a Muslim spiritual guide ‘pir’. In the Satya Pir patas, he is represented as dressed in a fusion of Hindu and Muslim garb and venerated as the protector and benefactor of children.  

Mangal Kavya literature

The Mangal Kavya (Mongol Kabbo) tradition is a genre of religious narrative poetry written in Bengal between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries.   They were written in the vernacular, using earthy rural imagery, quite different from the elaborate and sophisticated imagery of classical poetry. Based on local epics, they were dedicated to particular local deities. This form of worship to these local deities was the only safeguard that villagers had against the many ills that plagued their daily lives.

Mangal Kavyas tell the story of how a particular god or goddess succeeded in establishing his or her worship on Earth.  The popular Manosha Mangal, for example, tells how the snake goddess Manosha conquered the worshippers of other deities by releasing her powers of destruction in the form of snakes. The chief story in this Kavya is about a young woman Behula’s fight to reclaim the life of her husband Lakhindar, who has died from a snake bite.  She moves from different ghats and zones of consciousness and asks both the mundane and the divine for justice. 

The Chandi Mangal narrates the tale of Srimanta’s journey to find his father, Chand Saudagar, assisted by the goddess Chandi in the form of Durga. This story sings praise of the goddess, her powers and many forms. Throughout the Mangal Kavya literature, the village deities are shown as very accessible figures who communicate freely with mortals and share their griefs and delights.

The Dharma Mangal, which celebrates the merits of the folk god Dharma Thakur, also contains an account of the creation of the world. 

There is no one set text in each of the Mangal Kavyas - the text evolved not only over the centuries but also from singer to singer, each performer being free to incorporate his own favourite legends and observations on the society around him. Built into the narratives were a commentary on kingship, honour, commerce and the women of the times. The texts are thus valuable not only as religious documents but also historically.  

Mangal Kavyas are similar in form yet vary greatly in length, from 200 lines to several thousand. They are written for the most part in the simple poyar (couplet) metre. They were and are most often heard at the festivals of the deities they celebrate. However, some of them were so popular, that they were also performed for the entertainment and edification of the local populace. Patachitras based on the Chandi and Manosha Mangal kavyas continue to be popular. 

Monohar Phansurey 

One of the most popular and well known patua themes used to be on the story of Monohar Phansurey.  But sadly, this song, once so popular in Medinipur district, has sunk into oblivion. Based on a poem entitled The Episode of Monohar Phansurey, written in the 18th century by a poet named Shankar who lived in Medinipur district, the story is about Monohar Phansurey a robber who lived in the village of Surdas with his seven sons and a daughter named Rahuti. Using magical powers, Phansurey could divine which passerby carried money or jewellery. 

One day, an unsuspecting merchant named Madan Datta had stopped to rest close by and was invited by the seven brothers to the hospitality of their home. Rahuti, upon whom the responsibility of killing the merchant had fallen, instead fell in love with the handsome Madan. They elope on horseback in the dead of night. Guided by their father`s magic, her brothers rush after them the following morning. The clever Rahuti manages to eliminate both her brothers  as well as her father who went after them as well. The couple stopped to rest under a tree while Madan took a dip in a nearby lake.  

The story takes a further turn when a young woman, Malini, besotted with Madan’s good looks ensnares him by turning  him into a lamb. She has trapped many a young man in this manner. Rahuti using the magic taught by her father divines where and how Madan is being kept prisoner.  Arriving at the kingdom in the guise of a man, she gains the king’s favour by killing a rhinoceros that had run amok.  As a measure of his gratitude, the king offers her (him) half his kingdom and the hand of his daughter. Rahuti then requests that a Kali puja be performed for which she would need a lamb to be sacrificed. Malini is summoned to provide a lamb, but when she refuses, her secret is discovered. The truth is revealed when at Rahuti’s behest, Malini and the lamb are brought in to the king’s court and Rahuti uses her magic again to change the lamb back into Madan. All’s well that ends well with Madan Datta marrying both Rahuti and the princess and becoming the ruler of half the king’s kingdom.