Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Meeting Modernity - Traditional Indian Art Form Explores HIV, 9/11

2006-10-28 until 2007-04-29
Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art
Santa Fe, NM, USA United States of America

Wandering from village to village, Patua scroll painters from West Bengal, India, traditionally made a living singing their own compositions while unrolling painted scrolls. Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal features a wide range of scrolls - from stories of Hindu gods and goddesses to HIV prevention - and examines how the artists embrace change and sustain their art form in the modern world. The genesis for the exhibition sprung from guest curator Frank Koroms fieldwork in India. Previously a curator at the Museum of International Folk Art, Korom is now an associate professor of anthropology and religion at Boston University. His book on the Patuas, Village of Painters: Narrative Scroll Paintings from West Bengal, will be published by Museum of New Mexico Press and is due out later this year.

Traditionally made from handmade paper backed with cloth, scrolls are typically eight to fifteen feet long and contain vibrantly painted scenes of a story. Indigenous plants and minerals are still used to create the paint, including tumeric, vermillion, and burnt rice. Sap of the bel (wood-apple) fruit is used as mordant. As the scroll is unrolled frame by frame, the artist narrates the story through song, which typically lasts five to fifteen minutes.

Originally low caste Hindus, the Patuas converted to Islam. However, they were never fully accepted into the Muslim community because they continued to incorporate Hindu stories and religious figures into their art made for Hindu patrons. They were only marginally accepted by other Hindus due to their low status and disregard for dietary restrictions against eating beef.

Occupying a position between Hindu and Muslim communities has long been reflected in Patua scrolls and song. In the 19 th century, before British colonization, these itinerant artists not only focused on secular concerns, but also depicted religious themes of both faiths. Always moralistic in nature, they sang and painted about kings and sages, local folktales and beliefs, and Hindu gods and Muslim saints. With the coming of the British, their repertoire expanded to encompass revolutionary political themes.

Now in the era of globalization, Patuas are once again responding to the changing world through their art. Besides religion and local events, scrolls and songs frequently feature issues of worldwide concern, but with a local twist. For example, in artist Manu Chitrakars version of the events of 9/11, the son of an affluent Bengali gentleman goes to New York, secures a job in the Oil Trade House (i.e., World Trade Center), and tragically dies in the conflagration along with thousands of Americans. This artist also created a sequel to this scroll about the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Modernization in India has meant that Patuas are losing their traditional audiences. With competition from television and movies, they have been forced to find new patrons - Western tourists. Instead of walking from village to village, they now travel to large hotels where tourists eagerly buy scrolls as folk art, minus, of course, the songs.

Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal at the Museum of International Folk Art will display many examples of Patua scrolls and an audio component will allow visitors to listen to accompanying songs.

The Museum of International Folk Art is pleased to present Village of Painters, commented Director Joyce Ice. This exhibition offers our visitors a wonderful opportunity to explore a living artistic tradition that is both contemporary and historic. The artists of this village show us how current events and issues are addressed through a vibrant art form that draws upon the past for symbols and techniques and yet continues to adapt to the present-day realities of the market.>

The Patuas and their art have had a profound effect on me as both a scholar and human being, said Korom. I met my first Bengali scroll painter when I was still a student, and I have been enthralled by the scroll painting community and the art form ever since. I have felt extremely privileged to have been able to work with Patuas over the past five years, and am extremely excited that their work will be displayed for the first time in the American Southwest.

Traditionally made from handmade paper backed with cloth, scrolls are typically eight to fifteen feet long and contain vibrantly painted scenes of a story. Indigenous plants and minerals are still used to create the paint, including tumeric, vermillion, and burnt rice. Sap of the bel (wood-apple) fruit is used as mordant. As the scroll is unrolled frame by frame, the artist narrates the story through song, which typically lasts five to fifteen minutes.

Originally low caste Hindus, the Patuas converted to Islam. However, they were never fully accepted into the Muslim community because they continued to incorporate Hindu stories and religious figures into their art made for Hindu patrons. They were only marginally accepted by other Hindus due to their low status and disregard for dietary restrictions against eating beef.

Occupying a position between Hindu and Muslim communities has long been reflected in Patua scrolls and song. In the 19 th century, before British colonization, these itinerant artists not only focused on secular concerns, but also depicted religious themes of both faiths. Always moralistic in nature, they sang and painted about kings and sages, local folktales and beliefs, and Hindu gods and Muslim saints. With the coming of the British, their repertoire expanded to encompass revolutionary political themes.

Now in the era of globalization, Patuas are once again responding to the changing world through their art. Besides religion and local events, scrolls and songs frequently feature issues of worldwide concern, but with a local twist. For example, in artist Manu Chitrakars version of the events of 9/11, the son of an affluent Bengali gentleman goes to New York, secures a job in the Oil Trade House (i.e., World Trade Center), and tragically dies in the conflagration along with thousands of Americans. This artist also created a sequel to this scroll about the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Modernization in India has meant that Patuas are losing their traditional audiences. With competition from television and movies, they have been forced to find new patrons - Western tourists. Instead of walking from village to village, they now travel to large hotels where tourists eagerly buy scrolls as folk art, minus, of course, the songs.

Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal at the Museum of International Folk Art will display many examples of Patua scrolls and an audio component will allow visitors to listen to accompanying songs.

The Museum of International Folk Art is pleased to present Village of Painters, commented Director Joyce Ice. This exhibition offers our visitors a wonderful opportunity to explore a living artistic tradition that is both contemporary and historic. The artists of this village show us how current events and issues are addressed through a vibrant art form that draws upon the past for symbols and techniques and yet continues to adapt to the present-day realities of the market.

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