Narrative scrolls from India unfurling in gallery

Sita Haran (Abduction of Sita),Visitors can view art that unrolls stories in “Picture Scrolls from India: Bengali Narrative Paintings,” currently showing in SUNY Oswego’s Tyler Art Gallery.

The scrolls come from the personal collection of Dr. Geraldine Forbes, a distinguished teaching professor of history at SUNY Oswego and a renowned scholar on India.

The district of Medinipur in the Indian state of West Bengal is home to patuas, also called chitrakars, whose story scrolls preserve and elaborate on an ancient tradition. Although their history is unrecorded, it appears they belonged to one of the nine ancient artisan castes patronized by kings and noble families. In ancient times, they would show painted stories from India’s epics and the deeds of kings. Artists not supported by patrons wandered the countryside entertaining villagers by singing the stories portrayed on their scrolls.

Over time, the subject matter and the lives of the patuas changed. By the 19th century, they had added stories of Muslim saints, confrontations with British imperialists, and newsworthy events to their repertoire. By this time, many patuas had converted to Islam. Their way of life includes customs practiced by Hindus as well as Muslims. As artists, they paint and compose more songs about Hindu gods and goddesses than about Islamic topics and are well known for their commitment to communal harmony.

Although often very poor, the patuas produce exuberant art, which serves as a window on both traditional and popular culture. Always dependent on patronage, they have expanded the number of topics about which they sing and paint. In the 1980s, non-governmental organizations tapped their potential for influencing rural people and commissioned them to paint anti-dowry scrolls as well as scrolls about the environment, health issues and the treatment of women. Later, organizations interested in educating the community about HIV and AIDS enlisted the help of the patuas.

In recent years, globalization has touched the lives of patuas and influenced who paints, the art they produce, and where they sell it. Women from the patua community also learn to paint. Western films such as “Jurassic Park” and “Titanic,” widely popular in India, have been adapted by the patuas as has the tragedy of Sept. 11, painted as a scroll titled “America Burning.” And, instead of going from village to village to show their scrolls, the patuas now exhibit at a variety of fairs, sometimes at venues abroad, and occasionally on the Internet.

The Tyler Hall exhibit includes traditional pats on religion as well as those of historical events. It also includes pats with a social message and the new category of reporting on local and international news.

In addition to Forbes’ contribution, the exhibition is sponsored by SUNY Oswego’s Artswego and Auxiliary Services.

The exhibition will run concurrently with the college’s 47th annual Juried Student Art Exhibition through March 7.

Tyler Art Gallery is open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Parking is free in campus lots on evenings and weekends. For more information or for visitors needing accommodations to attend, call 312-2113.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Storytelling scrolls—“Picture Scrolls from India: Bengali Narrative Paintings” will open Friday, Jan. 29, in SUNY Oswego’s Tyler Art Gallery. The scrolls come from the personal collection of Dr. Geraldine Forbes, a distinguished teaching professor of history at SUNY Oswego and a renowned scholar on India. Shown is a single panel from the multi-panel tempera-on-paper scroll “Sita Haran (Abduction of Sita)” from West Bengal.

(Posted: Jan 08, 2010)

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