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Editors’ Pick: Singing the Pictures of History

Bengali scroll painters from ancient myth to 9/11

“Listen, listen, everyone, listen attentively. The story of America’s accident will now be told,” sings Bengali scroll painter Manu Chitrakar, and he unfolds a painted scene of planes flying into tall buildings on September 11, 2001.

The painting and song are a recent manifestation of the centuries-old tradition of scroll painting in the Indian state of West Bengal, in which a narrative ballad is sung while a painted version of the story is unrolled frame by frame. Traditionally, the performances revolved around religion (both Hinduism and Islam) as well as community history, news, and myth. These days, they can discuss anything, from the Taliban to the AIDS virus.

The history and evolution of scroll painting has fascinated Frank Korom, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of religion and anthropology, for years. He received a 2006 Guggenheim fellowship to help him finish his new book, Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal (Museum of New Mexico Press), which was published in October.  

The book’s publication will coincide with the opening of a scroll painting exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., where Korom was curator of Asian and Middle Eastern collections from 1993 to 1998. The book is illustrated with photographs by Paul Smutko, senior collections manager for the museum. The exhibition runs through April 29, 2007.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

This article was originally published in BU Today on October 16.