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Scrolling through time

Bengali scroll painters sing from myth to 9/11

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

The painting and song are a recent manifestation of the centuries-old tradition of itinerant scroll painting from 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 and myth. These days, they can discuss anything from the Taliban to the AIDS virus. That application of an ancient art form to modern audiences, themes, and economics has fascinated Frank Korom, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of religion and anthropology, for years. Now Korom’s fascination has been been rewarded. He recently received a 2006 Guggenheim fellowship that will help him complete Singing Modernity, a book about how these performers have adapted their trade to the modern marketplace.  

Korom estimates that there are a few thousand of the Patuya artisan caste who still make their livelihood as scroll painters. The painted scrolls average about 6 to 7 feet in length, and the ballads that accompany them range from 5 to 15 minutes.    

Before the British colonized India beginning in the 17th century, the scroll painters traveled from village to village bartering their performances for a night’s lodging, some rice, or a few coins. Because their audiences were both Hindu and Muslim, the scroll painters played to both religions. They sang of Hindu goddesses, such as Durga, the snake goddess, and Satya Pir, a Muslim saint of truth.  

In the colonial period, the songs changed, says Korom. “They almost always ended with some indigenous Indian freedom fighter getting hung for insubordination,” he notes. In modern times, the performances have changed once again. Audiences have fragmented, turning to radio, then movies, then television for entertainment. But as the traditional audience was losing interest, international folk-art markets emerged that created demand for the painted scrolls independent of their musical accompaniment.

“They are finding new ways to market their art,” says Korom. “They wander into the cities and go to the lobbies of five-star hotels, where they know tourists are going to be. They’re also painting on T-shirts and greeting cards.”

The motifs of their art have ranged into current events, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the 2004 tsunami. One NGO even employed scroll painters to perform in rural villages on the topic of HIV prevention. 

“They’re always innovating,” Korom says.

It’s this resilience that intrigues Joyce Ice, director of the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, N.M., which will exhibit many of the paintings and songs collected by Korom from October through next April.

“We’re particularly interested in the various influences that spark change and how living artists respond to these changes,” says Ice, who says that during the exhibition, the museum will host two Bengali scroll painters for painting and song performances. “I think it’s an art form that American audiences will find fascinating, because I don’t think we have any equivalent. Especially compared to American mass entertainment, this is a much more intimate form of performance.”

Korom, a former curator for the museum and a current research associate, is creating a catalogue for the exhibition. He has written several books, including South Asian Folklore, due out in April, and hopes to complete his book on the scroll painters by next year.

 

English Translation

“Oil Trade Center 9/11” by Manu Chitrakar, a Bengali scroll painter, recorded and translated by Frank Korom, summer 2002.

Listen, listen everyone, listen attentively.
The story of America’s accident will now be told.
Eleven September, Tuesday.
The Oil Trade House was destroyed, burnt to the ground.
After the news, local citizens managed to hear.
Thousands and thousands of people lost their lives.
Oh brother, tell me who you think did this work.

Everyone especially thinks about their safety.
The Oil Trade House is burning, there is no place to go.
The house’s people were incinerated, burning, oh no.
What fault have they committed, why indeed did they die?
Women and children were cast off, dying prematurely.
Receiving the news, the military gangs came quickly.
Then they provided relief with all their hearts.
They took hundreds and hundreds of people to the hospital.
The doctor says some lost feet, some hands.

In Kolkata there was one by the name of Sujay Sarkar.
His youngest son Ajay went to America.
He works happily at the Oil Trade House.
I’ll throw the boy’s wedding, the father is thinking, sitting at home.
He said he’ll be coming home on the 15th.
There has been talk of looking at a girl from Sonarpur.
Hearing these words Ajay remained happy.
Father and mother sat at home counting the days.
It is written in fate who will build a family.

Exactly on 11 September did Ajay lose his life.
Sujay Sarkar heard that he received a telegram.
Hearing the news of his son, he could no longer sustain himself.
What shall I do, where can I go, why don’t you tell me, oh brother?
Ajay’s mother and father wailed in grief.
America is a city comparable to heaven.
In that city this very accident occurred.
No one could imagine who performed such an abominable act.
What will they do, what will they do, everyone was thinking in grief.
Hearing the story of America, the world has fallen into sorrow.

Afghanistan’s Taliban were in a happy state of mind.
Hearing this story, Laden laughs gleefully.
I have taught that Bush a lesson in America.
He understands that Bush’s government has received a blow.
Some warned Laden to remain on the alert.
And Laden was also prepared to go to war.
Abandoning Afghanistan, where did Laden sneak off to?
The Taliban lost, a new government founded.
Afghanistan’s poor, sorrow-stricken ones now pass their days happily.

*Manu Chitrakar mistakenly calls the World Trade Center the Oil Trade Center.