In Search of her Ramayana: Performance by Patachitra Artist Manimala Chitrakar

In Search of her Ramayana: Performance by Patachitra Artist Manimala Chitrakar

in Video
Published on: 16 October 2020

Sritama Halder

Sritama Halder is a PhD scholar at the Department of Art History, Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati. She is currently working as an independent researcher-writer, her publications include articles on the popular visual culture such as illustrations, comics etc. Her main area of interest is Hindu myths with special focus on the visual and textual representations of the Ramayana.

Monimala Chitrakar, a traditional scroll or pata painter from West Bengal sings a section of the Ramayana describing the sequence of events from Rama’s marriage up to the abduction of Sita.

While explaining some phrases from the song she recreates a Rama Katha of her own. Following is an edited transcript.

Namaskar. My name is Monimala Chitrakar. The name of my village is Naya, thana Pingla, district West Midnapore. I live here. I started learning pata songs and painting patas from my grandfather when I was very young. I used to travel from village to village with my grandfather, singing the songs of pata. We paint our patas with colours made from plants and other natural materials. We use clay, burnt clay and we burn dried cow dung and use the ash. We get the green colour from the juice of broad beans, black from lampblack, yellow from turmeric. All these colours we use…the gum from wood apples works as binder. We mix it with the colours.

The narrative style of the pata is based on two formal structures—images and words. In the scroll-style patas, images and words complement each other. The lack of details in the visuals is compensated by descriptive songs. Often a single frame is used to describe multiple events involving the same characters. So, the arrangements of frames/events are not exactly sequential in the sense that one event is not immediately followed by the next. Rather, the patua arranges some major episodes in sequence while the accompanying song describes the details.

The patuas have been painting and singing the Rama Katha for generations. The Ramayana songs (or any song based on mythologies) are not new. They were written in the past by the senior patuas, and the songs have been sung by generations of patuas ever since. A number of small changes/improvisations are often introduced by individual singers. This way each artist visualises and recreates a new text each time a scroll is painted and the song is sung. 

Rama’s marriage took place, all rituals were over.

To fulfil his father’s vow, Rama went to live in the forest.

Rama was walking in the front. Behind him was Janaki.

With a bow in his hand, Lakshmana followed them.

Sun was burning high above them. The earth was hot under their feet.

The delicate Sita could not walk.  

They broke a young bough and Lakshmana held it over her head.

Under its shadow, o Rama’s Lakshmi, please walk slowly.

Three of them arrived at the Forest of Panchabati.

The two brothers built a hut there.

Shri Rama and Lakshmana built a hut with leaves and branches.

Rama and Sita were playing dice while Lakshmana stood guard.

Surpanakha came there in search of flowers.

Lakshmana cut her nose off.

The young widow ran to Lanka with the severed nose

And fell at the feet of her brother Ravana.

The clever Dashanana made plans to avenge.

He summoned Maricha and told him this,

‘Go, o Marich, to the Forest of Panchabati.

There live Rama, Lakshmana and Sita.

When Rama, o brother, comes after you

Call out Lakshmana’s name to deceive him.’

The deer was dancing and it was beautiful.

The moonfaced (Sita) was holding the dice in her hands and talking to Raghubar.

“Bring me the deer, my Lord, make me happy.

The two of us will play dice in the forest.

The two of us will play dice in this forest.

And when we look at the deer we will forget all our sorrows.

(Rama said), ‘Stay, brother Lakshmana who is my life.

I cannot endure this. I will go and bring the deer as Sita has asked me.’

Rama ran and chased the deer.

The deer, like a golden bee, was flying away.

After a while Rama killed the deer.

The crafty Maricha called Lakshmana’s name.

Sita heard his voice.

Sita Devi called her brother-in-law Lakshmana repeatedly.

‘Come here my brother-in-law Lakshmana. You will chew a betel roll.  

Your elder brother is in danger. You must go to the Forest of Dandaka.

(Lakshamana said), ‘My brother has left me here, o Devi, to protect you.

And now you are asking me to go and look for him.

(Sita said), ‘Now I understand what is in your mind.

If Rama Chandra dies, you will be the only hope for Janaki.’

Lakshmana was ashamed to hear such words and covered his ears.

(And said), ‘You are like my mother Sumitra and Raghunath is like my Father.

Come, the daughter of Rishi (Janaka) and promise me.

I will draw a line around the hut.

If you cross the line and see anybody’s face,

The three worlds will tremble and you will suffer.’

Lakshmana drew the line and when he left

Ravana came out of the shadow of the banyan tree.

He was dressed in red clothes like a little yogi.

Beating the dambaru, he was asking for alms from every house.

(He said) ‘O Janaki, give me alms.

I will go to other houses after taking alms from you.’

When he did not get alms (from Sita) Ravana wanted to die there.

Sita was scared because killing a man was sinful.

Sita thought Rama would have given alms.

So Sita Devi came out (of the circle) to give alms.

After receiving the alms, the yogi roared.

Ravana held Sita Devi’s hand and dragged her to the chariot.

The chariot began to fly.

Dasharatha’s friend Jatau (Jatayu) appeared.

Seeing Ravana’s chariot, Jatau swallowed it sideways.

Ravana kept saying, ‘Pay attention, o Jatau, and hear me well.

Your daughter-in-law Sita is in this chariot.’

Hearing about the daughter-in-law, Jatayu was ashamed.

He had swallowed the beautiful chariot and now he threw it up.

Ravana had Brahmashel in his hand.

He killed Jatai.

Jatau fell on the ground and his body covered 10 kathas of land.

Mother remained at home, o brother, father died at home.

It was fate’s deed that Sita was stolen in this forest.

It is not like the whole Ramayana has never been sung. At the time when there were kings…there was no government then. The kings used to have Durga Puja at their royal homes. During those times, if the Ramayana was to be sung, then it would have to be the entire Ramayana, if the Chandi Mangal was to be sung, then it had to be the entire Chandi Mangal. There the songs were performed according to the demands of the audience. Performing the entire Ramayana takes the whole day and night. Even if it does take the whole day and night, after that they will give me only a little bit of rice in a small bowl. So, the epic has been divided into smaller parts.

‘Searching for flowers (pushpo anweshane)’ means, Rama, Lakshmana and Sita were living in the same forest. Now, Surpanakha was Ravana’s sister. So, she was their enemy. She was the enemy of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. She already knew that if she could marry Lakshmana, showing off her beauty…She didn’t go there as Surpanakha. She didn’t go there in that form. She was disguised as a beautiful woman. And where do beautiful women go? They go to pick flowers for themselves. She was standing here holding this flower or that flower; she was looking at this or looking at that. That was when Lakshmana saw her and thought, ‘That is a beautiful woman. She looks so good.’ Then she strolled slowly towards Lakshmana and started saying, ‘I want to marry you.’ But by then Lakshmana had realised that this was no beautiful woman. This was Surpanakha. So how would he know? The moment he took out an arrow to cut off her nose he could see her real face. And then he really did cut off her nose thinking now I would know. This was what happened.

Here ‘you will chew a betel roll (Tambul dhore khabe)’ means Sita is asking Lakshmana to carry his bow. ‘Your elder brother is in trouble. If you don’t carry your bow with you then you wouldn’t be able to save him. You need to have weapons in your hands. Suppose somebody has attacked him, but it won’t work if you go there empty handed.’ That’s what. ‘Your elder brother is in danger. You must go to the Forest of Dandaka. You will chew a betel roll,’ means…chew means if he doesn’t carry it he can’t kill anybody. And killing actually means eating. If I kill a bird, I am killing it in order to eat. Here eating means to enjoy (bhog). I will have to save my elder brother by killing someone. This is what. Here the bow is referred to as betel leaf.

‘Killing a man is sinful (purush hatya mahapap)’ means that Ravana wanted to die because Sita wouldn’t give him alms. And Sita was saying, ‘He is dying because of me. The sin will be mine. My husband Rama Chandra would have given him alms. What if I give the alms instead? Let anything happen. If a man dies because of me then I will be the sinner. Better I go out to give him alms.’ Lakshmana had drawn the circle saying, ‘You wouldn’t go out of this circle.’ That was why she was not stepping out of it. And if she did not step out, Ravana could not abduct her. He was unable to step inside the circle because he was the enemy. He has, what should I say, come to subdue, to steal Sita. Because he was a rakshasa, he could not step inside the circle. A fire would start around it the moment he would try. He cannot go inside at all. That was why he was saying, ‘Come outside or I will die.’

Black space: The religious identities of the patuas are fluid. Members of the same family can follow different religions. A patua who follows Hinduism can marry a patua who follows Islam and vice versa. Sometimes the religious identity of the artist cannot be guessed from his/her name. This is what makes the Ramyanas sung by the patuas unique. A text that has become the site of contention is acquiring newer dimensions from the intervention of a people who cannot be codified in terms of established context of homogenous normativity of this society.

We are the human race, the children of the same mother.

Some of us have become Hindu; some of us have become Muslim.

We are the children of the same mother.

We are the human race, the children of the same mother.

The Primal Mother became pregnant. Habil and Kabil were born.

The Primal Mother became pregnant. Habil and Kabil were born.

The two brothers took up two religions.

The two brothers took up two religions.

See the Sastras. They also say so.

We are the children of the same mother.

Habil and Kabil, the two sons of the Primal Mother are actually Qabil and Habil (the Biblical Cain and Abel), the sons of Adam and Hawwa from the Holy Quran. It is interesting to see how these references from the two different religions slip smoothly into the patua origin myth, creating a hybrid religious identity that this community embodies.


Camera: Snigdhendu Ghosal and Susmita Sinha

Editing: Snigdhendu Ghosal

Concept, text and translation: Sritama Halder

Special thanks to Smt. Monimala Chitrakar and family

Special thanks to Shri Rabi De for everything.