We may begin with some idea of the other art-forms prevalent in Bengal. In Bengal there had been two distinct types of art. One of these was the familiar everyday art of the people and the other the occasional art of the festive rituals, which was art in its sophisticated form. Patua-paintings may be taken as typical of the former, the icons of the festive occasions that of the latter. The difference between the two is quite clear. In the former there is no effort at decoration or ornamentation and hardly any enthusiasm for polish. But the other is consciously sophisticated, even aristocratic. It draws upon the tradition of the scriptures. And there are many differences in the form of the two.
A wrong notion prevails about what is patua-art. Many a one is inclined to identify it with the Kalighat-paintings. Not that there is no truth whatsoever in such an idea, but the truth has really a very slender basis. During the early days of the growth of Calcutta as a city, a group of village craftsmen came to settle in Kalighat and went on with their paintings. They were essentially rustic artists; certain changes in their traditional work were, however, inevitable because of their contact with the urban life. They had to cater to the urban taste and had for their market the fairs in the city and the suburbs. So their work acquired an urban bias. It ceased to be strictly patua: the language remained largely rustic but the city-life had entered into the theme. The form and the content ceased to cohere and the art lost its ideal. Foreign critics have collected the popular art of Bengal mainly from Kalighat. For various reasons they could not do more that this. But it is a pity that our own critics often echo their error.
The genuinely patua-work had been prevalent in Bengal long before the Englishmen came to India and the city of Calcutta came to be. As a matter of fact it was then that this art had its real vitality. It is indeed a wonder to think today of those primitive artists who, after their prolonged efforts, discovered the fundamentals of this art, its form as well as its content. They seem to have touched the elemental truth in the world of art. In course of time the patua-painting lapsed no doubt into some kind of mechanical repetition carried on by the village-caftsmen. They were really unconscious of what they were doing. The patuas of today hardly remember the real meaning of the folk-art of Bengal. Nevertheless, those who were the first to discover it had also the genius of establishing it on such a secure basis that even today its fundamentals are not totally lost, however much mechanical might be the mode in which it is carried on.
So it will be wrong to look at the patua-art as but a phase of the art-history of Bengal alone. It appertains to the history of art as such. You come across the same thing in the prehistoric art everywhere. In other countries, however, the subsequent art-efforts took a different course and the ancient tradition was eventually lost. But the elemental truth of art is to be found in the primitive art of any country and also in the patua-art of Bengal, in which it is retained.
Art has two aspects-that which is said and the language of saying it. One is the theme and the other the technique. An analysis of the patua-art reveals why, in both these aspects, it can claim to be not only an inevitable phase in the history of art but precisely that phase of it which is indicative of its basic truth.
What is it that the patua-art wants to express? It is certainly not a meticulous copy of nature; it is certainly a conveying the essence thereof. For it had for its aim a direct expression of the emotion aroused by the universal essence of the nature around. A tree painted by the patua is unmistakably a tree: but you can hardly call it any actual tree of your concrete experience. In other words, it has everything that is essential for a tree, though nothing that belongs to the limitation of any individual tree. In this, the patua-art of Bengal resembles the primitive art of any other country. For everywhere the primitive art thrives upon the essence of the object depicted. At the same time, that which is genuinely a patua-work has its difference from the primitive art of other countries. First, the patuas of Bengal could draw their emotional nourishment from a coherent myth or belief-system. Secondly, they were also acquainted with the sophisticated art-form of the country, for it ran parallel to the patua-art.
Patua-art did thrive on a coherent myth or belief-system. This did not happen in the case of the primitive art of other countries, but failing this a fundamental problem of the artist remains unsolved. In the other primitive arts, you see perhaps the representation of the rhythm of a man or of a deer. But all these are there piecemeal. They do not cohere and form themselves into a whole. There is not belief-system within which all these could be internally related. But the world of the universal essence upon which the ancient patuas drew had for its substratum a coherent belief-system, absorbing everything within itself. The fabulous Jatayu here is no real bird you can ever come across; his birth, his activities and in fact everything relating to him have nothing to do with this moral earth. Yet there is not mistake in recognizing a bird in him. And this bird, that ape, the Rakshasas and all others-in fact everything and everybody in the patua’s world-exist as internally related and as cohering to everything else. The world of the myth is not the world we live in. It is the world of universal essence. Nevertheless it is a world with its own harmony. And it was in such a world that the faith of the patuas was crystalised.
Art needs to thrive on a belief-system such as this. This has repeatedly been felt by the artists. Here is just an instance. The sophisticated art of Europe could and did for a long time thrive on the Christ-myth. And so long as this was possible there was no unrest. After Rembrandt, however, belief in such a myth was shattered by the changed social circumstances. Art abandoned 'faith but courted unrest. Gauguin and Van Gogh -made their last desperate effort to revive the : Christ-myth. But this was just impossible. The contemporary art of Europe shows a desperate: effort to cling to some belief-system or other, but the modern mind would not allow any. So there is no end to unrest. The belief-system forming the; substratum of the real patua-work is, therefore, significant though of course, when the later craftsmen mechanically carried on the ancient tradition, the awareness of this elemental truth was lost in the limbo of oblivion. "This is what the patuas had to say. We may now ' turn to consider the language in which it was expressed. The way in which they spoke of their belief-system was magnificently colloquial. It was a simple and direct language without any effort to make it delicate or subtle.Atthesame time, and by the side of this art of the colloquial language, there was the other form of Indian art, specimens of which are the icons, the temple sculptures, the court-paintings and the images made for the festive rituals. It spoke in a pompous language and it was in fact deliberately sophisticated. And the patuas were familiar with this.
At the same time it is necessary to remember that the patuas themselves were not clearly conscious of what they were doing. We must not miss the significance of this. Even children are, sometimes heard to utter elemental truth. But you will not allow them real wisdom, because you can see that these are uttered without a proper consciousness. Wisdom is acknowledged only; when there is the-consciousness of it. The same is true in the case of art. Primitive painting and the painting of the children, by depicting the universal essence of things, do often express the elemental truth of art. Yet these are generally of no great significance, because the truth is expressed here without a consciousness of it. So also in the case of the patua paintings, in spite of its two important features. First, patuas did have a coherent belief-system. This probably explains why the primitive art, though extinct in other countries, survives among them. Secondly, in their sophisticated works of art the Indian artists left the unmistakable proof that in subtlety and precision they were not lagging behind; and this shows the simplicity of the patuas was not because of the circumstance that the sophisticated mode was unknown to them. In no other country did primitive art have this two-fold advantage. That is why, in spite of unconsciously stumbling upon the elemental truth of art, the primitive artists of the other countries could not sustain or nourish it. With the advance of civilization, it gave place to the fascination for the brilliant and the gorgeous, the -artists were dazzled by the bright rays of growing luxuries. They devoted themselves to precision and polish and thus eventually forgot the essential function of art. This is somewhat comparable to what is called in our country as being lured away from the path of meditation by the fascination for the immediate magnificence (the Vibhuti of our Yoga-shastra), Painting acquired precision and polish to an almost unimaginable extent. Even birds, we are told, were deceived by the painted vines and pecked at the canvas. This is the extent of precision and exactitude that art acquired! Our Yoga-shastra speaks of being intoxicated with Vibhuti. The artists were similarly intoxicated with the craze for precision and accuracy. And then at long last, the painters of Europe appear to have become upset. The dead limit in sophistication and accuracy was already reached. And what next? The artists find no answer to this question and see no new path before them. It is like a game of chess in which after a series of magnificent moves you find yourself checkmated. The old faith in the Christ-myth waned away while the artists failed to pin their faith on a new myth. So they look desperate. They want to break everything. Or, as in a game of chess, when checkmated, one topples over the board and insists on a replay. In the contemporary art of Europe you can see such signs of desperation. The artists could perhaps have avoided this only if they had opened the game with correct moves.
Translated from a Bengali article by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya based on a series of interviews and intended to record the artist’s views.
Published in 'The Art of Jamini Roy, A Centenary Volume', Calcutta, 1987.