Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal

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Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal. By FrankJ. Korom. Photographs by Paul J. Smutko. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, published in association with the International Museum of Folk Art, 2006. Pp. 119, acknowledgments, photographs, song texts, map, notes, references. $29.95 paper)

Throughout Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolb from West Bengal, author Frank Korom persists in calling his work an essay, which carries its own implications: an essay relies less on research and more on the expert opinion of the writer. Certainly Frank Korom is expert in Indian and Asian studies, as well as in folk material culture, but to call this work an essay is to displace it as an academic genre. American scholars have written so little about the indigenous folk art of the pat, or narrative scrolls of West Bengal, that Village of Painters stands - for Americans, at least - as a foundational work documenting the history, culture, and society of the Patuas, the caste of pat artists who perpetuate this art form in the face of ostensibly overriding modernity. I suspect Korom understands his work as an essay because he recognizes that scholars need to document the pat much more thoroughly. But he does himself and this study a disservice by implying that Village of Painters is merely essayistic and has only generalizing research behind it. It is much more.

Between 2001 and 2005, Korom made four trips to India and West Bengal to document and deepen his research into this community. His focus is on a particular village, Naya, in the Medinipur district of the Pinga Block, southwest of Kolkata. Thirty-nine Patua families, comprising over upwards of ten per cent of Naya's population, live there and practice their art. The Patuas are fascinating in and of themselves. For hundreds or possibly thousands of years, Patuas have created drawings on scrolls that they take around to different villages and households, which they unroll as they sing songs that explicate the drawings. Their topics can be traditional legends, local news, or social issues, but they incorporate a significant amount of historical material as well (fascinating examples of that include pats on 9/11 themes that have been particularized to Indian concerns, or HIV pats) .

The Patuas are an artisan caste, with legends and myths explaining their founding and their present status. Of nine artisan castes, Patuas are among the lowest three, so most of them live in impoverished circumstances. Two explanations for their low standing emerge in the legends: first, Patuas necessarily embrace change within their tradition, in order to keep their narratives fresh and enticing to patrons. …