Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 27-28 (March 1995) p. 91.


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Stylistic Difference and Narrative Choices in Bengali Pata Paintings

D Kavita Singh

I would like to begin with a formulation of the essential issues that this paper touches upon. Since this paper derives from a study of the Bengal pata as narrative art, it must inevitably examine images as carriers of meaning. While it is customary for narra-tologists to begin with a distinction between the story and the discourse, that is, the what and the how of the narrative message, this paper makes a case for not distinctions but a synergy of the two.

I wish to state that style is not merely the vessel in which meaning is carried, but is part of the meaning itself. While the desire to express a particular subject may motivate exceptional artists to search for, synthesize, or invent the visual means they require, for the most part the expressional means available to the artists shape or circumscribe what they choose or feel able to convey.

The first part of this paper problematizes the very application of the notion of style to the Bengal pata. The second part demonstrates the different stylistic idioms operative within the Bengal pata tradition. The third part examines the treatment of one subject that is, the Ramayana in the different idioms, locating significant relationships between the expressional possibilities of a style and the treatment of the narrative therein.

The jarano patas of Bengal are narrative scroll paintings, used as visual aids by itinerant storytellers during performance. The pata is best known as the progenitor of the Kalighat pata and a source of inspiration for Jamini Roy. Being the source of other kinds of better known and more thoroughly studied paintings, the patas themselves have suffered a lack of detailed regard. Most of the more recent studies published on the subject have an anthropological orientation and are studies of patuas rather than of patas. In particular, the stylistic qualities of this tradition have lacked study.1

In fact it is erroneous to speak of the tradition as a tradition. On seeing a number of scrolls, both contemporary ones in the hands of the patuas and older

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