Songs of Social Justice: Bengali Patuas Speak Out

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In the Indian state of West Bengal—and, to a lesser extent, the nation of Bangladesh—there exists a caste of formerly nomadic bards who also paint scrolls used to illustrate the songs they sing. Although their origins are somewhat obscure and hotly debated by scholars, one thing can be said for certain: They have always been assigned a precarious position in the regional social hierarchy, which partly explains why they have attempted to delicately tread the fine line between the various religious communities around them. It is perhaps for this reason that the Patuas, Bengali scroll-painting bards, gravitated toward singing about social justice over the centuries, despite the fact that their traditional repertoire consisted primarily of songs pertaining to mythological Hindu themes and/or Muslim hagiographical ones. Still, they also categorize some of their work as being samajik (social) in nature. In short, they wandered around the countryside to sing songs of praise at religious festivals, but they also brought news from one place to the other to disseminate in a journalistic fashion. It is thus not surprising that in some of the classical texts of pre-colonial India, suspicious officials who were cautious about dealing with unknown outsiders sometimes identified them as spies. Be that as it may, the Patuas themselves claim to be the purveyors of truth, not gossip, as witnessed in one untitled song they sing, which I call “The Patuas’ Creed.” It goes as follows:

To speak the truth is our vow.
Our work will be to establish the truth.
We shall follow the path trodden by great men and women.
We shall serve the poor and downtrodden.
That will be our religion.

We shall speak the truth and not uphold the wrong.
It will spread the fragrance, the fragrance of the rose.

We will behave like human beings, not hating one another.
We shall light the way of truth, the light of truth will spread.

We shall overcome all malice and greed, all anger and lust.
To speak the truth is our vow.

Our work will be to establish the truth.
We shall follow the path trodden by great men and women.
We shall persuade men and women to act in a humane way,
To give up what is false in word and deed.

As the sunlight that shines on the daytime,
May we all become the light of goodness to everyone.

We shall honor those who are poor and oppressed.
Never shall we be unmindful of their sorrow.

We shall shun violence, speaking ill of others,
And spreading rumors.
To speak the truth is our vow,
And to follow the path trodden by great men and women.

(All of the songs presented here were translated from the Bengali by the author of this essay.)

Nanigopal Chitrakar of Naya village, Medinipur, West Bengal is the author of the creed. He composed it as a way to legitimize the social status of the Bengali scroll painters, who are often maligned for being of low-caste origins within the Hindu fold and for dealing in images by their Muslim brethren. Therefore, they inhabit a liminal position “betwixt and between” the two dominant religious communities in the region, despite their own nominal Muslim convert status, which is another reason why Hindus look down upon them. And, what is more, both Hindus and Muslims consider them to be beggars, since they ask for money or goods in kind for their performances. To defend himself against such accusations, Nanigopal, an extremely impoverished senior Patua with a family of 11 to feed, also composed the following verses to empower his fellow caste members in a dignified request for legitimate recognition from the powers that be:

Oh rulers of our nation,
Are not the Patuas folk artists?

We draw and paint pictures and sing out the theme,
And go door to door to sell them, often reduced to begging.
Our art has brought us nowhere, what have we gained?
Oh, what is our fate?
Oh, that someone would hear!

We paint and sing, we portray the traditional life of our country.
Oh rulers of our nation, will you not hear?

Humans appeared on this planet,
And spoke of their need for food in sign language.
They had no words.
They ate raw meat and fish, not knowing how to light a fire.

Oh rulers of our nation, will you not hear?
Oh, that someone would hear!

We drew pictures on rocks and caves.
Our ink was the blood of animals.
The pictures kept the wild animals away.

Then we learned how to speak.
We continued our art on rocks and in caves.
“Come, let us go hunting together,” we said.

The Patuas are spread all over India.
Deprivation and neglect is their lot.
We beg to earn our living.
Well below the poverty line, that is our lot.
Oh, that someone would hear!

We draw pictures, we sing out their contents.
We depict the ups and downs through the ages.
We paint our sorrows on the canvas.
We are not learned folk,
Since poverty cannot buy education.
Oh, that someone would hear!

We paint and we sing out their contents.
We have no place to call our own.
Never have we known a roof that is our own.
Will not those who govern lend an ear to our plight?
Oh, that someone would hear!

Who will hear our songs
Or wish to watch the unrolling of our pictures,
Now that radio and television have filled the homes
Of towns and villages?
Our lives remain filled with the ravages of drought and flood.
Oh, that someone would hear!

This is the story of our lives,
The lives of those who have no respite from sorrow and misery.

I, Nanigopal, make this plea.
Save us, oh save us immediately.
The art of the pat shilpi (scroll artist) is dying a death.

Oh, our rulers, tell me this.
Are not the Patuas folk artists?

Tired of the negative stereotypes constantly hurled at him and his community, Nanigopal here makes a strong and eloquent plea to his nation’s leaders to consider the Patuas to be artists in their own right. To achieve the goal of upward mobility and artistic recognition, many Patuas opted for the more Sanskritized term Chitrakar (picture maker) as their caste designation, which is why many of them now use it for their surname.

The above two songs clearly suggest that the Patuas wish to purify their image by denying the negative associations of being spies, beggars, or untouchables attributed to them by higher ranking and more affluent members of their surrounding society by emphasizing the positive qualities they espouse, such as truth and justice, art, poetry, music, and craftsmanship. In the remainder of this essay, I do not wish to romanticize the Patuas through positive stereotyping, as many Bengali nationalists did during the independence movement, for this can be just as dangerous to their collective welfare as the negative ones concerning them. Instead, I simply wish to suggest that it is their harsh treatment, abject poverty, and polluted status that has motivated them to become spokespersons for social justice.

As I have recounted in my 2006 book titled Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press), the Patuas’ repertoire has been gravitating more and more toward social themes from the colonial period onward (see figure 1) as a strategy for coping with modernity and adapting to its globalizing consequences, which has resulted in a movement away from performing their words to selling their scrolls.

Figure 1: A scene from a sahib pat (foreigner’s scroll) that ingeniously depicts the Indigo Rebellion of 1859-60 in blue, a local insurrection against British overlords during the colonial period as a result of harsh policies leading to the disenfranchisement of the peasantry, according to the Patuas (photo by and courtesy of the author).

Part of the capitalistic turn away from the sacred in the direction of the secular for the purposes of commodification and commercialization has to do with a strategic form of adaptation to survive without abandoning the ancient occupation of narrative scroll painting. This process can be traced back to the 19th century, when many Patuas migrated to the urban hub of Calcutta (now Kolkata)—then the center of the British Empire—and settled around the renowned Kalighat temple, where they began to produce single-framed paintings to sell to Hindu pilgrims and European tourists. This economic migration led to the emergence of a new genre known as Kalighat painting, and a neighborhood called patuapara (scroll-painter neighborhood) still exists there today (see figure 2).

Figure 2: A sign over the shop of a Hindu pat shilpi named Gopal Pal Chitrakar, located on Hazra Road in the patuapara of the Kalighat area of Kolkata, where he produces “cement and plaster statues” for sale (photo by and courtesy of the author).

But after India’s independence in 1947, Patuas began forging partnerships with NGOs from the 1970s onward as part of governmental schemes to get out social messages dealing with all sorts of existential issues of the day. They thus sang as much about environmental degradation, hygiene, and dowry deaths as they did about Hindu gods and goddesses or Muslim Sufi saints. From that tumultuous decade onward, the move toward the proliferation and dissemination of social messaging for profit as well as well-being firmly took hold.

Let me now present some samples of songs about social justice from this talented community’s repertoire accompanied by images from their scrolls to give the reader a sense of their self-designation as crusaders of the people. My first example is a variant of a song called Briksha Ropan, Tree Planting, which was performed for me during the summer of 2001 by Rani Chitrakar at her home in Naya (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Rani Chitrakar smiling for the camera at her home in Naya during fieldwork in 2001 (photo by and courtesy of the author).

The lyrics to her song are included below, followed by a register of the accompanying scroll painting in figure 4:

Everyone getting together, save the trees, oh people!
Everyone getting together, save the trees!

If you plant trees,
You will be doing people a good service.
The air you breath comes from the trees.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

If trees remain on the banks of the pond,
You’ll have three times as many fish.
Embrace the earth firmly,
It’ll never be destroyed.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

You’ll get good service from the palm tree.
The palm’s juice you can eat as candy.
The benefits are endless, the necessity of all.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

If lots of trees remain,
Oh, there won’t be any erosion.
There won’t be any danger from rainstorms.
Their produce will increase.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

The birth of medicine is from trees.
Its benefit is it saves lives.
Think of ayurvedic medicine.
Everyone do it!
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

Without trees, the earth would die.
There wouldn’t be farming on the lands.
People wouldn’t be able to move around,
Without vehicles made from them.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

In a tree there is life, though.
That’s why I say plant trees.
In this country and abroad, plant gardens.
This is my prayer.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

If there are gardens on this land and abroad,
You’ll all get benefits.
There’s lots of food on the road to cook and eat.
The tree is a necessity.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

My mother’s home is in Pingla Block.
Its address is in Medinipur District.
I am singing the song ‘saving the trees.’
Rani Chitrakar.
Oh people, everyone getting together, save the trees!

Figure 4: Two frames from a pat used to accompany a song about tree planting (photo courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art [FA.2002.34.7.2]).
Rani Chitrakar is one of the first women in Naya to become a scroll singer, and since then, many other women have joined in the chorus. Although they belong to an a cappella tradition, they sometimes sing as a group during special occasions, such as weddings, circumcisions, and other rites of passage (see figure 5). Her repertoire consists of traditional, sacred material, but she is best known for songs about gender inequality, various forms of disease (e.g., diarrhea and malaria), and environmental awareness, as the song above suggests. Her movement toward the social was stimulated primarily by NGOs, as adumbrated above, who were concerned about deforestation in her district, which was widespread by the mid-seventies. The drastic situation that was leading toward a barren wasteland had to be countered they argued, which led to a campaign to reforest the area. Rani was a part of that campaign.

Figure 5: The female singers of Naya with a scroll dedicated to the Hindu snake goddess, Manasa, about whom they sing at festivals when paid to do so (photo by and courtesy of the author).

Rani also sang songs about education, something she had very little of when she was growing up. Therefore, she wanted to forge a better life for her daughter by singing the praises of literacy, as she does in this next song that she performed for me in 2002, with her young daughter sitting nearby and listening closely:

Please listen, listen everyone, please listen attentively!

If you don’t learn to read or write,
In the end it will be your death.
Please listen, listen everyone, please listen attentively!

Handing you a pen, you’ll get very embarrassed,
If you can’t read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
If you can’t read or write, brother,
When the letters arrive, what trouble you’ll get.
Taking that letter to have read,
The babu (gentleman) says “no time.”
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!

It is necessary for all of the girls and boys.
Please send the boys and girls to school.
These days it is necessary of all fathers and mothers,
To send their children to school.
They’ll learn to read and write,
And smiles will blossom on their faces.
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
Handing you a pen, you’ll get very embarrassed.
If you can’t read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!

These days there are old people who
Learn to read or write,
Learn to read and write.
Learning, though, is something that never ends.
There is also no end to reading and writing.
There is also no end to reading and writing.
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!

If there is no reading and writing,
People fall and get stuck in bad jobs.
People fall and get stuck in bad jobs.
And they become thieves, hoodlums, and booze hounds.
Those people!
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!

That’s why Kalidas was a splendid person.
Today, if one worships Sarasvati, one becomes a great pandit.
Today, if one worships Sarasvati, one becomes a great pandit.
For that reason, I am saying to everyone,
For that reason, I am saying to everyone,
Learn to read and write in each and every home.
If you don’t learn to read or write, that’s a big mistake, brother!

Rani was particularly drawn to this theme because she couldn’t read or write herself. Therefore, she wanted her own daughter to become literate so that she wouldn’t be “embarrassed” about holding a pen the way that she was, as insinuated in the lyrics above. In her literacy song, she draws attention to the fact reading and writing is an absolute necessity nowadays, and one can’t functionally survive without these skills. Therefore, she urges everyone to learn how to read or write, regardless of age, but she especially urges parents to allow their children to go to school to acquire such necessary skills. Interestingly, in the last verse, she invokes the Hindu goddess of learning, Sarasvati, and the great 4th-5th-century Sanskrit author Kalidasa, despite that she herself is now a Muslim. However, when I asked her about this, she told me that she mostly sang the song to rural Hindus who tended to still marry off their daughters at a very young age before their formal education was completed, so the imagery was more rhetorically persuasive to her select audience.

Figure 6: The final frames of a worn scroll used in the performance of a literacy song depicting the goddess Sarasvati riding on her swan vehicle above the final frame showing adult women learning how to read and spell (photo courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art [FA.2002.34.64.4]).
The theme of inequality to both children and women dominated much of the Patua repertoire in the 1970s and early 1980s, as is quite apparent in the following song called Ma o Shishur Jatno (Care of Mother and Child) that was sung to me by Ajay Chitrakar also during the summer of 2002. He speaks the first line: “This deals with caring for the mother and child,” he says, before breaking into the following song:

People, all of you be aware!
All of you be aware!
Mothers, sisters, all of you be aware!

Unless you are aware,
You are bound to suffer misery again and again.
Unless you are aware,
You’ll suffer misery again and again.
You’ll feel a blow to the heart, everyone knows.
Mothers, sisters, all of you together, be aware!
All of you together be aware!
Oh people, all of you together, be aware!

Mother India passed a law that mothers and sisters should march ahead.
Mother India passed a law that mothers and sisters should march ahead.
Oh people, give up superstitions.
Mothers, sisters, all of you be aware!
All of you together be aware!
Oh people, all of you be aware!

Mothers are the helm of the family.
They constantly save at the cost of their own lives.
Mothers are the helm of the family.
They save constantly at the cost of their own lives.
That’s the reason we plead with you, oh people.
Mothers, sisters, all of you be aware!
All of you be aware, oh people!
All of you, together, be aware!

When a girl will become eighteen years of age,
Negotiation of marriage can begin.
When a girl will become eighteen years of age,
Go ahead for arranging her marriage.
When a boy attains twenty-one years of age,
Start marriage negotiations.
When a boy attains twenty-one years of age,
Start marriage negotiations.
Oh people, all of you together, be aware!
All of you together be aware, oh people!
All of you together be aware!

When you conceive your first baby,
Go and consult the doctor.
Every month go for a weight check for health reasons.
Oh people, all of you together, must be aware!
All of you together be aware, mothers and sisters!
All of you together be aware!

You will have to go to the hospital.
Tetanus toxoid injection needs to be taken.
Disease an ailments will disappear; you will find joy.
Oh people, all of you together be aware!
You all together be aware!
All together be aware!

You have to eat greens and vegetables.
Stomach problems will go away.
You have to eat greens and vegetables.
Stomach problems will go away.
If you drink enough water,
You won’t suffer from indigestion.
Oh people, all of you together be aware!
All of you together be aware, mothers and sisters!
All of you together be aware!

After the baby is born,
Do repeated weight check-up.
After the baby is born,
Do repeated weight check-up.
Administer polio vaccine to the baby to prevent disease.
Oh people, all of you together, be aware!
All of you together, be aware!

The infant must drink mother’s milk.
That infant will grow strong.
An infant will drink mother’s milk.
That infant will grow strong.
Science prescribes that mothers should take vitamins.
Oh people, all of you together be aware!
All of you together be aware!

Mothers must be given rest.
Then the father of the baby will be worth his name.
Mothers must be given rest.
Then the father of the baby will be worth his name.
Grandfather, grandmother can see their grandchild.
Oh people, all of you together be aware!
Let me tell you the policy of the current era!

The number of children should be limited to two, not three.
Let me tell you the policy of the current era.
The number of children should be limited to two, not three.
Do the operation immediately, oh people.
All of you together be aware.
Mothers and sisters, all of you gather together and be aware.

Ajay’s song encapsulates the themes of several other samajik songs; namely, equal rights for women and children, the evils of child marriage, hygiene, and population control through sterilization, a controversial policy introduced by Indira Gandhi that resulted in the so-called “emergency,” a twenty-one-month period between 1975 and 1977, during which civil liberties were suspended. But the policy of having only two children to curb India’s population explosion was an ideal that lasted beyond her rule, even though its implementation was ill-fated. Ajay himself told me that in his scroll-painting neighborhood (para), no family had less than two children, nor did they practice birth control.

By the late 1980s, AIDS had spread globally and was wreaking havoc in many countries, including India. India was in denial of it at first, but once it admitted that the “foreigner’s disease” had indeed entered the country and taken a foothold, grassroots campaigns began to educate people about how to avoid spreading it. The Patuas were once again called upon to spread the word about condom use in the following song (see figure 7). The version included here is by Rani Chitrakar’s younger brother, the late, great Gurupada Chitrakar who died tragically of Covid-related issues during the summer of 2021, even while trying to educate people on how to defend themselves against illness and death, but this time it was a mask that was being advocated.

Everyone get together and be alert!
Listen oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

Unless you are cautious,
You’ll be victims of danger among each other.
Unless you are cautious,
You’ll be victims of danger among each other.
Disease will spread from home to home.
This disease leads to death. Listen, oh people.
Everyone get together and be alert!
Everyone get together and be alert!
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

This disease arrived from a foreign country.
It spread from one place to another in our country.
This disease came from a foreign land.
It spread from place to place.
So many young people lost their lives prematurely.
Listen, oh people, everyone get together and be alert!
Everyone get together and be alert!
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

Sexual union of young men and women,
Reflects the AIDS disease.
Sexual union of young men and women,
Reflects the AIDS disease.
As it were just a sweet union, all suffer.
Listen, people, everyone get together and be alert!

If there’s AIDS virus in the father’s blood,
The disease will be contracted by the mother too.
If there’s AIDS virus in the father’s blood,
The disease will be contracted by the mother too.
It will spread to that baby too; listen my friends.
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!
Everyone get together and be alert!
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

In case there are symptoms of fever, pain,
Go and get examined at the Health Center.
In case there are symptoms of fever, pain,
Go and get examined at the Health Center.
It’s an appeal, go and get the patient’s blood examined.
People, everyone get together and be alert!

If anyone volunteers to give blood to the patient,
First get the donor’s blood tested.
If anyone volunteers to give blood to the patient,
First get the donor’s blood tested.
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

If doctor babu gives an injection,
Get the syringe washed in warm water.
If doctor babu gives an injection,
Get the syringe washed in warm water.
Or, request a new syringe whenever an injection is needed.
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert.
In case an injection is administered with an old syringe,
It may contain germs contracted from another person.
It may lead to the AIDS disease, which has these symptoms.
Oh people, everyone get together and be alert!

If you arrange wedding matches for your son or daughter,
Then get the blood of both partners tested.
And afterward host the wedding; this is an earnest appeal.
Oh people, all of you come together and be alert!

Today the AIDS disease has assumed such proportions.
It is undamaging outside, but inside “finish.”
Today the AIDS disease has assumed such proportions.
It is undamaging outside, but inside “finish.”
Be alert that the patient is going to die; there is no missing the target.
Oh people, you all come together and be alert!

Now all of you must take care; follow the doctor babus’ prescriptions.
Now all of you must take care; follow the doctor babus’ prescriptions.
No one should fall down losing sense after hearing everything.
The erudite ones, oh people, say “Everyone get together and be alert”!

I beg the pardon of everyone.
My name is Gurupada Chitrakar.
My home is at Naya in Pingla thana (county).
This is my appeal, oh people, everyone get together and be alert.

Figure 7: The final frames of Gurupada Chitrakar’s HIV/AIDS scroll depicting patients receiving vaccinations to fight the dreaded disease. Notice that he unintentionally spells the term HIV backwards as “VIH,” as if viewing the scene through a mirror. Although he was one of the better educated males in the patuapara of Naya, he only knew how to read and write Bengali (photo courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art [FA.2002.8.6.5]).
Gurupada learned his version from his sister, Rani, who was employed to go around and distribute condoms to women for their husbands to use. Men generally did not sing this song on their tours, due to the sensitive topic of sexual relations, but he often painted HIV/AIDS scrolls for his sister to use, as did other male painters in the village.

The dominating theme of the early 1990s was the Babri Masjid (mosque) incident that resulted from the unrelenting rise of Hindu nationalism in India that now is endemic to the ruling BJP party. The Patuas, being betwixt and between Hindus and Muslims, while not being fully accepted by either religion, therefore take a cautious position on the issue by stressing communal harmony rather than the violent and even deadly communalism that occurred during the destruction of the 16th-century mosque in 1992 and continued unabated for more than a decade thereafter, which has resulted in violations on both sides, but felt most acutely by the minority Muslim portion of the population. In the song Sampradayer Sampriti (Communal Harmony), the Patuas reify their position, which is that they are, “na Hindu na Musalman,” neither Hindu nor Muslim.

We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Oh, some of us are Hindus.
Oh, some of us are Hindus.
And some of us became Muslims.
One mother’s children!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

The Santals say, “Marang Burung.”
Again, the Christians say, “God.”
The Santals say, “Marang Burung.”
Again, the Christians say, “God.”
Those Muslims say,  “Allah.”
Hindus say, “Bhagvan.”
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Adam mother [= Eve] conceived,
and Habil and Kabil were born.
Adam mother conceived,
and Habil and Kabil were born.
Oh, those two brothers embraced two different religions.
Oh, those two brothers embraced two different religions.
There is proof in the scriptures.
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Hence I say that whatever dharma (religion) one embraces is his.
The real dharma of human beings is that all are brothers.
Hence I say that whatever dharma one embraces is his.
The real dharma of human beings is that all are brothers.
Well, are we going to fight brother against brother?
Well, are we going to fight brother against brother?
If so, we are all just monkeys.
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

None of us is going to remain on earth.
One has to depart whenever one’s time is up.
Then what’s the use of fighting among one another?
What’s the use of provoking communal clashes?
Let all of you voice a slogan.
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Politics thrives on communalism.
Abandon those matters and promote harmony, brothers.
Abandon those matters and promote harmony, brothers.
He who is Ishvar (godhead) is nature (prakriti) itself.
Listen brothers, he who is Ishvar is nature itself.
The proof is provided by science.
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Hence I tell you, “come, let us take a vow together today.”
Today, all of us together shall harmonize in one tune.
Hence I tell you, “come, let us take a vow together today.”
Today, all of us together shall harmonize in one tune.
We brothers shall maintain our harmony.
We won’t feel hurt for any reason.
One mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!
We are the human race, one mother’s offspring!

Figure 8: Christians and Muslims praying separately for the end of communal violence during the terse 1990s in the middle two frames of Gurupada Chitrkar’s scroll concerning the Babri Masjid (photo courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art [FA.2002.34.8.4]).
As I stated at the outset, Patuas have been marginalized from mainstream society for centuries, if not millennia, and they still remain so today, even though a few of them have gained fame and some fortune by going abroad and having their works displayed in museums and galleries all over the world (see figure 9), but in the end they return home to their small village to eke out livelihoods through the production and sale of their paintings. Despite the advances they have made during the first two decades of this century, they once again suffered a radical blowback due to the corona virus that has unfolded over the past two years, now continuing into a third. The Patuas, like many rural communities in India, suffered tremendously as a result of the ongoing pandemic, but it has not extinguished their creative spirit and resilience despite all odds, for shortly after the lockdowns occurred around the world, Swarna Chitrakar, perhaps the most gifted singer in the village, composed the following song about the koronasur (corona demon) that went viral on You Tube:

Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

Throughout the world, grief has cast its shadow in every home.
Somewhere a father weeps, a mother weeps also for her son abroad.
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

From China came this very virus into the human body.
From one person to another person, I hear, it spreads and spreads.
to such a dreaded virus, oh, how did you give it birth?
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

If any cough, cold, or breathing trouble is encountered,
Covering nose and mouth, go to the hospital.
If you consult with the doctor, there is no danger, oh!
How can I tell you?
Over and over, wash your hands with soap.
When you cough and sneeze, cover your nose and mouth.
Save yourself, save others, save the nation, oh!
How can I tell you?

On your mouth always wear a mask, listen everyone!
Retain a distance always!
Only then will the Corona virus will die, oh!
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

For the Corona virus’ medicine, scientists think hard.
Doctor, sister, nurse, treat the patients!
Without thinking of their own condition, they continue to serve, oh!
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

Thousands and thousands of people lost their lives to the Corona virus.
That’s why the Prime Minister has clamped a lockdown on all.
“Stay well, everyone,” he is saying over and over again, oh!
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

That’s why, I, a Patua among you all, request,
Please send food to distressed girls.
This lockdown is as if calling for the death of humans, oh!
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

If everyone observes this lockdown, it will be good for all.
Here and there, the state government is distributing rice and pulses.
Without cost, the Chief Minister is giving rations.
The corona virus, we shall drive away.

We won’t accept defeat, oh!
You, mercy, can do everything, think of everyone’s stories.
Into the brain of scientists and doctors, you have instilled insight.
Again, we will become one to hang out in joy, oh!
How can I tell you?
Listen, listen, oh gosh, mercy!
How can I tell you?
Hearing the Corona virus story, my heart breaks.
How can I tell you?

Figure 9: Swarna Chitrakar’s scroll painting of Matangini Hazra (1870-1942), a female freedom fighter from Medinipur District fondly known as “old lady (buri) Gandhi” who was executed by the British, condensed into one large frame on display at a gallery in New York City during a Sotheby’s auction in 2008 (photo by and courtesy of the author).

Like she did earlier, in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, or the numerous earthquakes and floods that have wreaked havoc on her own village or to the state and nation at large, Swarna has used her own creative powers to motivate people to act justly. It is by speaking out against injustice of all sorts that the Patuas continue to remain relevant today, even though many of the romantic nationalists to whom I referred above warned that they would die out as a caste occupation with the onslaught of modernity. The Patuas have proven them wrong, as they continue to innovate and prosper to survive against all odds.

 

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