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Beyond Words - Issue #28 The village of singing artisans, where talent speaks more than gender

Beyond Words - Issue #28 The village of singing artisans, where talent speaks more than gender
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #28 • View online
The Chitrokaars of Bengal are a tradition to themselves. It took me four decades of my life and the internet to discover a gem of Bengali heritage. Better late than never.
There is an interesting story here. The Chitrokaars are mostly Muslim, converted for social reasons many centuries ago. Yet for occupational reasons they continue to paint, compose and sing Hindu mythological stories. A fabric of interwoven cultures which transcends barriers. A heritage which must not be lost.
There is something else that struck me about Chitrokaar village. Houses are named after the better artist, be it man or woman. So in a map to navigate which artist lives where, some houses carry the name of the woman and some of the man. Talent speaks more than gender here.
Swarna Chitrokaar is an amazing woman.

Music that breaks barriers
‘Who goes to the Jomuna River in this dusky twilight?
Which dark face has enchanted Radha’s heart?
The maidens go to draw the waters of the Jomuna.’
Swarna Chitrokaar is in her fifties. Her soft, brightly coloured cotton sari is draped over smoothly oiled hair. A large red circular bindi sits on her smooth forehead. She sings in a rustic Bengali accent, with a slight tremor, the notes vibrant, full throated. She is sitting on the cool cemented floor in the porch. What catches the eye is the green, brown and red stem of leaves and flowers painted on to the orange walls behind her. Extensive and bright, the wall pictures proclaim this to be the home of an artist- a Chitrokaar. Nayagram in rural Bengal is a village of traditional artists, who sing as they display their scrolls-singing painters.
Swarna shyly shows me her publications with European artists, tells me stories of her foreign travels, awards she has won. YouTube abounds with her videos and stories of female empowerment. It has taken me, a 47 year old Bengali, half of my lifetime and 43 countries of travel, to reach Swarna and her village.
‘First select the story from the myths. Then string a song to it. Then paint the stories, one panel after another,’ explained Swarna. She rolls out a scroll many metres long. As one painted scene is sung out and rolled up, another rolls out beneath it, until the storytelling is over. Many songs are traditional, passed down from one generation to the next. Others are woven by the Chitrokaars, depicting modern life, modern events. There are scrolls to depict the fall of the Twin Towers, the Pulwama blast, the terrorist attacks of Paris.
The modest houses- asbestos roofs, mud walls and cement floors are covered with paintings- huge fishes, peacocks, human figures from Hindu mythology, mosquitoes which spread the feared dengue fever- the Chitrokaars are not short of topics to paint and sing about. The art surrounds them. This is not just a living; their lives revolve around painting and music.
A map produced by a local NGO marks the houses with their owners. Swarna was on the top of my list to visit. Some houses are named by the men of the house, some by the women- whoever happens to more accomplished. Swarna’s house is marked by her name.
The village is tiny. It did not take much for someone to point me the way to Swarna’s home. She greeted us with self-assured humility, like a celebrity well versed in giving autographs, meeting the cameras. Surrounded by her five daughters and numerous grandchildren, Swarna asked us what we would like to hear, which scroll we wanted to see. When I said, ‘The Jomuna song,’ she laughed softly, eyes twinkling. Out came the scroll from the special trunk in the living room. Swarna’s voice rose with the strength of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, ‘Who goes to the Jomuna River in this dusky twilight?’
(Read about the Chitrokaars in Bengali)
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nandini Chakraborty

Stories from travel. There is nothing that teaches us more than human interaction, culture, and history. Travel breaks misconceptions, challenges assumptions and teaches us the true worth of this world of ours.

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