Clay Images of West Bengal
Patuas, like the kumars, started out in the village tradition as painters of scrolls or pats telling the popular mangal stories of the gods and goddesses. For generations these scroll painters or patuas have gone from village to village with their scrolls or pat singing stories in return for money or food. Many come from the Midnapur district of West Bengal or else from the 24 Parganas and Birbhum districts and call themselves chitrakar. The pats or scrolls are made of sheets of paper of equal or different sizes which are sown together and painted with ordinary poster paints. Originally they would have been painted on cloth and used to tell religious stories such as the medieval mangal poems. Today they may be used to comment on social and political issues such as the evils of cinema or the promotion of literacy.
Mangal kavyas are auspicious poems dedicated to rural deities and appear as a distinctive feature of medieval Bengali literature. Mangals can still be heard today in rural areas of West Bengal often during the festivals of the deities they celebrate, for example Manasa puja in the rainy season during July-August when the danger of snake bite is at its peak. Interestingly, it is the mangal stories connected with this particular art form that provide us with some of the earliest clues about the worship of clay images in Bengal.
The two most famous poems in this respect are the Chandi Mangal and the Manasa Mangal. In the Chandi Mangal of the Bengali poet Mukundarama Chakravarti (16th c), known as Kavikankana, the village goddess Chandi takes on the form of the Puranic deity Mahisasuramarddini (Durga) before the startled eyes of the hunter Kalketu and his wife.
In eight directions the Ashtanayikas shone forth
Her right foot rested on the back of a lion
Her left foot on the back of the demon Mahisha
With her left hand she held Mahisha's hair
With her right hand she placed her trident in his chest
On her left side shone her matted locks
Her headress encompassed the whole circle of the sky
Bracletes and armlets adorned her ten arms
In this form she receives puja from the whole world
A noose, a goad, bell, mace and bow
These five weapons gleam in her five left hands
A sword, discus, trident, spear and brightly-shining arrows
In her right hands gleam these weapons
To her left is Karttikeya, to her right Ganesa
Above, Shiva rides on the head of a bull
To her right is Laksmi, to the left Sarasvati
Facing her, deities sing various hymns
Her limbs outshine molten gold
The colour of her three eyes outcolours blue lotuses
And her face outshines the autumnal moon.
What this mangal poem hints at is that the style of Durga images seen today in the clay images of Bengal was already popular in the 16th c. Durga is popularised as the beleagured wife of the farmer god Shiva. She may be the mighty awe-inspiring goddess who kills demons, but she is also the compassionate mother or Ma and the devoted daughter who returns home during the autumnal festival of Durgotsava. Throughout mangal literature, the village deities are shown as very accessible figures who communicate freely with mortals and share their griefs and delights.
The patuas or painters of Patuapara in the south of Calcutta who provided the painted backdrops for Durga images, called themselves chitrakar (from the Sanskrit citrakara, maker of citra, paintings). They worked in the vicinity of the Kalighat temple and concentrated on the rapid reproduction of paintings on single, folio-sized sheets of paper depicting religious as well as secular themes. Their famous Kalighat style of painting eventually disappeared with the advent of the modern printing press.
Rural art or folk art in West Bengal is a story of adaptation and innovation. Traditional art forms that are passed on from generation to generation have to fit in with customer demands and changes in society. At times the livelihood of the artists is placed under threat which means that art forms may die out and be forgotten as younger gnerations abandon traditional methods and commercial pressures force artists out of business. Scroll painting and clay image making are two distinctive art forms in Bengal that deserve to survive. Both have been around since medieval times and are intimately bound up with the lives of villagers throughout the region.
In Ketaka Das's Manasa Mangal or poem to the snake goddess Manasa dating from the 17th c, the term 'mrinmayi' meaning 'earthen' occurs unexpectedly in several places. Mrinmayi refers in this context to the earthen or clay image of Manasa, a form in which she is still worshipped to this day in Bengal. In his poem you often hear about 'mrinmayi Visahari', Vishari meaning 'remover of poison', an epithet of Manasa. It is unusual to find this rather technical term mrinmayi rather than the more common 'mati' meaning 'mud'. Could it be that Ketaka Das is attempting to elevate the status of Manasa and her puja? By the time he wrote his poem, mrinmayi would have been a term used to refer to the clay images of respected Puranic deities. To say that Manasa was also worshipped in the form of mrinmayi, an earthen image, would be equating her with goddesses such as Durga and make her worship all the more attractive to those listening to the Manasa Mangal.
This section of a pat shows the spice merchant Chando worshipping Manasa impolitely offering her a flower with his left hand. He agrees to worship her on the condition that all his ships are restored. Although he worships her reluctantly, her cult is established in Bengal from that day forward according to the mangal.
In the Manasa Mangal the wealthy spice merchant Chando Shadagar is reluctantly converted to the cult of the goddess Manasa after a series of misfortunes brought upon his family by the goddess herself. Initially Chando refuses to worship Manasa as he is already a devotee of the great god Shiva. He insults Manasa by calling her a one-eyed, unnattractive, bad-tempered girl. In retaliation Manasa destroys Chando's ships and kills his six sons, but his wife gives birth to another boy called Lakhindar.
Tha main part of the mangal concerns the fate of Lakhindar and his bride Behula. Manasa warns that Lakhindar will die on their wedding night. So Chando has an iron room built to keep out any snakes that might kill his only son. However, Manasa persuades the architect to leave a gap big enough for one of her deadliest snakes to squeeze through at night and bite Lakhindar as he sleeps. Behula wakes up too late to help her newly-wed husband.
In this pat the snake goddess Manasa sends a poisonous snake to kill the hero Lakhindar while his wife Behula looks on helplessly. The iron room made to protect them on their wedding night proves useless.
The distraught Behula scolds Chando for his quarrel with Manasa and returns her wedding gifts. Instead of cremating her husband's body and scattering his ashes in the river as is the Hindu custom, she sets off downriver in a desperate bid to persuade to gods to revive her husband so that she avoids the fate of being made a young widow.
This section of a Manasa pat shows how Behula sets off downriver on a raft made of banana bark carrying her husband's corpse on her lap hoping to persuade the gods to revive Lakhindar. On the way she meets the fisherman Goda who taunts her but Behula replies that she worships only the mother Manasa and she floats off again downstream.
Further on, she visits the city of the gods where she meets the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who are impressed by her skills as a dancer and washerwoman to the gods. Shiva decides to persuade Manasa to revive Lakhindar and his six brothers in return for persuading Chando to worship the snake goddess.
In one section of the mangal, the heroine Behula offers puja to the clay image of the goddess who is known as Bisahari:
The dancer Behula bathed and did puja to Hara's daughter
Behula did puja for three days before the clay image
Of Bisahari, Kejuya's lotus.
It is clear from several other references that Behula worships clay images of Manasa in riverside shrines.
Today, the permanent shrines of the goddess Manasa are known as Manasa bari (the house, or bari, of Manasa). They are small mud huts with thatched roofs housing painted clay pots, usually odd-numbered, clay snakes and votive terracotta animal figures. The Manasa ghata or clay pots dedicated to her are usually decorated with snake hoods to indicate that they belong to her worship. Occassionally these shrines contain clay images of Manasa. Ghatas are filled with water and symbolise fertility and the womb and are usually connected with female deities.