India has more than 640,000 villages and yet very few of them would be as graphic as the village of Naya - located in the Malikgram panchayat of the Pingla block in the Paschim Midnapur district of West Bengal.
Apart from the houses painted with artwork, the village has a number of other unique attributes. Almost each of the 75-80 families living in the village is associated with the age-old art form of patachitra from which they earn their living predominantly. According to an elderly village resident, “We are not associated with agriculture. The art form has been handed over through generations and our forefathers were never agriculturalists as they kept moving from place to place.”
In India, the rural handicraft segment is highly fragmented and provides employment to a large number of rural artisans. In places, these artisans are often exploited and marginalised. However, the village of Naya is a success story.
Patachitra was traditionally done on paper using organic colours. The artisans would not only complete the graphic design on paper but also compose an oral composition that will explain the graphic design. However, the artists from Naya has successfully made additions to their age-old art form.
Bahadur Chitrakar, a leading artist from the village, informed BE, “We have made numerous additions to the medium of our art to increase our market. Apart from paper, we now design on numerous items like textile products, metal products, wooden items, utensils, umbrellas and so on. In case of the content of art, we have also been experimentative. Apart from religious depictions that cover Hinduism as well as Islam, we have forayed into contemporary issues like global warming and climate change, violence against women, reduction of plastic use, and conservation of water. We still use organic colours in mediums where it can be used. We are trying to conserve our age-old techniques while making certain alterations to increase the economic viability of our art form.”
An important challenge that rural artisans face in India is related to market linkage. In absence of strong market linkages, they remain at the mercy of middlemen who appropriate a significant portion of the profits.
However, the Naya artisans have been somewhat successful in mitigating that challenge. The role of several civil society actors has been important. Saurav Mukherjee, Founder, Kolkata Society for Cultural Heritage (KSCH), an organisation working on upskilling and market linkage of rural artisans, told BE, “We have been working with the patachitra artists since 2012-13. Our organisation is working like a catalyst to foster their development. Our goal is to improve the economic conditions of these poor artisans and also to upskill them. We conduct various workshops and orientation programmes.”
The state government has also played a positive role. A modern two storied resource centre has been constructed and various government-initiated training and orientation programmes are held there. Chitrakar added, “The government has initiated an income supplement scheme for us. Under the Shilpi Bhata, majority of the village artisans (more than 200 individuals) receive a monthly amount of Rs 1000. The government has also initiated the Pot Maya fair, which is held every year in November-December. This fair attracts a lot of art enthusiasts and has greatly helped us. Additionally, the government has increased the number of fairs that it organises. That is good for us because we are encouraged to organise stalls in these fairs and it is good exposure.”
The village has also developed as a cultural tourism centre in recent years. Chitrakar informed, “All our houses have one room that can accommodate guests. During the fair, all these rooms are sold-out.” According to an estimate, the village receives around 20,000 tourists every year.
Arpita Lahiri Mukherjee, Director, KSCH, said to BE, “Two years back KSCH developed a project named Parijayi to foster homestay cultural tourism in Naya. Since then, the venture has helped to link the urban market to this village, ensuring better benefits for the artisans. Last month, Parijayi had organised a photography workshop to capture in the village. The idea is to give the local artisans maximum exposure.”
Many of these artisans are also given foreign exposure and encouraged to attend global handicraft workshops by the government. Chitrakar told BE, “I had the opportunity to visit Russia in 2006 for an art workshop. I realised that the content of global art is overtly nature oriented now. However, Indian art is still mostly based on religion. The global exposure and the kind of interest that was generated around our art form made me realise that the export market of our particular art form can be really good. However, we do not get any export support and we are not equipped to undertake the necessary paperwork. Some hand-holding and initiation in that area will be of great help.”