colours of history

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The old folklore tells the story of Gazi Pir, a mythical warrior saint who battled demons, confronted the god of death, and worked miracles like restoring dead trees to full bloom, and getting dried-up cows to milk again. These and more such fantastic and colourful fables and legends have been immortalised through pat gaans and patchitra.

Patachitra is one of the earliest forms of popular art in Bangladesh. Dating from the 12th century, and existing even today these pats or scroll paintings narrated stories based on religious or moral themes for the entertainment of the village folks.

The tales of Ramayana, Mahabharata, Muharram, Rass lilla, Monosha Mongol, Sri Krishna and Gazi pir usually being the subject matter of these folk paintings that narrate their stories frame by frame. The patuas or pat artists supplemented their illustrations with pat gaans or music ballads.

Needless to say, Bangladesh with all its colours and vivacity is the place of this indigenous art form; at least we can safely claim this because the earliest sample of pat preserved in the Ashutosh Museum in Calcutta, which is over a hundred year old has its roots stuck deep in a quiet village in Bikrampur. This was the discovery of a dedicated researcher of folk art, Tofail Ahmed of the Jatiyo Karushilpi Parishad who managed to track Sudhir Acharya and his son Shambhu Acharya.

Shambhu Acharya, standing at the end of a long line of illustrious patuas of Bikrampur, is our hero this coming Baishakh and we celebrate his astounding work of vibrant colour, depicting the simple everyday village life and ancient age old tales and fables at Gallery Kaya, house20, road16, sector4, in Uttara.

This is Shambhu’s second solo exhibition where Gautam Chakarborty, director of the gallery would proudly exhibit almost 35 of Shambhu’s new work starting April 7, Chakarborty determined to retain the nostalgic flavour of the past has also arranged a show of Patgaan to narrate the stories on display.

The hopeless romantic that Star Lifestyle is, we urge the readers to immerse themselves in Baishakh colours and be proud of their rich local traditions and flavours.

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Shambhu’s story
Shambhu is the son of Sudhir Acharya of Kalindipara area of Munshiganj district. Sudhir Acharya, who has been holding out the 400 plus year family tradition of painting on scrolls died in 1989 leaving the big responsibility of carrying out this underrated but rare form of art to Shambhu.

While his forefathers died almost unrecognised by the mainstream, Shambhu received some exposure, thanks to a handful of art-lovers who promoted him. His art works made it to the Spitz Gallery in London on July 11, 1999 at the Bangladesh Festival. And the festival brochure introduced Shambhu as the famous and last pat painter of Bangladesh. His first exhibition was staged in 2003 at Chittrak with the help of Ramendu Majumder of advertising agency Expressions.

Shambhu is passionate about his works. Whether there’s a show for his works or not, he remains absorbed painting on different themes telling Gazi’s tales, folklores and mythology in bright vivid colours his favourite being the depiction of indigenous culture which include lifestyles of the potters, ironsmith or fishermen. However he likes to keep his ideas to himself and has never seen an exhibition of any patachitras for fear that they might unknowingly influence him. He strongly believes that good or bad, his work should bear his signature signs only.

“I started drawing even before I learnt my alphabets. My father built and painted pratima and gave me paints. I used to draw whatever I wanted,” says Shambhu.

Many coaxed him to try his hand at commercial painting but he continued to work side by side with his father in scrolls and also in making pratimas. During the 1971 war of liberation, Shambhu joined the war as a painter. His wall writings and paintings during that time voiced hatred and protests against the Pakistani occupation forces.

The near-extinct form of art was being carried out for generations by the Acharya family we can gather names of five generations- Ramgopal Acharya, his son Ramsundar, his son Prankrishna, Sudhir and finally Shambhu.
But Shambhu would argue. His teenage daughter Setu has learnt the art of pat painting. Since childhood, she has seen him work. Shambhu would sit in his workstation without much preparation and start painting spontaneously. His daughter has similarly made the art a part of her life. Then his young son Abhishekh who is hardly four, scribbles horses and figures with such precision that it makes Shambhu proud.

“My kids are my critics. I drew a patchitra called keshbinash where a young lady was grooming herself, I left the mirror in front of her in only solid grey, my son pointed out that the mirror should have her reflection. Painting is in our genes so I am confident that this exceptional bloodline will continue,” Shambhu’s optimistic side points out.

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Shambhu’s present
“To all the pats I have added Muktijodha pat, which tells the history of Bangladesh beginning with the battle of Plassey in 1757, the arrivals of the British and ending with our Independence in 1971, I am very happy with this huge achievement, even though the general public is yet to see it. Dr. Enamul Haq has done the geeti kabya for this pat,” he says.

Recently he has been approached by a Swiss poet who wants him to do the illustrations for his poems, which are being translated in Bangla and he is grateful to Ramendu Majumder for this opportunity.

With commercialism stinging everyone, Shambhu is content with less, “If I think of money than I will have to think of other things. My work is my aradhana, my religion. I am not keen on acquiring worldly possessions, and I don’t want any publicity. I want to go slow but steadily. I want to make sure that I don’t lose my head and do bad work,” he said.

For the love of art
Chakraborty feels that this art form needs to be popularised, solely because for the generation next.

“Shambhu’s childhood, his influences, his desires, are quite different from his children’s. It was bound to be so, because life is no longer easy and simple. Life now has so much to offer, there are so many options to choose from. Society today is so different from Shambhu’s time, it’s easy to be derailed. You need to earn some money to live a minimum comfortable life and if this oldest popular folk art doesn’t bring in the bare necessities then it will be hard to keep it alive. An artist should be able to concentrate to do his work and not think of utility bills. In order to keep this tradition alive you need to popularise it, you need to have genuine patrons,” Chakraborty says passionately.

Till date Shambhu is the last patua, and whether his son and daughters, though already showing signs of being patuas, would keep the tradition alive is a hope against hope. However in this regards we would like to be optimistic as Shambhu and help his children to remain attracted to the profession of their nine generations.

Shambhu Acharya is a simple man who loves his roots and his simple, unglamorous life. He is afraid to dream big, yet not afraid to climb great heights through his work.

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Raffat Binte Rashid, back from Munshiganj
Photo: Munem Wasif

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