Traditional art goes digital in times of crisis

by Anindita Patra “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” –Joan Didion Stories of hope, stories of a brighter tomorrow is what keeps us going especially during these times when the entire world is copped up in their respective homes. Art is a great storyteller, art speaks of yesterday, art speaks of today and art speaks of tomorrow. Art connects people in different ways, that maybe be said metaphorically but digital media connects people literally. And what happens when art and digital media comes together during these times of crisis? Magic happens. I will be narrating such a story today, a story of amalgamation of art and digital media. Swarna Chitrakar, a Patachitra artist from Naya, West Bengal has become an internet sensation overnight because of her painting on COVID-19. Sounds a bit vague? Well, let me explain. Patachitra is a traditional art form of West Bengal in which stories are painted on vertical scroll and the Patachitra artists also known as Patuas, gradually unfurl them while presenting the story through songs known as Pater Gaan.  It is a blend of oral and visual storytelling. The Patuas are known for painting and composing songs on social issues. Swarna Chitrakar, an experienced artist who is already known for her expertise in painting on traditional themes as well as social issues, has developed a 7-frame Patachitra and a song on COVID-19.  The detailed narrative has vividly captured the havoc caused by the virus outbreak. Swarna has represented the virus as a bright red monster in her painting. The Patachitra has highlighted the virus’s origin, health professionals in PPE suits and people in masks. In her vibrant and informative art work Swarna also talks about the precautionary measures one can take to fight the virus. The entire painting has been done with natural colours derived from flowers and plants, one of the special features of Patachitra.
Swarna has performed in different places around the world like USA, France, UK, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. When asked about the inspiration behind her work, Swarna said that world issues have always found a place in her work. She has earlier painted and composed songs on 9/11, and the Tsunami. Continuous discussion about the pandemic, news about it on television, newspaper made Swarna take up her paintbrush to capture it and use her art as a medium to raise awareness. But it struck her that during the lockdown phase she won’t be able to go out to exhibitions or fairs to showcase her work neither can the visitors come to her village. So, she decided to use the digital platform to present her work. With the help of her daughter she made a video of the Patachitra narration and sent it to her contacts via WhatsApp. Her contacts shared it on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. And that is how the Patachitra on COVID-19 reached over a million people.  Prasanta Maharana, a Pattachitra  artist from Odisha has also made a Pattachitra depicting the daily lives of the people in a village during the pandemic and shared it on his Instagram account that has received overwhelming response as well-over 10000 views in a week. Amidst the gloom of the pandemic, art and social media have become central to people’s lives. In the recent past we have seen opera performances via video conferencing (https://bit.ly/2TFPd0B), magazine editions going online with covers based on pandemic (https://bit.ly/2M0UDzc).
The rural artists of India are also becoming more digital savvy. Banglanatak dot com (a social and cultural enterprise) hosts an online initiative, the MusiCal Facebook page (www.facebook.com/bncmusical/). Here, traditional artists from rural India have been performing consistently since 29th March and 54 live performances have taken place so far. Out of which more than 10 performances were done by the Bauls and Fakirs from different parts of Bengal. The Live performances have received more than 200,000views in total. Performances by Rina Das Baul (https://bit.ly/3bZi32t) and Babu Fakir (https://bit.ly/2ATx34T) are worth mentioning. They had a live viewership of more than 1500 people. The senior artists who aren’t very familiar with digital platforms been assisted by younger family members (who were very excited to be a part of the Live performances) to take their art digital in these difficult times. The senior artists were amazed to know that while they’ll be singing in their homes, thousands of people from different parts of the country as well as the world will be listening to them. And it is interesting to notice the choice of song that the musicians performed; the songs were about hope, love and uniting with one’s loved ones, brotherhood. Through their songs they called the Almighty to be the savior of humankind in these trying times. The artists said that knowing that they can spread peace and solace through their music makes them feel very happy as this has always been the purpose of music “to spread love and joy”. The Live performance have also brought the music fraternity closer, seeing fellow musicians perform on screen made them feel connected to one another though they hadn’t seen one another in months. It gave them hope and collective power to fight the adversities. It is during this pandemic that we have understood the importance and need of digital media to spread art, to promote art like never before. Digital literacy is essential for artists now that the world will be more inclined towards virtual performances. Maybe ‘The Art Newspaper’ was right when they wrote: “When God closes a gallery door, [somewhere] He opens a browser window.”

This research project, Heritage Sensitive Intellectual Property and Marketing strategies: India (HIPAMS - INDIA), is funded by the British Academy's Sustainable Development Programme, supported under the UK Government's Global Challenges Research Fund 2018-2021.