Potchitra is one of the oldest surviving folk art forms in Bangladesh. Storytelling through a series of paintings is a well loved and well practiced art in this region. The tales are mostly about mythical or religious figures and their exploits. But in potchitra (pot means scroll or a piece of cloth used as a canvas), or scroll painting, the paintings are drawn on separate pieces of cloth. If you put together all the different pieces of a pot or story, you get the whole story of one of Kirshna’s feats, or one of the exploits of a Muslim saint called Gazi Pir who rides a Bengal tiger and fights enemies like a warrior.
Originally the paintings were presented with a performance in which each episode captured in a painting was narrated by the artist himself, or by a different performer. However, like all other forms of folk art, potchitra too is fading fast as a result of rapid urbanization and the technological revolution. Though folklorists believe that in some parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal potchitra still survives with a few practicing here and there, the gap between scroll artists and the public has continued to widen.
Shambhu Acharya’s solo exhibition, Potchitra Kotha, held at EMK Center in Dhaka tells us a different story altogether. Maybe one solo exhibition does not permit us to say that potchitra is alive and kicking, but one could argue that Acharya’s scroll paintings have once again brought a fading form of art closer to our doorstep, addressing the gap between its practitioners and the public.
No, Shambhu has not fused traditional ways of scroll painting with modern techniques; nor has he adopted any of the digital technologies to give it a postmodern air. As far as artistic choices and materials are concerned, he is old school, and proudly so. He comes from a family that had taken potchitra as a profession many centuries ago. In its most original form, a piece of cloth was seasoned and specially prepared for painting; all the colors used in painting were also prepared by mixing clay with other materials. All of these ingredients and materials were homegrown. This is a laborious process and time-consuming too. Shambhu takes his time and prepares everything with his own hand, using only local and natural ingredients, from seasoning the cloth with mud and cow dung to making colors, before he gets down to paint. His attention to every kind of detail is visible in every painting he exhibited.
He learnt all the necessary skills from his father, Sudhir Acharya, who handed down what he had received from his forefathers. This is one of the very few people that practice scroll painting as a family legacy to this day.
Forty of Shambhu’s latest works are exhibited. In addition to mythical tales about Behula or Gazi Pir, secular motifs with common men and women at the center also surface in them.
His scrolls on the exploits of Gazi Pir are most engaging. They look more like a collage of four or five paintings — some showing Gazi riding a yellow-hued tiger while some others have Daksin Ray, known as the king of tigers. A yellow Bengal tiger appears like a ubiquitous image in all of them.
A milkman is seen at the center of a scroll, with a cat attempting to steal some milk from one of the two pots he’s carrying. In another, there is a woman standing in front of a caged Moyna bird; the lower edge acts like a rim made entirely up of waves with boats rowing past. River, too, has almost a ubiquitous presence in potchitra in general, reflecting the extreme riverine nature of our country.
Shambhu also exhibited his scroll paintings in London and his works have been included in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum London besides the collector form Bangladesh.
It is only fair to say that Shambhu’s potchitras, or scroll paintings, place the centuries-old heritage on a much stronger footing.