Modern women breathed life into an ancient art form last Wednesday evening, when the World Music Hall hosted the Scroll Painters of Bengal. Imbuing rich Indian tradition with contemporary urgency, they defied audience expectations and offered a gateway into a foreign world through their storytelling and singing.

A group of forty students, alumni, and faculty watched intently as Rani, Rupban and Manimala Chitrakar sat cross-legged on a brown, floral-patterned rug and revealed their singular talents. Over the course of one hour, the three women unrolled large scrolls covered with brilliantly colored picture-stories. The tales, ranging from the retelling of a humorous Hindu legend to a comment on the recent tsunamis in Indonesia, were then sung by the three in their native tongue, their piercing harmonies giving weight and pathos to the illustrated narratives.

Rani, Rupban and Manimala are prominently featured in “Singing Pictures: Women Painters of Naya,” a filmed history of the Scroll Painters screened at the Center for Film Studies the following evening. Aditi Nath Sarkar, co-director of the film, spoke of the rich history of the Scroll Painters, known as Patuas or Chitrakars within India

“They were the poor man’s media,” Sarkar said. Even foreign NGO’s within the country would utilize their artistic talents to spread various programs to the villages.

The threat of irrelevance has loomed large in recent years, as modern media outpaced the methods of the painter-singers. To women like the Chitrakars, the key to the art form’s survival lay in using the century-old techniques of the Patuas to discuss historical, religious and cultural issues that resonate within the masses today. Gender equality played a primary role in the performance’s mournful final selection, which showed the grief and anger of two Indian parents at the birth of their “inferior” female daughter.

Within the tsunami-response scroll, one image finds a passive-looking George Bush gliding over the drowning populace in a helicopter. When asked about the influence of media on their work in a post-performance question-and-answer session, the translated response spoke volumes: if our “work is shown on TV, how can it [TV] be bad?”

This viewpoint seemed to help audience members overcome fear of the linguistic and cultural barriers intrinsically built into such a performance. Eric Paul ’03, a music major, did not expect the use of “current news” within the performance.

Graduate student Bill Carbone admitted to having few expectations walking in, but offered high praise by performance’s end.

“It is different from anything I’ve ever seen,” Carbone said.

Such reactions must be at least partially attributed to the Chitrakars themselves. Their voices, un-molded by professional hands, filled the World Music Hall with simple yet piercing melodies, the pain and ecstasy of their stories spilling right into the audience’s ears. Even the stray vocal crack or missed cue didn’t prove to be a detriment; the self-deprecating smiles that flashed briefly over their faces at such gaffs revealed a comfortable solidarity amongst the three performers that proved enchanting.

The mixture of the old and the new seemed to resonate the most with the audience. Asked what, if anything, surprised him about the performance, Carbone smiled.

“George Bush in a helicopter, perhaps,” he said.

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