Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Try This at Home

Mayna Chitrakar, wearing flip-flops and a bright, multicolored sari, is walking purposefully around to the back of her square, two-story concrete house in Naya, a small village in the Mindapore district of West Bengal. Slightly less than five feet tall, she is a pretty woman in her late twenties or early thirties, a bit rounder than some of the other women in the village with a gold earring in her nose. She grabs a hoe on the way, and when she arrives at the edge of what could be a small pond or a large puddle from the current monsoon, she begins to dig up a plant.
"Tumeric," she says, holding the root for me to see.
Mayna then heads back toward the front of the house, pulls a few blue flowers from somewhere along the way, as well as some broad, flat, green leaves. She squats next to a stone slab she has set on the dirt path leading up to her doorway, and as some of the villagers gather around to see the show (the American lady has her camera out again), she picks up a pestle and begins to grind the tumeric, creating a bright yellow paste.

While she does this, Prabir, another member of the Chitrakar clan, snatches up the large green leaves Mayna picked and begins rubbing them between his hands. He is around seventeen or eighteen years old and a new father, but he grins like a child when he holds up his two palms, blood-red from the leaves, a sight worthy of Lady Macbeth if anyone in the village were familiar with Shakespeare.
Mayna crushes another kind of leaf to make dark green paste, grinds up the flowers to make an unsatisfying blue, collects her pallet together and heads into the house to demonstrate how traditional patachitra scrolls are painted using natural paints and a basic pallet.
As she paints the forms of four figures in the stylized fashion of the pats, her mother, Jamuna, joins in and paints a beautiful large bird by her side. Her long, loose graying hair, glasses and smile as beautiful as her daughter's, despite a few missing teeth, give a good sense of what Mayna will probably look like in about twenty five years. I was suprised, watching them, to realize that they block in the shapes of each form first and paint the outline last.

After the presentation is over, Mayna shoos us out of the house to make lunch and we head over to her sister Manimala's house. Manimala also lives in a sort of concrete bungalow, rather than a mud hut, singifying that she has done well with her srolls. To get there we step gingerly across a makeshift footbridge of bricks set in the soggy mud. We learn that we were supposed to visit her the day before, but the rains had flooded her front yard. She proudly shows us her passport while we are there, and when we leave she gives us a business card that the crafts council may have printed for her.

When we arrive, Manimala immediately begins pulling out scrolls, then sits and begins to sing as she unrolls one. She is the most convincing performer we have encountered, and she sings in an emotional way that demands silence, even from the young children who had moments ago been running around.

Here is a translation of her song about the Tsunami:


How much longer will you make us weep oh Tsunami. As soon as I start talking about it my heart weeps. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
On 26th December, 2004 Tsunami came with terrible destruction. It was terrible. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Some lost their mothers & fathers who were swept away. Indians were dying. So many children hung on to doors but were swept away by the waves. What did you spare? Nothing. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Getting the news journalists came out in droves. They wept at the scene . Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Some mothers lost their children; some kids lost their mothers; some husbands their wives. Oh what agony. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.
Oh Kanya Kumari, the goddess of the ocean. Tell me how you could take; so many lives. Oh merciful one, my heart weeps.

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