The 305th meeting of the NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium will be held on Tuesday,  April 20, 2021 at 7pm ET. ONLINE PRESENTATION VIA ZOOM. Please email to register for this event. Free and open to the public.

Video of this event.

Frank J. Korom  on Bengali Narrative Scroll Painters and their Struggle with Modernity

The Patuas of West Bengal have a long history of surviving the vicissitudes of their ever-changing social and cultural environment, dealing with everything from caste discrimination to multiple religious conversion. Yet, despite all of the hurdles they have had to jump in the negotiation of their marginal identity, one thing has remained fairly constant; namely, their occupation of painting narrative scrolls (pats) about which they sing. Their repertoire originally included mostly religious themes focusing on Hindu mythology, even after they converted en masse to Islam in the thirteenth century. Even though they still paint and sing about religious themes, they have gravitated more and more toward social (samajik) themes, especially since the postcolonial period of India’s history began in 1947. This strategic shift in performance style is a major key to their ongoing negotiations with India’s own trajectory for becoming “modern.” Moreover, now that globalization has been occurring in the region since the economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s, they are also confronting and coping with new markets and international audiences. This talk will provide an overview of the Patuas, then survey the variety of themes in their painted narratives to conclude that this talented community has managed to cope with modernity to survive, even though many romantic nationalists predicted their demise back at the turn of the 19th century.

Frank J. Korom is a professor of religion and anthropology at Boston University and an associate of the Folklore and Mythology Program at Harvard. He is the author and/or editor of ten books that pertain to the religions and cultures of South Asia and its diasporas. He was formerly the curator of Asian & Middle Eastern collections at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, where he later guest curated an exhibition on the art and lives of the Patuas in 2006 titled Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal. The Museum of New Mexico Press published his accompanying book with the same title. He is currently the co-editor of Asian Ethnology, a biannual journal based at Nanzan University in Japan, where he is also a research associate of the Anthropological Institute.

A scene from Svarna Chitrakar’s Titanic scroll (Photo courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art)