Bengali singer-painters visit for prof’s film premiere

Thursday, October 6, 2005

In “Singing Pictures,” a new documentary by Professor of Anthropology Lina Fruzzetti that premiered Wednesday night at the List Art Center, two Muslim women from the small village of Naya in West Bengal, India, discuss abortion. One explains solemnly that a woman who has the “birth control operation” will contaminate any water she touches and will not be buried when she dies.

“They say it is written in the Quran,” her friend adds, equally straight-faced. Then she grins. “But we can’t read. She’s only repeating hearsay.”

The two women are traditional Bengali singer-painters, and abortion is only one of the controversial subjects they address in the film. “Singing Pictures: Women Painters of Naya,” depicts a community of women who make their living composing songs and illustrating them in painted scrolls. The art form is traditional, but many of the women’s scrolls and songs deal with such topical issues as Sept. 11, birth control, the plot of “Titanic” and the rights of women.

Fruzzetti made the film with her husband, Ákos Östör, a professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University, and their friend and colleague, Aditi Nath Sarkar. Östör and Sarkar were both at Brown for the premiere of “Singing Pictures,” as were three of the women featured in the film, Rani Chitrakar, Manimala Chitrakar and Rupban Chitrakar.

The three women, who had never been to the United States, spent most of Wednesday painting with students in a tent on the Main Green. They also performed their works, with one woman unrolling a scroll and singing the story it depicted, and the other two joining in on the chorus. Each scroll is laid out like a huge vertical comic strip, and the singer unrolls it frame by frame, pointing to each scene in turn.

According to Fruzzetti, the film project was born five years ago over dinner with Östör and Sarkar. Sarkar, who is Bengali, mentioned that women were beginning to take over the art of scroll painting and singing, and suggested them as the subject for a film. Fruzzetti and Östör agreed immediately.

“That innocent ‘Sure’ took five years to finish,” Fruzzetti said.

Filming began in the fall of 2001. After Sept. 11, she considered stopping the project, but the women reassured her, she said.

“They said, ‘We will take care of you. You don’t have to go home. Nothing will happen to you.’ “

Since then, Fruzzetti said, the attacks have become the subject of several of the scrolls. One scroll, which appears in the film, shows President Bush calling Osama bin Laden on the telephone in order to declare war on Afghanistan.

When Fruzzetti, Östör and Sarkar began work on the film, women had been painting scrolls for about 10 or 15 years, Fruzzetti said. Before that, men would paint and compose stories from Hindu mythology, and would go from village to village, performing their work for a little money or food, she said.

According to Östör, television opened up the art of scroll painting to women. With other forms of entertainment available, it was harder for men to make a living by painting and singing, even after the government started holding competitions to support the art form. Women, on the other hand, could and did paint while they looked after their children, he said.

As the women took over the art form, they also changed it, Fruzzetti said. They kept the traditional style of painting, but their subjects became more modern. One of the scrolls shown in the film is about the danger of AIDS and advocates safe sex. Another, which was displayed on the Main Green Wednesday, tells women to have only two children so they will be able to feed them.

Östör said what appealed to him about the painters’ work was its tolerant quality. The artists in the film are all Muslims, he said, but many of their scrolls are based on Hindu mythology. Since becoming more popular, he said, they have been approached by local political parties to support particular issues, but they have refused to give in to these pressures.

“It’s a beautiful, tolerant old Bengali tradition that is now being squeezed by extremists from all sides,” Östör said.

According to Fruzzetti, about four years ago, 16 women from Naya village started a scroll-painters’ cooperative to help each other sell their work. At first, the artists would travel by bus to Calcutta, about three hours away, and sell scrolls to people in their homes. Now, it is the tourists who make the trip from Calcutta to Naya, and the cooperative ensures that all the women, not just a few, are able to sell their work, she said.

The cooperative also gives women a chance to get together and talk about the issues that are important to them, Fruzzetti said. If the women identify a problem in their community, they will address it in scrolls such as “The Girl-Child”, which tells families not to undervalue girls and lists the useful work women are capable of.

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