Repetition, improvisation, tradition: Deleuzean themes in the folk art of Bengal.

Author:Chatterji, Roma


In this paper, I use Gilles Deleuze's concept of repetition to understand how craft technique becomes an embodied practice as a form of habit which allows for innovation. Deleuze enables us to think of practice as unselfconscious and habitual as it is based on past synthesizations; but, precisely because no two acts can ever be the same, repetition also engages with the idea of difference. His idea of repetition and difference allows us to think of creativity as emerging from everyday craft practices. I elaborate on this idea through a detailed examination of a set of pictorial narratives about the 9/11 crash on the World Trade Centre in New York, executed by folk artists of Bengal who appropriate modernist techniques of "facification" and fragmentation into their traditional compositions. For Deleuze the face is the site where ideas of habit, social role, and individuated self consciousness are problematised. When seen as a fragment that can be detached from the body, the face can travel to other sites, which may then acquire properties of expressivity and individuation. Such techniques have been used very effectively in narrative forms, such as the comic book. I contrast the narrative compositions of the Bengali folk artists with the comics' form of storytelling (a subject of experimentation that I encountered in the course of my fieldwork) and end with some thoughts on the process of oral composition.

Artisanal Practice, Embodied Knowledge, and Artistic Innovation

Artisanal learning is conventionally thought to be a product of habitual practice. (1) Apprentices learn by rote, patiently copying the gestures of the master craftsman until they have internalized the techniques of their craft (Farr 2008). This kind of bodily knowledge that comes from a mode of doing is considered necessary for the deep knowledge of the way the material actually behaves in the hands of the crafts person, enabling her (2) to evolve a set of templates or schemas that can be adapted to respond to different cues from the environment, often creating works of great aesthetic value in spite of limited conceptual knowledge (Siva Kumar 2006). The aesthetics of such practices generally foreground skill and technique rather than novel conceptualization, and creativity is viewed as a kind of improvisation rather than self-conscious expression. How then does novelty emerge in artisanal practice? And is there any space for individual self expression? Is there such a thing as communal creativity or is that quality always associated with individuals? In a famous essay on the Russian fairy tale, the structuralist Roman Jakobson (1966) said that artistic innovations that are of significance are always brought about by individuals. However, in folk cultures with predominantly oral traditions, such innovations fade away unless they are absorbed into the expressive repertoires of the larger community. For this to happen the imprint of the author must be forgotten, i.e., for the work to become popular it must be anonymous, treated as common property by the community at large.

In this essay, I attempt to chart a middle ground between the two positions delineated above--neither rendering folk artists as mute vessels incapable of self-reflexivity or conceptual thought, nor treating them as coterminous with art practitioners in the modern art world whose practices are supposed to be self-consciously agonistic, based on a valorization of subversion so that the artist deliberately sets herself in opposition to dominant societal values. Instead I try to offer a notion of artistic agency that is multiple and synthetic rather than autonomous and subjective, conceptualized through an elaboration of the work process which allow us to think of artists as embodied through their practices rather than their finished artworks.

My argument is framed by Deleuze's ideas about repetition and time. For Deleuze, the embodied individual is constituted as a passive subject--a site on which thoughts circulate, encountering sensations and objects that may be energized to form ideas (Deleuze 2004). However, the body that is the medium in which the materialization of such creative energies takes place first has to be honed into becoming a receptive vehicle. It must become a machine or automaton constituted through repeated work and exercise which allows thought to flow through the individual subject. Thought, for Deleuze, is no longer the result of self-conscious reflection by individuals, but an emergent process that arises from the passive synthesis of time reflected in repetitive and habitual practices. It is only when past activities are brought into the present through habit and memory that 'things' acquire actual shape. I try to show how artisanal forms of learning through repetition enable creative novelty to emerge not in the mode of purposeful self-expression, but by cultivating habits in the form of embodied practices that are responsive to continual variation in the environment. Artistic agency manifests itself in contingent acts--unexpected connections that reveal their potential only retrospectively after the art work is actualized (Wang 2008).

Emergent Events and Painted Narratives

In this section, I illustrate the conceptual framework delineated above with examples of artistic production from the Chitrakar, a community of picture storytellers from West Bengal, gathered in the course of anthropological fieldwork in a village called Naya in West Medinipur district. But first, a brief description of the community itself.

Even though the term 'chitrakar' means picture-maker, the art refers to a form of narrative performance in which the bard narrates a story in song while s/he displays a painted scroll. The subjects of their narratives are largely mythological, but because this is a popular and secular form of rural entertainment, there are many compositions that deal with dramatic secular events, such as natural calamities and scandals. The distinction between secular and mythological is a recent one, however, and originated with the post-independence patronage of the folk arts by state agencies to popularize policies and schemes concerning education and health. The enthusiasm with which folk artists such as the chitrakars have taken up such novel themes has not only led to a vastly expanded range of narrative subjects, but also to a new classification of themes into traditional (puranic) and social (samajik).

In spite of this division, the overall framing of narratives is still influenced by a kind of mythological organization that views time as cyclical and synchronic. Chitrakars are largely Muslim, but compose and perform narratives based on both Hindu as well as Muslim myths. This does not seem so extraordinary if we remember that at the level of folk religiosity, multi-religious villages like Naya develop syncretic cultures that revolve around faith-based worship at popular shrines of saints, as well as public rituals in which both Hindus and Muslims participate. According to scholars like Richard Eaton (2000), Rafiuddin Ahmed (1981), and Motiyur Rohman (2003), Islam in rural Bengal was spread by holy men or spiritual guides called pirs, who used institutions and forms of expression that were local and popular to convey their ideas about Islam. This led to the development of a body of literature that was distinctively Bengali in spirit and appealed to Hindus and Muslims alike (Stewart 2002). (3) One could say that the chitrakars are the contemporary exemplars of this syncretistic literary tradition. (4)

Until about three decades ago, the chitrakars were a caste of itinerant picture storytellers. They acquired a certain visibility among the urban elite when the nationalist scholar Gurusaday Dutt (1882-1941) sought inspiration from their work and life styles to articulate a model of Indian culture that was secular and based on Hindu-Muslim syncreticism. Dutt is an important figure in the nationalist revival of craft traditions in independent India. He was inspired by the arts and crafts movement in Britain while still an official in the British colonial service in Bengal, and set up several craft fairs and institutions while in service. He was inspired by Bengali folk culture--especially that of the chitrakars--and felt that they could contribute significantly to the development of a national culture by providing indigenous models of secularism (Chatterji 2012). According to Dutt, the chitrakars were an exemplary voice in the folk culture of Bengal--they occupied an interstitial position in the caste hierarchy, designating themselves as Muslim, following local (Hindu) customs and displaying scrolls with largely Hindu themes (Bhattacharjee 1980, Dutt 1939, 1990).

The chitrakars are scattered all over Bengal, but very few still practice their traditional occupation. It is only in Medinipur district that the artists have been able to withstand the competition of more popular forms of entertainment, such as films and television, by adapting their art form to the tastes of contemporary urban publics. In the traditional world of chitrakar performance the painted scroll was used as a prop--as an aid to bardic narration serving the same function as pictures in illustrated storybooks for children. Over time the space for bardic performance has shrunk and artists have shifted their attention to the painted scroll, creating increasingly elaborate scrolls that depict stories not only from their traditional repertoire but also event-based stories about newsworthy subjects like the 9/11 strike on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Tsunami (Chatterji 2012, 2015). Such scrolls are composed with an eye to a new regime of patronage--the urban public that frequents state-sponsored craft fairs and, more recently, museums and private galleries.

Interestingly, while the space for the traditional multi-media performance that combined singing with...

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