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Gone to Pat, Surviving Chau

Gone to Pat. Directed by Mainak Bhaumik. 2005. 30 minutes. In English and Bangla with English subtitles.

Surviving Chau. Directed by Mainak Bhaumik. 2005. 50 minutes. In English and Bangla with English subtitles.

Study Areas: India, performing arts, theatre/drama, music, dance, folklore, filmmaking, rural India, cultural diversity in India.

Two colorful documentaries by Mainak Bhaumik describe the current status of two centuries-old dramatic traditions in India, both Bengali. Both Gone to Pat and Surviving Chau have elegant cinematography that beautifully depicts the lifestyle of these traditional performers and the general character of their performances. From both of these films one gets a strong sense that these rural performers hold on to these traditions out of love for the art and devotion to the past, as they eke out an existence on the margins of modern India and perform whenever and wherever they can for diminishing audiences. It is a rare treat to see either of these traditions outside of India , which is why I was ultimately disappointed by the relatively superficial treatment that they get in these documentaries.

Chau is an energetic masked dance that has for several centuries been a premiere theatrical tradition in eastern India . Surviving Chau is the slightly longer and more developed of the two films, which provides some interesting contextual information by chau scholar, Subodh Basu Ray, and performer, Dhanonjoy Mahatar. The film is organized into several “chapters,?titled “The History,?“The Rehearsal,?“The Making of the Mask,?“Publicity,?“The Dance,?and a “Post-Performance Discussion.?In reality, the organization is much looser and the film frequently shifts focus to discuss changes in the dance, the cost of performing, and the role of women. The more interesting parts concern the rehearsal, the making of the mask, and the post-performance discussion, where there seems to be enough content to clarify the subject. In several of the other chapters, however, there are some significant gaps in coherence and continuity that make it difficult to follow the ideas or even make sense of what the viewer is seeing.

Pat, or patua, is the Hindu picture recitation tradition performed by the Muslim Chitraker caste in Bengal . These innovative performers have been plying their trade for at least a thousand years and have a stunning repertoire of ancient and newly invented stories. Gone to Pat is not only crippled with an unfortunate title, but seems to lack much conviction that the subject is worth. The film does show some performers singing and reciting stories, preparing pigments, and painting pictures. Unfortunately, the director is not much interested in staying on task and within minutes of a performance the camera has wandered off in search of more picturesque material.

An excellent new book on the subject by Frank Korom, Village of Painters: Narrative Scrolls from West Bengal , demonstrates the galling superficiality of this film by presenting some amazing stories and beautiful paintings. My favorite from Korom's book is the Patua rendition of the Sinking of the Titanic.

Since there are so few films on the picture recitation tradition in India this documentary could have been a significant contribution to the field and could have helped garner wider appreciation of this rare tradition, so it is regrettable that this film fails to meaningfully engage with it.

In both documentaries striking visual scenes seem to be an end in themselves and the camera seems to get quickly distracted from watching the performance and soon fixes on the audience watching the show. Then, bored with that, the camera turns to focus on children playing, a passing herdsman, then on to men building a brick wall, and finally to a pair of chickens scratching the dirt. This manner of montage does give a strong sense of life as it is lived, but it all too often has the character of idly flipping through a National Geographic just to admire the pictures. In several long scenes the film footage seems at best tangentially concerned with the main subject and at worst it can seem like a voyeuristic holiday completely unconcerned with anything to do with chau or pat.

The films do record and translate interviews with scholars and artists; however, there is no attempt to identify characters or stories in the performance or to translate any of the songs that are sung. Without understanding the conflicts and the subject of the dramas we are not invited in very deeply to the significance of the action, so it is very easy to merely watch the spectacle and see it only as a twirl of colors and shapes. As a complement to more substantial readings the movies provide interesting local color, but by themselves they seem too long for the little information they provide.

Robert S. Petersen is an assistant professor of Art, Theatre, and Asian Studies at Eastern Illinois University and a scholar of traditional Asian Art and Theatre who has written several articles on innovation in narrative traditions. His previous work includes research on Japanese manga, Sanskrit drama, and Javanese wayang.

How to Purchase: Gone to Pat is available on DVD and VHS from Documentary Educational Resources (DER).  Price for institutions is $175 and for consumers, $49.95.

Surviving Chau is available on DVD and VHS from Documentary Educational Resources (DER).  Price for institutions is $195 and for consumers, $59.95.

Last Updated March 8, 2008

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