During Durga Puja, while festivities marked cities, these Bengal villages used art to fight COVID-19

The campaign, which began on October 1, is being organised by the community radio of Jadavpur University with support from UNICEF and is being executed by the Kolkata-based Chalchitra Academy.

Earlier this month, when the cities of West Bengal were busy celebrating Durga Puja, children in five tribal villages of the State were painting the walls of their modest homes to create awareness against COVID-19, which continues to be a major threat in both urban and rural areas.

The campaign, which began on October 1, is being organised by the community radio of Jadavpur University with support from UNICEF and is being executed by the Kolkata-based Chalchitra Academy, a collective of artists.

“The pandemic was not only pushing many rural communities into isolation but was also threatening many forms of folk art. People were on the verge of abandoning those arts and taking up professions that brought more income. So we decided to use these very people and their art forms to spread awareness about COVID-19 and to promote vaccination,” Imankalyan Lahiri, who teaches international relations at the university and is the convener of the community radio, told The Hindu.

The villages where this campaign is going on include Lalbazar, Uraanshol, Gangadharpur, Sebaiton and Khwarasuli — all of them located in Jhargram district, bordering Jharkhand. “We are using ‘chhau’ dance, ‘paik’ dance and ‘patachitra’ [showing artworks to the accompaniment of songs] to caution the people against COVID-19 and encourage them to get vaccinated,” said artist Mrinal Mandal, a founding member of Chalchitra Academy and who is executing the campaign.

Mr. Mandal (43) graduated from Kolkata’s Government Arts College and has been living in Jhargram since 2018, captivated by its beauty, and teaching art to the residents of Lalbazar village. The transformation of the village — the walls of its houses were soon adorned with art — soon earned it the sobriquet of ‘Khwaabgaon’, or Dream Village. The title was given by writer-critic Sibaji Bandopadhyay.

“To me, now all the five villages are ‘Khwaabgaon’ [a logo for the concept has been designed by renowned artist Jogen Chowdhury]. The people here are a mix of Lodha, Santhal and Kurmi tribes — very shy people, very nice people. In normal times I teach art to them so that they can use art as a source of living. But now I am also drawing out indigenous artists and getting them to help us with the campaign. This way we are getting to kill many birds with one stone — promoting their art, getting them some income, and creating awareness. Only last week we honoured shellac artist Brindaban Chanda [from East Medinipur] and ‘patachitra’ artist Dhukusham Chitrakar [from West Medinipur] — both senior and talented artists who need financial help,” Mr. Mandal said.

The campaign in these villages — which includes cultural events and painting competitions for children — will spill over to next year and to newer areas such as Dinajpur and the Sunderbans. “In fact, we will resume the campaign with renewed vigour post-Deepavali because during this time the villagers celebrate the festival of ‘Bandhna’, when the walls of houses are scrubbed clean for a fresh coat,” Mr. Mandal said.

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