Picture recitation had evolved from the oral traditions in India and it has existed in many formats such as Patachitra, Kaavads and Phads within India and had also spread out to various countries in the Eastern hemisphere. But these traditions are virtually on the brink of extinction. This paper aims to point out some of the reasons of the decline of picture recitation in the present times and proposes strategies and venues for its revival.

Keywords: picture recitation, contemporary orality, performing arts, new media, urban narratives

This essay was published in the book Orality, Folk and History in the 21st century, edited by Gitanjali Roy and Dr. Sayantan Thakur, 24×7 publishing House, India as a publication of papers of  national seminar titled, ” Negotiating Issues of Orality, Folk and History in the 21st Century, held on 5-6th November, 2018 by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, ICFAI University, Agartala, Tripura, India.

Reviving the tradition of Picture recitation in India.


Picture recitation is the art of reciting or narrating a story using a visual artifact that contains illustrations pertaining to the narrated story. India has a very ancient tradition of picture recitation, with references to the narration of yama pata (scrolls depicting rewards and punishments being meted out in the kingdom of Yama, the god of death) being found in Banabhatta’s Harshacharitam written in 7th century AD (Jain). In his book Picture Showmen, the author Jyotindra Jain lists out the existence of several folk art practices of picture recitation in India, which includes the Garoda tradition of Gujarat, the Phads and Kaavads of Rajasthan, the Patachitras of Bengal, the Chitrakathis of Maharashtra, the Deccani scroll paintings and the Tholu Bommalata leather puppetry of Andhra Pradesh. Many of these art practices have continued the tradition of the yama patas, evident in the scenes of punishments in hell, as seen in the last three panels of the Garoda picture scrolls (Jain) and in some registers of the Patachitra scrolls (Singh).

The yama pata also had equivalents in the Buddhist and Jain religions, known as charana chitta and samsarachakra chitra pata respectively (Jain). Victor Mair traces the origins of the Chinese tradition of picture recitation called Bianwen, the Japanese tradition of Etoki recitation and the Javanese art of Wayang Beber to the charana chitta traditions of picture recitation that were used by Buddhist monks in India. Later, Kamishibai a form of picture narration by candy sellers in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century evolved from the ancient tradition of Etoki as did the famous Wayang Kulit shadow puppetry of Java from the traditions of Wayang Beber. Similar traditions existed in countries west of India such as recitation in front of a woven tapestry was known as Parda dari in Iran (Chelkowski) and the singers who stood in market areas and pointed at images while singing about current affairs were called Bänkelsänger or Moritätensänger in Germany and Austria (Gugitz) and Cantastoria in Italy (Mair).


Itinerant bards and storytellers were engaged in the traditions of picture recitation. There is a mention of mankhas as picture storytellers in Jain texts. Bards who travelled with the yama patas were known as yama pattika. Bhatt Brahmins use portable wooden shrines known as Kaavad for narration and Bhopas use long painted scrolls known as Phads for singing the legends of local dieties in Rajasthan, while they travel to the houses of their patrons in different villages. Chitrakathis in Maharashtra use Paithan paintings and Garoda Brahmins use scrolls called tipanu. Sometimes the maker of the visual artifact was the same as the composer of the oral component, as in the case of the Patachitrakars of Bengal and the Tholu Bommalata of Andhra but in many cases there would be collaboration between the painter and the narrator. Artists of the Suthar community make the Kaavads that are commissioned by the Bhatt Brahmins (Sabnani) and painters of the Joshi community create the Phad scrolls used by the Bhopas (Smith).

The oral component may be sung completely in verse as in the case of Pater Gaan (songs of the Pat) of the Patachitra tradition of Bengal or can be a mix of prose and verse as is in the case of the recitation of Phad in Rajasthan. Musical instruments accompany the recitations in some cases also.


The decline of picture recitation in India

This comprehensive survey of picture recitation aims to emphasize on the plethora of storytelling and orality in India. However, these traditions are partially or completely on the brink of extinction today. As reported by Jain in 1998, only one family practices the Deccani scroll painting tradition, only one group of Chitrakathis have survived in the state of Maharashtra and the Garoda tradition is virtually extinct. At a recent event of Tamil leather puppetry called Thol pavai koothu held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art on October 30, 2018 in Saket, New Delhi, the master puppeteer Muthu Lakshmana Rao lamented that his family was the sole puppeteer community left in Madurai.

Whatever little of these traditions that has survived is limited to its visual artifact that can be commoditized in souvenir shops, but the recitation is getting lost due to the limited understanding of the vernacular language in which it is spoken. The author has personally witnessed Patachitra artists from the villages of West Bengal, in the eastern part of India, come to galleries and fairs in New Delhi in the northern part of the country, unfold their scrolls and sing to an audience that did not understand the language.

Another reason the author presumes for the decline in the oral tradition could be due to the subject matter of the recitations (often still dealing with mythology) that does not find appeal in contemporary times. Manasa Mangal (The legend of the snake goddess Manasa) as recited by the Patachitra artists of Bengal is one such case in point, since Manasa is a local deity from eastern India who is not widely recognized in mainstream Hinduism all over India. Hence it is difficult for the people to understand the story in the scroll of Manasa Mangal by just looking at the images, since people are not familiar with the iconography associated with this legend. At the abovementioned event of Tamil leather puppetry in New Delhi, an audience comment at the end of the show was whether characters such as Hulk and Iron Man from American superhero comics could be created for the puppet shows.

Some visual components of picture recitation traditions in India demand a preliminary knowledge of the repertoire of epic stories they narrate. These stories are then depicted with merely one or two iconic images from the story, through which a person is supposed to recognize the story. For example, the story of Dhanna Bhagat, a devout follower of Vishnu, who forgot to sow seeds in the soil while tilling the land, but who is later rewarded with a harvest of pearls and diamonds due to his devotion, is only represented with the single image of a farmer working on the field in both the Kaavads of Rajasthan and the Tipanu scrolls of the Garoda narrators of Gujarat. Often this image is used not to narrate the entire story but rather just to remind the devotees about the intensity of their devotion (Sabnani). For the uninitiated, these narrative formats that contain fragments of various stories stitched together can be difficult to follow specially if they are accustomed to linear narrations of single stories.

Another limitation that picture recitation faces in India is due to its practice remaining within small communities of village/folk artists. Certain castes and communities were allotted these professions and it has remained within these communities for very long. For example, only people of the Suthar community in Bassi, near Chittorgarh in Rajasthan make the Kaavads and only the Joshis paint the Phads. Only the bards of the Kunepullalu community are allowed to narrate with the aid of a Deccani painted scroll, the origin myth of weavers to the Padmasali weaver community (Mittal) and only the upper caste Brahmins can carry the sacred portable shrines of the kaavads and tipanu scrolls. Such caste-based restrictions result in limitation of patronage, which forces many artists to give up their craft traditions when they cannot make ends meet, as has been witnessed by Sabnani during her research on the Kaavad tradition.

The aforementioned hindrances also discourage the generation of patronage among younger audiences, since they do not encounter the old mythological stories through their religious rituals or through literature or live in urban spaces where the bards do not travel or do not speak the same language as the bards. New subject matter however can spark interest, as seen in the case of Laden Pata scrolls on the theme of the World Trade Center bombing (Chatterji), in which a bearded male face fused with the body of an airplane is instantly recognizable. Similarly Kaavad painters have moved from traditional subject matter of mythology to include fables from the Panchatantra and new stories such as Meena ki Kahani (Story of Meena) that narrates a story about educating the girl child. They have also used the entire Kavaad to depict a single story instead of using single images from numerous stories. A scroll on the 2004 tsunami that hit Chennai was created by Moyna Chitrakar and Joydeb Chitrakar for Tara Books and rendered into a book format using silk screen printing. The art of Kamishibai was adopted by Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in 2011 as part of its AIDS campaign: “Befriend Malik” and by D’Une Langue A L’Autre, a French organisation promoting multilingualism in schools (Enjelvin).


Today’s oral practices

Simultaneous to the decline in the tradition of picture recitation, attention must be drawn to the rise of new formats of spoken word. Spoken word poetry is a form of performative art that has expanded rapidly in India within the past five years. Spoken word poetry is poetry that is meant to be performed and heard rather than published and read. Poets recite self-composed pieces from memory, without using props, costume and music, in front of an audience and focus is laid on the aesthetics of word play such as intonation and voice inflection. The performance usually lasts under five minutes although there is no time limit. Slam poetry is a spoken word poetry competition in which poets are given three minutes and a grace period of ten seconds to finish their performances and are judged by people chosen randomly from the audience, who themselves might not be poets (Sommers-Willet). Unlike classical forms of poetry, it need not follow a rigid pattern of rhymes. It could have various patterns of rhymes similar to rap lyrics or none at all. In its present form, it is fairly new, originating in 1973 at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York and made famous by Marc Smith who organized poetry slams in Chicago in 1980’s. But it has shared roots with the poems of the Griots of West Africa. Performance poetry in Africa dates to prehistorical times with the creation of hunting poetry, while elegiac and panegyric court poetry were developed extensively throughout the history of the empires of the Nile, Niger and Volta river valleys (Finnegan). The poetry slam movement reached a wider audience following Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry, which was aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007. Spoken word poetry has seen rising popularity in India and there are cultural hubs that host spoken word poetry in Hindi and English in many cities in India. The popularity and lucrativeness of stand up comedy, which also uses the format of open mic sessions to hunt for talents, has preceded the recognition of spoken poetry in India (Sachitanand). Some contemporary Indian comedians such as Priya Mallik and Zakir Khan are also poets.

Many spoken word poets worldwide have made careers out of their artistic practices, which include performances, workshops and participation in Ted Talks. Nandini Verma and Shantanu Anand who started Airplane Poetry Movement in India in 2013 are involved full time into spreading word about spoken word poetry and organizing workshops in schools and conducting youth poetry competitions all over India. Many spoken word poets have started forming collectives and organizing touring shows or have joint hands with other enterprises. Airplane Poetry Movement has collaborated with Menstrupedia, a company that seeks to disseminate knowledge on menstruation, to curate a series of spoken word poetries titled Menstruation Diaries. Flesh is Flesh is Flesh was a performance poetry event held in Mumbai jointly organized by Airplane Poetry Movement and Why Indian Men Rape-a multimedia gender journalism and activism project. Campus Diaries a platform for students to connect with like minded peers collaborated with the Poddar Foundation to address issues on mental health using slam poetry, in an initiative called Louder Than Words Mission on Mental Health. Papercup, a product design company teamed up with Airplane Poetry Movement to bring slam poetry to the eastern part of India.

Many open mic hubs such as The Fun Cube Studio and The Social House, both based in New Delhi, video record each poet’s recitation, which is then edited and uploaded on YouTube. The income generated from viewer clicks is then shared with the individual poets. In a day and age where literary publishing faces many challenges, young poets are being proactive to create their own venues for income and exposure. Digital social media and specially YouTube have also contributed to the faster dissemination of spoken word poetry worldwide (Ramanathan).

Along with the rise in popularity of spoken word poetry, there has also been a boom in the number of places that hosts such events of spoken word poetry and perceive themselves as alternative spaces of culture in India. Kommune, a network of storytellers headed by actors Roshan Abbas and Gaurav Kapoor and operating since 2015 organized Spoken, a festival of words voices and stories over two days in Mumbai in 2017 and will organize it again in 2019. Beatmap, a project incubated within Kommune organizes poetry and storytelling gigs in people’s homes across various cities in India. Sheroes Hangout Café in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow saw the number of its participants double in two seasons of hosting open mic sessions. The organizer recognized the lacuna that he had helped fill up, as now people did not feel the need to go to the greater metropolitan cities of New Delhi and Mumbai to showcase their talents (Rizvi). New spaces founded by practicing artists, which promote more experimental approaches and aim to break the fourth wall between performers and audiences, have opened up in many cities. The Black Box Theatre in Okhla in the greater metropolis of New Delhi is an abandoned factory space converted into a theatre by an Indian theatre director. The theatre has no fixed stage or fixed seating. Downstairs@S47 is a performance space built in the basement of the residence of a deceased publisher and television newsreader in New Delhi. The Hive in Mumbai is an alternate cultural space that started with hosting open microphone sessions in a one-room office space and which has now expanded to a 4000 square feet space at its current premises.

All these spaces aim at building communities of artists and audiences. At open mic sessions the artists sit amidst the audience and come up on stage when called. At the end of the session at The Fun Cube Studio, a group photograph of all the participants and audience members along with the organizers is clicked and posted on the studio’s Facebook page.


Performance and Identity

One intrinsic reason for the rise in the popularity of spoken word poetry lies in the appeal of its subject matter, which reflects the zeitgeist. Bharath Divakar’s poems titled Fatness, Letter to Depression and Bully address contemporary issues of body shaming and taboos in discussion of mental health. Poems from the series Menstruation Diaries such as I Wish I Could Talk To My 12 Year Old Self, aims to relieve the guilt that young girls feel about their own bodies during menstruation. Poets talk of broken hearts (Daniel Sukumar’s A Guide to Personal Killings) and of their struggle against anxieties (Aranya Johars’s Buy Now or Panic Later), question patriarchy (Aranya Johar’s A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender) and question changing trends (Moira Rajpal’s Hookup Culture).

Since it is possible that a single person could compose the visual and oral components and perform the picture recitation alone, as done by Patachitra artists, the performer could use his recitation to address many unique issues pertaining to him. Sommers-Willet terms this as performing identity in her study of slam poetry and its cultural politics (2005). She observes that since poets perform original pieces, which engage a first person, narrative mode, it encourages the live audience to perceive the performance as a confessional moment in which the poet performs his identity.

“The identity a poet expresses in performance is taken as the performer’s identity in life… More often than not marginalized gender, class, sexual, and racial identities are celebrated at poetry slams, and poets performing marginalized racial identities can be especially rewarded.”



In India, Bharath Divakar performs his identity through his poems Fatness, Letter to Depression and Bully.

Dear Depression,

You are the friend who never let go of my hand

Even in the hardest of times

And I hate you for it.

You are a hungry monster and I am your All-You-Can- Eat lunch buffet.


Performing identity forms a major part of the content of contemporary spoken word but it is an area that has not been explored by any folk picture narrators in India. Patachitra artist are currently being approached by governmental and non governmental organizations to create didactical scrolls and songs on literacy, public health and AIDS awareness (Ponte 2015), but it does not include stories from their perspectives about their lives, their identities and their difficulties in keeping their practices alive.

Somers-Willet’s study is based on the slam poetry landscape in the United States especially concentrating on African American performers and their white audiences. But her observations would prove true in any country given that marginalized people and minorities generally face the same prejudices world over. Her study reveals that the poetry slam community attracts more poets of colour than the academic poetry community, that these slams are billed as counter-cultural performances and the white audiences reward African American slam poets in order to show their support for anti-racist attitudes, thereby confirming their own positions as liberal, rebellious, hip, and against the status quo. Dalits, Muslim minorities and immigrants from poorer parts of India, who face lynching and systemic oppression along with being branded as unwanted outsiders within their own country, would very well be able to relate to the African Americans while progressive, liberal urban youth demographic in the major Indian cities would identify easily with the white audiences of Somers-Willet’s study group. Slam poetry, which has empowered African Americans to present their voices and has helped shape their identities, then could do the same for the marginalized in the Indian context. A poetry event titled Dalit Indigenous Trans Queer Poetry Circle was organized on October 27, 2018 under a curatorial project named Allies for the Uncertain Futures in New Delhi and an open call for poets to participate was posted on Facebook. Poems by the Dalit Black Panther group were read in Marathi and English.


New Possibilities

Breaking the caste and community barriers and promoting the uptake of picture recitation by independent artists who do not belong to these folk communities can create new stories in new spaces for new audiences. Recently, the Joshi painters of the Phad tradition, who after having realized that caste limitations are resulting in the extinction of their arts, started sharing their knowledge with people in cities through art workshops and have improved their market exposure. Kalyan Joshi set up Chitrashala, a training institute in 1990 and has trained over three thousand students in the art of Phad painting (Joshi). The appeal of open mic stages that invite people from all walks of life to share their spoken word poetry has been enhanced multiple folds due to the performances being uploaded on social media. Similarly the practice of picture recitation by urban artists who could also upload their performances on social media would help disseminate knowledge of this oral-visual tradition. Many of the aforementioned cultural spaces are equipped with projectors incase digital formats of picture recitation need to be explored.

Along with using performed oral poetry, the position of marginal voices could be further strengthened with the combination of visuals in the form of picture recitation. Research proves that images can induces massive emotional responses and can often change the discourse as has been proven in the case of the Syrian immigration upon release of a single image of a drowned three-year old boy on the beaches of Turkey. Data shows the image changed the language used on social media around immigration, with more uses of the word ‘refugee’ than ‘migrant’ (Goriunova et al). Visual images have the power to evoke empathy – the Obama administration announced it would begin protecting African lions under the Endangered Species Act after pictures of the dead lion Cecil, killed by an American hunter, appeared on social media (Zeeberg). Neuroscience studies confirm that many works of visual art incite emotional and empathic reactions in humans through the mirror neuron system in the brain (Gallese).



Despite the vast flourishing landscape of contemporary orality in the form of spoken word poetry, no instances of its fusion with visuals to create picture recitation have been found. And although Africa has a living tradition of orality and use of masks during spoken word performances is known, no evidence of picture recitation has been found there either. The tradition of picture recitation then seems to have been unique in its origin and presence in the Indian subcontinent. Picture recitation has been researched extensively in India but purely from a theoretical point of view and no projects have been developed to revive its practice. As stated earlier, picture recitation is an offshoot of the oral tradition in India. The oral tradition has reincarnated itself in the form of spoken word poetry but picture recitation is yet to manifest itself. Looking at the vast heritage of picture recitation as well as at the parallel developments in the world of performance in terms of format, venue, identity formation, institutional collaborations, audience creation and impact, the author is of the opinion that the present times are most conducive for the revival of the unique tradition of picture narration and art practitioners could take up this art form to broaden the definitions of what contemporary Indian art can be.



Chatterji, Roma. “Global Events and Local Narratives: 9/11 and the Picture Storytellers of Bengal.” Indian Folklore Research Journal, Volume 9, 2009, pp.1-26.

Chelkowski, Peter. “Narrative Painting and Painting Recitation in Qajar Iran.” Muqarnas, Volume 6, 1989, pp. 98-111.

Chitrakar, Moyna and Joydeb Chitrakar. Tsunami. Chennai, Tara Books, 2009.

Divakar, Bharath S. “A letter to Depression.” YouTube, Airplane Poetry Movement, 15 July 2016,

Divakar, Bharath S. “Bully.” YouTube, Airplane Poetry Movement, 2 June 2016,

Divakar, Bharath S. “Fatness.” YouTube, Airplane Poetry Movement, 20 May 2017,

Enjelvin, Géraldine D. “Kamishibai: how the magical art of Japanese storytelling is being revived and promoting bilingualism.” The Conversation, 28 June 2018,

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Literature in Africa. Open Book Publishers, 2012,

Gallese, Vittorio. “Mirror neurons and Art.” Art and the Senses, edited by Francesca Bacci and David Melcher, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 441–449.

Goriunova, Olga et al. “The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi”, Social Visual Media Lab, 2015,

Gugitz, Gustav. Lieder der Straße – Die Bänkelsänger im josephinischen Wien. Vienna: Brüder Hollinek, 1954.

Johar, Aranya. “A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender.” YouTube, UnErase Poetry, 10 Mar. 2017,

Johar, Aranya. “Buy Now or Panic Later.” YouTube, Airplane Poetry Movement, 9 Apr. 2017,

Joshi, Kalyan. “My experiments with Phad art to keep it alive forever.” YouTube, Ted x Talks, 18 Jul. 2014,

Mair, Victor H. Painting and Performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Mittal, Jagdish. “The Painted Scrolls of the Deccani Picture Showmen: Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century.” Picture Showmen: Insights into the Narrative Tradition in Art, edited by Jyotindra Jain, New Delhi, The Marg Foundation, 1998, pp. 56-73.

Ponte, Inês. “Cosmopolitan impressions from a contemporary Bengali patachitra painting museum collection in Portugal.” Ateliers d’anthropologie, Volume 41, 2015,

Rajpal, Moira. “Hookup Culture.” You Tube, UnErase Poetry, 9 Feb. 2018,

Ramanathan, Lavanya. “From Instapoets to the bards of YouTube, poetry is going viral. And some poets hate that.” The Washington Post, 6 May 2018,

Rizvi, Adnaan. ‘Stand-up comedy acts & open-mic sessions are a hit among Lucknowites.” The Times of India, 23 Oct. 2017,

Sabnani, Nina. Kaavad Tradition of Rajasthan: A Portable Pilgrimage. New Delhi, Niyogi Books, 2014.

Sachitanand, Rahul. “The comedy business boom: How comedians in India have learned to make big money.” The Economic Times, 23 Feb 2014,

Singh, Kavita. “To Show, To See, To Tell, To Know: Patuas, Bhopas and Their Audiences,” Picture Showmen, Insights Into the Narrative Tradition in Indian Art, edited by Jyotindra Jain, New Delhi, The Marg Foundation, 1998, pp. 100-115.

Smith, John D. The Epic of Pabuji: A Study, Transcription and Translation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Somers-Willett, Susan. “Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Volume 38.1, 2005, pp. 51-73.

Sukumar, Daniel. “A Guide to Personal Killings.” You Tube, Airplane Poetry Movement, 15 May 2017,

Suri, Brinda. “That’s How a Story Unfolds.” Deccan Herald, 19 Jan. 2014,

Verma, Nandini and Shantanu Anand. “Poetry Is Not Dead.” You Tube, Ted x Talks, 29 June 2017,

Zeeberg, Amos. “How Images Trigger Empathy.” The Atlantic, 6 Jan. 2016.