Asian narrative scrolls

I had the most exciting surprise on a visit to The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) – it has a Japanese narrative scroll on display.


I am convinced a contemporary form of these artworks could be a wonderful memory device to use in education. These long scrolls from China, Japan and Korea (that I know of so far) tell stories through the most gorgeous images.

I remember from my studies in education and from experience in the classroom that mode shifts aid memory massively. A mode shift is basically taking information in one format and changing that format when recording it. That change forces you to engage deeply with the information. You can read and take notes without really concentrating, but if you have to change written information into images, or aural information into your own words, or written information into song, then you will remember it.

I believe that changing information into a narrative in pictures would work a treat, adding a scene for each stage in a knowledge narrative. There are some written annotations as well. The narrative could be done in quick sketches or, even more wonderfully, a beautifully illustrated scroll. I am planning to do contemporary versions in My Memory Experiments.

You really need to engage with a scroll to know what is going on. They were carefully preserved in boxes and brought out to be ‘read’ as they were slowly unrolled, exposing only a small portion at any time. They were (are!) a much more intimate art experience than something fully exposed on a wall.

The NGV scroll is over eleven metres long. Below is a detail from it along with its little sign. There is a bit more on the NGV website.

I first saw a Chinese narrative scroll, also called a handscroll, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about a decade ago and have been longing to find out more ever since. I saw them again on a more recent trip and was more delighted by them than ever. I had no idea we had one in Australia – I suspect there are more for me to stumble over. I sincerely hope so!

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9 thoughts on “Asian narrative scrolls”

    1. No, Stephanie, I knew nothing about this and it has led me on the most wonderful search. This is so fantastic. One site (http://indigoarts.com/galleries/patua-story-scrolls-west-bengal) says:

      “The contemporary scrolls and paintings of Gurupada and Montu Chitrakar come from the distinct patachitra scroll tradition in the state of West Bengal. The patachitra or patua scrolls may portray stories from the great Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana, and Sufi traditions which are also sung frame by frame. The scrolls by the young painters Gurupada and Montu Chitrakar venture even further into current affairs, history and other subjects outside of the traditional canon.

      Their subjects include not only the Ramayana but the Tsunami, the September 11th attacks, the Kashmir earthquake, the Gujarat earthquake and bloody Hindu/Muslim religious riots, and incongruously even the story of the French Revolution. For examples of some recent scrolls by various artists, depicting the December 2004 tsunami, go to our Art from the Tsunami gallery.”

      I saw a superb exhibition of the Ramayana at the British library a decade ago and have wanted to revisit the narrative tradition for ages. Today is the day!

      I must go now – I want to find out lots more about these and cannot wait a second longer. You are an absolutely treasure!

      Thank you!

      Lynne

      1. Dear Lynne,
        At Elthambookshop we have an example of a patchitra in the form of a picture book for children. When you are in Eltham ask me to show it to you. These have been used by storytellers, balladeer sand even for family planning and literacy campaigns. I think Picture Books without words are based on this idea. Scrolling out a story has a greater dramatic effect I think.Maitrey Ray a local artist who now lives in Healesville has a better understanding of this narrative form.As a young child she grew up in Calcutta.

        1. Hi Meera,

          This all sounds fascinating. I am sorry about the delay in replying. I didn’t get notification of this comment. I am not in Eltham very often – it is a long way from Castlemaine. I really appreciate the pointer to patchitra. I knew of such things but didn’t know the correct term to find out more.

          This is all wonderful. Thank you so much for the comment. I shall ring and find out more about the book.

          Lynne

  1. Silly me added a contact form rather than asked for comments. That means others can’t see all the interesting additions from readers. I’ll transfer some here. Francis wrote:

    Hello Lynne,

    I don’t know if you have come across the What on Earth Wallbook series.

    They are fold-out posters that show an image-led description of a whole subject within one long document.

    They have covered various topics including big history, science and British history.

    If you scroll across the images at the top of their big history page – https://www.whatonearthbooks.com/shop/wallbook-of-big-history/ – you will get an idea of what they look like.

    The founder of the company explains his philosophy here – https://www.whatonearthbooks.com/blog/2014/05/connecting-the-dots-of-the-past/

    1. These are fantastic, Francis. Thank you. I do have a similar history fold-out poster, although this one looks better because it is less stacked full of words and more in images.

      I love the philosophy you pointed to, part of which says:

      “For me the joy of telling big stories is like the Wallbook itself, it has no beginning and no end. It is just a constant fascination with connecting together the dots of the past, giving them meaning and making them memorable through visualization, context, cause and effect.”

      I am finding that memory work, such as my walk through history, does exactly that – gives me a big picture. It is not rote learning but giving a foundation on which to build higher level thinking.

      My understanding of the Asian narrative scrolls is that they are more narrative. There is a character, or characters, who move through the scenes so as to tell a story making it more memorable. But they wouldn’t tackle all of history in a single scroll.

      I must think more about the best way to use such formats.

      Thank you again,

      Lynne

  2. You might be interested in the book “Streams and Montains without End” by Sherman Lee and Wen Fong, a detailed look at a hand scroll that would become influential in Gary Snyder’s long poem “Mountains and Rivers without End.” The Lee/Wen book is 50 years old, so I suppose there is more recent research on the subject of hand scrolls.

    1. I am really interested in this, Ron. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. A quick search online shows only one expensive copy available through Amazon. Bookfinder found none. I’ll hunt around some more.

      Thank you again,

      Lynne

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