By Anuska Guin
It has been widely discussed that the Bengal Famine of 1943 was perhaps a man-made genocide in the making, with some deep-rooted factors that led to the catastrophe. While a lot of these factors get directed to Churchill’s policy lapses, one cannot ignore the role of class and ethnography in what was one of the greatest crises of the 20th century. Amartya Sen writes in Poverty and Famines that starvation is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat, but of some people not having enough of it. He writes of agricultural labourers, fishermen, and husk gatherers who were from the Dalit community, and the typical Bengali society which was highly rigid on the lines of caste, class, and gender. Rama Sangaye, an ethnographer, believes that the famine was a rural phenomenon – it preyed on the poor, the Dalits, the migrants, and the adivasis. Like almost any other crisis, the level at which one was affected by the famine depended largely on their societal position. The Bengal Famine of 1943 also brought in some significant changes in the fundamental structures of daily existence. Janam Mukherjee has brought to our attention that the meanings of concepts like ‘health’, ‘territory’, ‘hunger’, ‘home’, ‘community’, and ‘priority’ had gone through many rapid layers of transformation in the tumult of starvation and death. The Famine had also transformed the geopolitical scenario in Calcutta. Millions of people continued to die due to food deprivation and epidemics, but the British Raj continued to build their own capital.
The Famine tried to rupture the sensory domain and hooked new values to visualities, discourses on vision, the nation, and also the fashionable. Throughout the late 1930 and 40s, there was an increase in new cultural vocabularies, and among those, the ‘progressive’ and also the ‘people’ interacted with political agendas, leading to the emergence of a completely different field. This arena was versatile enough to permit politics and aesthetics to combine with one another, and later became ‘political’ within the artistic field. However, it was neither propaganda art nor made stable political commitments in art. Sanjukta Sunderason points out, that this new mode of creative expression turned around the production of the new national-popular aesthetic through the conscious fusion of standard imaginaries with a national agenda, and a mixed bag of the ‘cultures’ of the social class, the socio-economic class, and also the elite. The role of progressive art was to depict realism and geared toward creating more accessible art, and these qualities implicited a left-winged presence. All in all, it led to the harnessing of art for the demands of a social transformation as well as the play of multiple vocabularies of a transnational left, hence intending to develop a decolonized artistic field.
Chittaprosad Bhattacharya was a Communist artist, noted for his sketches of famine victims within the pages of the CPI’s national organ, People’s War (People’s Age, post-1945). He pioneered communist visual reporting in the forties as a replacement artist-cadre of the CPI. The rise of new figurations of the body politic, iconic sketches of the wartime Bengal famine of 1943, and postwar images featuring labor and resistance, documented the times he worked in. Moreover, such images were more than just mere journalistic data, they were testimonies on their own, within the variety of sketches, cartoons, and pictures. A very short piece titled ‘Chhobir Sankat’ (Crisis of Art) which was displayed within the CPI periodical Arani, delineated art as the carrier of the social mind, and propagated the idea that it should become society’s ‘agitator and organizer.’ His art reveals several figurative sketches of poverty, alienation, and resistance in addition to the horrors of the famine.
The journal that Chittaprosad kept during his tour within the Contai subdivision of the Midnapore district, was named Hungry Bengal. According to sources, five thousand copies of it were seized and burnt by the British government. Hungry Bengal depicted images of acute impoverishment during the Bengal Famine of 1943. Chittaprosad’s journey discovered the trail of hunger and poverty from the streets – his accounts were built up with interviews and reports. These reports were matched with parallel sketches in black ink, together with in-depth notes on his subjects and locations scribbled within the margins or on the reverse aspect. His subjects weren’t an undifferentiated mass of victimhood, but had identities of their own. For example, in one of the sketches from June 1944, the artist describes his subject:
‘’This is hungry, disease-ridden, and virtually naked Rabi Raut, a kisan boy of Kadamdanga village, Balagor, Hooghly district. He has 3 younger brothers and a sister, all bed-ridden through protozoal infection, scabies, and cough..’’
Chittaprosad’s drawings were created with thick, scooped outlines that depicted fissures and furrows in skeletal bodies. The artist attempted to capture the postures and gazes of his subjects, adding annotations that revealed the rawness of his drawings. Within the postwar period, Chittaprosad projected a different genre of political art, one that was far from the documentary tropes of famine reporting and was keen on experimental figurations of labor, resistance, and revolutionary socialism. This matched an outlined shift within the political mandate of the CPI. He began exploring ‘aestheticized’ embodiments of resistance activated by conscious creative explorations, and dived into visualizing a body politic. It manufactured a vigorous political figuration largely unseen in Indian art. Hence, this was a replacement stage of ‘socialist figuration’, one that developed in dialogue with nationalism. There was also a fusion of text and image in his visual reportage.
For Chittaprosad, figuration became a formal weapon for generating icons of resistance, foregrounding the revolutionary potentiality of the figures themselves. The development of politicized figures needs to be focused on as his idea of the celebratory rhetoric was in line with revolutionary hope, which produced new modes of expressionist figurations. In the post-war period, the CPI was mapping out, under P.C. Joshi’s guidance, a cultural vocabulary of a ‘national front’. There was a revolutionary communion of workers and peasants, Hindus and Muslims, against the British government in India. Chittaprosad channeled this in artistic forms, creating the revolutionary agency of the workers, peasants, and cultural workers of the party, in their resilience against foreign exploitation and indigenous merchants. These idioms became active in a poster panel that he made for an IPTA ballet, India Immortal. In that platform, he tried to amalgamate symbols of India’s cultural diversity and traditional past with the ‘new national form’ of a resurgent popular. In several images, he blends satire with the revolutionary address, and the projection of a revolutionary utopia in the visualization of working-class resistance, in the context of the 1940s in India – particularly through the muscular, angry image of the worker. Hungry Bengal was only limited to resignation, and here he went on to capture the revolutionary upsurge. We witness an embodied agitation through the art of grotesque realism, featuring unpleasant workers as well.
Chittaprosad was thus somewhat ‘conscious’ of the probability of developing a fresh motif of ethical activism outside the ‘moral and formal abstractions’ of his contemporaries. The rhetoric of direct contact should be underlined here, as he ‘mixed’ with the masses and the famine victims. To quote the artist himself, it was ‘the first of a new, fresh audience for a new, fresh Indian art’.
- Deepak, Sharanya. “A ‘Forgotten Holocaust’ Is Missing from Indian Food Stories.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 6 Dec. 2021: Link
- Mukherjee, Janam. Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Sunderason, Sanjukta. “Partisan Aesthetics: Modern Art and India’s Long Decolonization.” Amazon, Stanford University Press, 2020.
- “A Transnational Socialist Solidarity: Chittaprosad’s Prague Connection.” Stedelijk Studies, 6 Feb. 2022: Link
Anuska Guin is a recent graduate from Jadavpur University with comparative literature as her major. Her hobbies include reading, watching films, and journaling.