A look at Bengal famine in modern Indian art – a showcase leads the way




By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi, Dec 26

 “Quite unbeknowest to me, the wounds of the 1940s famine, the uncertainty of war, the horrors of communal riots of 1946— all that we were sinking themselves into the techniques of my drawings — the helpless around us, the neglected and the hungry,” says artist and sculptor (late) Somnath Hore in his book, “My Concept of Art”. 

 The Bengal famine of 1943 — wedged between the two wars — that killed nearly three million people brought in its tumultuous wake a poignant oeuvre of art which was rooted in the mammoth human tragedy of hunger that ravaged the Bengal and eastern landmass of the sun-continent like a black scourge. The memories of the hunger lasted for several years colouring the expressions of a small bunch of realist painters from Bengal with socialist affiliations.

 Somnath Hore, Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, Zainul Abedin, Gopal Ghose, Pranskinko Pal, Abani Sen, Haren Das, Sunil Jena, Atul Bose, Ramkinkar, Pradosh Dasgupta, Kamala Dasgupta, Nirode Mazumdar, Paritosh Sen, Rathin Moitra, Suvo Tagore, Gorabdhan Ash, Muralidhar Tali and Debabrata Mukhopadhyay, Rimkankar and the members of The Calcutta Group — a progressive group of artists who used the human suffering of the famine to script a new artistic language — have preserved the partially manmade disaster  in line drawings, ink sketches, water colour figure studies, etchings, linocuts, etchings, lithographs and press photographs for the posterity testifying to the fact that disasters and tragedies spur creativity to push the farthest of frontiers in terms of visual expressions by artists.

 Historians say the Bengal famine of 1943 was partially manmade — the world wars had apparently triggered a shortage of foodgrain. A series of crop failures, natural conditions and blockade of food grain from Burma, then occupied by Japan, shrunk food grain reserves in Bengal, adjacent to Burma, which supplied bulk of the rice. A large quantity of “relief” grain meant for India was diverted by the erstwhile British colonialists to its garrisons in the Atlantic and to feed post-war Europe.    

 Like the Partition of India in 1947, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 the civil wars worldwide and great World Wars have influenced several generations of artists to represent personal and collective trauma on their canvas— (and an array of related visual mediums) — the famine of Bengal touched the then masters of modern Indian expressionism like Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy and the Socialist painters alike. Nandalal Bose, known for his lurical renderings of Indian mythology, painted “Lord Shiva as a beggar” to portray the horrors of the famine.     

 The art was distinctive in style – marked by a characteristic clarity of lines, expression and details that ferreted the out the emotional angst of the victims and survivors of the famine. The strokes were firm — and the studies of human figures were mostly anatomical to the minute structure of bones, skins and skeletal framework of the subjects. Village was the pre-occupation of artists like Somenath Hore, Zainul Abedin and Chittoprasad, who travelled around the Bengal countryside sketching the famine for Communist publications.

 A recent exhibition of famine art by “Somnath Hore: Exclusive Works From the Collection of Chandana Hore”  in the capital brought a collection of line drawings, ink sketches, etchings and lithographs that the artist created — as a direct response to the famine of 1943 and later in recollection of the deprivation and the horror that the famine left behind. The works reflected the wide economic disparities between the rich and the poor in the countryside, hungry human begins and ravaged bodies of both animal and man, laid to waste by suffering.  Scholars say Hore’s art “is directly inspired by the great hunger and Tebhaga peasants’ revolt that swept through Bengal and the chain of political events that rolled in its wake”.

 Hore was Socialist in his political ideology and spent the last decades of his life in Shantiniketan — where he taught — but mostly sculpted in the green countryside inhabited by people of ethnic origins, living on the economic margins.

 “Every art work is political in the sense that it offers a perspective — direct and indirect — on social relations,” says Robert Atkins. Hore identified with the social movements around him — to express them on canvas. In a way, his work becomes documentary, recording events that shaped Bengal politics for the future.

 “Not every artist creates art to capture the beauty around him, for the allure of fame and money or to cleanse his soul, but to process his need for catharsis. Perhaps, this was also one of the reasons that attracted Hore towards print-making as the act of making lithographs — is a brutal medium which metaphorically corresponds to his experience of attrition of existence,” says Chandana Hore, artist Somnath Hore’s daughter.            

 The exhibition tried to present Hore’s process of artistic growth in phases — while his early work was correct in academic details drawn with meticulousness, his later works became more complex and nuanced because of his engagement with Picasso when he was experimenting with Cubism— in a strange contrast primitive and childlike.  He does away with the intricate details of the figure and concentrates on the body in fluid shapes. His figures and landscapes are characterized by a melancholia — a residue of the memories of hunger, humiliations of man, conflicts and sufferings.

 Famine and politics were interlinked in Bengal and in the rest of the country as well. In 1943-1944, Hore met Chittoprasad Bhattacharya on his famine coverage trail. Chittoprasad was recording famine on his sketchpad and notebook in Midnapore while Hore was in Chittagong in undivided Bangladesh. Chittoprasad unlike Hore — was more journalistic in his pictorial documentation of the famine.  

 A solo exhibition of famine painter Chittoprasad’s art in the national capital of India in 2011 presented an overview of the artist’s complete oeuvre of work — drawings and etchings of the Bengal and scrapbook illustrations for children.  The Delhi Art Gallery that hosted the show released a set of fuve books on Chittoprasad’s art researched by Sanjoy Kumar Mallik. The publications included a reproduction of the surviving copy of the “Hungry Bengal”— an illustrated and textual account of the famine, which was blacklisted by the British imperialists. Nearly 5,000 copies of the famine picture book priced at Rs 3 were burnt.             

 The book, made of 22 drawings in black and white, with accounts of the famine in Midnapore remains an irrevocable chronicle of the hunger and the widespread deaths in Midnapore. Records say in 1943, Chittoprasad set out on a walking tour of Midnapore, carrying in his string bag “flattened rice, jaggery, paper, ink and pen”. He sketched almost everything he saw— and despatched in a first-person interactive style of reportage that was new to Bengali publications of the era. His drawings were stark, detailed and minimal — recording life as it flowed without food in the kitchens and on roads. The figures were bare — a medley of lines, skins and skeletal cages that subsisted on rare supplies of rice on their platter.

 “In my art work, I represent the tradition of moralists and political reformers. To save people means to save art itself. The activity of an artist means the active denial of death,” Chittoprasad said about his “artistic mission during the famine”. The most striking feature about Chittoprasad’s studies of human figures during the famine “was the pain in the human eyes that gave faces a haunted look”. “Chittoprasad may be known for his work on famine, but the extensiveness of his work is surprising. He was always willing to experiment and remained oblivious to the demands of the market,” Ashish Anand of the Delhi Art Gallery says.   

 Both Chittoprasad and Somnath Hore owe their zeal to chronicle the Bengal famine to a pioneering modernist Zainul Abedin.  The young artist, who was one of the founders of the Bangladesh  Shilpakala Academy (in present-day Bangladesh) , took to the streets of Kolkata soon after graduating from Government Art College – and documented the distressed on city streets in dry brushstrokes on light coloured paper. Eighteen of his dry sketches remain with his family and the rest across the Pakistan, Kolkata and Bangladesh. Abedin used a combination of illustration technique and sketching to capture the human figures – it later extended into a linocut and dry point composition.

 Critics say “his art is now rarely seen”. A publication “Darkening Days” on the famine in 1944 carried 11 of his sketches.  A book, “A Matter of Conscience— Artists Bear Witness to the Great Bengal Famine of 1943”, says “a publication, “Bengal Painters’ Testimony” published on the occasion of the Eight Annual All India Students’ Federation Conference in 1944 reproduced 30 works around the theme of famine – some by artists like Asitkumar Haldar, J.P Gangopadhyay, Indra Dugar and Adinath Mukhopadhyay. Artist Muralidhar Tali interpreted the famine in the city of Kolkata as “muscled men losing their sinews and surrounded by swarms of hungry women and children”.

 Author Nikhil Sarkar of “A Matter of Conscience…” says “Bengal does not have a permanent gallery for its art, nor does it have a proper archive of manuscripts and printed material. If there had been any of these, there might have been evidence to prove that just as the famine gripped Bengal, so had almost every single conscientious Bengali artist been stirred by the famine of 1943.”            


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