The Bengal Famine in art

I read the following piece with quite a bit of interest. I know a few things about contemporary Indian art (I spent a summer being a tour guide for “The Edge of Desire” – a fantastic exhibit of contemporary Indian art) but I hadn’t heard of Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. Doing a google search for his works doesn’t really come up with all that much, but I found a few things which give you sense of his technique. (I would have given the author of the piece credit, but he/she wasn’t named on the website):

New Delhi, July 7 (IANS) Artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya chronicled the great Bengal famine of 1943-1944 with sketches of abject human suffering that he experienced as an artist struggling to survive the hunger epidemic.

Largely unsung outside his home turf, the artist, born in 1915 at Naihati in West Bengal, translated almost all major political movements against oppression and urban poverty in Bengal in ink-on-paper drawings and lino-cuts etchings. Chittoprasad also created a large body of scrapboard illustrations for children.

Now, the first retrospective of the artist’s work in the capital July 9-Aug 11 will bring to audiences the intensity and diversity of his art that drew from the Bengali social life and everyday realities.

The exhibition will include drawings, paintings, linoleum cuts and other prints, the artist’s writings in original, his letters, published writings and drawings in communist party journals, manuscripts, posters, puppets and photographs.

This retrospective will be accompanied by the release of five books researched by art-historian Sanjoy Kumar Mallik, which will include a reproduction of the lone surviving copy of “Hungry Bengal”, a written and visual account of the famine by Chittoprasad published by the Mumbai-based People’s Publishing House.

The book, which was the culmination of an expedition by Chittoprasad, depicted the pangs of hunger across the early 20th century Bengal brought about by chronic crop failures and a series of oppressive measures by the British colonialists, who forced the diversion of grain to feed the allied forces during World War II.

All the copies of “The Hungry Bengal” were seized and burnt by the British when it was originally published by Chittoprasad in 1943, barring one.

An early contemporary pioneer from the Bengal School of Art, the artist was an active communist.

The first two books focus on his art and life while the third comprises his political sketches. The fourth is an anthology of the letters he wrote to friends and family that shed light on his career, art practice, his interest in literature and cinema, in people, politics and nature.

The fifth book in the series is a reproduction of “Hungry Bengal”.

“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 often said about his work.

The most striking feature about Chittoprasad’s studies of human figures in pain were the eyes.

Chittoprasad, also a story-teller and poet, illustrated “Indian Fables and Fairy Tales” and “With Puppets to Calcutta” by Czech writer Norbert Fryd.

The retrospective exhibition, presented by the Delhi Art Gallery, will move to Kolkata Aug 30.

“Though Chittoprasad is best known for his body of work on the famine, like me you will probably be surprised by the extensiveness of his oeuvre, his willingness to constantly experiment, and remain oblivious to the demands of the market. This exhibition, and set of books, is my humble homage to one of India’s greatest, but unsung artists,” said Ashish Anand, director of the Delhi Art Gallery.

This is “Fish Seller in Bombay”:

This one is clearly part of the Bengal Famine series, but I couldn’t find anything other than a small image:

This one (Untitled) is fantastic (Linocut on paper):

Someone will have to explain to me why the Jamini Roy-style eyes persist as a feature of figure drawings, but they’re still pretty.