Art

The Artist Who Sketched a Famine in India

Chittaprosad, an artist known for his sketches and prints and who documented a famine in the book Hungry Bengal, began his artistic tenure as an illustrator and sketch artist for the Communist Party of India in the early 1940s.

Chittaprosad, “Untitled” (1947) pen and ink and graphite on paper, 12.0 x 15.2 in. / 30.5 x 38.6 cm (all images courtesy of DAG)

Following the proclamation of God’s death, Nietzche introduces the concept of the Übermensch, the Overman, who is a worldly ideal of humanity. Thus, the German philosopher departs from the Christian idea of perfection lying in the afterlife, and places perfection in the very anthropocentric idea of the Übermensch, where the philosophical emphasis is on the body of man, while acknowledging that the soul is only a part of it. It is the Übermensch-like, larger than life depiction of the common man that keeps making an appearance in the political posters and sketches of the artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (who later dropped his high-caste surname). Chittaprosad, an artist known for his sketches and prints, was born in 1915 in eastern India and was commissioned by the Communist Party of India in the early 1940s as an illustrator and sketch artist for its publications and posters.

In his pen, ink, and graphite on paper sketch titled “Crossroads” (1947) a larger than life figure of the common man — a farmer or a laborer perhaps — wearing a dhoti, is seen breaking chains as he holds a hammer in his right hand and a torch in his left. He towers over four, tiny caricatured men begging for his mercy. The men are labelled “Imperialist,” “War Monger” (who looks like Uncle Sam, complete with a hat patterned with dollar signs), “Landlord,” “Capitalist” and “Congress.” The sketch, a part of Chittaprosad’s series on the Telengana peasants’ armed struggle in Hyderabad, was drawn in 1946. He obviously borrows from the Soviet Social Realism convention of the gigantic common man, but also adds an Indian context and aesthetic.

Chittaprosad, “Untitled” (1952) brush and ink on paper, 11.7 x 11.7 in. / 29.7 x 29.7 cm

The purpose of his work is essentially to protest the atrocities of British rule in India and oppose the sycophancy and greed of Indian merchants and politicians. Sometimes he does this through satirical lampooning, at other times through woodcut prints, and most importantly, through journalistic and documentary sketches.

In 1943, Bengal suffered one of the worst human-derived famines in the world, which killed almost three million people — as a direct result of British World War II policies that robbed Bengal of all its food grains, using them to feed British military and citizens. While the Western press was obsessed with news of World War II, and with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi when it came to India, the Communist Party of India sent the artist-photographer duo of Chittaprosad and Sunil Janah to tour the famine-struck districts of Midnapore and Bikrampur and document the horrific human suffering. What came out of the tour was a series of heartbreaking pen and ink sketches of impoverished households, skeletal bodies of people starving, and potbellied children with sad faces and spindly limbs.

Chittaprosad, “Children of Upendra Rishi Das, Rancha, Bikrampur,” (1944) brush and ink on paper, 15 x 11 in. / 38.1 x 27.9 cm

Sticking to his documentarian ethics, Chittaprosad makes copious notes behind the sketches — noting people’s names, their backgrounds, and details of the ration cards that were issued to them by the government. For a famine that finds no mention in history books and is largely denied by the British, no documentation exists beyond these sketches, photographs, and some stray news articles. Sketched on inexpensive paper, marked with innumerable notes and instructions for the copy editors of newspapers, Chittaprosad’s sketches have only been considered to be historical art in retrospect. While no solo exhibition of this work was held while the artist was alive, particular pieces by him have travelled to art exhibitions worldwide. The ongoing retrospective at the DAG in New York City is Chittaprosad’s first retrospective outside of India.

While Janah went on to collaborate with Life Magazine’s Margaret Bourke-White to photograph the famine, Chittaprosad collected the sketches and published them in a book called Hungry Bengal. Five thousand copies of the book were made, and all but one of them were seized and destroyed by the British government. The only surviving copy, acquired from the artist’s family, is on display at the retrospective.

Becoming disillusioned with the Communist Party’s workings, Chittaprosad eventually distanced himself from organized politics, but continued to produce Socialist Realism art for children. These pieces, in stark contrast to his older work, portray bounteous harvest fields, prosperous cities, and playful children. Even within this art, Chittaprosad’s artistic tropes of common laborers, farmers and workers recur, thereby begging the question whether an artist ever stops being political just by moving away from organized party politics. Even his prints that celebrate lovers, happy families, and rural countrysides are ultimately triumphs of the human body and labor, and a testament to the utopia they can achieve.

Chittaprosad, “Untitled” (undated) woodcut on newsprint paper

In terms of artistic lineages, one could place Chittaprosad’s art with the deeply political art of artists like Käthe Kollwitz, who through series like The Weavers’ Revolt (1893–97) and The Peasant War (1902–08) represented the horrors of war, poverty, and starvation among the German working class. One could, in fact, find similarities in the ways the artists depict the devastated common man. There is a strange resonance of Kollowitz’s “The Survivors” (1923) with Chittaprosad’s sketches, especially from the famine: both artists often use lithograph on paper to portray the figure of a mother and her hungry children to highlight the most inhuman aspects of social inequity. If one takes class oppression to be universal, that is, able to defy borders and language barriers, one also finds echoes of the same Socialist Realism in the works of the woodcut artist, Antonio Frasconi whose “Offshore Oil” (1953) could well be a continuation, across modernities and histories, of Chittaprosad’s “Untitled” ink on scraper board sketch (1946) of a countryside undergoing industrialization.

Chittaprosad, “Untitled” (1946) ink on scraper board

Seeing this exhibition one can start to recognize a lineage within art history’s rich treasury of political art of artists continually disrupting the upper, creamy layers of the society by constantly subjecting their unconscious brutalities to a public scrutiny. This lineage extends back to the earliest political cartoons from the German Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and continues into our times in the work of Edi Hila and Banksy — while including voices like Chittaprosad’s which are only now beginning to be heard. Within this world of post-truths and post-documentary evidence, our only hope of creating accurate documents of history perhaps remains in going back to the documents and neglected sketches that our one-dimensional histories have often dismissed as propaganda. Our redemption lies in recognizing and resurrecting these works of art for their true worth: timely responses to the consequences of our shared politics and our shared humanity.

Chittaprosad: A Retrospective runs at the DAG, Fuller Building, Suite 708, 41 E 57th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) till June 15.

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