Nature, spiritual communion, and bucolic pastoral landscapes dominate the paintings from Bengal over the late 19th century, grouped together under the Bengal School of Art. With Abandindranath Tagore, Sunyani Devi, Nanda Lal Bose and the like being the pioneers of this style, the art from this period concentrates upon the spiritual ideas of the East, in opposition to the materialism of the West. The paintings produced are myriad, but what ties them together is their umbrella genre, subjects and style. While nature and deities are common subjects, most of these also depict scenes from daily life, with women in their personal intimate spaces, men in communion with nature, and idyllic landscapes. Stylistically, these paintings boast a softness of colour, texture and mood; they appear soothing to the eyes owing to the use of clement shades, complete strokes and a warm colour palette. Frequented mostly with soothing hues of yellows and reds, they appeal to the viewer with an aesthetic magnetism (Below).
However, over the early decades of the 20th century, there appears a sudden paradigm shift in both the creation and the perception of Bengal’s rich artistic oeuvre. Leaving behind the illusoriness of imagination and luxury of elysian landscapes, the 1920s, 30s and 40s saw Art becoming more socio-political in nature. Gone was the portrayal of stable, intimate household scenarios, or depiction of men and women corroborating gendered roles and the vision of a utopic agrarian society; Art now portrays Bengal in brutal spectre. The Art that Bengal has produced has always been in opposition to the ideals of the West; while the Bengal School preach anti-colonial attitudes by embracing a patriotic fervour, with the turn of 1920, the art from Bengal tries to expose the social, economic and political exploitation of the natives under the colonial regime. In the face of this new artistic vision, the Bengal Famine of 1943 has stood as a significant watershed event.
The early 20s saw the inception of very-many wartime uncertainties, along with several other factors including the Japanese bombing along the eastern coast of Bengal, the bombing of Chittagong, the uncontrolled influx of Burmese refugees etc. The social scene in Bengal was one of chaos and instability. This cacophonous attitude formed the heart of the artist’s vision. With the onset of the famine in 1940, Art becomes harsher and more disturbing as it now champions the cause of the millions of the deprived and dying. Under the influence of the CPI, which tried to garner the cause for the common people, Art became a political weapon. The Bengal Famine soon became a recurrent theme of the paintings, the frustration of the people an oft-depicted subject: Art in Bengal left its inviting charm of allure that appealed to the Urban upper and Middle class; it now transitioned into a moment of realism, talking up the socio-political cause. The Famine, thus, marked an important culminating moment in Bengal's history of art as it saw a transition from romanticism to realism.
Anchoring on the tragedy of the famine and the fate of the victims, two very prominent artists from Bengal came to the forefront - Chittoprasad Bhattacharya and Zainul Abedin. These artists, in their own stylistic and thematic emphasis, thrust upon the plight of Bengal during the Famine months.
In 1945, there arrived a peculiar publication titled, Hungry Bengal, that caused immediate upheaval among the elite circles of Bengal. This was a collection of 22 sketches - black and white - paired with photographs and copious notes and observations, familiarising the famine in acute details, which so far had remained largely undocumented. The two artists behind this shaking, first-of-its-kind candid documentation of the event were the photographer, Sunil Janah and the artist, Chittoprasad Bhattacharya.
Born and raised in Chittagong, Chittoprasad was a self-taught Indian artist, whose earlier works concentrated mostly on traditional Indian artistic style and sculpting. The famine interpellated a certain strand in his art career, where his work served the larger political purpose of depicting Bengal in its truest sham, ridden with idealistic fervour. Working under the mentorship of P.C. Joshi, Chittoprasad was an active member of the Cultural Wing of the CPI, connected at the same time with IPTA. As an artist, he created pamphlets, on behalf of the people’s government, in resistance to the Industrial capitalism regime of the British Raj. In the November of 1943, Chittoprasad along with Sunil Janah happened to travel by foot across the Midnapur district - severely famine-stricken and trodden down - of West Bengal, as they soaked in the true disaster of the calamity before depicting the same in their work.
Done with black ink upon cheap paper, Chittoprasad’s sketches at this point depict the famine-inflicted indigenous people of Bengal - appearing as individuals in a frame, or in groups. Chittoprasad’s figures are minimalist, monochromatic, lacking accuracy of intricate details; what stands out, however, are their frail, anatomical specificity and near-skeletal bodies. Such baring portrayal of the victims was not only accurate but also a sheer cause of horror among the upper circles of the city, who were cut off completely from the truth of affairs. Despite Hungry Bengal being a journalistic endeavour, Chittoprasad’s sketches rise above mere fact-based verbatim and embrace a gut-wrenching psychological element. Though disturbing, the hosts of these sketches were nothing but the truth.
Hungry Bengal opens with these lines :
“In the crowded railway compartment on my way to Midnapur, the daily scenes on Calcutta’s pavements kept on coming back to my mind— the procession of famished, helpless living skeletons that once formed Bengal’s village society— fishermen, boatmen, potters, weavers, peasants, whole families of them; the five corpses that I counted one morning in the short stretch of road between Amherst Street and Sealdah station; and all the other gruesome sights which had become a part of everyday life in the city. “
In the illustration below, Chittoprasad ironically juxtaposes the figure of a rich, well-to-do individual, with neatly combed hair, fine attire, and domineering resources against the pot-bellied, bare-boned figures of the famine victims lurking in the background. Chittoprasad makes clever use of space to underscore the sense of deprivation, as well as social injustice rampant in the society at the time.
The Bengal Famine of 1943 earmarked Chittoprasad, thus, as a ‘Political Artist’ of sorts; his artworks couldn’t be conceived and cannot be perceived independently in a vacuum, but are inextricably linked with social consciousness and political awareness. With the famine, Chittoprasad’s art ventures upon a new avenue, whereby it becomes political weaponry in attacking the colonial exploitative forces in the country while standing in solidarity with the people belonging to the very grassroots. Of the political dimension in his art, Chittoprasad remarks: “I was forced by circumstances to turn my brush into as sharp a weapon as I could make it.”
Yet another artist from East Bengal who championed the cause of the famine-stricken rural nativities was Zainul Abedin. The sudden shift in the Bengal Artist's consciousness is the most apparent in the works of Abedin. While his earlier paintings (below) embrace the romantic natural landscapes of his hometown and revel in the impressionist picturesque beauty of nature, his later work becomes more gruesome as it attains a socio-political flavour, motivated by the famine.
Abedin’s art style and thematic concentration are much in accordance with that of Chittoprasad’s. Minimalist brushstrokes of black ink dominate his sketches; his subjects are very often the thin, depleted, undernourished figures of the famine victims; the desperation, helplessness and social abandonment of these people jump right out of his work. The colonial city of Calcutta also finds an extensive depiction, portraying how the ravages of the famine were not late in advancing into the urban landscapes as well.
With the wrath of Famine losing bounds, communities of hunger-stricken individuals made their way into the cities in search of food. As the city became flocked with these groups of people, Abedin located in that chaos the subjects of his work. Various sketches of Abedin portray the sidewalks of Calcutta, the city centres frequented by these famished individuals, depleted, exhausted, and on the brink of their death, as they scour for food for themselves and their children.
A unique characteristic of Abedin's work includes the dominating Negative Space. His figures are resonantly brought intro focus wth the flattening of background details. The abundance of empty white spaces looming around his human subjects further imposes an idea of loss into his composition.
The illustration below by Abedin makes brilliant use of Negative space to focus on the famished body of an individual while contrasting it against the full body of the crow. The sketch is complete with rapid, rough strokes.
The figures of Abedin and Chittoprasad are distinct and at the same time bear an unnerving sense of alikeness. While the depleted figures can be identified as human beings, men, women or children - their social standing, background, age or identity cannot be fathomed. What unites them together are their severe poverty-stricken, depleted conditions. The similarities in their appearances capture the viewer’s attention, inciting awe at the same time, as they witness people being reduced to their bare minimum, holding onto a single thread of dear life. Their likeness robs these individuals of the flesh and blood of their identities, and their utmost humanity, as they are also seen inhabiting the same spaces alongside the scavenging beasts of crows and dogs.
The works of both Abedin and Chittoprasad have become pivotal in upholding the tragic year of 1943 in the history of Bengal. At the same time, they are testimonies to the shifting consciousness among the artists and audience of Bengal Art. Moinak Biswas argues how the “starving five million people to death within months, provided a new urgency to realist response – in painting, short stories, song, dance…” These works were rarely titled, numbered or signed - they were made for the commonest of common people, refusing to be memorialised in the confines of luxurious art galleries that were accessible only to the elites.
These cheaply made prints of sketches found their publication in various small-scale political publications of the time; they happened to also infuriate the colonial regime in power at the time. For the longest time, these moving works were suppressed and banned and destroyed almost immediately after surfacing. However, over so many years, as they have claimed an independent space for themselves, they remain authenticate witnesses to a history that has otherwise been deliberately eliminated from the canon of the mainstream collective consciousness.