The Image and the Individual: Hunger and Pain in the Making of the “Conscientious” Bengali Artist
August 24, 2017
Bergman, in his evocative essay titled “Film making”, gives a cinematic account of his childhood in his grandmother’s apartment in Uppsala, where he would sit under the large dining-room table, “listening” to the sunshine that filtered in through the gigantic windows. On the wall hung a large picture of Venice, and “as the sunlight moved across the picture the water in the canal began to flow, the pigeons flew up from the square, people talked and gesticulated. Bells sounded, not those of the Uppsala Cathedral but from the picture itself.” Manifestly, Bergman’s lasting amour with moving images was gestated by such apparently static images which abound in the vicarage he was born and brought up in. Thus, an image becomes a living entity, breathing life into a child’s imagination, swerving across unmapped territories, and finally, stimulating him to indulge in the art of creation.
The 1950s in Calcutta, could be chronologically placed on a rutted path, after having suffered the major blows of the 1943 famine, and the Partition in 1947, which saw an unprecedented mayhem of communalism, accompanied by displacement and alienation. Rehabilitating the migrants from East Pakistan became an irksome affair for the city elite and intelligentsia, and was called the “refugee problem”. A new wave of migration from January 1964 to March 1971 accentuated the “problem”. The destitution of such subaltern groups, who were “othered” and culturally discriminated against on the basis of ethnocentric stereotypes, moved a generation of artists – painters, poets, novelists, photographers and filmmakers – to represent them in their works, encapsulate the currents of history.
Painter Jogen Chowdhury’s sketches of the homeless, which stem partly from an experience of the precariousness of an alienated city life, and partly from what art historian R. Siva Kumar has called Chowdhury’s ability to internalise the “other” through “an act of deep empathy, by offering himself as a home to be inhabited”, form a part of the visual repertoire of this social spasm.
Rowing back in time, one would find the spume of hunger and rebellion on the shores of the Bengal country, in the twilight of British Imperialism. Hunger, leading to starvation in the absence of the basic necessities of life, is transfixing and repelling, awe-inspiring and nauseating. The 1943 famine, as a backstage production of the centre-stage spectacle of the Raj, left 2.7 to 3 million rural actors dead. Chittoprasad, a twenty-eight year old artist, was sent by the Communist Party of India (CPI) to document the famine in the worst hit districts of Midnapore and Bikrampur, and his sketches were subsequently published in People’s War, a party publication. His travel report culminated in the form of a book called Hungry Bengal, all copies of which were destroyed by the Colonial government, in a blatant display of its repressive state apparatus – perhaps a legacy of banning and erasure by the sword that the present government and its predecessors have often drawn inspiration from.
Chittoprasad’s humanistic sketches of the famished subalterns, accompanied by notes, were reconstructed from a single copy that was preserved in a bank vault. “The procession of famished, helpless living skeletons that once formed Bengal’s rural society – fishermen, boatmen, potters, weavers, peasants,” that he had seen in Calcutta, kept roving in his memory while in Midnapore. “He has lost his land and his wife has left him. There is very little that he could call his own in the world”, are the words accompanying a drawing titled “Humanity Dehumanised”. It depicts a father and child, seated, with despair etched on their faces, their bones jutting out fiercely. There’s a sense of suspended spatiality, as if the loss of land and one’s family, and the memory of belonging are floating across the agonised faces. Besides the physical manifestations of malnutrition and homelessness, is the recurrent motif of psychological warfare. Geographer Doreen Massey theorised that “space” is not merely physical, it is a product of social relations, and is not static. Space, like time, is dynamic. Thus, the sense of inhabiting an altered space in times of violence could stem from the mere disappearance of familiar sights – the death of neighbours, empty fields, migration of people, a broken hearth. The coming-to-an-end of a way of life.
Chittoprasad was joined by Sunil Janah, who captured the famine-scape through his Rolleiflex camera. Janah’s unsettling captures, like a starved dog pecking at decaying human remains, and orphans waiting for food under a dramatic, cloud-laden sky were published in People’s War, often as illustrations with P.C. Joshi’s writings. Another painter worth mentioning is Zainul Abedin, whose dry brushstrokes on paper brought to life the wretchedness of a deprived existence. Chittoprasad’s oeuvre is revolutionary in essence, giving expression to the oppressed. In one of his cartoons dated 1 May, 1952, he evokes the public sphere of resistance and protest through a kinetic use of space and characters. From the left comes a ten armed military man, armed with the flag of a sovereign nation, ammunitions, a hand-cuff, and guns in his hands, his masculinity and rage sanctioned by his uniform, trampling on a Lilliputian mass. From the right comes the counter-force to this raging monster of power, a heterogeneous mass of protestors sternly displaying placards reading ‘STOP KILLING PEOPLE’, ‘STOP UNDEREMPLOYMENT, INCREASE WAGES’, ‘STOP REPRESSION’, etcetera. It features a bold woman clad in a black saree, and somewhat elevated in height, as the most formidable opponent of the grotesque man in the left. Chittoprasad’s later linocuts, especially the Ramayana series, hark back to the bucolic village life of pre-modern Bengal. Perhaps, by the time he produced these works, the thud of the revolutionary had been replaced by the rhythmic gait of the Bengal village-boy.
In the words of a younger artist, “the wounds of the 1940s famine, the uncertainty of war, the horrors of communal riots of 1946 were sinking themselves into the techniques of my drawing – the helpless around us, the neglected and the hungry.” This artist, Somnath Hore, started documenting in the political-iconographic tradition of Chittoprasad, for People’s War. In the winter of 1946, the CPI sent him to document the Tebhaga movement in North Bengal, a rattling peasants’ revolt led by the Kisan Sabha. Hore’s sketches from the Tebhaga diary chronicles the reawakening of the peasant consciousness, an assertive movement of the subjugated against the economic oppression by the landed gentry. In a wood engraving popularly called “the night meeting”, he depicts a group of seated villagers, both men and women, listening to a speaker, as if organising before agitating. The play of light and shade is remarkable in this work, in which a partly visible lantern illuminates the characters, while the rest remain veiled by the furtive darkness.
Besides his figurative works, is a series of abstract paper pulp prints discomfortingly titled “Wounds”. His minimalism of form gave a new aesthetic language to the history of violence, trauma and suffering that he encountered around him, and also to the memory of the many unheaved sighs, stifled cries and unarchived bruises that were etched on his unconscious. His paper-pulp prints express the feeling of hurt in abstraction, with a hurting intensity – the tactile sensation that these prints seductively threaten to elicit, that of an abrasion or a perforation, emanate from the corporeal surface of the medium. Hore’s moulding of the white paper into carnal forms, and the use of sharp, searing tools to leave scars or scrape a part, and stain it with a bleeding red was in itself a process of affliction, through which he experienced the “signified” in the making of the “signifier”. Writing of the abundance of wounds around him, he noted, “a scarred tree, a road gouged by a truck tyre, a man knifed for no visible reason, the object was eliminated. Only wounds remained.”
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