In 1943 or 1944, India’s British rulers burned Hungry Bengal, a book on the Bengal famine that contained drawings and writings by a Communist Party follower who became one of India’s most important but under-celebrated artists.
After nearly 70 years, that book by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (right) has been reproduced by the Delhi Art Gallery, which is currently showing the first retrospective of an artist who, collectors say, deserves enormously more recognition than he has received since he died in 1978, aged 63.
Chittaprosad, as he is generally known, is significant not only for the events he chronicled in drawings and words, but because he broke away from the British-influenced sentimentality of the traditional Bengal School of artists. He also did not fall in with the mostly international-oriented Bombay-based Progressives such as M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza and Tyeb Mehta, who now dominate the international Indian modern art market with prices exceeding £2m.
Instead, as an illustrator and reporter in his late 20s and early 30s, he brought social consciousness and campaigning themes to his art, covering in particular the horrors, poverty and cruelty of the final years of British rule (picture at the end, below) with harrowing drawings, plus articles, for two Communist party magazines, People’s War and People’s Age,.
While Souza fought the internal devils, as he saw them, of his Roman Catholic upbringing in Goa, and Mehta portrayed the poor in large stylized paintings, Chittaprosad plumbed the depths of despair and anti-British feeling with graphic drawings. He had no adulatory art market to greet his new works, nor the sort of dealers who now escalate prices of new young artists.
“Here is a man fired by passion to record the pain and turmoil that surrounded him,” says Kito de Boer, a McKinsey director who, with his wife Jane, is a leading international collector of modern Indian art.
In the preface to a book that accompanies the current exhibition, de Boer brackets Chittaprosad with “sensitive and thoughtful” artists such as Ganesh Pyne, Prokash Karmakar and Somnath Hore, and writes: “His ability to combine sensitivity for the suffering, and raw anger at the elite, set him apart as a distinctive talent…..His fury and empathy flows on the surface for all to see but runs deep with the power to slice into the viewer’s consciousness”.
The exhibition, which runs till August 20 and then goes to Kolkata, contains about 150 works, mostly fine drawings with some lino-cuts (I have bought an iconic Quit India – above). The works have been assembled over several years by Ashish Anand, who runs the gallery. He has bought two collections, one of them from Chittaprosad family and the other from a Czech collector.
He also persuaded the artist’s niece to part with what is believed to be the only copy of Hungry Bengal, which has now been reproduced and is available for sale along with five other books by art historian Dr Sanjoy Kumar Mallik.
Hungry Bengalis an illustrated report of a tour in 1943 of the Midnapur district of Bengal during the appalling famine which claimed some 3m lives and is now seen as one of the most inhumane disasters of British rule. Travelling by bus, boat and on foot, Chittaprosad reported and drew pictures of hunger, illness, forced prostitution, abandoned villages, and uncaring corrupt officials.
His caption on one picture (above) talked about women whose poverty gave them no option but to turn to prostitution. On another (right) he wrote: “The dacoits carried away the half-boiled rice, the last two pieces of brassware that the unfortunate victims still had, and even the dirty rags they had on them. The woman had nothing to cover herself with for two days”.
The exhibition ranges across his work that includes – in addition to the famine and protests against colonialism – economic exploitation, urban poverty, and the 1971-72 Bangladesh war. There are also drawings and scraperboard illustrations he made for children.
“His images take you on an accelerated journey into the epicentre of the revolt that started with the Mutiny and would have exploded into revolution had the colonialists not withdrawn,” writes de Boer. With the eye of a management consultant (who lived in India in the 1990s and is now in Dubai) he adds: “As a colonial administrator I would have looked at these images with fear – sensing that the game was over.”