Basharat Bashir

Witnessing Disaster Through Art

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Bengal Famine is one among many catastrophic events that exposed human inadequacy and swiped millions of people from the face of earth. A manmade disaster the Bengal famine of 1943 claimed more than four million lives and the echoes of the disaster continued for decades. The visuals from the Bengal Famine questioned the human sensitivity that how miserable political affairs can be and how common people can be left to suffer for the benefit of few in power. In such situation when government deliberately fails to help and save its people they try to cover up the ground reality. The government would certainly try to keep in check all the data that would impact their image. In such situations there are always some people who take a stand and rise up against all odds and become the voice of the exploited. Somnath Hore, Gobardhan Ash, Zainul Abedin and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya are among those people who stood up and documented the most horrific human condition. Their drawings of human suffering acted as ground reports of misery imposed on common people and an eye opener for generations  to come and artists to follow.

Zainul Abedin visited Calcutta in 1943 to be a witness by capturing the immense suffering of people during Bengal Famine. He was moved by the miserable situation of the starving people who were left to perish. Through his sketches he depicted this inhumane story to question the apathy of Government towards it suffering citizens. For his sketches he made his own ink by burning charcoal and used it on cheap, ordinary packing paper. He depicted those starving people who were dying by the road-side, recording most tragic scenes with absolute sincerity   and filled with emotions. His drawings became iconic images of human suffering.

Zainul Abedin also visited Palestinian camps in Syria and Jordan in 1970 and made 60–70 paintings of the refugees there. He also painted the 1970 Bhola cyclone that devastated East.

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. During the Bengal Famine which was overlooked by the Indian press as well as the western world which was busy documenting World War II, the Communist Party of India sent Chittaprosad along with a photographer to visit the famine-struck districts of Bengal.  Chittaprosad came up with sketches which were illustrations of most horrific human suffering, skeletal bodies of starving people, and potbellied children with sad faces and spindly limbs.

Chittaprosad used to make notes behind his sketches noting people’s names, their backgrounds, and details of the ration cards that were issued to them by the government. And these sketches resulted in his first publication, ‘Hungry Bengal’. For a famine that finds no mention in history books and is largely denied by the British, these sketches acted as vital documentation of human suffering. It was a sharply provocative attack on the political and social powers of the time which tried to cover its failure, and the Indian authorities suppressed it nearly immediately, impounding and destroying large numbers.

Somnath Hore is yet another name in the category of artists and activists who stood firm and challenged the power abuse.  He learnt sketching from the great artist Chittaprasad.  In 1943 he did visual documentation and reporting of the Bengal famine for the Communist Party magazine Jannayuddha (People’s War). The misery he saw during the famine, haunted all the work he did for the rest of his life. The visual depiction of starving people with protruding ribs and malnutrition potbelly children dominated his work.

The 1943 Bengal Famine left a deep mark on contemporary Art, Literature and Theatre particularly in Bengal. Gobardhan Ash along with his contemporaries like Zainul Abedin, Chitta Prasad, Somnath Hore were highly distressed by the manmade disaster that ravaged Bengal .  Ash painted a series of famine scenes depicting endless human misery. The paintings depict the ravages of the 1943 catastrophe as people were left to die of hunger. Unlike his contemporaries Ash used color to pant his Famine paintings.

The disatrous and horrifying event of Famine influenced Ash to look deep into the human life in Bengal villages and formed the basic theme and motivation for his lifelong paintings.

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