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CHITTAPROSAD: UNVEILING SUPPRESSION OF SOCIAL TRUTH

Chittaprosad's art was motivated by the suppressed masses – their struggle in the face of cruel British imperialism found active voice in the evocative paintings and drawings of this master of aesthetics.

Picture this in 1943: The British Raj's man-made disaster called the Bengal Famine had caused the loss of more than three million lives. An artist called Chittaprosad Bhattacharya uses the social truth of the Famine to painstakingly depict human suffering and deprivation in the face of capitalist policies, he travels to Midnapore and Bikrampur on foot to sketch the human cost of the crisis which the British Raj wanted to suppress.

May 2018: Delhi Art Gallery, New York unveils a historic retrospective of Chittaprosad that affirms the power and pathos of the times this brilliant artist lived in and also puts the spotlight on the eternal eloquence of woodcuts, intaglios and lithographs in the oldest dictum of the drawn line being the most graphic element in art practice.

"Powerful and emotive, his art of caricature emerged as a statement in favour of the oppressed masses and as a denunciation of the ruling class. As a self-conscious, reflective testimony, the drawings and caricatures of this period were a forceful outcry against the tyranny of domination and an indictment of prevailing conditions. Underlying the biting humour was a compassionate humanism and his images were essentially an appeal on behalf of the labouring poor and the marginalised."

Contemporary woodcuts

Among printmakers of intaglios and woodcuts, this historic unveiling affirms the truth that Chittaprosad will be remembered for his documentation of the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943, whose horrors he captured in innumerable paintings and drawings with the poignancy and verity of photographic images.

Portraits of pathos

Look at any of the pathos-filled portraits, they drive home the horror of the devastation that caused the death of thousands of people in villages and on the sidewalks of the city. These images are like a visual novel; they illustrate how these hapless people lived without food or nourishment and how they were reduced to living skeletons. Whether he draws – a woman – lying on the ground, while others, including children, surround her as she dies a slow death or even a man and a woman, it is the angst-ridden depths of despair.

But it is his drawings of the crowds that entice and pull at your heartstrings, they reflect the mood of gloom and doom and how even unknown beings became comrades in tragedy.

Contours and proportion of perspectives demonstrate what a powerful draughtsman Chittaprosad was. To recreate the people in the bond of intense grief and hopelessness seemed to be an act of passion and deep love for the oppressed. He was a prolific artist and his singular gouache of a woman suckling her baby while a couple sells vegetables proves that he excelled in the realist style and understood the fine elements of surrealism in a composition.

Observer of the ordinary

Chittaprosad was a sensitive observer of everything around him and he could effortlessly sketch whatever he saw. He did several sketches of women in their huts, either suckling their babies or working. And, he delineated in great details the banana leaves or palms surrounding it, sometimes with a bird or even a small horse.

When he captured portraits of simple farmers or fisherman, his works were a statement of labour, in keeping with the sacred traditions of Socialist realism. There are also Chittaprosad's well-muscled workers exemplifying triumphant heroes. Always, we see that the power of his lines are the telling testimony of his grasp and grip on his art. His searing black and white sketches document the inhumanity and the sheer suffering of multitudes.

Revolution and rebellion

As you look at his compositions you can see a brilliance of palette, of how deeply involved he was in the thematic fragments of revolution and rebellion and how he balanced an aesthetic of realism. The thickness of his lines is what attracts as well as enhances the graphic quality which he balanced through colour-blocking and three-dimensionality. Scholars note that it was his captivation for Javanese puppet theatre that added a tribal dimension to his figures whose movements are simple, yet dramatic in an unforgettable way.

History documents him as an active member of the Communist Party of India from the mid-1930s through the post-Independence era – he remained close to an anti-Imperialist, humanitarian agenda until his death. Chittaprosad's left-leaning political views were crystallised during his student years in the 1930s. He was a critic of feudal and colonial oppression and voiced his ideas through articles, cartoons and illustrations, many of which were impounded by the British authorities.

Chittaprosad's experience of the horrific Bengal Famine of 1943 left him with a deep-seated distrust towards the political and ruling classes. The first-hand visual exploitation of the famine-struck masses sprang a protective instinct in him and he became an ambassador of compassion, committed to the cause of awakening public consciousness against the deceit and chicanery of the elite and powerful class.

India's greatest pioneer in the printmaker's world died in poverty and penury. Chittoprasad's own words written to a friend in June 1953, are an apt epitaph: "No one knows it better than me that I am not a genius like Van Gogh. And precisely because I am not, my heart and life lie in the country's revolutionary struggles. I am dying because nobody seems to have any need of me."

Chittaprosad Notes

So I did not see smiling paddy-fields, but barren earth, scorched in the sun, cracking up – dotted with tufts of grass and weeds. Some better-off peasants had planted jute here and there – but the monsoon came late this year, so the jute got scorched in the sun. They told me, too, how the late rains finished off the rabi crops of potatoes, onions and the like, grown for the Calcutta market. Mango trees are tall and ancient: the floods could not uproot them. That is why, 25% of the Balagor families are living on mangoes and mango stones only. A mango is eatable, but by itself, it is not human food. That is why, wherever I went, I saw cholera, malaria, smallpox and skin-diseases playing havoc. In Rajapur village, for instance, only 6 out of 52 families are left and they too are suffering from malaria and food and cloth shortage.

Extract From Chittaprosad: DAG Publications

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