Installation view of “Chittaprosad: A Retrospective” at DAG, New York, 2018. Photograph Marzio Fulfaro. All images courtesy DAG, New Delhi / Mumbai / New York.

A Retrospective


India USA

As eyewitness accounts of devastating famines go, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s images of the Bengal Famine of 1943 are some of the most chilling. Chittaprosad, who was self-taught and never used his upper-caste surname, dedicated his artistic career from the 1930s until his death in 1978 to giving voice to the underdog—whether through assiduously documenting a colonial crisis that would lead to three million deaths, or assailing the feudal oppression of the Indian landed gentry.  

In the first large-scale US survey of his work at DAG New York, Chittaprosad’s activism is palpable. On entering the capacious gallery, a series of stark sketches of the famine’s victims, made with brush, pen and ink on paper for several Indian communist publications in circulation at the time, evidence what many historians now consider a man-made catastrophe, brought on by wartime colonial policies that prioritized stockpiling of grain for the British military and civil servants. 

CHITTAPROSAD, The Silent Muslim Boy, 1944, brush, pen and ink on paper, 29 × 19 cm.
CHITTAPROSAD, The Silent Muslim Boy, 1944, brush, pen and ink on paper, 29 × 19 cm.
CHITTAPROSAD, …Lu, Rajmal, Birbhum, 1944, brush, pen and ink on paper, 25.4 × 17.8 cm.
CHITTAPROSAD, …Lu, Rajmal, Birbhum, 1944, brush, pen and ink on paper, 25.4 × 17.8 cm.

Unlike the prevalent tempera paintings at the time from the Bengal School of Art, which was focused on revealing India’s distinct spiritual qualities, and was often inspired by ancient murals and medieval imagery, Chittaprosad, who was himself from West Bengal, devised a straightforward, provocative style. Produced during visits to villages, makeshift camps, hospitals and orphanages located in what is now West Bengal in India and neighboring Bangladesh, the artist’s spare black and white images are devoid of ornament or flourish, revealing a bleak landscape. Masterful sure-handed sketches such as …Lu, Rajmal, Birbhum and The Silent Muslim Boy (both 1944) depict skeletal figures sprawled on beds. Many works show listless men and women immobilized by starvation, sitting on the floor as if passively awaiting death. In works such as Radhacharan Mondol (1944), middle-aged men robbed of their vigor appear old and cadaverous, while naked, pot-bellied children suffering from severe malnutrition inhabit various untitled sketches, also from 1944. But the severity of the situation was magnified by the censorship of Chittaprosad’s compilation of his observations in his book Hungry Bengal, which was quickly seized by the British authorities; all but one copy of the book, showcased in the exhibition, were destroyed. 

CHITTAPROSAD, Untitled, 1946, brush and ink, oil pastel and water color on paper, 39.4 × 28.5 cm.
CHITTAPROSAD, Untitled, 1946, brush and ink, oil pastel and water color on paper, 39.4 × 28.5 cm.

The same unsparing forthrightness seen in Chittaprosad’s coverage of the Bengal Famine permeates his oeuvre as a political satirist during his membership in the Communist Party of India. Black and white untitled cartoons from 1946, displayed towards the back of the gallery, decry ruthless British exploitation, metaphorically portrayed as a beast slaying a helpless, overpowered man. In works from the 1950s, venal politicians and Western interest in trading with liberated India are targeted. Hands Off Asia (1950) depicts an enormous half-naked young man still in colonial shackles, kicking off US businessmen eager to deal with the new fledgling government. Chittaprosad’s commitment to empower the downtrodden is apparent in his oversized figurative representations of the working class. In sketches such as Crossroads (date unknown), a gargantuan farmer wearing a loincloth strides over cowering enemies of the people, such as the “imperialist,” “capitalist,” and “landlord.” Like Gulliver in a land filled with unscrupulous Lilliputians, the laborers appear to hold their leaders accountable for their self-serving actions. 

CHITTAPROSAD, Untitled, 1960, brush and ink on handmade paper, 33.5 × 25.4 cm.

Though much of Chittaprosad’s political art captures specific moments in India’s history, it retains a timeless appeal that is truly remarkable. His sketches of common people suffering due to the disastrous decisions of a privileged few are both a call for democratic equality and political accountability. One is reminded of the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, both of which were sparked by the need to empower and unite underrepresented groups that have been hit hardest by social and economic injustices. Chittaprosad’s untitled 1960 cartoon of a hand pulling off a mask from a politician’s face reflects unending efforts by citizens to expose leaders for their false promises and ideological deceptions. 

In his later years, Chittaprosad continued to depict bucolic life in his experimental woodcuts, prints and watercolor paintings. Mundane scenes of tranquil domestic life in untitled linocuts and paintings from 1956 supplant the strident tone of his political works. These works nonetheless reveal his lifelong mission, best summed up by Chittaprosad himself in Czech filmmaker Pavel Hobl’s short documentary about him, also shown at the exhibition: “To save people means to save art itself. The activity of an artist means the active denial of death.” 

Chittaprosad: A Retrospective is on view at DAG, New York, until June 15, 2018.

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