Artists

In the study of art produced as a contemporaneous response to the Bengal Famine of 1943, scholars have noted the rise of social realism as the dominant form of depicting the ravages wrought on by a disaster governed into existence by the collusion of “war economy and crop failure, the colonial state and callous administration”. This is evident in the works of Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Zainul Abedin, Somnath Hore, Qamrul Hasan and others. [1] Chittaprosad travelled across the famine belt in Medinipur, while Abedin was part of the faculty at the Government Art School in Calcutta, a city witnessing a large influx from the villages. Both of them worked on quick, rough ink sketches on cheap paper to produce dispatches for the Communist Party of India’s weekly People’s War. This was an expedient format to create an indexical, ongoing record of suffering. In their sparse sharpness and angular detail, the sketches, from which grew other woodcuts, linocuts, watercolours and etchings, also lent to the visual reportage of the famine an affective idiom through which the abjection of hunger and the plight of emaciation and migration could be rendered in a testimonial lexicon. Political scholar Rajarshi Dasgupta argues that these sketches were “practical documents that accurately recorded the truth about the famine, without any frills. In other words, what they tried was precisely to subordinate art, as an elite practice, to a political labour of representation tested on the ground of objective reality, in the manner of someone reporting from a field of destruction in a clinical spirit.” [2] The shift signalled by the famine works tilted art towards a documentary and democratic modality, one in which printmaking and its association with the book as a form played a critical role-culminating with the publication of Hungry Bengal, a compendium of Chittaprosad’s sketches of the famine, and Hore’s travel journals through the Tebhaga Andolan.

Living a Dark Night, an exhibition curated by Paula Sengupta for Gallery Espace and Kala Chaupal Trust, enlists the tradition of reportage in art-making, exemplified during the Bengal Famine, as a wellspring to catalyse printmakers across India and overseas to respond to the long arc of the Covid-19 pandemic. While scholars such as Srirupa Prasad alert us to the distinct visual codes of epidemics and famines-the former a study in contagion and resultant transformations in social processes, the latter an embodied condition of emaciation-Sengupta and her curatorial team place the Covid-19 pandemic within a string of historical events that go back to the Bengal Famine and the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, a gesture of equivalence that is troubling. While there are resonances and unfortunate recurrences between these events-such as the migrant exodus, the failure of state response, the confluence of caste and class distinctions in determining access and outcomes-their unison under the loose term of “crisis” is suspect. Equally suspect is the possibility that an exhibition of printmaking solely within the infrastructure of a gallery can contribute to the legacy of politically engaged art, or what Oliver Marchart describes as “artivism”, which entails art “forging a passage towards politics”. Marchart clarifies this as: “Not toward the representation or mimicry of politics, but toward politics as a social practice with its own protocols that are not, and cannot be, entirely congruent with art as defined by the functionaries of the art field.” [3] When copies of Chittaprosad’s Hungry Bengal were seized and burned by the administration-a gesture that revealed fear within the state apparatus, and a vulnerability to the circulation of certain truths of the famine-a passage was forged for colonial power to contend with the alertness and skill of its subjects. [4]

In Living a Dark Night, personal impressions of crises-in-progress result in modes of storytelling that are closer to the diaristic, rooted in an expressionist narration, as artists depict aspects of the pandemic that struck them deeply. If one moves beyond the curatorial position, the exhibition presents a choral account of surviving through a quicksand reality-and its many segments can be read in the tradition of wordless novels, a different but crucial tradition of social critique. [5] Divided into seven segments, the works present simmering meditations of artists inhabiting an extended period of isolation, presented in the powerful language of printmaking. There is necessary merit in the effort to retain truths about the pandemic, many of which have been denied and forgotten in the churn of state propaganda. To that end the exhibition is meticulous and successful. Tara Sabarwal’s “Covid Ganga” and Bhanu Srivastava’s “Standing Together” confront the fragmented state of our polity headfirst. Sabarwal reminds us of the brutal mismanagement of public health in an image that gained the virality of digital media but also its obsolescence-the dumping of excess corpses in a sacred river. In Srivastava’s woodcut, the pillars bearing Ashokan edicts stand in ruins, a metaphor for the erosion of secularism in India’s public sphere. In the fleeting abundance and saturation of digital images, works in the medium of relief printing prod us to inhabit a different order of time-one where the recent past is not ancient history but an active force, constitutive of worlds in making. Though the works in the exhibition are annotated with descriptions by the artists, they galvanize meaning with the use of motifs and symbolic strategies, such as Avni Bansal’s “Even the dead went unseen”, a woodcut that repeats the silhouette of a corpse that has been covered. In the section titled Domestic Space, everyday objects are transformed with collective meanings: a sole of a paduk emblazoned with a cry for help in morse code in Santi Kasiviswanathan’s “S.O.S” laments the long journey treaded on foot by migrant labourers as cities imposed unplanned and sudden lockdowns; a woman at the clothesline is seen with a sanitizer dispenser strapped to her back, the tendrils of her hair are knotted with bags that depict a shuttered city in Shreyasi Saha’s “Unfolding My Dreams”; in Heena Pari’s “Pakkad”, a pair of kitchen tongs exert the gravitational pull of domestic chores, their repetitive, dull weight and oppressive invisibility falling upon female shoulders. The section Exodus focuses on the fates of migrant labourers, utilizing emblematic scenes of this horror-a child asleep on a suitcase carried by adults, bodies packed into a handful of functional trains, labourers sleeping on train tracks oblivious to impending tragedy.

In Nandini Bagla Chirimar’s “Within Four Walls”, Menka Jain’s “Quarantine” and Dushyant Patel’s “Home Quarantine”, urban ennui is tinged with the disorienting effects of confinement and the exhibition veers from realismtoterrainsmorepsychic-conjuring a gothic atmosphere. A work of striking imagery is “A Midsummer Nightmare” by Debraj Goswami, which depicts a woodpecker knocking cracks into the surface of an ironing press. In Neelam’s “Isolation”, a lone cat is the only pair of eyes in a sweeping landscape of foliage and boxed homes. In their annotations, the artists, many of whom are students, reference T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Edvard Munch’s “Scream”, George Orwell’s 1984, along with mythology. Through annotations the exhibition presents insights into cultural signposts that have assisted in making sense, at an individual scale, of our collective circumstances. These are drawn from works of speculative fiction, Romantic poetry, or folk traditions that gained salience in the days of disrupted living.

Living a Dark Night anthologizes the period of social isolation through works that are wide-ranging and affectively charged, bringing together a broad group of artists through months of egregious rules and fickle regulations. The curatorial note mentions the elasticity of time in this period by discussing the extension of deadlines, a note that illustrates how universal phenomena funnel into microscopic realities of exhibition-making. The show’s lasting contribution, however, is in reasserting the medium of printmaking firmly in the realm of socio-political documentation, a seed that can possibly grow into the enervated circuits of art-making that have marked periods of widespread disaster and unrest such as the Bengal Famine and partition.

Notes

[1] For scholarship on the Bengal Famine and visual culture, see Rajarshi Dasgupta, “The People in People’s Art and People’s War,” in People’s ‘Warrior’: Words and Worlds of P.C. Joshi, ed. Gargi Chakravartty (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2014), 443-456; Sanjoy Kumar Malik, Chittaprosad: A Retrospective 1915-1978 (New Delhi: Delhi Art Gallery, 2011); Sanjukta Sunderason, “Shadow-Lines: Zainul Abedin and the Afterlives of the Bengal Famine of 1943,” Third Text 31, nos. 2-3 (2017): 239-259.

[2] Dasgupta, “The People in People’s Art and People’s War,” 451-452.

[3] Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019), 14.

[4] Srirupa Prasad, Cultural Politics of Hygiene in India, 1890-1940: Contagions of Feeling (Springer, 2015), 39.

[5] Jennifer Camp, “Silent Struggles: The Graphic Radicalism of the Woodcut Novel,” Athanor 33 (2015): 91-97.

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