Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s retrospective titled, Art as Rebellion, organized by Delhi Art Gallery at the Birla Academy of Art & Culture is an overlay of ironies. The poor man was a member of the Communist Party of India in the early 1940s, when he famously roamed around the countryside of Bengal to document the famine in stark black-and-white drawings of the sufferings of people mostly belonging to the lower castes (their surnames, which he never failed to record faithfully, are dead giveaways) and what is politely referred to as the minority community. The difference between the artist’s refined features and the coarseness of those of his subjects itself suggests unbridgeable gaps of caste and class.
Even when he became disenchanted with the party in the late 1940s, he continued through his cartoons and caricatures to mount scathing attacks on his favourite targets - the political class, the United States of America as the fountainhead of corruption, and crooked businessmen and industrialists (he actually names them). He did not spare Jawaharlal Nehru either for going back on his pledge to crack down on hoarders and scalpers. Chittaprosad suffered great privations, particularly in the last years of his life, yet he resisted capitulating to market forces.
But it needed a commercial gallery to hold his first retrospective in such a big way, complete with the publication of five splendid volumes dedicated entirely to the artist’s life and work. And if viewers scan his cartoons carefully enough, they will discover that even the venue of this exhibition is at variance with his political standpoint.
One may not agree with his rather naïve leftist beliefs, yet one cannot help admiring Comrade Chittaprosad for never becoming a turncoat. Thus the strong political presence at the opening of this exhibition was another cruel irony of fate.
Chittaprosad went to Chittagong Government College and was a self-taught artist. This exhibition displays a good selection of both his famine drawings as well as his cartoons and caricatures, illustrations for children’s books and the unpublished manuscript of Ramayan for children with pictures in linocut. Death and disease are fearsome entities seldom associated with beauty. But Chittaprosad with his brush and pen-and-ink and sheets of paper revealed their awesome and horrific beauty.
In Confession, the short made by the Czech filmmaker, Pavel Hobl, in 1972 during the Bangladesh liberation war and being screened at the exhibition, he said: “In my artwork, I represent the tradition of moralists and political reformers. To save people means to save art itself.” In his artwork, however, he rose above the limits of utopian idealism. Chittaprosad’s forte was black-and-white, and he made full use of dramatic contrasts in these grim and realistic drawings. He did not aspire to reach any higher aesthetic plane beyond the unvarnished realities of the immediate situation, however repellent.
The children could be from Somalia - they have the same unnaturally large heads and stomachs, while their gaunt frames have turned into armatures. They are either isolated or with their equally wasted parents at home - actually hovels - orphanages, clinics or hospitals, and apart from their names, the locations are carefully recorded. In one telling scene, earthen pots lie scattered on the floor of an abandoned home. And as some shots from Confessions of the victims of the battle for Bangladesh prove, the people of this great subcontinent are still vulnerable years after Independence.
In keeping with the sacred traditions of Socialist realism, Chittaprosad’s well-muscled workers are triumphant heroes who break shackles and challenge all symbols of authority. Here, too, the power of his lines is quite evident. A prescient artist, he saw the troubles in Kashmir coming. A looming figure of a Kashmiri man lifts a large stone to hurl at the enthroned Raja sitting over the bodies of his slain subjects. His sense of humour comes out in his cartoons, clichéd though some of them may seem today.
The elegance of Chittaprosad’s vision comes through in his illustrations for children and the linocuts of the Ramayan series in which the figures are clearly inspired by folk art and the terracotta temples of Bengal. He had painted the titles of Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, but this was never acknowledged.
A forgotten hero, he had himself written his own epitaph in Hungry Bengal: “… bodies that yesterday fought for our freedom... today are being literally eaten by dogs and vultures. Is this the tribute a nation pays to its fighters?”
Published in The Telegraph, 2011