Children in Chittaprosad’s Artworks: Representations from Hunger Crisis to Child Appeal
In this essay, Srijita looks at the treatment of the figure of children by Chittaprosad, especially in his 1943 Bengal famine sketches and in his series of linocuts titled "Angels without Fairy Tales". It puts forth the questions of visual representation of the child in the face of hunger and children demanding their rights of living better in the optimistic imagination of the artist.
While doing research about famine, I came across Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s (popularly known as Chittaprosad, 1915-1978) visual reportage of the 1943 famine in his journal entry Hungry Bengal (note 1). In 2021, in a museum-exhibition (note 2) showcasing 18th-20th century art in Bengal, titled Ghare Baire: The World, The Home and Beyond, Chittaprosad’s work were displayed under the theme Visualising Bengal’s Man-made Famine. His artistic form and entries from visual reportage were intriguing abounding in social realist drawings and linocuts. Chittaprosad’s oeuvre was fraught with the imagery of the roaring 1940s that captured the agitated and unstable time under a fading colonial rule and a bubbling nationalism of a new nation. Delving into his artworks, I found one of his recurrent subjects is the diverse portrayal of mother and child in resonance with the historical period. Malnourished, pot-bellied children and skeletal figures holding on to each other reflect the torments of the famine that Chittaprosad documented. This essay looks at the treatment of the figure of children by Chittaprosad, especially in his 1943 Bengal famine sketches and in his series of linocuts titled Angels without Fairy Tales. It puts forth the questions of visual representation of the child in the face of hunger and children demanding their rights of living better in the optimistic imagination of the artist. In the introduction of his book Hungry Bengal: War, Famine, and the End of Empire (2015), Janam Mukherjee writes, “There will be no pictures of emaciated mothers with children in this book on famine. I will not be looking to elicit pity, or to evoke a sense of charity” (1). He states that pictures and descriptions “convey very little about the structures of inequality and injustice that define most famines” (1). Even with stringent censorship laws on media coverage during the famine, the pictures and write-ups were the live documentation that survived and contributed to securing the memory of the event and inciting the affective impulses of the disaster. The image of mother and child stirs up symbolic connotations mostly associated with care and affection also evoking pity. The vitality of the representation is the very reality of the man-made famine (note 3), that Janam Mukherjee went to look at with “much closer attention”. This essay is however an attempt to interpret the visual dimension of the famine, through Chittaprosad’s artwork, primarily those having children as the subject. The latter part is about securing children’s rights, perhaps watching the famine so closely led the artist to imagine a situation where everyone would be able to secure their rights. The emotionally charged and uncertain landscape of famine has a bleak reality of life, which is decaying under hunger, lack of food, and nutrition. The bond between the mother and the child begins in the womb where a new life grows as the mother imparts nourishment to the baby before the child learns to navigate the ways of the world. However, famine subverts the known ways of the world.
Food Politics During Famine
The censorship laws stated that writing or publishing about the famine and the role of the colonial government could be heavily penalised. Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, in his memoir Monsoon Morning, writes about his conflict with the colonial powers under whom he worked. He describes the silent and slow violence (note 4) of famine like:
The Bengal Famine in the 40s unleashed unimaginable horror to its victims disrupting the idea of home and hearth, relationships and most importantly food. Chittaprosad, under the direction of PC Joshi, the general secretary of the CPI, documented the famine in a series of sketches, written descriptions and linocuts beginning with the Midnapore district in 1943-44. Many of these works were published in communist journals like People’s War and People’s Age. His art was inherently political, exhibiting his allegiance to the “partisan aesthetics” (note 5) of the CPI, of which he was an active part before he dissociated in 1948.
In a photojournalistic style, Chittaprosad drew and captioned what he saw as an eyewitness to the trail of loss that the famine left as it ravaged village after village. His work was to extract testimony about the crisis from the suffering populace. Chittaprosad’s painting of mother and child, rather than evoking pity or a sense of charity, upholds a history of people fatally starving. The emaciated bodies with “bubbled belly”, which is a sign of malnutrition, and people dead on the streets without any dignity exposed the famine in tooth and claws. Ailing mother and child in a hospital bed, people with a begging bowl, and streets teeming with destitute were illustrated in his famine drawings. The image in fig.1 is captioned “On the Broadway of Dreamy Calcutta” (note 6) has been sketched in Charcoal, and is one among the many famine portraits by Chittaprosad. The picture shows a destitute woman holding a sickly child in her arms. Her gaping eyes and mouth reveal her inability to articulate any emotion. Her vivid bony chest is a contrast to the image of the woodcut print of mother and child captioned “Harvest” in fig.2, where the mother feeds the child her breast milk. The picture in fig.1 looks to be painted in dire urgency to document and lacks any background unlike Harvest, where paddy fields, animals and birds, and people at work appear symbolising a bountiful life. The empty background aptly highlights the lack infused due to famine and realistically portrays the artist’s subject, victims of the hunger crisis. The hanging limbs of the child also show physical debility due to lack of nutrition. The mother in the painting who is figuratively associated to be providing for the child defies stereotypes of being trapped in the loop of lack and hunger due to famine and is unable to nourish the child to recuperation.
Food intake during the famine was marked by scourging for geri googli or snails and shaak or leafy wild greens. Survival and sustenance thinned the line of what's edible and not, in the absence of a staple, in the case of Bengal it was “rice”. Rice was an elusive commodity either rationed or mostly black-marketed. There was also the constant blurring of the boundary between the human and non-humans, as emaciated carcasses left undisposed on the road and death undignified yet was the only solution to the unmitigated hunger. The human bodies piled up and scavenged by animals and birds on the streets of Calcutta and the surrounding districts exposed the visual horror of the man-made disaster. The Bengal famine took three million lives. The threat of a Japanese invasion in Calcutta, incoming war troops, and hoarding food to feed the military were the concerns of the colonial government. Various denial policies like the Boat Denial and Rice Denial were employed along with rising black marketing, while the growing hunger problems went unreported under the threat of censorship
Wandering Urchins: In Search of Food
The British generally perceived their colonial subjects as childlike, who needed to be guided and directed on how to behave. The colonial politics coloured their subjects as vile and dumb, lacking intellect and always driven by bodily urges. This discrimination was substituted with other politics in the relief camps. Tehila Sasson and James Vernon observed that the colonial relief strategies were gendered and class dependent (861-862). Men were under the obligation to work and provide for women and children, who were not permitted to work. In exchange for this labour the underprivileged received food. Relief Commissioner O.M. Martin states that there was a certain “mental demoralisation… that made [the] problem very difficult” and the situation may have been worst of all with children
Fig. 3 is one among the seven pictures published under the heading “The Story” in People’s War. This picture was accompanied by the following description, “A group of children orphaned by famine, picked up from the street and brought to the orphanage. All skin and bones, the horror of what they have suffered writ large on their young faces”. Fig 4 is a book illustration for “Amar Bangla” or “My Bengal” where a weak and skeletal child is seeking help as understood from the caption “Extend your helping hand”. His parted mouth and his hand-drawn closer to it hint that he is begging for food. His large yet drooping eyes reflect his infirmity and distress which is again visible at his worried brows. The diagrammatic tent in the background hints that the child is located at a famine relief camp. The contrast in the images is a direct juxtaposition of the image of sonar Bangla (bountiful Bengal) to the image of khsudhartho Bangla (hungry Bengal).
Chittaprosad’s Child Appeal: Children March for Their Rights
After the famine was over Chittaprosad’s work caught the sensibilities of a new nation and its new agendas. He loved to imagine a world where children were secure with their rights and demands for a better life fulfilled. In the imagination of a world of justice for the child figure, Chittaprosad endowed the child figure with the agency to voice and ask for their due rights. In 1951 he started working on the linocut series representing marginalised children at work. Children working as day labourers, working in beedi factories, shoe-polishing, and sleeping on the streets were illustrated in his children's series named Angels without Fairytales. The series was initially named “Indian Child in Search of Human Society”. Its estimated number is 22 linocuts, 17 of which were published in the German Journal Tage Buch. The work was “Dedicated to the International Conference in Defence of Children”. Chittaprosad’s work often had labour as its central theme. Sanjukta Sunderason writes about his dedication to visual reportage and his effort at grassroot mobilisation. Apart from reading the compositional and social modalities (Rose 25) of Chittaprosad’s art as an ideologue or as rebellion, there’s a playfulness when it comes to representing children’s issues which have ample elements of social realism. This collection of linocuts was first published by the Danish UNICEF Committee in 1969.
Fig.5 titled “My monkey, my friend” shows how children engage themselves in performative plays to earn money. Angels Without Fairy Tales also marked his shift from linocuts to linoleum as a medium for making art (Das 365). Chittaprosad through his art enabled the perception of children as individuals constantly “inhabiting and negotiating” (Sanchez-Eppler xv). Chittaprosad presented children with posters with their appeals written on them, as advocates of child rights. Beyond the painting, he has given them the voice to sloganeer their demands. In his linocut (Fig.6) on Biswa Shanti or World Peace he represents how food, home, basic safety and security are foremost required for the children, the citizens of the future. Similarly in the picture named “Child Appeal”(fig.7), he capitalises on the basic needs like “FOOD”, “HOME”, “SCHOOL”, “PEACE”, and “MILK” for the children’s well-being (155). Children and mothers rally with their demands for home, food and school, and milk and peace. They are seen to be driven by the authority’s intervention by a military person mounted on a horse and another lathi charging to disperse the mob. He grants them the agency to ask for their needs from the authorities. In his Angels Without Fairytales series, Chittaprosad takes a departure from the generalised ideas and paints an alternative picture of childhood. He painted their social reality, an unpopular representation of childhood where the children are represented in their daily labour. This reverberates with Ian Hacking’s characterization of children as individuals with full agency, belonging under the umbrella called “People” (103). In this regard empathising with the children and ensuring their rights of a better childhood also becomes easier.
Chittaprosad pioneered communist visual reportage. He withdrew from the postcolonial art world and remained an outsider in the narratives of Indian modern art, by his own discretion. His work got prominence in the 2000s with the DAG exhibitions and as Simone Wille mentions through art Chittaprosad could manage to create a “transnational socialist solidarity” (12). In this context, Wille mentions his fondness of Czech artist František Salaba’s exhibition of Czech toys and puppets. Later Chittaprosad himself made a puppet theatre called Khelaghar (The Playroom) for the impoverished children who lived in his neighbourhood in Andheri. Throughout his life, he reflected on the plight of children whose life was marked by labour, hardship, suffering, and disease. His book illustration for children, Kingdom of Rosogolla and Other Stories in the 1960s, shows his sustained interest in children and their world. Chittaprosad’s work is rich in symbolism of food nutrition, child rights, and protest through the representation of the figure of children and mothers in the face of hunger crisis and towards an imagination of a world “as a place fit to live for children”(note 7).
Five thousand copies of Hungry Bengal were burned by the British government. It was published in book form by Delhi Art Gallery(DAG) in 2012.
An exhibition by DAG in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Archaeological Survey of India, and National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, at the Currency Building in Kolkata from 11 Jan 2019 – 28 Nov 202
Amartya Sen and many researchers attributed the famine to be a result of negligence on part of the colonial government, a famine encouraged due to entitlement and so on. A cluster of works notably Janam Mukherjee’s Hungry Bengal, Madhushree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War analyses the Bengal famine from historical, social, and political aspects looking at texts, paintings and colonial papers. Amartya Sen called it a man-made famine.
Rob Nixon in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, writes how the famine may be over but the “slow violence” would bare itself in forms of malnutrition, starvation and deprivation, which is epitomised in the skeletal frames of the famine-struck humans.
Sanjukta Sunderason, 25-26.
Caption translated by me from Bengali.
The line translated by me from Sukanta Bhattacharya’s poem Chharpotro or The Release Letter, where he writes that he wants to create the world a place fit to live for children.
The pictures used in the essay except the one in fig.2 are from Chittaprosad (edited by Prakash Das)
Bhattacharya, Sukanta. Chharpotro, 1948,
Das, Prakash, editor. Chittoprasad. Gangchil, 2021.
Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What?. Harvard UP, 1999.
Mukherjee, Janam. Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. Sage, 2016.
Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Sasson T, Vernon J. "Practising the British Way of Famine: Technologies of Relief, 1770–1985". European Review of History: Revue Européenne D’histoire. 2015;22(6):860–872. doi: 10.1080/13507486.2015.1048193.
Simone, Wille. “A Transnational Socialist Solidarity: Chittaprosad’s Prague Connection”. Stedelijk Studies Journal, vol 9, 2019. https://stedelijkstudies.com/journal/a-transnational-socialist-solidarity-chittaprosads-prague-connection/
Stephens, Ian. Monsoon Morning. Earnest Benn, 1966.
Sunderason, Sanjukta. Partisan Aesthetics: Modern Art & India’s Long Decolonization. Stanford University Press, 2020.
Fig. 1. Ponchasher Mahamanwantar: On the broadway of Dreamy Calcutta,
Fig. 2. Harvest (1964). Source: Mutualart.com
Fig. 7 Child Appeal from Angels Without Fairytales, linocut, 1952
Fig. 4 Haat Barao : “Extend your helping hand” , Ink and brush, 1951
Fig. 3 Orphans of Famine. Source: People’s War, 22nd Edition,1943
Fig. 6 World Peace, linocut, 1953
Fig.5 My Monkey My Friend, Linocut, 1952
The wandering habit among the children was difficult to stop. Famine orphanages had to have prison rooms. Children—skin and bone— had got into the habit of feeding like dogs. You tried to give them a decent meal, but they would break away and start wandering about and eat filth. You had to lock them up in a special room...they [had] developed the mentality of wandering. People got awfully cruel. (Quoted in Mukherjee, 138)
Srijita Biswas is a PhD Scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal (IISER Bhopal). She is working on the gastronomic evolution of Calcutta for her doctoral project. She is interested in city literature, urban studies and food studies. She has recently co-authored a book chapter titled "Listening to the Hustle and the Hush: Sound, City, and the Pandemic" in the edited volume "Sounds of the Pandemic" (2022) by Routledge. Her other writings are awaiting publication in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing and the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics (JCLA). Apart from these, she enjoys documenting food-related practices and interviewing people. Currently she is working as an intern for the CCYSC.
Death by slaughter, say in a communal riot … you of course know about it almost at once. You hear shouts and screams. Smoke from nearby buildings on fire stings your nostrils… But famine comes quietly. Even if you’ve been half-expecting it, there’s still no drama: nothing to hear, almost nothing characteristic at first to see, anyway in a city like Calcutta, notorious for its swarms of pitiable poor living in squalor near the margins of subsistence.