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Paper 13

Self-imagings in the Making of Public Iconography of Crisis: The Epistemology of Chittaprosad’s Formalism of Hunger

Mr Pinak Banik, PhD Scholar, Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana, India


The persistent human tragedy throughout the waves of famine, communal violence, and mass displacements around the partition, had ravaged the region of Bengal in the 1940s leaving behind long-term repercussions for its people. Coincided with eventual disfranchisement of Bengal’s political significance in the emerging national framework, the social elites and intelligentsia in Bengal responded to these ‘events of rupture’ through complex acts and gestures. The bhadralok, the intersecting cluster of civil and political society, converging the traditional elite and the ‘high born’ professional middle-class Bengali literati, reacted to the moments of crisis, loss, and irrepressible circumstances through politico-cultural reorganizations and new forms of collectivization. The shifting frameworks of cultural politics, strategies of collectivization (and isolation), collaboration (and disillusion), embarked upon a renewed course of institutionalization of bhadralok caste power and set the tone of dominant Bengali socio-cultural experience during the long durée of decolonization. Integrated within these processes, the field of visual art saw the emergence of a genre termed alternatively as ‘progressive’, ‘social realist’ or ‘socially responsive’ art. Attached to the Marxist cultural movements both in partisan and non-partisan circumstances, these artistic expressions not only embodied the shifts of larger cultural and political structures but also provided for its modernist language and metanarrative. This paper attempts to engage with the inception of the socially ‘realist’ or ‘responsive’ art and its relation to the larger schema of historic communal-cultural relations in Bengali society. Placed on the entangled ground of art and history, this paper will investigate the politics of the artistic expressions around the destitution of the famine of 1943 and its afterlives in later event-based artistic expressions. One of the significant figures of to emerge during the early years of turbulence was artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, whose artistic journalism in the early 1940s offers a crucial vantage point to understand the interiors of the Marxist ideological formation in the pretext of social normativity of Bengal. Chittaprosad’s specific construction of famine visuality served as a hallmark representation of the catastrophe and at the moment of crisis, it went into determining the representational strategies and aesthetic fashioning of ‘progressive’ and ‘political’ art on a pan Indian scale. Focusing on Chittaprosad’s visual reportage of the famine in 1943-44, I attempt to unpack the deep social-psychological aspects that went into the making of his formalism of hunger and its aesthetic foundations. Going against the established tropes associated with works of the ‘agitator and organizer’ as ‘direct documentation’, ‘preparing fact sheets of famine’ or ‘artistic witnessing’, I argue that Chittaprosad’s formalism was an exclusive private exercise that went into making of a prominent public iconography. Contributing to the repository emblematic of the scopic regimes of the famine, I argue that it was simultaneous with a parabolic restoration of the figure of a new bhadralok protagonist on the center stage, reinstated from the ruins of decadent bhadralok power of the previous decades. Contextualizing these micro-socio-cultural affairs signifying the mega-historical process of perseverance of caste capital, this paper aim to engage with this emerging practice of stagecraft by briefly examining contemporary cinematic, literary, and visual artworks that are embedded within these complex and multilayered propositions of loss, reclamation, and normality.

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