SOMETHING OF the thrill of reading the Pepys diaries is awakened at the new Chittaprosad retrospective at the Delhi Art Gallery. It is an enormous show with much to see and much historical frisson to invoke. First, several stunningly produced books, including a collection of his political portraits and a selection of the artist’s letters — filled with kindness, anecdote, curiosity and bitterness about a resolutely bourgeoisie world. Then, on the walls, the most exhaustive collection of Chittaprosad’s ever assembled together since the death of the artist in 1978. It includes rows of his black and white sketches, his political posters (reminiscent of the highly original, witty Polish film posters of the 1960s), his charming interpretation of the Ramayana, his sexually charged series of lovers, his paintings of and for children, some indifferent landscapes and a few paintings that a viewer joked looks like an ‘impression of Impressionism’.
At the heart of the show is a small, tattered book preserved behind glass. It was also at the heart of the man Chittaprosad was. This is the only extant copy of Hungry Bengal containing what we would call graphic reportage of Chittaprosad’s tour of Midnapore in November 1943 during the Great Famine. All other copies were burnt by the British because the truth was too incendiary to be allowed free passage.
Young Chittaprosad was a fiercely political, full-time Communist Party worker, but the tour of Midnapore was to change him forever
The shriveled, the dispossessed, the naked, the insane, bodies eaten by dogs. Twenty eight-year-old Chittaprosad saw all this and animated them briefly in the Communist Party of India’s weekly newspaper The People’s War with his sketches and the stories of who they were, where they had come from and the suffering of their final hours. Young Chittaprosad was already a fiercely political, full-time Communist Party worker but the tour of Midnapore was to change him forever.
The elder son of a Chittagong civil servant, he chose incredible asceticism from then on. He decided he could not afford to marry. He was deeply suspicious of the self-indulgence of the bohemian and the fat comforts of the bourgeoisie, leaving him a thorny bed of principles to lie on. But Chittaprosad was stubborn. India could change, but he wouldn’t. (Delhi Art Gallery’s head of exhibitions Kishore Singh does an affectionate impression of this hair-tearing stubbornness as he talks of the artist).
CHITTAPROSAD’S LETTERS to his mother and friends are passionate discursions of ethics, art, money, friendship, betrayal and longing. He died in obscurity in a single-room flat in Mumbai at the age of 63. In his lifetime, though, Chittaprosad had created an enormous oeuvre all with the visible scaffolding of his dreams of revolution — even in the painting of a child driven mad enough to heave a rock at the viewer or in his vision of the Black Christ.
It took Delhi Art Gallery’s director Ashish Anand years to persuade Chittaprosad’s niece Gargi Chatterjee — herself dwindling in squalid gentility in Kolkata — to even show him the artist’s lifetime of work. It was only when the family lost hope that the state would acquire Chittaprosad’s work, and enshrine him in posterity as he deserved, that Gargi finally succumbed to the curiosity of the gallery in search of a lost master. It took a few more years before she told the gallery one last secret about her uncle. That she had one surviving copy of Hungry Bengal — locked away in a bank vault.
Now with the gallery’s carefully produced facsimiles of Hungry Bengal, the famine comes terrifyingly alive again. And with it a particular variety of young, undiluted idealism.
Chittaprosad: A Retrospective is on till 20 August at Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi; 30 August – 11 September, Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata
Nisha Susan is the Features Editor with Tehelka.