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In the modern, compact space of the Delhi Art Gallery in Mumbai’s art district, the works of Bengali artist Chittaprosad appear almost exotic. Here is an artist who sketched an Indian hulk, his ankle in broken shackles, brandishing a flag that says “Hands Off Asia". What’s more, a middle-aged British caricature wearing a top hat chomps on this towering man’s leg. Stunning anti-colonial and pan-Asian rhetoric that has little resonance today.

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‘Bangladesh War’ 1971

In the famine series at this show, Chittaprosad: A Retrospective, which reaches Mumbai after showing in New Delhi and Kolkata over the last three years, most of the sketches have the full names of the subjects and where Chittaprosad met them, besides other specifics. In notes below some of them, he recounts short histories of the heart-wrenchingly famished subjects—babies with bulging hungry bellies in tender embrace, gangly legs overshadowing male figures, a gaunt face, as if in the peaceful moment of freedom from misery in death. The show also exhibits a facsimile of Hungry Bengal, his book of sketches and writing on the famine, which the British government banned in the 1940s.

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‘Quit Asia’ 1947

Kishore Singh of the Delhi Art Gallery says, “His nature of documentation is not only important for its sake, it is, alas, a representative of our poor record of governance—many of his images could as easily be evidence of society and the economic and political climate today as of the past."

‘Amina Khatum, Her Brother and Abdul Rehman Taking Shelter in the Verandah of Civil Supply Godown’, 1944
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‘Amina Khatum, Her Brother and Abdul Rehman Taking Shelter in the Verandah of Civil Supply Godown’, 1944

Chittaprosad’s works are poorly represented in galleries and auctions. At a 2011 Saffronart auction, one of his linocuts sold for around 30,000. Singh says: “They appeal only to the serious collector and not the investor. At the Delhi Art Gallery, we have seen a market develop for his linocut prints, and for his political art."

In The Story Of Modern India, an unpublished book by him—also part of the show—he wrote about India’s “fantastically cheap" labour. Relevance is about recognizing and preserving our past, but Chittaprosad’s art is also relevant because of its social currency. The works in this retrospective, curated by Sanjoy Mallik of the Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, keeping in mind the intersection of his art and politics, remind us that the misery of a few and children without fairy tales are not very exotic.

Chittaprosad: A Retrospective is on till 12 August, 10.30am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Delhi Art Gallery, 58, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.

Political Animals is a fortnightly blog on the intersection of culture and politics

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