Chittaprasad Bhattacharya was a socialist and a self-taught anti-fascist artist who is remembered for his socio-poli which killed over millions. Chittaprosad was an active card-holding member of the Communist Party of India ( CPI ) and functioned as the most prominent artist-reporter of the party. His stark pen and ink sketches of famine-stricken villages, emaciation, and displacement became the dominant visual repertoire of human tragedy, and circulated nationwide in CPI journals, political meetings, and demonstrations, traveling Cultural Squads of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), as well in various famine exhibitions in the country, for generating awareness, propaganda or fundraising. His choice of materials and techniques of art to produce multiple prints and posters for rallies, Party meetings, and strikes at the minimum budget of the party funds excluded him
from the fanciful position of the Bengal School of high art. He, throughout his life, condemned the Brahmanical oppression prevalent in the Hindu society and did not use his surname anytime in his life as a mode of protest, and disregarded the elite academic practice of art by the Bengal school which was backed by the Colonials. Chittaprosad’s art, writings, and visual reports establish the language of Socialist Realism in Indian graphic arts. His ideological and political adherence to social realism depicted humanist concerns of portraying hunger and destitution of that time, thus reflecting on the ‘popular’ resistance, dialogues between art, and active politics.
He was spotted by the then General Secretary of the CPI, P. C. Joshi, and absorbed into the machinery of the Headquarters of the Communist Party in Bombay which was the center of the Culture Front, with an entire set of artists, performers, photographers, and writers. He became an integral part of the Anti-Fascist Writers’ and Artists’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association and started touring extensively, documenting peasant movements, workers’ strikes, peasant conferences, political agitations, and most importantly of all, the momentous Bengal Famine of 1943. He walked through the hunger-stricken city streets, the sub-divisional towns, and into the famine-hit villages in the Midnapore district and produced Hungry Bengal, A Tour through the Midnapore District, by Chittaprosad, which was the first in the genre of visual reportage by an artist-reporter in India. Hungry Bengal emerges as an important visual testimony from the famine years that introduces the genre of critical pictorial journalism.
The majority of Chittaprosad’s works are either created with black ink and brush/ pen or are carved in wood or linocut. Besides these, there are many pictures made with watercolors, pastels, and oil colors on paper and on canvas. The starkness of the images reflects the artist’s engagement with crisis and the translation of his perception of social ruptures into striking grotesque bodies introducing the element of grotesque realism and social consciousness into art.
De Boer writes about Chittaprasad; “ His images take you on an accelerated journey into the epicenter of the revolt that started with the Mutiny and would have exploded into revolution had the colonists not withdrawn. As a colonial administrator I would have looked at these images with fear - sensing that the game was over.”
Though famous largely for his famine sketches, Chittaprosad’s post-famine works call for critical attention, particularly because they provide a corpus of political scenarios from the postwar period. As the freedom struggle in India entered its final stage, the CPI sought to project itself as the ‘organizer and the agitator’ of the masses irrespective of sectarian politics. The projected targets were now the colonial government, Indian princely classes, nationalist politicians, British and native bourgeoisie, merchants and black marketeers. This led to the creation of images and paintings depicting obvious citations of Socialist Realism. One of Chittaprasad’s paintings for the People’s Age tabloid contain the image of a worker holding out a graph of positive economic growth, or the peasant woman holding sheaves of freshly harvested paddy, while in the margins native princes, moneylenders, merchants, the police and the army are driven out of the frame along with a hovering skeleton.
The eros of desire is portrayed uninhibitedly in the image of the lovers, who are common people. The bodies are well-built and enormous, the vitality and the passion of the working class are envisioned by Chittaprasad in his artworks. The woman does not shy away from loving her man, her desires are in the hands of her own agency.
The working-class people - the men, the women, and children alike assemble together in a cluster, resembling a singular unified entity. The power of the united working-class is embodied in the above image.
The animals in the forest co-exist together in harmony, the segregation initiated by the biological hierarchy of the food chain is absent. The animals dwell at peace in pairs in a state of mutualism. This image perhaps personifies Chittaprosad’s dream of an ideal society, a non-hierarchical socialist society.
Even with such gigantic contributions in the field of Graphic Arts in India, Chittaprasad and the works of the fellow Party artists do not gain recognition in the history of Indian art due to their constrained aesthetic finesse. Excluded from narratives of mainstream art in India, these were seen at best as ‘Communist propaganda’. Even art critics within the Party circles failed to see beyond the immediate transitory use of these works. While in literature and performance the Left’s cultural agenda of taking art to the people was more pronounced, the posters and sketches of the Party artists were mainly reduced to their functional and propaganda character and the organizational preoccupation of the artists.
Chittaprasad later removed himself from the CPI post-independence due to his disagreements with the party’s new form and l retired to Bombay, lodging in a small room on the city outskirts with little financial support from the Party or further Party commissions. He continued to work, with some international recognition with a handful of exhibitions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, and one in the United States. He spent the rest of his life particularly making illustrations for children’s books, organizing small shows with his handmade puppets, and making a series of linocuts on child labor. His direct political works ceased to appear in print, though he continued to produce cartoons critiquing time and again the new government of free India, and involved himself with the World Peace movement.His comrades remember him as a born romantic, intensely committed artist, and a carefree alcoholic.
Chittaprasad remained highly unrecognized during his lifetime until the Lalit Kala Akademi - India’s national academy for the arts brought out the first monograph on Chittaprasad in 1993.
“To turn my brush into as sharp a weapon as I could make it”
- Chittaprasad, an inspired artist, socialist, anti-fascist, storyteller and a romantic.