Updated: Sep 17
Image: A close-up of one of Chittaprosad’s pen and ink sketches in Ritwik Ghatak’s short film ‘Durbargati Padma’ (1971).
Chittaprosad was as revolutionary an artist as Ramkinkar Baij and Ritwik Ghatak were. Born on 21 June 1915 (d. 13 November 1978) in united Bengal, he preferred water colour and printmaking while avoiding oil on canvas. Chittaprosad was a major player in the rise of revolutionary popular art in India in the 1940s, whose iconic prints of people’s resistance against foreign colonial power and the feudal oppression of the poor by the landed Indian gentry have become immortal. Due to his refusal to accept the discrimination of the caste system, Chittaprosad never used his Brahmnical surname during his lifetime. He rejected the classicism of the Bengal School and its ‘spiritual’ preoccupations. In his short film ‘Durbargati Padma’ (1971), Ritwik Ghatak brings Chittaprosad’s pen & ink sketch of two faces / gazes into a close-up that expresses the collective anger and anguish of the people of East Pakistan / East Bengal (emerging independent Bangladesh) against the mass genocide mercilessly perpetrated by Pakistan’s Gen. Yahya Khan’s army. Incidentally, Chittaprosad made Bombay his home from 1946 though he passed away in Calcutta in 1978. Ghatak’s close-up in ‘Durbargati Padma’ flashes history across our mind.
I AM ONLY RECORDING THE GREAT CHANGES – RITWIK GHATAK
Q: Since your films reflect an intense political awareness is it true to say that you are the first political filmmaker in India?
RG: I don’t know. Why do you ask me this type of question? How I can test myself in this position? It is for my audience to decide whether I am a political filmmaker at all. Whether I am the first political filmmaker, the only filmmaker; it’s all up to them to decide. In a broader context, all films are political as all art is, as all artistes are. It is either of this or that class. One filmmaker may give it the name political another may not, but ultimately it all serves the same purpose. Cinema being what it is, also serves politics through its varied forms and genres.
Q: What is your opinion about the modern tendencies in the cinema, particularly, the thinking that emotional identification with the film’s characters is a bourgeois pastime that the director should break this illusion of reality and come out and speak to the audience?
RG: There is nothing modern about this. This has existed from time immemorial. Have you read Aristophanes? He was born and died 2500 years ago in a city called Athens. He did it. Therefore, there is nothing modern about it. There are forms and forms…
‘I am only recording the great changes,’ Ritwik Ghatak in conversation with Kalpana Biswas, Lekha, Vol.2, No.8, 1976; excerpts.
“In November the artist Chittaprosad made his epic journey through the district, composing sketches of famine victims that were to become iconic. During the early months of 1943 he began focusing his attention on the food administration in Bengal, composing satirical sketches of the nexus between government employees, control shops and black marketeers. As conditions in the province continued to deteriorate, his sketches turned towards depicting the sufferings of famine victims. In his journey through Midnapore Chittaprosad, like ‘The Statesman’ correspondent, found village after village depopulated. In Midnapore town he found a small family who had abandoned their village in June. When asked when they would go back, they told the artist, ‘To speak the truth, babu, with what hopes can we go back to our village? Last year’s harvest was not poor, yet we couldn’t get food in our own village. Two days after harvesting, the paddy disappeared. When we say we will go back to our village, it is because we are afraid of the military. No one knows where they will send us or the children if they catch us. What use is it to us if they send us back to our village?’
“Chittaprosad published this and other accounts, together with his sketches from his tour of Midnapore, in a book entitled ‘Hungry Bengal’ shortly after his return from the district. The book was quickly banned and 5,000 copies were confiscated and destroyed.” (‘Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire,’ Janam Mukherjee, OUP, 2015)
Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai based film scholar, writer & critic.