Imagery from the soul of death

Three artists depict the disastrous outcome of the 19th century famine in east India through an exhibition in Bhubaneswar.

Published: 18th June 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th June 2016 05:09 PM   |  A+A-

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From Left: Susanta, Ramakanata and Smrutikanta with their terracotta figurines (Photo|Shamim Qureshy)

The dreadful famine of 1865-66 wiped out almost one-third of Odisha’s population. Often referred to as ‘Na’anka Durbhikhya’ in local parlance, the man-made calamity was the result of apathy on the part of the British Empire, which chose to remain mute spectators to drought, unregulated export of foodgrain, starvation and the countless deaths.

Apart from wreaking havoc in coastal Odisha—Cuttack, Puri and Balasore—the famine spread over to some parts of present day West Bengal, including Midnapore, Bankura and Burdwan. It also gripped some areas of the Chotanagpur division and the princely states of Nilgiri and Mayurbhanj.

Nearly 150 years later, three Odia artists have tried to showcase the calamity—often termed as the darkest chapter in the history of Odisha—through their work. Painters Ramakanta Samantray, Susanta Kumar Panda and installation artist Smrutikanta Rout have collaborated to create 21 paintings and a terracotta installation to depict the devastation caused by the famine that eventually sowed the seeds of development for the first time in the backward state. The multimedia exhibition titled ‘Famine’ has been mounted at the Odisha State Archives in Bhubaneswar by the Department of Culture. The show will be on till July 9.

The art works, mostly sketches, focus on the after-effects of the famine, including the fight for food that ensued among the people and starvation deaths. The artists choose to implement the language of the Company School of Miniature Painting and Indian School of Painting to draw on the theme. In one of the paintings, Samantray and Panda have painted a frail man holding a bag of rice and lying helplessly beneath a huge tree that is bereft of leaves. Vultures wait on its branches to pounce on the man’s body after his death.  

Similarly, the artists drew skeletons lying around the ancient Barbati Fort in Cuttack with vultures hovering over them. In the backdrop, a man pulls a cart loaded with foodgrain. “According to historians, the relief did not reach most of the famine-affected people on time. This led to large-scale deaths. In some of the paintings, we have tried to show the imbalance in relief distribution carried out by the Britishers,” says Samantray, who has studied painting from B K College of Art & Craft in Bhubaneswar.  

In one of the works, vultures are portrayed feasting on a corpse outside the Jagannath Temple in Puri, while in another painting, a group of famished men wait outside the famous temple for food. “We have chosen the language of Company School and Indian School of Painting to give an archival look to the paintings,” says Samantray. All the canvases were treated with tea to make them look old. Mostly done in brown and black, the paintings have little use of other colours. “We have focused a lot on shading and lines in the paintings,” says Panda, who studied fine arts at Khallikote College of Art & Craft in Ganjam. To give a three-dimensional look, the artists have pasted drawings of trees and birds on the paintings, instead of drawing them directly on the canvas.

Since no photographs of the famine are available, the artists had consulted literary sources such as Atma Jeevan Charita, an autobiography by Fakir Mohan Senapati; Desa Kala Patra by Jagannath Prasad Das and an autobiography of Ananta Das to understand the socio-political factors that led to a calamity of this magnitude. “All the paintings are imaginary with pictorial references to the report of the Famine Commission appointed by the British government in 1866 and several literary sources. The exhibition is an attempt to tell a story of the catastrophe that was a turning point in Odisha’s history. It was only after the famine that the Britishers made some sincere efforts for the development of the region,” says Samantray.

The show also exhibits a terracotta installation by Smrutikanta Rout. The famine that killed over 10 lakh people prompted the British government and Christian missionaries to open 20 to 25 ‘anna chatras’ (food camps) in the three districts. Other than hunger, diseases like cholera and diarrhoea also claimed several lives. The three-dimensional terracotta installation depicts the journey of starving people and animals to one such ‘anna chatra’. At least 70 terracotta figurines of people are shown walking towards a food camp with corpses flanking the road that leads to a place where Britishers are overseeing food distribution.

“We decided on the terracotta installation to give the show a new perspective. Initially, Samantray and I had plans to make 22 figurines, but we ended up creating 70 to give a narration to the journey,” says Rout, who is also an alumnus of B K College of Art and Craft.

At Odisha State Archives, Bhubaneswar. On till July 9.


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