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The third session of Medhavi Gandhi’s Beyond the Textbook workshop series for high school teachers presents different shades of the twentieth century in the subcontinent through art. It takes us through a selection of art created by artists from the subcontinent with the idea of encouraging students to develop their research skills in looking to artworks as primary sources, and by training them to address multiple, often contradictory or competing perspectives. Here, we we bring you a selection that represents a moment in the twentieth century—some historical, some more personal and emotional—that an artist chose to depict, respond to or grapple with. Based on this selection we bring you some ideas and suggestions to incorporate into your classrooms to inculcate in students the habit/ skill of going beyond studying events in isolation and instead locating them in a larger quilt of intersections.
These suggestions we hope will also inspire you to design your own classroom activities!
Artists and Their Relationship with their Environment and the World Around Them
I. Representation of women in twentieth century art of the Indian subcontinent
An interesting exercise could be to let your students explore different ways in which women have been represented in twentieth century art of the subcontinent. What set them apart, what do these depictions convey to us or betray to us about the artist’s relations to the subject they were portraying? Below is one example.
Task: Identify the flowers in the backdrop of Santhal Maidens. Find out what they symbolize in the Bangla language. Why do you think Abedin included them?
Both of the above paintings depict women in the Indian subcontinent in the twentieth century in very distinctly different ways.
I. Do you find similarities/dissimilarities between these two depictions?
Things to focus on: Colour tone, Mood, Figures, Space
What are the feelings that the artworks evoke?
Anything else that comes to your mind?
Write a brief paragraph on what in your opinion is the artist’s perception of the subjects in the artwork
II. Write a short imaginative piece on any one subject in these artworks—what does the artwork tell you about their life, their cultural background, their social background.
About the Artists
Who was Amrita Sher-Gil?
‘Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), half Hungarian and half Indian, emerges as a unique female artist, who contributed immensely to modern Indian art through the 1930s. Unlike others, she was trained in Paris and had a first-hand experience in European modern art trends, such as Impressionism and post–Impressionism. After deciding to make India her base, she worked to develop art with Indian themes and images. Amrita Sher-Gil assimilated miniature and mural traditions of Indian art with European modernism. She died young, leaving behind a remarkable body of work, which is important for its experimental spirit and the impact it left on the next generation of Indian modernists.’
-Chapter 7, ‘The Modern Indian Art’, NCERT.
Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amrita_Sher-Gil
Who was Zainul Abedin?
‘Zainul Abedin (29 December 1914 – 28 May 1976) was a Bengali painter. He became well known in 1944 through his Famine Series paintings of 1943. After the partition of India and Pakistan he moved to Pakistan, and when Bangladesh was created in 1971, he was rightly considered by Syed Manzoorul Islam as the founding father of Bangladeshi modern art. In 1948, he helped establish the Institute of Arts and Crafts (now Faculty of Fine Arts) at Dhaka University.
Abedin was born in Kishoreganj, East Bengal on 29 December 1914. Much of his childhood was spent near the scenic banks of the Brahmaputra river. The Brahmaputra would later appear in many of his paintings and be a source of inspiration all throughout his career . . . In 1933, Abedin was admitted to Calcutta Government Art School in Calcutta. Here for five years he learned British/ European academic style and later he joined the faculty of the same school after his graduation. He was the first Muslim student to obtain first class distinction from the school. He was dissatisfied with the oriental style and the limitations of European academic style and this led him towards realism. He was the pioneer of the modern art movement that took place in Bangladesh.’
Read the rest here:https://www.wikiart.org/en/zainul-abedin
Zainul Abedin was one of the artists who moved to Pakistan during the Partition. Who were the others who migrated to either sides of the border at the time? Students can curate an exhibition in class [using prints], selecting artworks from these artists’ oeuvre that depict the trauma of the Partition. Encourage them to provide detailed background information on each of the selected artworks.
Medhavi shared and talked about a wealth of other twentieth century artworks in her presentation. Some of that information has been compiled along with further reading suggestions and can be found by clicking on the button below.
Published in 1943, the Hungry Bengal was a collection of hard-hitting illustrated eye-witness accounts of the Bengal Famine by artist Chittoprosad. British officials destroyed each one of the 5000 copies printed except 1, which somehow survived.
Organise a viewing of the art for your students from the collection, here: http://daak.co.in/eye-witness-account-disaster-chittaprosads-hungry-bengal/
Who was Chittoprosad?
The artist Chittoprosad (was) known for his very documentary style artwork. His artwork was not meant to be displayed at galleries, it was meant to be printed so it could reach more and more places so to either spread awareness about something or spark dialogue on something. Hungry Bengal was a series he was commissioned to make by the Communist Party of India at that time. - Medhavi Gandhi
View this story by The Heritage Lab here: https://www.theheritagelab.in/web-stories/chittaprosad-artist-india/
‘A young artist, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, traversed the ravaged towns and villages illustrating and documenting the mass starvation, displacement and political apathy of the landowning class.
Chittaprosad (1915-1978) was educated in Chittagong, the hub of revolutionary activities against the British, and became involved with the Communist Party. Although he did not have any formal training, as an active member of the Party, he began using his artistic skills to disseminate leftists propaganda. He dropped his upper-caste surname and even refused admission to the Government College of Art and Crafts, Calcutta when they asked him to dissociate with the Party.
When the famine broke out, he travelled across the affected regions filling up his sketchbook with gut-wrenching drawings. To raise awareness about the famine, he published a collection of his hard-hitting caricatures in ‘Hungry Bengal’. His emotive eye-witness account created an uproar and led the British officials to destroy all 5000 copies save one, that miraculously survived.’
‘Chittaprosad’s most creative years began in the 1930s. He satirized and sharply criticized the feudal and colonial systems in quickly drawn but masterful pen and ink sketches. As an artist, and reformer, Chittaprosad was also proficient at creating linocuts and woodcuts with obvious propagandistic intent. Since these cheaply made prints were created for the masses, rather than the art gallery, they were seldom signed or numbered. With time, they took on commercial value as art, and today are prized by collectors.
In 1943, Chittaprosad covered the Bengal Famine for various communist publications. This resulted in his first publication, Hungry Bengal. It was a sharply provocative attack on the political and social powers of the time, and the Indian authorities suppressed it nearly immediately, impounding and destroying large numbers.’
Suggested reading: A Transnational Socialist Solidarity: Chittaprosad's Prague Connection
I. A comparative study using Venn diagrams with samples of art/literature from different contexts and times that were banned/destroyed or led to the persecution of the artist/writer. For instance,Hungry Bengal 2) Nil Darpan* 3) How I Became a Socialist - Hellen Keller/ All Quiet on the Western Front– Erich Maria Remarque (two of many banned books in Nazi Germany that went on to be burnt in the infamous 10 May 1933 book burning)/ any artworks from Nazi Germany’s Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) inventory from here: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3868?slideshow=221&slide_index=0).
II. Divide the class into two groups: One group is assigned the task of finding out the current status of the above works. Are they still censored/banned? The other group researches and makes a list of art or literature from the same time period/s and contexts that had the full support of the government. Why do they think there is a difference in attitude and status? What factors determine this?
III. Groups of students pick one example each of censorship or banning of art/literature from the contemporary world (half the groups could look at India, the other half at the rest of the world) analyse possible reasons for this and note similarities or differences between the historical examples students were previously given and the ones they picked.