Field Notes Society

Republic of hunger: An online database records the cultural histories of famine and dearth in early modern India and Britain

Aratrika Choudhury’s graphic art based on the tale Bidrohi Captain Pouch

Aratrika Choudhury’s graphic art based on the tale Bidrohi Captain Pouch

Playground nicknames are inevitably cruel and I had an assortment of them owing to my surname. One that went beyond the usual bat-ball variety was bheetu Bangali, or cowardly Bengali, a moniker I earned due to my near limitless capacity to absorb insults without fighting back. In my teenage years, while studying in Delhi, I was re-christened bhookha Bangali or hungry Bengali —the hostel fare being stomach-churning at best, I had a reputation for stowing away more than my fair share whenever invited to someone’s home and table.

Decades later, at the British Library in London, I discovered that the source of bhookha Bangali went far beyond my personal avarice; the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the resultant starvation of millions had created this crushing nomenclature.

By then, England and its opulence had started to irritate me, replacing the earlier awe. The sight of overladen tables, the excess and the waste, now invoked an atavistic anger. The more I read on the Bengal Famine — the casual arrogance of our British overlords, its man-made nature, the fact that over 70,000 tonnes of food grains were shifted out of India for the war effort while citizens starved, all because the British feared a Japanese invasion of Bengal and so cut off transport and supplies — the less pleasant I was as dinner company.

Long connection

The reason we study history, digging up the past, finding connections, establishing patterns, is to overturn quick conclusions and

Dukhushyam Chitrakar performing the scroll song [pater gaan] for the tale Bidrohi Captain Pouch

Dukhushyam Chitrakar performing the scroll song [pater gaan] for the tale Bidrohi Captain Pouch

hashtag-ready judgements. A recent study by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of near-simultaneous famines in India and in England from the mid-16th to the 18th century establishes a long and shared connection between the two countries. In doing so, it opens up new ways to understand dearth and destitution that go beyond any easy master-slave narrative. The searchable web-database, Famine Tales from India and Britain , is based on the outcomes of this study titled ‘Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800’, led by Professor Ayesha Mukherjee of Exeter University and Professor Amlan Das Gupta of Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Containing about 750 texts in 10 languages, it records the cultural histories of famine and dearth in early modern India and Britain.

“The Englishman was escaping famine when he first left his native shores in the 16th centuryfor India,” says Mukherjee, Principal Investigator of the project. “He was thus familiar with what he saw on arrival — another famine. In that period of 200 years or so, there was a simultaneous series of famines in both countries; too many to be a coincidence. We believe global climatic patterns were affecting food production and agriculture in both places; after the little Ice Age there was excessive rainfall in the U.K. which might have resulted in droughts in the subcontinent.”

Continuing relevance

Studying the cultural histories of famine in both nations proved to be eye-opening. “The wealth of stuff in Indian archives is unbelievable. There is, of course, the National Archives and the National Museum, but we found works in smaller libraries; in Patna and Aligarh, in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic Persian Research Institute in Rajasthan’s Tonk, in the Brahmo Samaj Library in Kolkata’s Uttarpara. We compiled this data but we wanted the work to go beyond academic researchers alone. We wanted to find a way to tell these stories and bring them back to life.” Famine Tales from India and Britain is the fruit of that desire. Here traditional pata chitrakars of Bengal can be found narrating and reinterpreting the old tales along with urban graphic designers, thus underlining the narratives’ continuing relevance.

The pata chitrakars are from Bengal’s Naya village, which is all-too-familiar with food scarcity, even in recent times. In the project stretching over two years, Mukherjee and her team visited the village regularly and worked with the lead artist, Dukhoshyam, and his fellow chitrakars . “We told them the stories from Ireland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries: we marvelled at how quickly they understood and translated the tales into paintings.”

Shakespeare and Phullara

There’s the story of Peter Mundy, a poor merchant in the service of the East India Company, who witnessed the devastating famines of Gujarat in the 1630s. Mundy’s boat had capsized in a storm off the coast of Cornwall.

“I tell it to Dukhoshyam and he immediately relates it to the experience of a storm-tossed relative on the coast of Bengal. And though he is talking of the sea, he looks heavenwards and salutes Ma Ganga,” says Mukherjee.

Tales of starvation from Shakespearean England find fresh interpretation, as do local stories of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. In the pata chitrakars ’ rendering, Shakespeare becomes “Shekkhopir” and Queen Elizabeth I is a rather homely figure recognisable

Sarbajit Sen’s graphic art based on the tale Phullara’s Bhoj

Sarbajit Sen’s graphic art based on the tale Phullara’s Bhoj

from her white ruffs and pearls in the scroll painting, Shekkhopir-deshe Durbhikkho (‘Famine in Shakespeare-land’).

Some of the stories, for example that of Phullara from the medieval Bengali epic, Chandimangal Kabya , are reinterpreted simultaneously by the pata chitrakars and graphic artists. One of the threads linking Sarbajit Sen’s graphic representation of Phullara’s story with Dukhoshyam’s scrolls is Durga Puja — the festive season when people deck up in their best and yet poor Phullara “goes to the swamps to collect edible plants and herbs and snails... just like any other day.”

Why is it important to tell these stories?

“We wanted to see whether such dialogues could recur in present times. Famine is a contentious issue, even more so now. The pandemic has caused issues of food and security, dearth and destitution to resurface. The themes resonate from across the centuries and across the seas,” says Mukherjee.

The writer teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, U.K. His books include The Price You Pay and Making News in India .

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 12:46:45 pm |