Partisan Aesthetics
Modern Art and India’s Long Decolonization
Sanjukta Sunderason





IN 1992, Somnath Hore, a noted artist and former Communist activist, exhibited in Calcutta (Kolkata since 2001) a series of figurative drawings, abstract white-on-white paper-pulp prints (this book’s cover image, for instance), and bronze sculptures. Titled Wounds, the exhibition was a compendium of Hore’s works on a theme he had been pursuing obsessively since the 1970s; the “wounds” were, as he noted in an autobiographical piece accompanying the exhibition, “intimations of only one subject matter—the helpless around us, the rejected, the hungry [ . . . ]—a wound that would not heal (emphasis mine).”1 Wounds, Hore wrote, were the memories he himself carried from the 1940s, when as a young artist-reporter of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he sketched victims of the notorious wartime Bengal famine in 1943–44 that had displaced and decimated millions from rural Bengal. Wounds were also marks of the visceral violence the artist saw around him in the 1970s—the far-left political agitation of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta, the genocide across the borders with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 (from what had become the eastern wing of Pakistan after Indian and Pakistani independence and partition in 1947), the horrors of the Vietnam War. As Hore wrote, “The ruts left on the road by wheels, the cut from the axe on the side of the tree, the injuries on the human body left by weapons.”2

Hore was also writing under the shadow of a dissolving Soviet Union. The closing pages of his brief autobiography rang melancholic, as he reflected on the memory, forms, and destiny of the left that he himself had been a part of since the 1940s, despite his formal dissociation from the CPI in the late 1950s:

Against the background of the socialist movement and in the context of events in the Soviet Union, dreams and aspirations received a shattering blow. Yet dreams are not all untrue. Poets, artists, writers, even scientists, have discovered truths through the medium of dreams. Socialism was both truth and dream for many of us. And its culture has not yet been made entirely grimy. Socialism remains the only answer to ruthless oppression. The one thing that has become noticeable, however, is that if the methods employed are wrong, many attempts are doomed to fail.3

In the early 1990s, while Hore’s Wounds were citing—as memory, trace, and metaphor—intertwined histories of left-wing cultural initiatives, of famines, genocides, and wars that trailed the global footprints of twentieth-century decolonization, his former comrade, mentor, and friend Chittaprosad—another Communist artist—was being recuperated from comparative oblivion by a fledgling private art market in India. Known for his iconic drawings of famine victims and socialist resistance in the pages of the CPI’s national organ, People’s War (People’s Age, post-1945), Chittaprosad had pioneered communist visual reportage in the 1940s as a new artist-cadre of the CPI. Unlike Hore, however, he remained both a self-proclaimed outsider to the art world of postcolonial India and a figure almost erased from the narratives of Indian modern art. After his dissociation from party circles in the late 1940s and until his death in 1978, few people noted his legacy at a national level, beyond his former friends and comrades, and some vernacular “little magazines” in Calcutta that sporadically published his letters, essays, and poems through the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, however, Chittaprosad was to undergo an ironic retrieval by a booming art market and private commercial galleries, despite his lifelong rejection of the commercialized art world. Steered by the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) and Osian’s in Bombay (Mumbai since 1995)—private art galleries and auction houses—Chittaprosad’s corpus of drawings, sketchbooks, prints, letters, puppets, and manuscripts was brought into the public eye and onto the auction circuit. Nestled now amid a vibrant pastiche of cultural paraphernalia from twentieth-century India that Osian’s and DAG exhibited through the 2000s in centers across New Delhi and Bombay, Chittaprosad’s socialist art seemed poised to join the canons of Indian modernism, affirming at the same time a left-wing nostalgia for what CPI activist and chronicler Sudhi Pradhan had in the late 1970s documented as the “Marxist cultural movement.”4

As exhibitions and retrospectives of left-wing artists like Hore and Chittaprosad have grown steadily through the 2000s, they have responded to multiple demands from the contemporary art world. Since the 2010s, such left-wing iconography has begun to enter international biennales and art summits, framed under a new global curatorial and art historical interest in global modernisms, artists from the Global South, and art during decolonization. For instance, at the 2017 documenta 14 at Kassel, Germany, Chittaprosad’s works from the Bengal famine of 1943 were displayed alongside the works of another iconic artist of the famine—Zainul Abedin, who had migrated to East Pakistan after Indian partition, becoming an artist-pedagogue and the national artist of Bangladesh. As curators cite the momentous histories of war, famine, and anti-imperial movements that these artists inhabited, they frame artists like Chittaprosad, Hore, and Abedin within new curatorial configurations of the emerging field of mid-twentieth-century “Third World” aesthetics.5 While such directions respond to calls for the expansion of historiographical attention to art from the Global South, or postcolonial modernisms, they are also opening up, I argue, a new narrative space shared by visual art, the left, and the politics of decolonization in its longue durée.

This dynamism in the curatorial gaze has, in most instances, not been matched in history writing around the art and artists of decolonization. While art historians have occupied themselves with retrieving figures of modern art from non-Western contexts, as a justifiable counter to the Eurocentric canons of modernism, they have too often remained close to iconic figures, biographical modalities, and celebrational impetuses. Historians, meanwhile, continue to be absorbed in studying the political ruptures of decolonization, with little attention to the cultural field where the scopes of postcolonial freedom itself were being negotiated. Studying the entangled field of visual art, the left, and the long decolonization in the Indian subcontinent demands a historiographical agenda that is attuned to both art and politics, and the very forms of such entanglements; and that connects as methodology—dispersed and disparate stories. A curatorial vision, I propose, must guide the historical eye: art must become archives, and artists must enter histories as constituents or protagonists, beyond becoming, for instance, symbols of national or global or postcolonial modernisms.

Hore’s metaphor of the wound and Chittaprosad’s belated salvage, as well as the curatorial grids of “Third World aesthetics” in our times, animate histories of the “political” in visual art under the shadows of India’s long decolonization. Such histories emerge out of the late-colonial decades of heightened mass politics and displacements in the 1930s and 1940s, and grow within the long shadows that the climactic ruptures of the 1940s cast in the cultural memory and artistic forms through the postcolonial decades. Modern art and India’s long decolonization thus constitute an intertwining of artistic form and historical time itself. We encounter here not only politically committed artists such as Hore and Chittaprosad, who drew hunger and resistance, but also their comrades, critics, and fellow artists, who sought to make sense of the turbulent and transitional times they inhabited, with or without professed (left-wing) political commitments. Pursuing them reveals lines of alignment, affiliation as well as dissociation that escape and exceed stable determinisms of ideology and commitment. They present to a historian (of art) a dialectical field of the political—with dispersed, fragmented, and at times contradictory histories.

Partisan Aesthetics is my endeavor to conceptualize and write this field. I am laying out here what “partisan aesthetics” connotes as a conceptual frame, what historical work it can do with the artistic field of mid-twentieth-century India as my archive, and what it can lend—methodologically—to an ever-expanding field of global and transnational art histories of the twentieth century.


In 1943, in the heart of the imperial war effort in late-colonial India, a famine descended upon rural Bengal. Widely acknowledged as “man-made,” the famine’s causes were as multipolar as its very temporality. While some scholars date the famine back to a cyclone that ravaged the Midnapore district of southwest Bengal in the autumn of 1942, aggravating an already depleted rural economy, its more immediate causation was steeped in the wartime strategies of the imperial government. With the entry of Japan into World War II and the fall of Burma in early 1942, Bengal had become the easternmost front of the Allied forces. To quell the approach of the Japanese army, the colonial British government had implemented a scorched-earth strategy. Throughout 1942, the Allied forces burned, confiscated, and eliminated from the market massive stocks of rice, and sank thousands of boats to cut off the riverine economy and infrastructure on the eastern frontier of the province along the Burmese border. Persistent denial of food scarcity by the colonial government aggravated the already mounting rural hunger. Beginning under the shadow of the cyclone, the famine became stark along the eastern frontier of the war in Chittagong, which was exposed to Japanese bombing in January 1943.

The Bengal famine has been described as notoriously man-made, triggered not only by official apathy and the forced extractions of the war, but also by wartime profiteering, maladministration of food, aberrant market conditions, hoarding, and a “moral collapse.”6 Contradicting the “food availability decline” hypothesis of the Famine Enquiry Commission (the Woodhead Commission) of 1944, for instance, the economist Amartya Sen has argued for “failure of exchange entitlement” to explain the crisis of 1943, arguing that the cause of the famine was not food shortage but unequal “access” to food among certain sections of the rural community who were entirely dependent on the market by late-colonial times—the most badly hurt among them being agricultural laborers, craftsmen, and fisherfolk.7 As it spread, the famine ravaged villages and displaced millions, who trekked to suburban and urban Calcutta in search of food. By July 1943, Calcutta and other semi-urban towns were filled with rural refugees uprooted from their villages. While the famine was essentially a rural phenomenon, decimating entire villages, its particular modality of urban destitution was what made it iconic, as refugees inhabited city streets, struggled for survival in food queues, and died of starvation.

Ian Stephens, the editor of Calcutta’s noted English daily The Statesman—one of the earliest to break the news of the famine through photographs of Calcutta streets—recollects in his memoirs the gradual “arrival” of the famine to Calcutta: it arrived unnoticed, he wrote, there being “little strikingly unusual about the appearance of Calcutta streets till well on into the summer of ’43. The hot weather passed, the rains began before it was evident that famine had come.”8 Stephens points to the particular quality of the rupture in the urban landscape that registered the reality of the famine: “Death by famine lacks drama . . . horrid though it may be to say, multitudinous death from this cause looked at merely optically, regarded without emotion as a spectacle, is until the crows get at it, the rats and kites and dogs and vultures, very dry.”9

For the common man in the city, “knowing” the arrival of the famine came from “seeing” the changing sights on the streets, a dramatic transformation beyond the usual sights of urban poverty. The natun bhishuk (new beggars), wrote the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika, were easily distinguished as grihasthas (peasant householders from the villages) who were forced to swarm to the city in search of food; in contrast to the “professional beggars,” the “new” ones did not nag, nor did they lose their temper if alms were denied—“they merely went away with dimmed faces,” a fatalism that marked the famine victims as well as their representation. From July onward, the city streets bore macabre sights of starvation deaths, piled-up dead bodies on street corners, men and dogs fighting over morsels from city bins. The death toll (recorded) of destitute people rose from 100 a day in late July to as many as 1,300 a week in August, with almost 11,000 dead in Calcutta alone between August 1 and October 30.10

The middle-class gentry witnessed these scenes of death in the streets with dismay, and contributed aid by their own means, through relief work or funds collection, while also giving cultural forms to their outrage in a corpus of literature—novels, short stories, plays, poetry—and songs produced during 1943 and 1944. The famine was given “social,” “political,” and “emotional” values by becoming what Gennifer Weisenfeld has called a “visible evidence” of colonial and capitalist extraction.11 While the Bengal famine left its trail in the official and political literature of journalistic surveys and statistical records,12 in the domain of cultural representation it triggered radically new terms and dynamics of visuality and representation. By late 1943, hunger and destitution became shared content in the palpable cultural production that emerged around the famine, the image of the starving rural migrant appearing in literature, plays, painting, and sculpture. The famine also spawned a genre of (visual) reportage that combined journalistic texts and statistical surveys and data, as well as paintings, drawings, or photographs of famine victims. Artists across the board responded to the famine: there were adherents to the orientalist “Indian style,” who had till then portrayed lyrical mythological subjects or idealized rural genre paintings; there were those trained in European academic realist styles, who through the 1930s had been turning toward urban subjects but were now forced to rethink figurations of the grotesque; and there were new formations, like the Calcutta Group of artists formed in 1943, who saw in the famine an urgent need to imagine a new modernist idiom via social realism. Representing famine required a dramatic overhaul of figurative tropes and active experimentation with the possibilities of realism. Under the shadow of the famine, realism became a radical tool in the visual arts, and the Communist Party of India (CPI) its keen and active patron.

The famine marked the consolidation of cultural platforms that the left had been developing since the mid-1930s. The CPI had been banned by the colonial state of British India since 1934, and operated underground through the 1930s, informally entering political and cultural forums like the dominant political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), the newly formed peasant congress, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS, formed in 1936), or the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA or PWA, also formed in 1936). It was only in 1942, following the German attack on the Soviet Union, when the CPI went against the tide of the nationalist movement by pledging support for the imperial war effort for the cause of the Soviet Union, that it was legalized. Even as the CPI began establishing new cultural forums like the Friends of the Soviet Union (1941) and the Youth Cultural Institute (1941), which became the Anti-Fascist Writers’ and Artists’ Association (AFWAA, 1942), it was the famine of 1943 that gave the party a new mission in the cultural field, as it distanced itself from anti-imperial direct political agitations. Through relief work and famine awareness campaigns, the CPI found a new legitimacy in the political field that it had been lacking during the high noon of the Quit India movement of 1942. Under CPI General Secretary P. C. Joshi, artists, writers, and activists were brought together to “represent” the famine; the party organ, People’s War, and its regional counterparts like Janayuddha (in Bengal) were transformed into visual scapes where a new genre of famine reportage was being generated. Artist-cadres like Chittaprosad and, soon after, Somnath Hore, were key contributors. The famine also triggered the foundation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA, 1943), which sought to introduce “new revolutionary motifs”13 to cultural production. Visual reportage in the pages of People’s War and its regional organs, touring famine exhibitions, and IPTA performances held across the country at peasant congresses and anti-fascist cultural congregations were foundational to what has been memorialized as the “Marxist cultural movement.”

A famine, it has been argued, is less an “event” than a “continuum”14—of gradually growing scarcities as well as lingering afterlives of destitution and mortality. Scholars have sought to “delink” the famine from 1943, arguing rather for the longue durée footprints of it, dating not only back to the British exploitation of colonial subjects of this frontier province as the war front but also, and more significantly, forward to the peculiar “time pattern” in the persistence of the famine post-1943/44, seen in growing mortality rates over the following years.15 While the famine reveals a shadow narrative in which Europe’s colonies were indeed the little-acknowledged theaters of WWII,16 its embeddedness within the momentum of the closing decade of anticolonial struggle kept its own histories marginal to the national narratives of struggle, partition and the arrival of freedom. The famine was followed soon after by communal riots, genocide, and partition of the province in 1947, on the eve of India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan, prompting a new spate of refugee influx to Calcutta. The Bengal famine, it has been argued, had “brutalized the consciousness”17 of the population, and was a “psychological prelude” to the riots that scorched Calcutta in August 1946, a year before the partition of India.18

By predating the genocide and displacements of 1947, the famine in fact set the terms through which the region could enter the “promise” of freedom: the moment of arrival into freedom for Bengal, one could argue, was also the moment of multiple displacements. Such displacements were, on the one hand, structural and socioeconomic: the refugee exodus from the famine of 1943 accelerated post-partition with fresh spates in 1947, and further through the 1950s through the 1970s, while the region negotiated porous borders, political turbulence, and new civil wars across the border in East Pakistan—the pre-partition East Bengal—as it fought for its own liberation from (West) Pakistan in 1970–71. On the other hand, displacements were also ontological: in Hore’s Wounds, for instance, hunger and destitution could be seen as becoming metaphors for the region, entering artworks (and cultural imaginaries, particularly in films and literature) from the region as obsessive content and, indeed, the vernacular form of (postcolonial) modernity itself. Decolonization cast a long shadow here, and dis/placed the region vis-à-vis the new “national-modern” imaginary of postcolonial India under the new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The relatively few studies of post-1940 art in Bengal repeat the trope of “politics in art and the politics of art,”19 identifying the famine as a blanket cause for a social realist turn in art,20 or over-determining this art by a left-wing cultural momentum.21 Yet rather than being an overarching cause for political art, the famine activated multiple and contesting forms of art becoming political. The 1940s—with war, famine, genocide, and partition at the arrival of independence—created, in the words of Antonio Gramsci, a “conjunctural terrain.” Beyond being art’s new “content,” this conjuncture became a ground upon which multiple “forces of opposition”—social, political, and aesthetic—were organized.22 A conjuncture, as Stuart Hall has noted, following Gramsci, is a moment of “crisis” during which multiple contradictions “come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape”—they “condense” and trigger radical “change,” though “the nature of their resolution is not a given.”23 A conjunctural reading of the Bengal famine, as attempted by historian Janam Mukherjee in recent times,24 opens up new possibilities for studying art via entanglements of (artistic) form and history, art and politics. The question of “representation” itself becomes conflicted here, putting under pressure the assumed idealism of seeing the nation as a site of abstract beauty, or from the position of an idealized rural quotidian as has been dominant in the Indian modernist canon.

Thinking conjuncturally, according to Hall, “involves ‘clustering’ or assembling elements into a formation,” tracking divergences rather than “adding up[s].” The conjunctural need not reside in a “simple unity” nor in a “single ‘movement,’” but rather may be found in artworks and practices tied together in “fused but contradictory dispersion”—in the ways in which artists of the same generation (or period) do different kinds of work, shift their trajectories over time, return to where they began, or follow a style or a subject obsessively “long after its ‘moment’ has passed.”25 The circular potential of Hall’s decentered notion of the conjunctural drives the afterlives—concrete as well as metaphoric—of the famine, and helps to rethink the conjuncture beyond the period of crisis—through memory, obsessions, and also, along the echoes of Hore’s concluding note in his autobiography, a left-wing melancholia. If melancholia, as Enzo Traverso has suggested, “resides in imagination, not doctrine,”26 aesthetic form, as we will encounter it in the course of the book, can allow wider participatory histories of the cultural left that are both tied to and independent from the rationalities and histories of the political left. They also remain attuned to recurring conjunctures that echo historical pasts within the longue durée of decolonization. The status of the “event” or a disaster in art—often frozen in tropes of representation—when retrieved and read via recurrence as metaphor or metonym—or the “vexed and asymmetric space of hindsight”—generates radical historiographical possibilities.27 Seen through the singularity of the event and the circularity of its afterlives, the Bengal famine and the region’s experience of the 1940s at large offer clues for writing conjunctural histories of art, the left, and the long decolonization in South Asia, opening up, as for my project in this book, the historical question of the political in art.

The contradictions within Hall’s conjuncture, when read along with Pierre Bourdieu’s view of the “field of cultural production” not as one of coherence or objective consensus, but of “struggle” with “all the contradictions it engenders”28—take us closer to the idea of the political. Struggles and “position-takings,” which constitute and hold together the system of the artistic field, also provide, Bourdieu rightly noted, its temporal dimension, its historicity.29 Such historicity thus comprises rhetorical acts—agendas, projections, manifestos, and counter-propositions, of both affirmation and negation—and generate, in effect, the political content of the artistic field. The question of artistic style becomes central to this dynamic of the political as art’s historicity; styles become fronts, as Susan Sontag has noted, behind which “other issues, ultimately ethical and political” are debated.30 Pursued more closely, this question of style, and the aesthetic conflict around it, can reveal critical possibilities for destabilizing the often-assumed symbiosis between art and nationalism in the post/colony, or for rethinking modernity in postcolonial art beyond modernism’s affirmations.

The Bengal famine played a critical role in such destabilizations. Via its ruptures—sensorial, imaginational, and discursive—new negotiations between self and society, nation and locality, were identified. The famine ruptured the sensorial domain and attached new values to visualities and new vocabularies to the discourses on vision, the nation, and the modern. For cultural production in Bengal in the 1940s, aesthetics—in its spatial, sensorial and ethical regimes—framed in the words of Reinhart Koselleck, the “space of experience,” and continued to cast shadows over the “horizons of expectations”31 that the region could envision in postcolonial times; aesthetics became also what Paul Ricoeur has called the “site of initiative”—a productive ground for both observation and action—more than experience and imagination, and providing in effect a participatory and potentially partisan space.32 Aesthetics—the question of vision and the values of beauty itself—shaped the historicity and historiography of the region, and thus lies at the core of understanding the conjunctural terrain of decolonization.


1. All quotes here are from a 2009 translation of Somnath Hore’s original Amar Chitrabhabana (1992), recommissioned by Seagull Books after its first 1992 English translation, which accompanied Hore’s Wounds exhibition at the Seagull Foundation. See Hore, My Concept of Art, 25–26.

2. Hore, My Concept of Art, 29–31.

3. Hore, Santiniketan, 1/11/1991, My Concept of Art, 61–63.

4. See Pradhan, Marxist Cultural Movement in India.

5. See, for instance, Ginwala, “So Many Hungers.”

6. Greenough, Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal.

7. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines; Amartya Sen, The Political Economy of Hunger.

8. Stephens, Monsoon Morning, 178.

9. Stephens, Monsoon Morning, 184.

10. Issues of Anandabazar Patrika and Amrita Bazaar Patrika between July and October 1943. Srimanjari, Through War and Famine; Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal.

11. Weisenfeld, Imaging Disaster, 6.

12. See Kali Charan Ghosh, Famines in Bengal, 1770–1943; Bhowani Sen, Rural Bengal in Ruins; Ela Sen, Darkening Days; Tarakchandra Das, Bengal Famine (1943).

13. First Bulletin of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, reprinted in Pradhan, Marxist Cultural Movement in India, 147.

14. On expanding the “chronology of famine,” see Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal, 11.

16. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, 200–15.

16. See Madhushree Mukherjee, Churchill’s Secret War; Khan, The Raj at War.

17. Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal, 1905–1947, 74.

18. Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal, 18.

19. See Chilka Ghosh, Chhobir Bishoy, Bishoyer Chhobi, which translates roughly as “Content of Art, Art of Content”; see also Sandipan Bhattacharya, Chhobir Rajniti, Rajniti-r Chhabi (“Politics of Art, Art of Politics”); and more recently, a chapter on visual art and the left in Anuradha Roy, Cultural Communism in Bengal.

20. See Som, “Bangla-r Chitrakala o Bhashkarje Pragati Chetana-r Dhara,” 353–74; Sripantha, Daya; Nikhil Sarkar, A Matter of Conscience; Nercam, Peindre au Bengale (1939–1977); Mallik, “Social Realism in the Visual Arts.”

21. See Ghosh, Chhabir Bishoy; also Chilka Ghosh, “The Sight/Site of Woman in the Art of the Forties,” 22–29; Anuradha Roy, Cultural Communism in Bengal.

22. Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, 178.

23. Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey in conversation. See Hall and Massey, “Interpreting the Crisis,” 57–58.

24. Janam Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal, 12.

25. Hall, “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain,” 3.

26. Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, xiv–xv.

27. McLean, The Event and Its Terrors, 2.

28. Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed,” in Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 34.

29. Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods,” in Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, 106.

30. Sontag, “On Style,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 18.

31. Koselleck, Futures Past, 258–59.

32. For a detailed discussion of Reinhart Koselleck and Paul Ricoeur around historical experience and imagination, see Boven, “Metaphor and Metamorphosis,” 152.