- Museum number
This drawing by the Bangladeshi artist, Zoinul Abedin shows a family struck by the Bengal Famine of 1942. Painted in Chinese ink on paper in broad brush strokes. He is remembered today for his powerful realist aesthetic bordering on social enquiry.
The drawing was published on the cover of the book, 'Darkening Days' by Ela Sen in 1943. Banned by the British authorities, it chronicled the slow death by starvation of millions of Bengali peasants during the WWII years.
- Production date
Length: 45 centimetres
Width: 29 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- 1. Zoinul Abedin (1914-1976) trained, like his contemporary Jamini Roy, at the Government School of Art in Calcutta and thus faced many of the same political and aesthetic challenges. However, he is remembered today for his powerful realist aesthetic bordering on social enquiry, which was his own response to the turmoil felt in the run up to India’s Independence.
2. Abedin’s ‘Famine Sketches’ of the 1940s are his most remarkable which, when exhibited in 1944, brought him widespread critical acclaim. The misery of the starving people during the great man-made famine of Bengal in 1943 touched him deeply. Making his own ink by burning charcoal and using it on cheap packing paper, he depicted people dying by the road-side in search of a bit of food. Abedin did not just document the famine, but in his sketches the famine showed its sinister face through the skeletal figures of people fated to die of starvation in an avoidable tragedy, which claimed more than 3 million lives. Abedin depicted this inhuman story with very human emotion; his drawings have thus become iconic images of human suffering.
3. Abedin’s drawings of the Bengal Famine of 1943 have thus become his most iconic and yet they are extremely rare. This is the first time I have seen an Abedin drawing in an international sale.
4. This work therefore adds to our understanding of Bengal, the history of the British in India/Bengal, and the human story that this journey entailed. It amplifies our already rich holdings form 19th and early 20th C Bengal and is an important record from undivided Bengal as Abdein was a from a Muslim background and has since been ‘claimed’ as a national hero of Bangladesh.
Zainul Abedin BY Emilia Terracciano
(Courtauld Institute of Art and V&A PhD scholar)
This remarkable work is part of a large series of sketches made with black ink and brush by artist Zainul Abedin during the Bengal Famine 1943-44 in Calcutta. The drawing in question was published on the cover of the book, Darkening Days, written by Ela Sen in 1943. Banned by the British authorities, Darkening Days chronicled the slow death by starvation of millions of Bengali peasants during the WW2 years. Men, women and children had thronged the streets of Calcutta in the hope of finding food and water. Although Abedin was trained in the academic, realist technique at the Calcutta Government School of Art from 1933-38, he developed an expressionistic style to convey the horror of the man-made famine. Influenced by Japanese painting and calligraphy, the artist refused to adopt the traditional language of oil painting to convey the tragedy of the famine. Reducing all details to the minimum, Abedin depicted his figures with thick black ink lines on coarse wrapping paper.
In this evocative drawing, signed and dated by the artist in the right-hand corner, Abedin uses sharp, curving strokes to depict three figures in flight: a mother and her two children. The half-clad figures are placed squarely at the centre of the picture plane. The mother can be seen holding an empty food bowl while the younger child carries the emaciated body of a baby. Unlike most of Abedin’s sketches, where family members are dispersed, the three human bodies in this sketch convey the idea of a single, compact unit. The mother’s outstretched arm, which embraces her younger child, enhances the precarious familial cohesion. The suggestion of the pedestrian footpath beside the road and the lamppost are carefully chosen elements that enhance the utter helplessness of the victims. As is often the case, none of the figures looks out towards the viewers, suggesting their condition of hapless victims. The drawing, a study composed not from models but worked out from memory and hurriedly written notes, explores the possibility of arrangement and composition in order to enhance pathos.
- Not on display
- Associated events
- Associated Event: Bengal Famine 1943
- Acquisition date
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