While we may not be holed up in bunkers just yet, eating canned food, rationing essentials and scrambling for hospital beds and medicine have now become muscle memory born of scarcity, which in turn has been birthed by a crumbling social order in the wake of a fatal virus. Even though deprivation has long been an enduring reality on earth, its invisibilisation has been employed as a political tool by consecutive regimes across the world to create delusions of plenty — until it was recently upended yet again.

Unsurprisingly, famines have found negligible mention in primary academic curriculums in India and abroad, despite being an imposing presence in Indian literature and the arts, especially in the Bengali canon. With the systematic erasure of scarcity as a tangible and lived actuality underlining our collective and individual lives — especially in the shadow of modern, urban superstructures — the word 'famine' has been increasingly lent a mythical purport. 'Famine Tales from India and Britain' aims to debunk said misbeliefs by illustrating episodes of the phenomenon as recorded in history from 1550 to 1800, as well as in folklore and literature. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and authored collaboratively by University of Exeter and Jadavpur University, the project brings together a family of traditional Patachitrakarsor scroll painters, from West Bengal's Naya village, and a group of graphic artists from Kolkata, who capture the essence of famines and dearth through their personal idioms and interpretations of the phenomenon.

"The main research project that led to this project was called 'Famine and Dearth'. I have been working on famines for a very long time. When we started the 'Famine and Dearth Project', the idea was to really recover the historical and literary sources that relate to famine pre-1800," says project lead Professor Ayesha Mukherjee, who is an Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the Department of English and Film in University of Exeter. While she acknowledges that incidents of the Irish famine, the 1943 Bengal Famine, and 'chhiattorer monnontor', or the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 have gained space in popular imagination, it is the historical premise of the phenomenon that lacks widespread awareness.

Dukhushyam Chitrakar

"It started with wanting to look at the longer history of famines in both India and Britain, and also look at the interaction between the two countries, because that starts from the late 16th century, with early British travel to India," she says. Soon enough, the scholar stumbled upon shocking parallels in incidences of famines in India and Britain from the aforementioned period.

"In the 1590s, you have severe famine in almost all of England, and similarly, in Akbar's India, you have famines almost in the same years. And there is that sort of pattern again in the 1630s, and again... So that kind of struck us as quite bizarre...it struck me as quite bizarre. I thought this needs to be a much larger investigation, rather than me just sitting and collecting this material," Mukherjee says.

The work of compiling the database began in 2014, and continued for the next two-and-a-half years in collaboration with Jadavpur University's School of Cultural Texts and Records, until a comprehensive compendium of famine literature was in place for the reference of researchers on a public domain.

When Mukherjee decided on having certain chapters from her research pictorially depicted, nearly two years of deliberation and dialogue with colleagues ensued, ultimately leading her to liaise with the artists of Naya. It is a village steeped in memories of scarcity brought about by corrosive urbanisation. For the scholar, the Patachitrakars of the village seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and were not merely a community of regional painters making "pretty images", chosen at random.

The village — where almost every family bears the last name of 'Chitrakar' (literally meaning 'artist') — in west Midnapore bordering the state of Odisha constitutes a self-sufficient ecosystem of painters who produce colours and other wares required for their art in their literal backyards. Much like the rest of rural India practising agriculture, this settlement of 962 families (according to the 2011 Census) has lived through its fair share of food and livelihood crises in the past. "The project resonates with the broader environmental concerns that they have experience of," says Mukherjee. The idea was to start a cross-cultural exchange on the subject of food security and scarcity. "Getting them onboard opened up a new perspective for me. I also had to think about how I would communicate, say, a story about a famine in Shakespeare's time to an artist in Naya. I couldn't just say look, here are the sources, go and read them and tell your story. At the same time, I did not want to impose my interpretation of that famine on them, because they are also a community that has faced shortage in all kinds of ways and continue to."

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Dukhushyam Chitrakar's family painting a scroll

The family of Dukhushyam Chitrakar has been commissioned to paint a collection of six stories that include the accounts of Peter Mundy, a poor pilchard merchant from Britain's Cornwall who travelled to India as an employee of the East India Company and witnessed the notorious famine of Gujarat in the 1630s; 'Phullara'r baromashya' (Phullara's feast) — an episode from the Bengali Mangalkabyo tradition of oral narrative poetry that tells the story of a poor hunter's wife who scrounges for food throughout her life; 'chhiattorer monnontor' or the Great Bengal Famine of 1770; stories of famine in Shakespeare's England, and the 17th century Midlands Rising, featuring the curious character of John Reynolds, better known as Captain Pouch.

The final one is a collection of illustrations based on six short lyrics or poems speaking of dearth, titled 'Kangaler Gaan' (The Destitute's Song), boasting verses by artistes and poets such as Kabir, Ramprasad Sen, Harinath Majumdar (a folk-singer popularly known as 'Kangal Harinath', who also lends his name to the collection), verses from Sufi Tazkira, and Dukhushyam himself, as Patachitrakars not only paint on scrolls, but orally perform their stories for an audience too.

Bringing in a more urban perspective are the six graphic artists, all of who have been entrusted with illustrating a story and a lyric each. The exercise efficiently juxtaposes an urban reading of the phenomenon against a rural one, thereby holistically exploring the subject of famines.

Traditionally, the art of scroll painting has been long associated with East-Asian cultures like China and Japan, among others. "If you go to these countries, you'll see how they incorporate scrolls in contemporary advertising even to this day," says Sujit Mandal, Associate Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature in Jadavpur University, who is serving as one of the investigators on the 'Famine Tales' Project. He draws my attention to how modern graphic narratives are evolved and adapted versions of scroll paintings themselves. An illusion of movement is created in them, with different characters being introduced through the span of the story.

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Dukhushyam Chitrakar with Professor Ayesha Mukherjee and Sujit Mandal

Meanwhile, in the 1830s, a parallel school of illustrative storytelling in Calcutta emerged around the city's Kalighat temple — a religious and commercial hub with a market enveloping the holy site — to which folk artists from the outskirts flocked. Here, they sought to create a whole new idiom of art to aid commerce. The 'pat', or canvas, was abbreviated to a single four-sided tile — or chouko pat — that captured vignettes of everyday-life in Calcutta as witnessed by customers, who were essentially devotees and foreigners. According to Mandal, this metamorphosed Patachitra can be identified as the predecessor to what came to be known as 'calendar art'.

The episodic and dynamic nature of scrolls went missing from the Kalighat rendition, only to be replaced by static, solitary scenes with "implicit meanings and themes". This rural to urban migration of the form also meant change in the law of authorship for the art; traditionally, Patachitra is considered a communal activity undertaken by families of chitrakars, owing to which no single artist undersigns a painting. However, in the Kalighat order, individual ownership of artworks was normalised to encourage business of mementos, as marketplace painters churned out paintings on request that would be completed within the time a client wrapped up their trip to the temple. The Naya artists working on 'Famine Tales' employ both the indigenous and the Kalighat chouko pat styles to illustrate different stories.

"There seems to be a close stylistic association between Bengal's scroll paintings and Rajasthan's miniature paintings. I am assuming they were connected in some manner in the past," says Mandal. "However, they were different in a lot of aspects as well, and artist Jamini Roy upheld these stylistic differences and similarities rather beautifully. As one knows, he was born in the patuapara [roughly translating to 'a neighbourhood of scroll painters'] of Bankura's Beliatore village, and began his career by painting with the patuas. The foundation of his oeuvre has always been Patachitra, which is something he proudly proclaimed even after gaining recognition. If one looks at Jamini Roy's human figures, one will notice how their arms and structures are rotund — a conventional sign of prosperity. This is a rather significant feature of Patachitra in general," Mandal points out.

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But for a community of artists struggling to keep their heads above water, the idea of opulence is jarringly antithetical — almost vulgar — to their existence. This antithesis, however, is indispensable to the art form, allowing its practitioners to disguise their sorrows and lack in innuendoes of abundance. "Patachitra is inherently not equipped to show starvation. So every time the Patachitrakars drew a portly figure, we had to intervene and ask, 'Why are they so fat and round? These people should be starving!' So the artists would then erase the figure and make it thinner," Ayesha Mukherjee laughs. Ultimately, the folk artists decided on adding lines, shadows and dark patches under the eyes and ribs of the characters to depict their starved condition, but without compromising on the traditional aesthetic of their craft.

Historically, the cloaking of deprivation with wordplays on plenty — a trope meticulously used through the whole of Phullara'r baromashya — has permitted Patachitrakars to keep their audiences enthralled in exchange for alms. After all, penury is not the best appetiser for entertainment. "It's not in their tradition to explicitly show dearth. Since they are a rural community that has not only faced food shortage but lack in every other sense, every time they paint, they, in fact, mostly speak in opposites. They do not show the dark sides of life," Mukherjee says, almost immediately evoking images of famine by artists Chittoprasad Bhattacharya and Zainul Abedin.

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Kabir's verses on hunger and starvation illustrated

Flipping through Bhattacharya's Hungry Bengal, a journalistic documentation of the 1943 Bengal Famine through ink sketches and annotations, is an exercise in gut-wrenching unease. Both Abedin and Bhattacharya had travelled to the remotest corners of the state to capture the everyday ravages of a raging famine, to produce vivid images of gaunt, skeletal figures begging for life and subsistence. Over the decades, these paintings have gone on to form the bedrock for how famines are popularly perceived and imagined in Bengal. "Theirs was a modern aesthetic, and was strongly influenced by European realism, in which case, the entire method of figure-drawing was different [as compared to the aesthetic and style of Patachitrakars]," Ayesha says.

As outlandish as it was for the folk artists to correlate the term 'dearth' with 'bilet' (traditionally understood as 'Britain', or the seat of monarchy, in Bengali) initially, they soon made peace with (and found comfort in) the thought that hunger and poverty were not exclusive to their lives — the white man had his tryst with them too. "They could especially relate to a rebellious character like Captain Pouch. He was an itinerant, and also did part-time jobs as a labourer in farms. He became one of the leaders of the diggers who started this protest against the enclosure of the common land. So his story, and also stories of famines from Shakespeare's time, bear a strong cross-cultural element, which is what we were aiming for. These stories not only resonated with Dukhushyam, but also our graphic artists working on them," Mukherjee says, explaining how certain agrarian grievances are common to rural economies across the world.

The Patachitrakars would eagerly inquire about how to best illustrate the Captain's jhola or pouch that he had on his person at all times; in other instances, the project supervisors would have to intervene and fine-tune specific elements being depicted — for example, a hut in the British countryside — in order to preserve historicity.

While it takes an entire household to create a 'pat', with each member assigned a particular task in the affair, the division of labour — both artistic and logistical — is conventionally gendered. The Chitrakar women —daughters Ushiara and Jahanara, along with Dukhushyam's wife and granddaughters — procure and produce the natural paints and dyes, while the men put pen (or in this case, paint) to paper. "We wanted to ensure that the women of the family are given their due credit, as it is not usually a practice, which is why their names have been prominently mentioned on the project website," Sujit Mandal points out. Additionally, Ushiara and Jahanara have been requested to paint a Kalighat chouko pat each, with their names undersigned.

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While on the subject of paints, graphic artist and cartoonist Sarbajit Sen — entrusted with the illustration of Phullara'r baromashya — could never have imagined that his encounter with dearth would assume such bizarre tactility in the course of working on the project. In early March this year, with the onset of the pandemic and his fast approaching deadline, Sen woke up to the realisation that he had completely run out of a specific shade of brown that was integral to his artwork. He recounts in his blog the process of producing the pigment at home — much like the Patachitrakars — from kattha or Catechu, an extract from acacia trees that is used in the preparation of paan.

It was not a mere simulation of dearth — for Sen, a rather uncanny laboratory replication of the crisis that he was about to paint had been created. This compelled him into rethinking his approach towards the stories not just as an artist, but as an individual as well. The members of 'Famine Tales' may not have anticipated the pandemic, with their timelines and deadlines getting appreciably derailed in its wake as well, but incidentally, it is now more than ever that the gravity of their work is being manifestly understood.

"For me, this project reconfirmed a connect among them all – displacement and environmental refugees, misery and migration, Kalahandi and farmers committing suicide across India since the 1990s, the development discourse and the enclosure of the commons," says Sarbajit. "From the pages of a medieval narrative poetry (Chandimangal, of which Phullara'r baromashya is an extract) chronicling the miserable lives of the faceless marginal people to a man-made famine of 1943 and, much later, genetically modified crops taking the lives of farmers in India – to the long blood-soaked walk of thousands of migrant labourers, the rejects of the society – during an abrupt, inhuman lockdown a few months ago...there seems to be a continuum. The same despair prevails – the same humiliation and subjugation. This project helped me think again about the complex and polemical issue of food security." After all, a famine is more than just a local misfortune, and bears global implications on demand and supply of food-grain.

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Sarbajit Sen's colour-making at home

A skewed, often diluted perception of the magnitude of famines is observed among people. Sen believes this existing lacuna of knowledge on famines owing to myopic pedagogical curriculums can be effectively plugged with the visual arts. "Unofficial omissions and deletions of many historical truths are aplenty in recent times. Famine and its magnitude or intensity, despite its historical perspective, may not be properly gauged by the people in general. This is where the visual arts have a valid role to play...Any author who writes her/his story inherits the land of that story. Visual arts – comics in particular – I believe, are a strong weapon to assert that inheritance," he tells me.

Upon completion, the illustrations are slated to be published in the form of a coloured graphic novel by the Jadavpur University Press. "There are three or four different outputs of the project. One very solid academic base of the project is the database website, where all the primary sources have been put together and is for the specialists; then there is the book by Ayesha, which she has already written. Now we are looking at a more lay readership, and the comic book is targeted towards the general reader. It is not supposed to be a research or academic book," says Dr Abhijit Gupta, professor at the Department of English in Jadavpur University, who also heads the operations at the university press. Gupta is currently one of the investigators on the project, besides overseeing the publication of the book.

The project has also initiated a collective reflection on famines and scarcity, despite individual representations of the same through the various artworks involved. For Gupta — who was instrumental in choosing the graphic artists for the project — a curious dialectic emerges from the synergy of ideas exchanged between the various members of the initiative. "We have three different groups of people in this project — one is a group of academics led by Ayesha; then there is a group of traditional artisans, artists and performers, who, in a sense, have been doing a kind of storytelling, both oral and visual, for centuries. Third, we have a group of people whose sensibilities are more or less individual. In comic book art, or any kind of modern art, the emphasis is on the individuality of the artist," he says. "The interesting thing is the interaction between the artists and the nature of the material they are dealing with. They are not telling individual stories about their coming of age. It is about urban subjects and distant historical subjects. The artists all come from different classes and positions, and for them to rethink as to who was starving back then, at a time that is historically very distant from us, is interesting."

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Illustration panels from Sarbajit Sen's Phullara'r Baromashya

For Kolkata and London-based artist and scholar Aratrika Choudhury — illustrator of the Midlands Revolt of 1607 involving Captain Pouch — translating the "essence of the situation" is key. Her use of flashbacks and animal imagery to capture the plight of the oppressed is an intriguingly paradoxical attempt to humanise them.

"I am not keen on depicting the people who revolted as individuals with special weapons or costumes like soldiers. These were poor, hungry, anxious people who had no option but to fight even when they knew they might fail," says Choudhury. She believes that the idea of famines receives relatively more attention than the phenomenon of food shortage, and that the project has helped her comprehend the latter's ruthlessness. "Examining food shortage has made me realise exactly how debilitating it can be. It is that stage where every action, thought and nightmare is laced with unbearable, endless anxiety," Aratrika says.

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Panel from Aratrika Choudhury's illustrations of the Midlands Revolt

Science journalist and artist Arghya Manna corroborates her observations. While working on the illustration of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 — in collaboration with artist Debkumar Mitra — crippling imagery of death and bones haunted him, as he harked back to his grandmother's tales of starvation. Chants of “'Maa, phyan dao (Mother, give me some rice water)' were an inseparable part of every story, which would evoke visuals in my head," he tells me. Manna has employed the traditional panel narrative of modern comic books to illustrate a part of the Bengal Famine, besides creating a wordless panorama of "human sufferings" in a 12-foot-long accordion-like foldable book.

While he agrees that images are potent icebreakers for any subject, project fellow Shrutakirti Dutta cautions us about our motivations behind engaging with artwork dealing with poverty of any kind, and urges people to "be wary of an impulse to aestheticise the lived experience of a generation or community".

Having worked closely with the patuas of Naya for 'Famine Tales', Dutta acknowledges that witnessing their stoicism and humour towards the subject was a humbling experience. "Although the famines in question may have been located in unfamiliar lands or in the 16th or 17th century, the unique position of the Patachitrakars allowed them a degree of insight and clarity into the 'famine tales' that was unprecedented. It was wonderful to witness the narrative being competently shaped by those that the narrative most affects," she says.

Graphic designer Trinankur Banerjee — who is yet to see the Patachitra version of his illustrations of the famines in Shakespeare's England — affirms that the folk art rendition of the episodes are likely to bear an "intimacy" that might be missing from his own, owing to their "relative proximity to nature, geographically as well as in their means of production". He also admits that for urban-folk such as him, conversations on famines have been primarily intellectual exercises. "Our generation of urban citizens have suffered from, if anything, an excess of consumption. An idea about famine, therefore, has been shaped more by historical curiosity or through encounters in literature or art," he says.

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Panel from the Patachitra illustration of famines from Shakespeare's time

Colligating these contrasting urban and rural perspectives is artist Sekhar Mukherjee's investigation and illustration of Peter Mundy's journal on the 1630s' Gujarat famine. Mukherjee formulates a surreal exchange between the poor fisherman Mundy, and his 21st century (fictional) urban counterpart, Peter Mondal — a food delivery executive struggling to make ends meet amidst a pandemic. His tinkering with time, space and visual metaphor births an enigmatic recasting of old, obscure stories into familiar, modern-day vignettes. Mukherjee, however, admits to having been relatively more fortunate with his source material, as compared to fellow artists in the project. "The blessing in disguise about this piece is that Peter Mundy himself used to draw along with his notes. So I took full advantage of them and incorporated them in my final story," he says.

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My maiden encounter with 'Famine Tales' happened a month into the lockdown on Instagram, when an image of a pair of female hands grinding a handful of turmeric popped up on my feed. I was led to a couple of more exciting visual excerpts from the initiative upon further investigation of its gram, following which I soon had the opportunity to interact with the hands and brains behind it — Lily Long and Connor Spence, project interns who are students at the University of Exeter. For the duo, juggling social media, blogging, along with planning exhibitions for the project is no mean feat, as it also involves significantly reorienting their knowledge and perceptions of their own British legacies and histories.

For Long, the project has opened up new and creative avenues of having critical dialogues on 'academic' subjects with close ones. "For example, since beginning the project, my father, who dropped out of school at 15 and doesn’t take much interest in academia, has taken a real interest in the artwork and its social commentary and significance. It is also hugely interesting to see the different ways of portraying the same events/figures, and the impact of a rural/urban environment on that portrayal," she says. Lily also points to the shameful colonial history of Britain that engineered the ghastly Bengal Famine of 1943, an incident that next to no one in her country knows about.

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Panels from Sekhar Mukherjee's illustration of Peter Mundy's accounts of the Gujarat famine of 1630, featuring Peter Mondal

Spence admits to having belonged to that faction as well, until the project came as an eye-opener. "Something that I was not actively aware of was how linked the famine history between India and Britain was, especially in terms of post-colonisation, where food insecurity became worse in India as food was exported around the Empire. This is a trend that is worryingly familiar in the curriculum where ‘The Empire’ is a key part of learning, however the impact that colonisation had on indigenous people is glossed over and not fully explored. When becoming familiar with the tales, it was shocking how vast some of these famines were that were made worse as a result of British intervention," he says, before adding that famines are "very much associated with history, and not with the present (another subtle way in which neo-colonialism hides the countries that support our lifestyle)."

The aim is to "decolonise" one's thoughts, as Connor succinctly states, and indulge in a cross-cultural dialogue on the hows and whys of food and resource scarcity, which continues to lurk uncomfortably close to our lives. The idea is to also address the 'Resource Curse', or 'paradox of plenty', in order to find a democratic means of equitably distributing assets, without abusing the resource-owning natives. While hunger was on a steady downward slope in the past few decades globally, it began gathering steam again in 2014, only to get accelerated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

As Trinankur Banerjee, in his closing words, poignantly sums up: "The availability of sufficient nutrition is a basic human entitlement, yet over a quarter of the global population still go moderately to severely hungry each day. While at the other end of the spectrum, the abundance of food is at a historic high" — thereby reminding us again that famines aren't merely cautionary tales.

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All images courtesy 'Famine Tales' project

— Featured image: Panel from Arghya Manna and Debkumar Mitra's illustration of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770