A lot has been written and said about the countless famines India suffered under the British Raj. Of them, the most infamous was The Great Bengal Famine. The first of these was in 1770, followed by several severe ones in 1783, 1866, 1873, 1892, 1897 and lastly 1943-44.
However, not many know that Odisha suffered greatly during the famine due to the lack of empathy and negligence by the British Rulers. The ghastly famine of 1865-66 wiped out almost one-third of Odisha’s population. Often referred to as ‘Na’anka Durbhikhya’, the calamity was the sole result of apathy on the part of the British Empire, which chose to remain mute spectators during the drought and engineered what was one of history’s biggest genocides.
The famine wrecked havoc specially in Coastal Odisha and adjoining areas.
While searching for photographs and information about the famine, chances are that you would stumble upon Bengal and Madras famines but there is very less documentation of the famine situation in Odisha. This spurred three Odia artists to take upon themselves the job of spreading awareness through various forms of artistic expressions.
Painters Ramakanta Samantray, Susanta Kumar Panda and installation artist Smrutikanta Rout collaborated to create 21 paintings and terracotta installations to depict the devastation caused by the famine.
The multimedia exhibition titled ‘Famine’ was hosted by the Department of Culture at the Odisha State Archives in Bhubaneswar. The show commenced on the International Archives Day and was on display until 9th July.
Here’s a glimpse of the art works:
The three-dimensional terracotta installation depicts the journey of starving people and animals to a food camp – ‘anna chatra’.
At least 70 terracotta figurines of people are shown walking towards a food camp with corpses flanking the road that leads to a place where Britishers are overseeing food distribution.
Apart from the figurines, there were sketches, which depict the story of the after-effects of famine, including the fight for food that ensued among the people and deaths due to starvation.
In one of the paintings, Samantray and Panda show a frail man holding a bag of rice and lying helplessly beneath a huge tree, bereft of leaves. Vultures seem to be looming in the background, waiting to feed upon his dead body.
The artists chose the language of Company School and Indian School of Painting to give an archival look to the paintings. All the canvases were also treated with tea to make them look old. Mostly done in brown and black, the paintings have little use of other colours. Emphasis was given to shading and lines in the paintings and drawings. To give a three-dimensional look, the artists pasted drawings of trees and birds on the paintings, instead of drawing them directly on the canvas.
The exhibition is a staunch reminder that Odisha’s history is not documented well enough, given that there is not adequate research on the issue at all. An attempt to remind us of this catastrophe, it also shatters the illusion of ‘Golden Rule’ during the British Raj.
[Photos Courtesy: Amit Jana]