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Making Democratic Art

Vijay Prashad

By Arjun Ghosh
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 293, Rs.199.00


In 1942, artists who had been inspired by the freedom movement, by the anti-fascist struggle and by the sweep of Communism formed the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Among their serried ranks were Prithviraj Kapoor, Ravi Shankar, Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak and so many more familiar and unfamiliar names, whose talents built up the various culture industries of Independent India. They wanted to make art that was socially relevant and that was in some way an adjutant to the freedom movement. The Bengal Famine of 1943 provided them with the spur. The Communist leader P. C. Joshi took along the photographer Sunil Janah and the artist Chittoprasad to Bengal to document the horrendous famine that would claim between one and four million lives. Joshi’s dispatches, Janah’s photographs and Chittoprasad’s art were published in People’s Age, which was the first periodical to expose the famine and British complicity in it. Artists in the orbit of IPTA put their considerable energy to render the famine into art to reach the largest number of people. The dancer Shanti Bardhan composed Bhookha Hai Bengal, a dance drama that raised large sums of money toward famine relief. IPTA’s Bijon Bhattacharya wrote Nabanna, a play, to do the same kind of work. This work would culminate in Dharti Ke Lal, the 1946 debut film from K.A. Abbas (written by Bhattacharya and Abbas) that starred Zohra Sehgal and Balraj Sahni, and told the story of the Bengal famine from the standpoint of one peasant family. It is the direct precursor to the postcolonial socialist realist classic, Do Bigha Zamin, 1953. IPTA ran out of steam for a variety of reasons by the 1970s. By 1973, its Delhi unit had become moribund, with the office used by IPTA members for their own business dealings. It took a dozen young college students associated with the Students Federation of India to galvanize IPTA into a new formation, the Jana Natya Manch. It is remarkable how much the DNA of Janam (as the group would be called) was derived from the early IPTA—the same fierce talent, the same orientation toward the people, and the same affiliation with the Communist movement. Both could just as well have begun each of their shows with this exhortation from Sahir, Chalo ke aaj sabhi paaye maal roohon se Kahen ke apne har ek zakhm ko zabaan kar den Hamaara raaz hamaara nahin, ...

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