Review: Famine Tales; A Graphic Anthology edited by Ayesha Mukherjee et al
A graphic anthology arising from the collaborative efforts of traditional scroll painters and modern comic artists, Famine Tales from India and Britain seeks to facilitate a comparative understanding of famine, dearth, and food security issues in India and Britain
Among the endless conspiracy theories about Shakespeare, my favourite — and most ludicrous — is that the English poet and playwright was actually a Muslim man called Sheikh Peer! So, I was delighted to encounter a version of Sheikh Peer in the comic Shekkhopir-Deshe Durbhikkha (Famine in Shakespeare-land) in Famine Tales: A Graphic Anthology.
The collection is a visual extravaganza arising from the collaborative efforts of traditional scroll painters and modern comic artists. Its stories are from both India and Britain and have two versions. The first comprises Bengali ditties along with English translations and paintings largely based on historical narratives. A family of artists from Naya village, West Bengal, composed these poems and illustrated them as scroll paintings. Leading them was Dukhushyam Chitrakar, born in 1946 in the patua (scroll painter) community, who followed the Midnapore School of scroll painting. His biographical note mentions that he trained almost all the artists in Naya village in painting and singing. The Famine Tales scrolls were his last substantive body of work before his death in 2022.
The second version is by artists “based in the urban environment of Calcutta”, who adapted the same historical narratives to create stories in diverse visual styles. Both sets of artists have also illustrated works by writers such as Kabir, Wajihuddin Ashraf, and Kangal Phikirchand.
The graphic anthology is part of a larger project by Jadavpur University and the University of Exeter: Famine Tales from India and Britain. It seeks to “facilitate cross-cultural, comparative understanding of famine, dearth, and food security issues in India and Britain”.
Famine in Shakespeare-land is illustrative of this cross-cultural footprint. It references periods of destitution and food riots in Britain during the latter half of the 16th century due to consecutive crop failures. The story does not make any ridiculous claims about Shakespeare’s supposed provenance, though it “appropriates the English playwright as a fellow pir or wandering poet-philosopher, thus drawing Shakespeare into a poetic tradition to which Dukhushyam himself belongs”.
Another such tale is Bidrohi Captain Pouch (Rebel Captain Pouch), set around the Midland Revolt of 1607, during which peasants destroyed “enclosures”. These were common lands they had farmed for generations, which the gentry had fenced off to convert to pasturelands. John Reynolds, the revolt’s leader, was known as Captain Pouch because he always carried a pouch, which he claimed contained an object that could protect the rebels against their enemies.
These stories are notable because there are few instances of Indian artists or writers depicting British experiences. Such asymmetry between the Global North and South is rife in academia and literature. For instance, there is significantly more travel writing on Asian and African countries by White authors than the other way round. The same is true for novels — the only exception that comes to mind is Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. I am glad that Famine Tales broke the mould instead of parroting stories of poverty and misery in South Asia, of which there are plenty.
Besides, famine and hunger are today synonymous with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. By chronicling food shortages and associated rebellions in Britain, even if they occurred four centuries ago, the anthology presents a more comprehensive account of what has historically been a universal phenomenon.
Responsible for the success of this endeavour are the artists’ scroll paintings and Dukhushyam’s verses. Patuas are not just painters but also singers; music is as integral to their storytelling as images. Dukhushyam has infused his Bengali compositions with this musicality — they have a lilting cadence and easily roll off the tongue.
Their English translations by Ayesha Mukherjee are largely rhyming, like the original, though they occasionally have a more formal register, unlike Dukhushyam’s colloquial Bengali. While they do justice to the Bengali version — given the constraints of translation — they could have better approximated the original’s flow if they had been less wordy. Take the line, “Dui pir ke shoron kore likhchhi poter gaan”. In English, it is rendered as “Invoking them together, this my song I write”, perhaps to match the length of the previous line or to whip up a more archaic diction. A simpler translation, such as “Invoking the two, my song I write” would have made the language more free-flowing and closer to Dukhushyam’s version. However, this is a minor point in an otherwise adept translation.
Making a graphic anthology about hunger and famine can be an artistic minefield. The aestheticisation of poverty, saying something meaningful about a topic that has already been the subject of extensive discussion, or making art about a thing one might not have experienced could all derail an endeavour like this.
By using the painting and poetry of the patua community to anchor the narratives, the editors have largely avoided these pitfalls. Hunger and famine have featured in folk forms — the anthology includes an adaptation Phullarar Bhoj (Phullara’s Feast) from a 17th-century manuscript, in which a hunter’s wife laments her lack of food across different months of the year. Besides, poetry, with its recourse to imagery and rhythm, affords more abstraction than other narrative forms. Moreover, Patua artists have been using their art to tell not only mythological tales, but also contemporary ones, such as about Covid-19, working in a post office, and violence against women.
In contrast, some of the works in the anthology by artists using contemporary graphic styles falter in these aspects. A story about a chance encounter with a hungry person peppered with information gleaned from newspaper reports seemingly tries to capture what it is like to not have food, but fails to provide any insights. On the other hand, there are tales like Drawing Disaster: A Lost Sketchbook. Featuring a colonial administrator who chronicled the Odisha famine of 1866 as a character along with a fictional artist, it is a compelling investigation of the socio-political forces that precipitated famines. Tales like these, along with the consistently spectacular illustrations and the patua artists’ opus, make this anthology a stellar achievement.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.