Four historical moments of food scarcity in India and Britain, from the late sixteenth century to the present, are at the heart of a graphic anthology edited by Ayesha Mukherjee, Abhijit Gupta, Sujit Kumar Mandal, and Shrutakirti Dutta. Published by Jadavpur University Press, Famine Tales: An Anthology, is the result of a collaborative research project between the University of Exeter, UK, and Jadavpur University, India, undertaken between 2016 and 2019.

The four moments of scarcity are late 1590s Britain (“Famine in Shakespeare-land”); the Midlands Rising of 1607 (“Rebel Caption Pouch”); the Famine in Gujarat in 1630 (“The Tale of Mundy Sahib”), and the Bengal Famine of 1769-70 (known as “Chiattorer mannantar” in Bengal).

History told in two voices

What is delightful about the book is that there are two versions of every story – one by traditional scroll painters (or patachitrakars, of Naya village, Midnapore, West Bengal) and the other by modern comic artists (practising in Kolkata). The versions also have their own names: “Famine in Shakespeare-land”, for example, is told as “Shekkhopir-Deshe Durbhikkha” and “The Vagrant’s Dream”. Each brings with it its unique flavour of storytelling. Those who are more inclined towards poetry will find themselves revisiting the rhymed stanzas of the patuas (translated competently into English by Ayesha Mukherjee) even as they read the anthology. This is also a great way to introduce children to stories of famine, which might otherwise challenge their understanding of food scarcity, and what that can mean in real terms. One may mention here the illustrated memoir of Somenath Hore brought out by Akar Prakar in 2021, titled Wounds, where the impact of the Bengal Famine of 1943 on the artist is very sensitively told, keeping in mind its intended young readers.

One of the most compelling verses composed by the Naya patuas for Famine Tales (at least to this reviewer) appears in “Chiattorer mannantar”:

In seventeen sixty-nine, in Bengal drought abides, /Green fields turned to straw, Hunter Sahib describes.
Abandoned land, so many lay dead; /So many in tears to Nepal had fled.
The very devil was this famine, sheerest hell; /As poems, and lays, and witnesses tell:
“Rivers and streams all withered and parched, /Starving millions to hell have marched.
All our rice is in the market sold, /Ensures Reza Khan, corrupt and bold.
Monopoly thrives, prices touch the skies, /The famine of ’76 our soul terrifies.
Man and wife forsake their child compelled by hungry need, /Many starve or fall upon filthy scraps to feed”.
Rents eked out though doom impends, /Rose tenfold next year; famine didn’t end.
Living on leaves and grass, no respite at all, /Some men upon human flesh must fall.
When smallpox struck, thousands dying lay, /Wild animals stalked and mangled their prey.

It may be noted that patachitra is a composite art that includes not just painting, but verses accompanying it, which are sung and performed by the patuas as they travel from village to village. The present anthology thus necessarily presents an incomplete version of the art, minus the music and performance. But it compensates as “a new and original repertoire of narrative poems and scroll paintings” created by the legendary Dukhushyam Chitrakar and his team of artists – Jahanara Chitrakar, Rabbani Chitrakar, Rahim Chitrakar, Rahman Chitrakar, Rupjan Chitrakar, and Ushiara Chitrakar.

The versions of the tales by modern comics artists often employ double narratives, either interlinking the historical moments with contemporary times, or interweaving dreams into it. Shekhar Mukherjee’s ‘Mundy Sahib’s Diary Fictionalized!’ is an example of the former, where parallel to a graphic adaptation of Captain Mundy’s diary, we are given stories of forced migration and migrant labour in India since the Partition; while Trinankur Banerjee’s ‘The Vagrant’s Dream’ is a case in point for the latter, where a vagrant to London dreams up a tale while watching Falstaff on stage in the Globe Theatre. The results are not always convincing.

Aratrika Choudhury’s “1607: The Rising” is one of the most striking of the comics narratives – with its grim human and animal figures lending a nightmarish dimension to a tale of hunger and rebellion. Argha Manna and Debkumar Mitra interestingly deal with the most devastating of all famines in the subcontinent – that of 1770, which claimed 10 million lives – by framing their narrative as an imaginary dialogue between themselves and the colonial administrator William Hunter.

Famines, not just a colonial curse

The greatest USP of the book is that it allows a comparative understanding of famine and food insecure regimes in both Britain and India – busting the myth of it being only a colonial curse in India. That Britain itself faced famine long before it inflicted it on India must be a startling fact for many.

The book has anthologised the graphic narratives created during the research collaboration between Jadavpur University and the University of Exeter; for more detailed information on source materials, one may visit the project’s web archive.

The anthology ends with six vignettes, ranging from poems by Kabir to one on famine by Dukhushyam Chitrakar. “By bringing them together”, the editors say in the Introduction, “we attempt to give the reader an impression of how the rhetoric and philosophy of dearth developed across time in Indian literary traditions, and how modern artists might respond to and appropriate this literature”.

The beginning of the book is, however, more telling. Phullarar Bhoj (Phullarar’s Feast), a short tale from the 16th century Chandimangal composed by Mukundaram Chakravarti, recounts the year-long food shortage experienced by a poor hunter’s wife. Sarbajit Sen merges that tale in his comics version (“Landscapes in the Mist”) with his experience of working in Loleygaon, “a sleepy Lepcha village in the East Himalayan ridge.” It brings into sharp focus a continual history of food scarcity and hunger in the subcontinent, much like Mrinal Sen’s film, In Search of Famine (1980), where a director and his crew go to shoot a film on the Bengal Famine of 1943 in a remote village of West Bengal and discover to their astonishment that the famine is not a thing of the past; its spectral presence continues in the hunger of the people of rural Bengal. That hunger has probably never quite been eradicated in the decades since.

Famine Tales: A Graphic Anthology, edited by Ayesha Mukherjee, Abhijit Gupta, Sujit Kumar Mandal, and Shrutakirti Dutta, Jadavpur University Press.