What a powerful book this is! Published in May 1944, Ela Sen's short stories - 'all culled from real life' - represent the profound tragedy and misery of the famine which ravaged Bengal in 1943 and claimed up to three million lives. The text is overshadowed, however, by the deeply shocking and emotive images of Zainul Abedin. 'Drawings from life', the book asserted. He used Chinese ink and paper made from rags to capture these desperate depictions of the human impact of famine. They are both the starkest images of the famine, and the defining work of one of Bangladesh's most highly regarded artists.
Zainul Abedin was still in his twenties when he made these drawings - some of the originals are in the British Museum, whose website records that Ela Sen's book was banned by the British authorities, presumably because of its impact on wartime morale. There is no doubt that British alarm about the prospect of a Japanese invasion of Bengal from Burma - and so their determination to ensure that stocks of grain and boats for river transport couldn't fall into the enemy's hands - contributed to the scale of the tragedy.
There are about a dozen Zainul Abedin drawings in the book, most of them spread over a double page. This image of a young child seeking sustenance from an emaciated and dying mother bring to mind the similar - and similarly unsettling - artwork of Sobha Singh.
This image - which I have blogged about before - was also published to accompany a first-hand account of the famine ... in this case the journalism of Freda Bedi for 'The Tribune', which was published as Bengal Lamenting. And in this book too, the image is more haunting than the words.
In the 1940s, both Zainul Abedin and Sobha Singh had links to the progressive writers' movement, and were clearly on the left. Abedin has come to be regarded as the founding father of modern art in Bangladesh. He died in May 1976.
I've been able to find out much less about Ela Sen - if you can help, do get in touch.
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