Art, the pandemic’s survival toolkit – Part 3

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Adverse situations and troubled times informs the art of that period, and that art eventually becomes the mirror and even conscience of the time, influencing how we think about the event later. By the Pothi Team.

Yesterday we told you how two Pune-based artists coped during the pandemic. What is certain is that there are as many stories as there are artists, and not all of them might be hopeful.

However, world history has quite a few examples of disease striking entire swathes of humanity and how such epidemics have affected art and how, in turn, art has affected such times.

Chittaprosad Bhattacharya’s work depicting the Bengal famine of 1943, which featured in his pamphlet ‘Hungry Bengal’

In 1943, when the Bengal Famine hit India, killing millions it wasn’t reported or even documented the way a calamity of such proportions should have been. Of course, the fact that Winston Churchill was responsible for this man-made famine ensured the famine was kept out of sight.

Chittaprosad Bhattacharya

However, the Communist Party of India chose artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya and a photographer Sunil Janah to visit the affected areas and document what they saw, especially in Midnapore. The art portrayed the tragic reality of the famine with such incisiveness that the British seized and burnt all the pamphlets. Only one copy survived this desperate act of censorship. The pamphlet was aptly called ‘Hungry Bengal’. This was also an artistic act of rebellion, and today it informs our thoughts on the Bengal famine.

Similarly, during the black plague in Europe many artists documented the tragedy through some wonderfully crafted paintings.

This is what Thomas Worchester, professor of church history and president of Regis College in Toronto, had to say in a discussion with Columbia College Today:

“Like Franco, my interests are Renaissance to early modern [history] in the European context, and plague was something that recurred frequently in that era. Most people know of ‘The Black Death’ of the mid-14th century, but the bubonic plague recurred locally in various cities into the 18th century. It’s a major factor in the history of Europe in that period on all kinds of levels — the medical level, of course, but also, more broadly, on a cultural level and a religious level. Italy, for example, is a Catholic culture with a great deal of emphasis on the visual, so it’s a topic that touches upon a whole lot of issues of culture and society in that period.”

In the same discussion, Franco Mormando, professor of Italian and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Boston College, said how plague has been a recurring theme in the European cultural landscape. “As I am a professor of Italian, the subject caught my attention because two of the most important, canonical works of Italian literature have plague as a central theme. Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ in the 14th century and Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ in the 19th century are on anyone’s top-10 lists of Italian masterpieces. I realised that plague was the key to understanding not only the development of Italian and European history, but also the European forma mentis, the attitude to the world,” he elaborated.

To sum this up, situations that put humanity in a lot of stress and disquiet informs the art of that time, and the art then becomes a vehicle to understand what transpired. It becomes the conscience and a mirror of such adverse situations.

Nicolas Poussin painted ‘The Plague of Ashdod’ in 1630-31


A tale from ‘The Decameron’, by John William Waterhouse.  Before beginning the story-telling sessions in ‘The Decamaron’, the ten young Florentines, seven women and three men, referred to as the Brigata, gather at the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and together decide to escape the Black Death by leaving the city to stay in a villa in the countryside for the next two weeks. Each agrees to tell one story each day for ten days. The stories are told in the garden of the first villa that the company stays at, which is located a few miles outside the city.