Subhendu Dasgupta

Arts Research

Grant Period: over one year and six months

Dr Subhendu Dasgupta retired as Professor of Economics, South and South-East Asia Studies Department, University of Calcutta. A serious researcher all his life, he had received two grants from IFA under the Bengali Language Initiative in 2007 and 2010 respectively. The first grant was for research into and documentation of the history of political cartoons in West Bengal and Bangladesh, and the second one enabled him to write a history of Bengali cartoons that appeared from the late 19th century to post-independence India, tracing the development of cartoons as an art form. Beyond his academic life, he nurtures a deep interest in visual art and cinema. He has a number of books, edited volumes and articles published on these subjects including the books and articles that were the outcome of the two previous grants. His work has made him a rare authority on Bengali cartoons and he currently runs, a Bengali web magazine on cartoons. Presently he is the convenor of Cartoon Dal, a platform of cartoonists in Bengal and the vice president of Painters 80, a painters’ group. These are initiatives that were prompted by the IFA grants, he acknowledges.

After his retirement Subhendu wanted to research on three visual art forms – cartoons, graffiti and posters in Bengali. His research on cartoons has been possible via IFA’s support and outcomes are already in the public domain. He continues to work on graffiti on his own. His current project supported under the Arts Research programme focuses on Bengali posters. By “Bengali posters” he means posters where Bengali letters have been used. Posters have been considered as art for a long time, but very few art historians have comprehensively studied them. Even for Bengali posters – which has been from where many renowned painters started their journey and continued their contribution even in their heydays – it remains an under-researched area. Posters serve as a point of confluence for various arts – painting, calligraphy, typography, photography, design and printing. The functional and temporary nature of posters makes it difficult to study them, and the practice of preserving posters is not prevalent in India. Posters are predominantly a public art meant for mass circulation. They bear the markers of political struggles as well as market trends. Typography, design and colour uses in posters often carry with them the histories of the makers and their ideologies. In that respect study of Bengali posters is not just a study of design, it is also a study of the confluence of these art forms within the cultural and historical context of Bengal.

In this project Shubhendu wants to study the political, social and cultural aspects of Bengali posters. He also wants to explore a short history of printing technology in Bengal via posters. Finally he wants to conduct a comparative analysis between paintings and posters of renowned artists of Bengal. He harps on a unique question in his study – ‘does one make posters because others want to see or does one make posters because one wants to show?’ His work will inspect the complex relation between viewing and exhibiting in Bengali posters and the changes it undergoes with politics, geography, cultures and intentions. His study period will span from 1930s to the present day. The material available in archives and libraries is limited as there is hardly any practice of saving posters for the future. He will visit libraries, archives and private collections, conduct interviews in cities and suburbs of Bengal, Tripura, Cachar district in Assam and parts of Bangladesh for his research.

He wishes to publish a book and some essays on the subject as the outcome of the grant. He also wishes to print collectible versions of old posters for public awareness about posters and distribute them among enthusiasts. He will submit a digitised collection of the posters to the archive of Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He will submit the manuscripts of the book and essays, transcripts of interviews, printed and photographed versions of posters to IFA archive as deliverables.

Unlike other projects that run the risk of being too ambitious due to limited time and resource, there is an assurance in this case. Knowing Shubhendu’s work so far it is almost certain that this grant will only act as a trigger for much larger, multiple initiatives as has been our experience with the grants he received for the earlier projects on cartoons. In all probability, Shubhendu will continue publishing articles and books on the subject for years well beyond the scope of the grant. For IFA this grant will continue a strong relationship with him and provide opportunity to support an invaluable research in an unexplored and neglected art form.