Tag Archives: Bengal

Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine

Hunter, Campbell, and the politics of archiving famine 

By Ayesha Mukherjee, with original illustrations by Argha Manna 

This blog article is jointly published with the Untold Lives Blog, British Library

William Hunter and his family travel to Midnapur during the Orissa famine of 1866. Artist: © Argha Manna

In the suffocating heat and violent downpours of early August, 1866, Sir William Hunter, his wife, infant son, and a Portuguese nurse, journeyed to Midnapur, in Bengal, where Hunter had been appointed Inspector of Schools for the South-Western Division. They travelled by road in their victoria driven by Hunter himself. The carriage and horses were crammed on a ferry by which means they crossed the torrential river Damodar. The crossing took 14 hours, and Hunter drove on until the route was cut off by a chasm created by the floods. Horses unhitched, the carriage was dragged down the bank to the other side of the chasm. They reached a rest house which offered little provision. They travelled again, until, hungry and exhausted, they finally arrived at their destination. Hunter then left at once to survey the area as the government was anxious to learn about the effect of the Orissa famine on schools in neighbouring districts. To his horror, he found Bishnupur, the ancient capital of Birbhum, a city of paupers,” as he noted in his letter to the Director of Public Instruction. The famine relief operations were disrupted by a cholera outbreak. At his own expense, Hunter set up a temporary orphanage for starving children who roamed the streets, feeding on worms and snails (Skrine, pp. 113-15; Hunter, Annals, pp. 53-4).  

Portrait of Sir William Hunter. Artist: © Argha Manna

The author of The Annals of Bengal (1867, repr. 1868) – a text often mined for information on the notorious famines in Orissa (1866) and in Bengal (1769-70) – was not simply an excavator of archives. An aspect of his life not often told seems to be epitomised by this stark physical encounter with famine-affected areas, which officers like Hunter (and their families) could not avoid. For Hunter, writing the famous Annals was punctuated by such experiences, as he developed his comparative analytical methods, placing side by side archival findings which allowed him to reconstruct the 1770 Bengal famine, and his immediate knowledge of the Orissa famine a century later. These two famines are infamous events in the history of British administration of the Bengal Presidency. The first resulted in the loss of 10 million lives, and yet the East India Companys revenue increased in that famine year; during the second, 200 million pounds of rice were exported to Britain while a million starved to death in Orissa (Hunter, Annals, p.56; Naoroji, pp.627-8). Hunters analytical method relied on recovering local ecology, history, and demography, loosely modelled on the English annals of parishes. As Hunter wrote to Cecil Beadon in 1868, My business is with the people” – a rather risky remark perhaps in an epistle to the former lieutenant-governor of Bengal, recently deposed for his mishandling of the Orissa famine and scant attention to the suffering of the people. Moreover, Hunters approach was analogical, comparing not only past and present famines, but British and Indian models of record keeping; and, finally, it was predictive. Hunter believed that better administration and prevention of future famines were possible through historically informed reflection on current experience.  

Portrait of Sir George Campbell. Artist: © Argha Manna

Another figure, who has shaped interpretations of both the Orissa and Bengal famines, is Sir George Campbell. He presided over the 1866 Famine Commission and travelled through famineaffected districts of Orissa to gather information. His Memoir on the 1770 famine was published in 1867 as part of a Further Report” (part 4) on the famines of 1866 in Bengal and Orissa, and reprinted by J.G. Geddes in the selection of official documents published in 1874 because the original edition [was] scarce. In early 1867, the Commissions report was published in two large printed folio volumes, and Campbell, upon his return to England in the spring, was asked to examine the India Office records for information on former Indian famines and the lessons to be derived from them” (Campbell, Indian Memoirs, vol.2, p.130). The famine Memoir” was the supplementary report that resulted from this endeavour. Campbell, one of the Punjab school” of British Indian administrators, closely engaged with agrarian questions and the welfare of the masses, was a longtime campaigner for the protection of tenants’ rights. The main recommendations of his report – secure tenures for cultivators, more expenditure on irrigation, and improvement of transport and communications networks – were based on a three-way comparison of the famines of 1770 (Bengal), 1783 (North West Provinces, Oudh, Punjab), and 1866 (Orissa).    

It is worth noting that Hunter and Campbell were simultaneously active in compiling and analysing records of the 1770 Bengal famine at a time when the colonial government was engaged in controversial debates about its policies and practices of record keeping and publication. This brings a different perspective to the history of the famine, for their evolving approaches to famine records were closely tied to wider political arguments regarding archival preservation, and its relationship with power and governance. In the 1860s, after lengthy debates with the Records Committee (a newly formed advisory body) two opposing models of archival organisation emerged (Bhattacharya, pp.52-90). The government favoured the cheaper option of decentralised and departmentally governed preservation, proposed selective publication of records, with a policy of limited access based on bureaucratic privilege – a model designed to make archiving an utilitarian and instrumental endeavour for the purpose of governance. The other model (vigorously argued by Records Committee members like James Long and J.T. Wheeler) recommended the creation of a centralised muniments room to support permanent public access for the advancement of historical knowledge (Wheeler, 1862). This also raised the rather tricky question of selection – what records might be deemed valuable enough to preserve, while useless” records were destroyed? The answers remained nebulous in the debates, and the ambivalence is relevant for famine history.  

Selections of famine records in IOR: V/27/830/14. © British Library

Cover page of IOR: V/27/830/14. © British Library

 A slim, unassuming, and little-known official publication consciously drew the work of Hunter and Campbell together in 1868, precisely when debates about record keeping and publishing came to a head. The volume was published in Calcutta from the Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, a position newly formed in 1863 to oversee the transition to a Central Press for official publications (This marked an odd moment in government policy, when a decentralised model was preferred for record preservation, while printing practices were being actively centralised). What seems to be the only extant copy, considerably fragile, is held by the British Library (IOR: V/27/830/14). As the title page asserts, this is a collection of extracts from the India Office records on Famines in India, 1769-1788, compiled by George Campbell, probably for the purpose of writing his supplementary report after the Orissa famine. But to it is appended, Remarks on the Great Famine of 1769-70” by William Hunter. Although the compiled records overlap with the better known texts of the Annals and the Memoirs, this is a significant volume for a number of reasons. It brings out the subtly differentiated positions of Hunter and Campbell on the 1770 famine, and on the usefulness” of historical records. It demonstrates that the polemics of record selection and preservation impacted upon the interpretations of famine policy and history. It allows us to trace (and understand the value of tracing) a textual history of imperial records of famines through a specific case.  

Title page of Hunter’s Annals, 1868. Source: University of California Libraries, Internet Archive.

This calls for a more extensive academic study, but I will highlight here a few key points that come up if we compare Campbells selection of extracts published here with Hunters selection of sources appended to his Annals. Campbell confined himself to the India Office Records, prioritised extracts, and arranged them chronologically. Hunters combination of India Office and local records, on the other hand, were organised to show the different emphases of different types of record. Campbell admitted in his famine memoir, It has only been possible by completely sifting the general records to pick out here and there the passages that bear on the calamity [1770 Bengal famine]. The result is not to give us its history in any great detail, but I trust that enough has been gathered to put us in possession of its general character.” (Geddes, p.409) For Hunters purpose – which was not only to offer lessons” in governance – nuanced historical detail found in records in English, Bengali, and Persian, from a wide range of sources, proved valuable: the India Office in London; the Calcutta offices; revenue and judicial records from the courts and offices of Birbhum, Burdwan, and Bankura; domestic archives of rajahs and families in Birbhum and Bishnupur; tracts and newspapers in Joykrishna MukherjeeUttarpara collection; memorial reconstructions in interviews conducted by Hunter, and local legends gathered from tribes such as the Santhals. Hunters approach was rather more peripatetic than being confined to the London office! Working in remote district offices, he described the isolation of this labour which produced a work written in the jungle, eight thousand miles distant from European libraries.” (Hunter, History, p.1) He published a selection of varied sources in appendices to the Annals. The agenda of historical recovery was evidently wider than Campbells emphasis on discovering the cause” of the 1770 famine, which, Campbell urged, was drought, not inundation. On the subject of revenue remission during famine years, we often see Hunter and Campbell making almost identical selections from the India Office records; but in his additional annotations, Hunter critically examines claims in these records of the extent of remission. Their regional focus also differs. Hunters aim was to write a local history of Bengalwhile Campbell highlights the frequently ignored impact of the famine on Bihar.  

Hunter and Campbell compiling famine records. Artist: © Argha Manna

In 1874, Campbell took over as Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and the reprinting of his famine memoir in Geddes was partly designed, I think, to underline this change of governance. Although Campbell had a reputation of being a more radical figure than Hunter, who is considered to have defined a colonial agenda for historical research, the formers approach to record selection and analysis of the famine of 1769-70 appears far more aligned with the governments proposition that the ultimate end of record-keeping was colonial governance. This seems to be where the two men  subtly differed. While Hunters recommendations to the government in 1872 supported decentralised record-keeping in each department, with regard to selection and publication he was on a very different page. He proposed a careful system of central and local cross-checking before any records were destroyed and laid a balance of emphasis on Indian records as well as English ones. He recommended that selections should be made by a two-fold organisation, acting partly in England and partly here [India].” (Hunter to Howell, Nov. 1871, NAI) The British government, on the other hand, were entirely blunt in their assertion that “the publication of old records is a matter of political [rather than historical] importance. The selections, they hoped, would do much to prevent misconstruction of the policy and motives of Indian Government. (Govt. to Argyll, Dec. 1872, NAI) Ironically, many of the policies of governance they may have sought to defend were policies that Campbell the new lieutenant-governor, with his reputation for radical” politics and insistence on tenancy reforms, sought to change.  

Such complexities in the characters, motivations, and official functions or reputations of Campbell and Hunter, which shifted with movements in regional governance and colonial politics, show that neither figure quite fits the clichés of the colonial bureaucrat or the radical protester. Their analyses of famines transformed across time, and their texts bear these marks. The intertextuality of this writing, its political impulses, its investment in very particular processes (and policies) of compilation and archiving can shed new light on the famine histories these figures are known for recovering.   


Further Reading 

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi (2019). Archiving the British Raj: History of the Archival Policy of the Government of India, with Selected Documents, 1858-1947. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.  

Campbell, George (1893). Memoirs of My Indian Career. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co. 

Campbell, George, and William Wilson Hunter (1868). Extracts from Records in the India Office Relating to Famines in India, 1769-1788, compiled by George Campbell, to which is appended Remarks on the Great Famine of 1769-1770, by W.W. Hunter. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing. British Library, IOR: V/27/830/14 .

Geddes, J.C. (Jan 1874). Administrative Experience Recorded in Former Famines. Calcutta: E Bengal Secretariat Press. 

Government of India to Argyll, 1872, Home Department, Public Branch, No.95, National Archives of India (NAI) .

Hunter, William Wilson (1867, second ed. 1868).  The Annals of Rural Bengal. London: Smith, Elder and Co. New York: Leypoldt and Holt.

Hunter, William Wilson (1899, 1900). A History of British India. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 

Hunter to Howell, 1871, Home Department, Public Branch, No.3771, 1872, NAI.

Naoroji, Dadabhai (1901). Poverty and Un-British Rule in India. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 

Shaw, Graham (1981). Printing in Calcutta to 1800: a description and checklist of printing in late 18th-century Calcutta. London: Bibliographical Society. 

Skrine, Francis Henry (1901). Life of Sir William Wilson Hunter. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 

Wheeler, J.T. (1862). “Memorandum on the Records of the Government of India”. Home Department, Public Branch, No.19, 1865, NAI.


Acknowledgements: With grateful thanks to Dr Antonia Moon for drawing my attention to IOR: V/27/830/14 and permitting me to view it, and to Professor Swapan Chakravorty for directing me to valuable sources on colonial archiving policies in India.  


Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Film, College of Humanities, University of Exeter, and the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800, and Famine Tales from India and Britain. 

Argha Manna is a graphic artist and journalist based in Calcutta, and is currently creating a graphic narrative of the 1770 Bengal famine for the Famine Tales from India and Britain project.  

Sustainable Living and the Patuyas of Naya

Sustainable Living and the Patuyas of Naya

Shrutakirti Dutta


A painted home in Naya

A scroll painter’s home in Naya, Midnapur, West Bengal


Patuya working on an item

A chitrakar working on an “item”

When you enter the patuya para (scroll painters’ locality) of Naya, Pingla, a village in West Midnapur, you are met with a row of houses whose walls are brightly painted with images of plants, flowers, and animals. If you arrive in winter, at every turn you are likely to find an artist bent over an “item,” as it is pithily described by veteran chitrakars (also called patuyas, or scroll painters). This “item” could be an article of clothing or a piece of home decor on which they may be painting familiar motifs from scroll paintings. These will later take pride of place at kiosks and stalls in fairs across Bengal throughout the winter, fetching the chitrakars an increasingly large proportion of their annual income.

Dukhushyam singing

Dukhushyam Chitrakar

Take a right turn and you might meet Dukhushyam Chitrakar, a patuya for more than sixty years, out for his usual morning walk. More often than not, he will speak wistfully of a time when scroll painting was primarily an oral tradition where the song took precedence, in terms of both process and significance, over the artwork. Patuyas would travel from village to village, singing songs based on tales from Hindu epics and contemporary events. The long scrolls would be unfurled in conjunction with their song, visually tethering the narrative. Villagers would eagerly gather around a patuya to watch his performance. Afterwards they would pay him in kind, and sometimes with money. Having thus secured provisions for the day, the patuya would return to his community where, in the evenings, it was often customary to gather together and sing the familiar songs again; this time, informally, and offer criticism and suggestions to further hone their craft.

Traditional jatra Gunahabibi-r Pala performed by Diamond Harbour Group (Project Palagaan, 2013, Jadavpur University)

The picture Dukhushyam paints for us is one that has been disrupted by complex cultural changes in the cities and villages of Bengal. Over time, with the advent of radios and televisions, the demand for older performance traditions of jatra, pala, and pat-er gaan slowly diminished. Pat-er gaan (scroll songs) no longer remained one of the primary choices of entertainment among village residents, and thus ceased being an adequate means of livelihood for the patuya community. Over several decades, this translated to the loss of some songs and verses (payar) which died out from disuse and lack of intra-community exchange, as Beatrix Hauser shows.


Colour Making: A Sustainable Practice?

Documenting the making of natural colours in a Naya household

Patuya communities are spread across many villages of Bengal and face similar threats to their craft. However, being part of the Famine Tales team made me think about the impact of these changes in Naya, particularly on their colour-making tradition. By working outside the new commercial model, we wanted to see how far we could address the challenges that now arise while gathering the raw materials traditionally used to create a patachitra (scroll painting).

Creating white from raw, uncooked rice

Raw white rice being ground into paste

Scroll painting traditions across greater Bengal were influenced by the topography, climate, and produce of the region, with colours and pigments made from easily sourced, widely available natural ingredients like grains, weed, flowers, fruits and vegetables. The style of patachitra varied greatly depending on the patuya’s location. Patuyas from Orissa, for instance, use minerals and stones to obtain pigment, such as ground conch shells to create a creamy white. In Midnapur, these raw materials are substituted with what is locally grown. Since paddy is the primary crop of Bengal, it makes perfect sense that the shell is replaced by raw, uncooked rice to produce the same colour.

An old handi (pot) being used to gather flame black

Shil Nora

A shil nora (grindstone) being used for colour making

Due to the process itself, domestic and artistic spheres have been inextricably linked in the practice of scroll painting, and there exists a steady network of exchange between the two. The very tools used for the production of natural dye, the shil nora and the handi, come from the kitchens of the community.

Coconut shells holding colour

Coconut shells containing colours made from tumeric, ground brick and burnt black rice

The vessel of choice to store the colour is an empty coconut shell, hollowed out and cleaned thoroughly after the fleshy interior has been eaten.

Bel (wood apples) drying

Dried bel (wood apple) stored for use as cooking fuel

A fundamental ingredient in natural colour-making is the wood apple or bel (Aegle marmelos) whose seeds, when mixed with water, yield a glue that acts as a temper for natural pigments and an organic disinfectant for the scroll. The use of this ingredient is a testament to the resourcefulness of the community who let no part of a raw material go to waste. Since only unripe fruit can be used for this process, the flesh of the wood apple is not fit for consumption after the extraction of glue. This results in a heap of discarded fruit which is left to dry in the sun to be used as cooking fuel later in the month.


Women colourmaking

Rehana Chitrakar and Lutfa Chitrakar engaged in colour making 

Perhaps because the implements and ingredients used to make colour are rooted to traditionally gendered spaces, colour making within the community remains a process led by women. Patachitra is a living tradition, finding place within an active and demanding domestic structure, and thriving in it. Children of the chitrakar community learn to paint by observing their parents and engaging with the tradition from a very young age.

Young Mohima, painting

Mahima Chitrakar, eight years old, painting traditional fish motifs

"Items" and scrolls painted in synthetic colours

An array of items painted with chemical colours, being sold at the annual Patmaya fair at Naya 

Sustainable living has been a way of life with food insecure communities like the patuyas, who, by convention, never own land and cannot afford to grow the fruits and vegetables required in bulk for colour making. However, raw materials which, decades ago, may have been available for free (such as a neighbour’s excess produce of bel) today require money to purchase. Dukhushyam speaks of a time when he and fellow patuyas would simply walk to a nearby forest and forage for the things they needed. Regional ecologies have altered, these forests no longer exist, and therefore neither does this harmonious chain of supply. Several colours have retired from the palettes of patuyas because their source ingredients like tela kucho (below left) can rarely be found today, or like bhushum mati (below right) is available for an increasingly small window in a year.

Left: Tela kucho (coccinia grandis); Right: Bhushum mati (local name for soil extracted by digging 8-10 feet under dried sweet water ponds)

Today patachitra made from natural colours have become something of a novelty, usually made when specifically commissioned. Time and cost-effective alternatives like chemical colours have gained popularity among patuyas over time, although this has come at some cost to the living tradition.


Solutions: Past and Present

A nineteenth-century scroll painting of the Ramayana at Gurusaday Museum, Calcutta.

Interventions have been made since the last century to protect the art form and empower the community of patuyas. Between 1929-40, during the surge of the nationalist movement in Bengal, Gurusaday Dutt – a civil servant in British India – collected various “folk” artefacts from across rural Bengal, including patachitra, with the intention of preserving indigenous art forms and living traditions. Today this considerable collection resides at the Gurusaday Museum in Calcutta.

There was renewed interest in patachitra in the 1960s and 70s among the urban intelligentsia of Calcutta. Artists Hiran Mitra and Ganesh Haloi supported patuyas in their personal capacity, and the poet Dipak Majumdar commissioned several scroll paintings and brought the community wider recognition. Professor Sankar Sengupta organized the first All India Folklore Conference in 1964. These interventions brought patachitra back into the conversation. While the stories from the Mangal Kavyas, or the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were considered significant for their historic value, they no longer served as ubiquitous “entertainment”.

An annual handicrafts fair in Bengal: Hasta Shilpa Mela. Source: google

An annual handicrafts fair in Bengal: Hasta Shilpa Mela.

The West Bengal government-led annual Hasta Shilpa Mela (handicrafts fair) and Biswa Bangla have provided platforms to generate revenue streams for rural artists. The Rural Craft and Cultural Hub (RCCH) project has been an ongoing initiative to provide some agency and relief to Bengal’s indigenous craft communities, like the patuyas.

Visiting Potmaya

Potmaya 2019 – a patachitra festival

Since 2010, a Kolkata based NGO’s Art for Life initiative has facilitated the income of patuyas in Naya by establishing an annual patachitra mela where patuyas can market their skills and sell their craft to a wider network of buyers. During my visit to the fair in November 2019, I observed pat-er gaan (scroll songs) being sung from kiosks at various intervals, drawing the audience towards a particular table and its wares. For a brief moment, people gathered together to record the spectacle on their device of choice, before moving on to inspect a t-shirt or set of coasters. Within this context, shorter narratives have gained favour over those depicting more sophisticated storylines. Now pat-er gaan needs to be truncated and/or abridged to better hold the audience’s attention. Finer details within the artwork and the intricacies of parallel sub plots within the narrative are omitted in favour of straightforward, shorter stories.

Website selling patachitra for display in modern homes

Changing market structures have thus influenced and altered the process of scroll painting itself. Public access to patachitra has come via fairs, which became the primary site for patuyas to showcase and sell their scrolls. The focus shifted from the oral storytelling aspect of the patachitra tradition to the two-dimensional visual art form, dismantling the core structure of scroll making and altering the thrust of the living tradition. Patachitra entered Bengali living rooms and stayed there as framed pieces of art. 

The motifs painted on the “items” are taken directly from traditional scrolls but presented without narrative or context. The very medium which gave patachitra its name – patta or cloth – has altered and expanded to include various media, such as wood, steel, copper and terracotta; eventually, turning patachitra into “items” for sale (Potmaya news report 2019 ABP). While these initiatives have contributed substantially towards the chitrakars’ visibility and financial security, the paradigm shift in the perception and consumption of indigenous craft traditions like patachitra, the impact on local ecology, sustainable living, land-ownership and tenure issues among patuyas, and the breakdown of local organic economies, remain largely unaddressed.

Steps have been taken to encourage and preserve older traditions of patachitra in sustainable ways. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, whose campus is located a few miles from Naya, distributed saplings of specific flower-bearing plants to the patuyas to sustain the use of natural ingredients in making colours and pigments. One such example was the Latkan or Achiote.

Pressing Latkan seeds

Latkan, or Achiote seed, produces a gorgeous liquid red

The seeds of this fruit yield a fiery, liquid red colour when pressed in the palm of one’s hand. This ingredient and the hue produced from it has proved overwhelmingly popular among the chitrakars and feature in almost all of their paintings. Yet, access to the fruit still remains difficult for the chitrakar community. Dukhushyam and his family either have to depend on the generosity of landowning neighbours who can afford to plant the sapling, or make a trip to the IIT campus to source the raw ingredient themselves. However well-intentioned, modern measures designed to address the economic prosperity of the patuyas, or the availability of specific natural ingredients, have their limitations when it comes to addressing the wider ecological issues that impact the survival of a community like Naya.

With this in mind, organisations and institutions have paid specific attention to the uniqueness of patachitra‘s oral tradition. Applying the storytelling potential of pat-er gaan, projects like HIV scrolls, or initiatives focused on gender like Singing Pictures, and self-empowerment programmes (see: Malini Bhattacharya, Patua Art and Women Patuas of Medinipur, 2004), have commissioned patuyas to write songs and tell stories relevant to their projects. Sujit Kumar Mandal’s book Patuya Sangeet (2011) recovered in detail the immense and valuable corpus of patuya Dukhushyam Chitrakar, and documented colour making processes at Naya. More recently, our own Famine Tales project enables a team of patuyas, led by the legendary Dukhushyam, to create traditional scrolls with natural colours to reflect on food insecurity, an issue that continues to be germane to their own circumstances. Recent crises like the Coronavirus and the cyclone Amphan have shown exactly how vulnerable the community still is. Our endeavours can rejuvenate traditional methods of painting and mechanisms of sustainable living, and protect a community from an immediate crisis. But they cannot give patuyas adequate land to grow their ingredients, or provide longterm solutions to the larger, structural problems that underpin their continued food insecurity.

Dukhushyam’s reminiscences point to a patachitra tradition that existed in a delicate balance of ecological and social harmony, where the patuya community was integrated with a society that facilitated the art form, recognizing that doing so was part of their ethical and moral function.  Cultural shifts in the cities and villages of Bengal have resulted in changes to the living tradition and ecological balance in the community, which cannot be resolved through economic intervention alone – hence Dukhushyam’s intuitive rejection of “item” making. The core practices of patachitra and pat-er gaan will continue to remain vulnerable until we as an audience collectively embody the shift we wish to see, making the journey from being mere observers who document Bengal’s endangered “folk” traditions, to facilitators who foster a community where living traditions can be integrated into modern life on their own terms.


Shrutakirti Dutta is a PhD researcher in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and Research Fellow on the Famine Tales project. Her PhD project is titled “A Stitch in Time: Exploring Domestic Craft Practices in Nineteenth Century Bengal”.