Men (and Women) at Work : Art for Labour Day

To honour the efforts and work of those whose hard work builds our country.

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Today, many large companies are considering cutting back to a 32-hour work week; many want to continue flexible working conditions. But in the 19th century, people lost their lives fighting for 8-hour work days. The age of Industrialisation had witnessed a rise in exploitative practices and unsafe working conditions. The capitalist environment paid little heed to worker rights. The Labour movement was thus a hard fought battle for what seems ‘the basic’ today : a five day work week, compensation for night-work, no child-labour, and more.

May 1 is observed as Labour Day, to acknowledge the everyday worker. Here’s our art-tribute!

Triumph of Labour, 1959 by D.P Roy Chowdhury commemorates India’s first Labour-Day, aligning with the global movement.

Triumph of Labour-at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. A similar sculpture (the original) is at Chennai’s Marina Beach

On May 1, 1923, M. Singaravelar Chettiar (1860-1946), organized India’s first Labour Day (or May Day) and launched the Labour Kisan Party, committed to protect the interests and rights of the working classes. Singaravelar was initially aligned with the Indian National Congress under Gandhi’s leadership and was one of the prominent leaders from the Madras Presidency. Within six months of the Russian Revolution, Singravelar (along with others) had formed the ‘Madras Labour Union‘ (27 April 1918) – the first trade union in India. The union led a 6-month long strike against British exploitation of mill-workers at Buckingham and Carnatic Mills.

Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury’s sculpture stands close to the site where Singaravelar hosted the first Labour-Day celebrations. This was the earliest sculpture to be erected on the beach, and features four figures engaged in the formidable task of moving a boulder. The sculpture acknowledges the intense physical effort and the hard work of countless workers who play a big role in shaping India. The monumental size and formation of the figures (with a focus on the muscles) can leave a viewer overwhelmed.

More Sculptures by D.P Roy Chowdhury

Mill Call (1956) by Ramkinkar Baij features the Santhals as Mill-Labour.

Industrialisation changed the lives of the nature-loving Santhal people. The Santhals, in paintings by Jamini Roy, and other Bengal painters are usually depicted as leading a content life with natural work rhythms – dancing, singing, engaged in rural work. But Baij’s sculpture places them in a changing society dominated by ‘clock time’. The Santhals are shown rushing at the sound of the Mill’s bell.

It makes one wonder about the complicated notions of productivity that timed work brought with it.

More about Ramkinkar Baij, the Master Sculptor of India

May-Day by Chittaprosad in the collection of DAG Museums

Chittaprosad is one of the most well-known political artists of India. In his woodcuts, the peasants and workers take center stage. His hard hitting images make visible the plight of people who build our railroads, toil on the farms and bear the load of a nation’s infrastructural ambitions – yet they are denied basic rights.

In this work, he takes on American capitalism – money is their weapon, but it crouches in front of the ordinary worker. A study of Chittaprosad’s works allows us to delve deep into India’s social landscape; simultaneously it aids us in contextualising these moments in global history.

Brush and ink on paper; Collection of DAG

Take a look at the works by Chittaprosad in the DAG collection.

Sweepers in the art of K.K Hebbar from the JNAF Mumbai collection

Hebbar’s paintings too, reflect the the ‘everyday’ and ordinary observations. However, they aren’t as hard hitting as the ones by Chittaprosad. Why do you think that is – comparing the artists’ treatment of similar subjects is an interesting exercise to understand art styles and their impact on a viewer.

How often do you catch a fleeting glimpse of a construction site? And how often do you observe every individual and movement? Think about this, and you’d grow to love Hebbar’s work more.

Sweepers, 1960 collection of JNAF Mumbai.

The construction of the Bhakra Nangal Dam (1950), and Lutyens Delhi documented by Kulwant Roy.

Kulwant Roy’s photos quite literally show us the making of an India after Independence. It shows us slightly more clearly than paintings, the faces of those citizens who contributed to India’s industrial growth and development.

More photographs by Kulwant Roy in the collection of Museo Camera, Gurgaon


That’s all we have for now, but if you think we missed something, leave us a comment below!

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Men (and Women) at Work : Art for Labour Day