QUAMRUL'S FRONTIER : INHERITANCE AND MODERNITY REMAPPED
Putting a sense of continuity on contemporary cultural map
The domain of experience is often perceived as independent of the task of enquiry. The fact that the two intersect in all successful creative action bears down on all cultural production. It is through both sense and cognitive responses, which are intertwined and which also provide the basis for the existential realms through which the individual talents equip themselves with self-reflexive identity and fortitude– the most important solvents around which all creative persona emerge and also evolve.
If one artist whose art readily dislodges the misconception that arises from the separation of experience and enquiry, it is Quamrul Hassan (1921-1988). An iconoclast and an iconophile packed into one, his psyche rarely needs unpacking at the level of selfhood, one that had not been whittled out of the value-free perception of aesthetics– a mire of a concept that often leads to foot-faults, if not total mishap, on the part of many a modernist.
For Quamrul, the self has always been performative, as such disposed to internalizing varied experiences, as it has been brought forth as a form of negotiation among an array of concepts around individual existence, cultural memory, and artistic progression, and most importantly identity and its link with the immediate sociopolitical climate.
Saying that he banked on both present (historical reality) and past (cultural memory) is a simplification of the phenomenon that was Quamrul, who emerged as an indigenous Modernist in the 1950s.
Adequately manifested in his art in all its magnitude and intensity, he had a cosmology for a mind in the garb of a simple-minded Bangalee. We can call it a nerve centre that simultaneously drew its energy from his ‘rational agency’ and the commitments as an ‘agent’ to the aesthetic and political values that had implications at personal, social and political levels. For him the task of rebuilding the fragmented mirror of identity was a serious meditation– one that came full circle with the bridging of the perceived gap between inheritance and the immediate historical role of the individual.
When art is informed by politics of location
The binaries such as individual/social, past/present and Eastern/Western are toppled through the mediation of an art form, which transcends the false notions of personhood (also artisthood in this case) i.e., alienation, engagement and freedom etc.
Without knowing from what to alienate one’s self and what to be free of, most Modernists lay their faith on some threadbare notions that have gained currency since the age of the Moderns, when the machine began to revolutionize political society across Europe and America. As Quamrul asserted an identity rooted in place and time, he skillfully mutated his self and artistic diction to stand apart from the axial expansionism of global mainstream– politico-aesthetical attitude which we now know as High Modernism.
Inquiry is an element that lends longevity to imagery. As it compels one to view both art and reality as two intertwined aspects of the same continuum, it also leads one to an awareness of the dialectical relation between the two. Only then the unique act of viewing finally percolates down to the level of praxis. This is how an artist is able to notice the fissure that runs across the generalized perception of art and its practices, one which precipitates the divisive concepts such as the complete separation of reality one lives and the aesthetic leap one desires.
For Quamrul the view of the map was a unified whole– which may have led to the simple equation that modernity in the riverine Bangladesh– a small but important part of the former British colony due to its fertile land– cannot be formed without the mediation of the ‘politics of locality’.
Therefore, the desire of colonial mimicry– which is an interdictory desire, as formulated by Homi K Bhabha– had little bearing on his world. Where, when and in what cultural milieu one has created his or her artwork is what makes it significant. Quamrul had a keen awareness of it.
But the vitality that builds the aura around his art is of different origin. The intellectual ability and the passionate, yet discursive bend of mind provided the underpinnings in the effort to define one’s own identity, and form the associated lexicon.
The sites which he hauled back into the location of the general concept of the national culture, included the vast localities that usually lie without the urban center where the educated minority thrives. This led to the integrated idea of art and lived experience as well as inheritance, which in the end shaped and reshaped his art form. And in his reconstructed cultural map the mainstream traditional mode of representation of Bengal occupied the centre. Yet, his concept, because of its resistance corpus, never took the form of an ‘omnipresent national value.’
For Quamrul, marching forward did not precede the act of devising a new vocabulary merely spell out one’s own individuality. The artistic rigour that makes one to want to cut oneself loose from the past, and its antithetical stance which readily give into a national identity on cultural memory and its exclusivity, both were anathema to him. He chose to stand outside any ‘protective enclosure.’
At the beginning of the Twentieth century, rethinking aesthetic strategies for some was plain revivalism. Through the mediation of EB Havel, some painters, including the mighty Abanindranath Tagore, joined force to work along the line of what they perceived to be the Orientalist method. The aim was to elevate the court aesthetics of the Moghul and the Rajput to the rank of the national staple. Following on that line of, what we may call the obligatory alignment with heritage, Ismat Chugtai, in the West Wing of Pakistan, following the independence of Pakistan in 1947, pursued a vocabulary that apparently evaded the issues relating to the creation of new values. Whereas, Quamrul’s aesthetic politics was all about adding new values to already existing ones.
The mind that drifts further away
What Quamrul parted company with are all the brands of paternalistic art form, especially the high modernist mode– whose incursions into the local culture caused an upheaval but failed to result in any real social and cultural shift (read, paradigm shift) to align with a modernity that has been, in reality, multi-axial. Those who did give into this strain of modernity, did so on the basis of ‘the assumption of autonomy of human intelligence, which enables the individual to destroy all ties of tradition, convention […]’ as is emphasized by Malini Bhattacharya, in a preface to a book on Bengal Romanticism to elucidate the mindset of the social reformers of the 19th century Bengal.
In the same piece, Malini also touches on what Karl Marx called the “melancholy” of the colonized, which was undoubtedly evident in the expressions of most of the poets and writers with a strong romantic streak. This is how modernism made its first appearance way back in the late nineteenth century and began its onslaught on the fixities of the old social order from within Calcutta, the anglicized name of Kolkata back in those days.
Strangely enough, the very same melancholy resurfaces in the 1960’s, when the seemingly new social order has taken over the institutional life– that too in a mode of painting that borrowed heavily from abroad, namely Abstract Expressionism, one that originated from the post-World War-II New York– the mega cosmopolitan.
Though, Quamrul was never inclined to explicitly rejecting such mode of painting on artistic or even political ground, his art began to speak a language that provided an antithesis.
In his kherokhata or diaries (on which he began jotting down his thoughts and drawings since 1977, a practice he continued till his death) he once clearly voiced that ‘it is only through an integrated uprising – a revolutionary change in social, political, economic and religious spheres can a nation be fully liberated.’1 This entry dating back to 1978 amply suggests that he is one painter who never really gave in to the idea of intellectual autonomy, neither did he believe in the independence of the very act of painting. For him painting was a part and parcel of his aspiration towards the greater goal of social change, one that calls for the reclamation of one’s own, geographically, physiologically as well as culturally defined identity.
Influence and other sites of significations
The understanding that modernism in art was actually a process of regeneration from the ethos of generations prior, informed Quamrul’s world. In his art the geo-natural self is given a voice, a concept that rotates around the physicality of every person. Therefore, community aesthetics, some features of the modern-day pictorial innovation and the personal commitment to a strong desire for cultural and political emancipation were easily aligned to excellent effects.
Picasso spearheaded such aesthetic interlocution with Greco-Minoan and to some extent African references as source. At the home front, Jamini Roy (1887-1972) and Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) provided the first few sparks way back in the 1930s through their non-historicized and back to rural stance. While Jamini attempted to lend Kalighat pat a Byzantine iconic severity, Nandalal set out to instigate a gaze that sought out what was indigenous by way of appropriating the dynamism of rural visual practices. Though both artists had shown little effort in transcending the restrictive governance of their chosen formal language, it was Jamini and Nandalal who inaugurated the fervour in favour of the artistic practices of the rural masses against all other forms of art– including those of the Indian court paintings.
Quamrul may not have been able to carve out a different pathway in his early years, but his experiences during his protracted student life in Kolkata (1938-1947) were formative in his conversion into an artist who realized that both Jamini and Nandalal had saturated their own brand of indigenous genres with heteronormativity– the aesthetic binary between Orientalism and Westernism. Quamrul, in contrast, attempted to bring forth a new form of existence and its attendant bodily expressions – both in the form of living and art – based on the simultaneity of self and community.
The question of experience and existence
Schooled in the Bratochari ways of life, Quamrul took the cue from Bose, his 39 years’ elder in his effort to remodel modernism to suit his particular aims.
The Bratochari movement was in full swing during Quamrul’s youth. Gurusaday Dutt (1882-1941), a self-professed ‘Bangalee to the core of his existence,’ was the man at the helm of the movement. Dutt emerged as a mentor of young Bangalees at the time when it was fashionable to scrape all traces of the Bangalee ways to adopt English effeteness as universal human characteristic. Dutt’s intervention created a surge of self-realisation and occasioned a rejuvenation that helped many a young Bangalee regain their footing.
Quamrul’s initiation to the movement occurred in 1939. He joined in the shibir or council– the 9th pan-Indian Bratochari practice council to be precise, and became a champion of their causes.
Gurushaday Datt– founder of the movement– had a holistic approach to life and his sense of Bangaeeness. The Bratochari Bangaleeness was a cult akin to a socialized, secularized and recontexualized religion– one that internalized several moral and cultural practices of both Hindus and Muslims. As a young athletically-inclined artist (he was an iron-pumping muscleman who even won a medal in his youth for bodybuilding) Quamrul was introduced to songs and dances the Bratochary movement, those that its enthusiasts’ regarded as the normative principles of their way of life.
Quamrul’s was not a project of revivalism. Nor was it an effort in assimilation, or syncretism, tropes which the liberals embrace from time to time to ensure casting of a wide conceptual net.
As a person, as well as an image maker, he made possible a phenomenon which was rhizometically connected to culture and politics, and which amply demonstrated that the tradition that still continued, one which many perceived, and still do, as what has been, as plain lore of Bengal. He made it possible by giving tradition a new lease of life while letting it travel through time to reclaim the location/culture specific identity.
That he enriched his diction drawing from modernism’s few early Picasso-initiated pictorial devices and married them to the acumen of the traditional painters of his own land to articulate his artistic desire, is not indicative of a shandhi or compromise behind what may now look like a post-colonial scheme. Rather, his was a shadhana (meditation) that found its intellectual springheads in various seemingly irreconcilable idioms and paradigms.
The morphology of his art adequately manifests the essentialist in him. He was a man who believed in devising the contour of his concept in conspicuous lines, forms and shapes to constantly define and redefine an individually structured aesthetic, though nonritualistic, one that seems like a new trajectory of that old numinous whole.
The strength of linearity, which connects Kamrul to the Bengali mass and their cultural achievements, stemmed primarily from shora and handi paintings, as is observed by artist and researcher Nisar Hossain. In his own declaration, Kamrul was a patua reincarnate, if we are to designate all rural artist as patua, as did Quamrul.
Nisar Hossain puts the return to rural resurgence in perspective. Following excavation of history and remapping of the indigenous practices that still continues, Hossain was forced to conclude that though the earliest sign of local culture manifested in Quamrul’s exhibition held in 1946, at the Muslim Institute premises, it was not until the 1960s, when he came in contact with rural artists through Zainul Abedin’s intervention that his enthusiasm gelled into a specific artistic aspiration.
Nisar Hossain also attributes the new surge to Zainul’s new found enthusiasm for folk art, one that played a catalytic role, as far as Quamrul’s aesthetic repositioning was concerned.
Quamrul wedded that interiorized tradition to Picasso’s iconoclastic technique, which brought him closer to modernism’s formal experimentation. It also suited his aesthetic purpose. According to artist Nisar Hossain, while the blanket aesthetic model of Modernism created an army of enthusiasts who readily dismissed him as traditional, he felt that an ideal rebuttal would be to identify himself as a diehard patua, displaced in the urban heart, therefore, in need of reterritorialization.
He was a modern-day patua, who never fully discounted the impact of the heady discoveries of his own time. It seems that the disembowelment of gut feelings onto the expense of the canvas, a process that peaked in Picasso’s politically-loaded figuration via masterpieces such as Guernica, or through the more intimate upshot The First Step, were like phenomena to Quamrul, not merely pictorial techniques for him to replicate.
It provided a ground for him to launch his own visual meditation, from within the milieu of a world already governed by a poetic sense of line and space, an education received through mostly shora paintings. This meditation– decidedly born out of a pictural politics of rejection of the complacency and indulgences that define the middle class mindset – was premised on an ambition to tease out meaning from the somewhat pleasant attributes of the shora painter's agility and acumen he had already interiorized. The two wells of inspiration, which remained a mainstay throughout his career, met when Quamrul felt the need for new political narrative. At other times, when aesthetic pleasure seemed enough to keep his ritualistic magic going, he chose to place his faith on the traditional craft alone. Quamrul displayed with considerable insight the capacity to produce works of aesthetic vitality and relevance in an era that apparently inaugurated an outward march by way of naturalized, normativized, and at times, oversimplified models of modern tendencies. He, by decree of his localized practices, extended his world outward and inward at the same time.
Shovon Shome rightly places him on the map of his birthplace, Bordhoman, a rice-producing district of West Bengal, a place where multiple trajectories of religious beliefs and family pedigree came together. Quamrul's optimism for life and the lore of the people certainly sprang from that well. And it is also linked with his families illustrious past: his maternal grand-father was behind the very formation of Kolkata’s municipality, and the paternal grand-father was a surveyor of the Survey of India.2 The latter’s draftsmanship has seeped into young Quamrul.
Art as a site for politico-cultural reclamation
Quamrul’s images are fervently bodily in essence.4
Quamrul’s work invokes the presence of the actual. His whole repertoire is not only a process of conceptualizing the Bengali heritage in present tense, but also an act of returning to the sheer physicality of existence. His was a physicality which has been in exact accord with a mental desire of a painter who considered the patuas his peers. This spirit of fraternity seems palpable in the forces with which the lines and the brushworks in most of his works are brought forth.
The body as a (anthropo)morphed site, one that houses social and cultural history, helps devalue the idea of the human as mere form. The Greek had a field day turning the particular, which is the body, into an eternal signifier without its signified or analogue in the real world. In short they lent primacy to the ideal over the real. The notion of idealism as such is eternally tied to Greek reasoning of Apollonian tilt. Quamrul as an artist and a person has treaded paths that helped him course through myriads cultural particulars, and in turn, making him aware of the fault line that divides the cultural ground into ideal and real. And he decidedly sided with the latter.
He was a Bratochari enthusiast, a propaganda image maker for the Indian Communist Party, a defender of minority Muslim causes in the pre-partition Kolkata, and even a contributor to children’s supplements of both Hindu- and Muslim-orientated newspapers of his time. All these obviously conferred on him the strength of a Dionysian nature, something akin to that irrational inspiration, which went into shaping the very mind of poet Nazrul Islam– a personification of a rare kind of humanism, one that is manifested in tendencies that are progressive and yet engaged in the historical realities of the primary location– the body as an evolving identity along the whole length of the socio-cultural circumference.
Dance, physical exercise and even body building was part of Quamrul’s way of constructing the self based on awareness of one’s own identity– one which evidently included inheritance of the Bangalee past and was centered on the concept of mutation and change with the hope of making the present relevant against the particular.
Raibenshe dance, a form which the Bratocharis avidly performed,– a linocut on the subject dating back to 1978, long after the fervour of the movement had waned, testifies that Quamrul has always kept the spirit alive. Bratochari movement stood for the development of a strong sense of duty, self-awareness, self-respect, honesty, hard work and even good health– all these centering on the ethos of communal harmony and the strong sense of Bangaleeness. It is no wonder that “Joy Sonar Bangla” used to be the inspirational catchphrase they relied on.
Body itself is the memory-location; once the body is usurped, so are its affiliates– what we come to know as plain inheritance as well as geo-cultural and political history. Quamrul was an embodiment of that ethos around a physicality bound up with culture and its regeneration, and it is this line that his art can be defined as a step towards continuity.
Photos Collection: Shumona Hassan
Life at a glance
Quamrul Hassan was born in December 2nd 1921, at Tiljala, at the outskirts of Kolkata. His father Mohammad Hashim hailed from Bardhaman district of what is now West Bengal. His mother was Mosammad Alia Khatun.
1935 Quamrul obtains a membership of the Kolkata gymnasium, where he begins training in physical fitness and exercises.
1938 Quamrul enters Kolkata Government Art School to train as an artist.
1939 Joins the Bratochari movement led by Gurusaday Dutt and becomes involved in its interventions.
1947 Finishes art courses from the Government Art School; visits Dhaka to attend a programme of Mukul Fouze – a scout-like organisation – of which Quamrul had been a part.
1948 Moves permanently to Dhaka and joins force with Zainul Abedin to lend momentum to the efforts to establish an art institute, which comes into being in November.
1959 Marries Mariam Begum.
1960 Leaves his teaching job, and joins as the chief designer of the design centre.
1965 Receives Pakistan President’s award Tamgha-e-Pakistani.
1971 Actively participates in the non-cooperation movement against the Yahya Khan-led Pakistani junta; joins the newly-formed interim government of Bangladesh in exile as the director of its art and design department. His poster of the ogre-like Yahya, developed over the years, fuels nationalistic passion; Quamrul returns to Dhaka in December.
1972 Finalizes the design for the national flag.
1975 Shilpakala Academy organizes a solo exhibition.
1988 Breaths his last on February 2nd at the 2nd poetry convention by the Kobita Parishad while presiding over a recitation session; just before death Quamrul produces the sketch that depicts the incumbent President Hossain Mohammad Ershad as Biswa Behaya or the scum of the world.
Crisis of identity in independent Pakistan
For artists like Alburs 'the realm of art' is permanently insulated against the unrest of this century of crises.3 -Harold Rosenberg
The 50s and 60s, saw the emergence of some urban artists schooled in the British mode of learning who urgently felt the need to break away from the academic past. They did so by following examples set by European modernists given to reductionist/formalist tendencies – the signature of high modernism. Aligning with the international trend of what can actually be dubbed as reordering of the method of representation, one which favoured the attenuation of the pictural to the mere manipulation of the intensity as well as the body of colour, many an artist thought to have achieved autonomy from the academia and the officially favoured pseudo-naturalism, as well as the homegrown traditional mode of representation.
The mono-axial, technique-driven intentional preoccupation was thought to have been the only option to remain artistically relevant as well as to achieving individuality. In contrast, Quamrul continued his effort to bring forth a new pictorial solution by avoiding such comprehensive introversion of the modernist distinctiveness defined by heightened form of disinterestedness vis-à-vis one's immediate reality and tradition. By drawing from the traditional paintings and not willing to move away from the vicissitudes of life, he chose vitality over modernist ambiguity, and also the picturesque over cold classicism. For him painting remained a process of turning the personal act into a social one, as is the case for all forms of art.
Legend has it that he was being looked down upon by the new generation of painters who belittled his efforts due to his attachment to the rural traditional mode of representation. He turned that derogation on its head by preferring to be known as a patua. The term seemed adequately loaded with artistic verve and a means for him to get back at his detractors. T S Eliot's treatise The Idea of a Christian Society (published 1939) criticizes modernist formations and institutions as the preserve of a mobile cosmopolitan elite who freely crossed national borders but remained alienated within their own societies. Quamrul simply decided to keep a distance from this 'homeless lot'. For him the national identity was a ground for his actions and a bastion to defend, first against the supremacy of a manufactured pseudo-religious identity that flourished under the rhetoric of Pakistani identity, and later against the surge of the Euro-American formalist tendencies.
- Syed Azizul Haq, Quamrul Hassan: Jiban O Karma, Folklore Division, Bangla Academy, 1998. Also, information relating to Quamrul’s involvement with the Bratochari movement and his early life used in this article are extraction from this book.
- Shovon Shome, Nirantor, issue 6, 2005.
- Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object, The New American Library, 1966.
- Shovon Shome, ibid.