Reclaiming art history as a repository of local knowledge
Adiscussion on the history of art in Bangladesh is yet to lead to a worthwhile discourse on regional art. A sheer lack of regional art history in this country has obviously meant that any archival information or research that is presented for our consumption is primarily Dhaka-centric, institutionalized and revolves around the Modern school of thought.
However, a discussion on the national art scene of any country must include a treatise on the whole gamut– all its facets and layers– for it to be viable, valid and “relevant”. Prevailing discussions on art history do not accurately and clearly depict its structure; rather these remain fragmented and incomplete. A storehouse of local, regional knowledge is a fundamental component of art history that is multi-faceted and well represented.
On Tagore and Bangladesh
There is no need to make a fresh introduction of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). However, a discussion on the regional art history of our country creates an almost organic need to make Tagore the focal point and central premise. Does he only ‘belong’ to West Bengal or India? Can he not be dually ‘owned’ by West Bengal and Bangladesh? Providing a universally acceptable answer to this question is by no means easy and any response will undoubtedly touch many a nerve.
Tagore’s own acknowledgment of the identity of his own works arouses much curiosity. In a letter to Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis, he explained, ‘I do not feel there is any correlation between my country and my art. When I compose poetry, there is a degree of sentimentality and emotional resonance associated with each Bangla couplet. However, when I paint, the colours, the brushstrokes are not accompanied by any baggage, any association with borders– national or otherwise. It belongs to whoever happens to take a particular fancy to it. The fact that I am Bangalee does not necessarily imply that my art must belong solely to the Bangalees in order to be truly appreciated. I have therefore entrusted my paintings to the West. I want my paintings to prove that not only am I a hundred percent Bangalee, but I am also a European in equal measure.’ 1
Whether Tagore was actually successful in achieving this rather romantic ideal– his desire to be both Bangalee and European– and the psychology at its root– are of little relevance here. Suffice it to say that Tagore never attained any prominence at all in the annals of European art. He has attained fame and recognition primarily as a Bangalee or Indian or South Asian artist. Whatever he said about his own work, experts in the field say something entirely different.
This is widely known that Tagore spent most of his days in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Experts opine that nature and wildlife of East Bengal had a profound influence on Tagore’s literature, and this fact quite clearly manifests itself in his writing. Despite the fact that he was born in Kolkata, his experiences in East Bengal found reflection in his thought processes – he himself has attested to this fact in a number of ways. The most glaring proof of this is that Bangalees of East Bengal or Bangladeshis have wholeheartedly embraced Tagore as one of their own – he is, after all, the lyricist of the country’s national anthem.
This was the ultimate acknowledgement. The obvious question now is this: in a nation where Tagore’s song has been accepted as its national anthem, does it not naturally follow that his paintings should be considered a part of that nation’s art history as well? East Bengal or Bangladesh’s association with Tagore the artist is nothing new.
The fact that he used to sit and paint in his Bangladesh home of Silaidah Kuthi has been known from his own letters (to Jagdish Chandra Bose, dated 30th September 1900).
Even though there seems to be no evidence of the work he did during the Silaidah phase of his life, it is widely believed that his experiences at Silaidah had an impact on the paintings that followed during the latter portion of his life (1924-1941). So even though he says in his own words, ‘When I paint, the colours, the brushstrokes are not accompanied by any association with borders– national or otherwise', expert Somendranath Bandopadhyay finds ample reflection of Silaidah in his paintings of nature. These influences surface either in the materials used in his paintings or in their subject matter. He says, ëIt seems that even when Tagore painted outside Santiniketan, outside Bengal, or indeed outside India, or in Europe, most of his work reflected his own personal memories and recollections of Silaidah to which he obviously had a particular affinity.’2
This fact is not only demonstrated in his paintings of nature, the local populace of Silaidah also finds vivid expression in numerous portraits. So says Somendranath Banerjee, the writer of the essay entitled, Silaidah Phase & Tagore the Artist. According to him, ‘The myriad faces that he encountered during his days in East Bengal left an indelible imprint on his mind. Not even finding a voice in the written word, they seemed to cry out to be revealed in his final paintings like hitherto trapped waves. These paintings were the long-desired outlets of expression of a sea of faces… both young and old. There exists a group photograph taken of Tagore and his subjects, and there is a strong resemblance between the faces painted by artist Nandlal and some of those created by Tagore himself.’3 If we accept this argument on its merits, then we must admit that there is an intimate connection between East Bengal and the artist.
The central premise of my argument follows thus. If the work of various Bangladeshi artists who have painted and resided overseas (and still do so) can be considered an integral component of this nation’s art, there seems to be no valid reason why Tagore’s art should not be accorded its rightful place in the art history of Bangladesh. If we can accept his song as our national anthem, is it not worth entertaining the possibility that being a bit more open, welcoming towards his work (in a sense, embracing its ‘local’ flavour) may just enrich us? It is a widely accepted fact that many of Tagore’s songs contain shades of influence of East Bengal’s Bauls and songs of the fakirs. However, the influence of East Bengal’s natural beauty and its people on his art rarely features in any discussions. To return to what he said, ‘My art belongs to whoever happens to take a particular fancy to it. The fact that I am Bangalee does not necessarily imply that my art must belong solely to the Bangalees in order to be truly appreciated’. Does this mean that we the Bangalees from East Bengal do not appreciate or value Tagore’s art?
The failure to record facts and other mishaps
Picking up the thread from Tagore’s argument, we may shed some light on Jyotirindranath Tagore’s (1849-1925) sketch of Lalon Fakir. Though done in Silaidah, it has never been mentioned in Bangladeshi art history.
Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938), yet another Tagore family member, captured the Padma in his artwork on numerous occasions: ‘Early Morning in River Padmaí; 'Storm Ahead in Padma’, to name a few. These works are currently displayed in New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. It may be assumed that these were also created in Bangladesh. Moreover, there were many companions who were invited by Tagore to travel with him to various locations in East Bengal at various junctures. Why have their works not been accorded their rightful place in the art archives of Bangladesh? This is especially applicable to the fact that Nandlal’s travels through Silaidah and East Bengal are thought to have played a catalytic role in bringing about a fundamental transformation in his art. This aspect merits further discussion.
We are privy to the fact that a number of prolific personalities were invited by Tagore to visit Silaidah on more than one occasion. However, in 1915, the Silaidah experiences of young artist Nandlal Bose (1883-1966), Mukulchandra De (1895-1992) and Surendranath Kar (1894-1970) are particularly significant.4
Prior to his travels in Silaidah, Nandlal Bose had never seen East Bengal’s natural beauty in all its splendid glory. He was captivated by the magnificent scenic beauty by the River Padma and he based Winter by the Padma (36” x 15.5”) on his experiences. This is the picture that marks the shift from images that sprang from inspiration to the images drawn from empirical sources.5 Art critic Shovon Shome spoke about Nandlal’s visit to Silaidah, ‘His visit made him really aware of Bengal’s natural beauty and splendor of its wildlife.’ This was, in all likelihood, instigated by Tagore himself. Winter by the Padma is said to have been the start of his transition into landscape painting.6 As Nandlal told his biographer, Panchanan Mondal, ‘Living by the Padma at close quarters with Tagore marked the beginning of our nature study.’7
During his travels in Silaidah, Nandlal filled his sketchbook with pictures of his experiences. These included scenes of fishermen, boats with their sails at the ready, ducks, fish, and many others. His painting, Pokon Fisherman shows an old, struggling fisherman sitting on his boat. Experts in the field feel that this phase of his life coincided with his shift towards landscape and figure paintings from religious and mythological portrayals.
Mukulchandra De also painted in Silaidah. Speaking about his travels in his autobiography, In My Own Words, he said, ‘I accompanied Gurudev to his estate in Silaidah. I can’t accurately remember when– it was possibly in 1916. In addition to his own writing, he was occupied property matters, collecting land revenue, and other issues. I threw myself into painting. Village belles collecting blossoms from trees, farmers tilling their land with their ploughs, scenes of villagers bathing by the Padma, boats of various sizes floating on the Padma, barges plying, all walks of life passing back and forth.’8 A painting entitled The Villagers of Silaidah with Tagore may illustrate this further.9
Some struggling, poverty-stricken villagers came to visit the zamindar estate. Their very stance and body language– overwhelmed, frightened, inert and hesitant, while simultaneously earnest, curious and hopeful for the future– was captured on the canvas by Mukul De with intense skill and emotion. Some of the pencil sketches he made during this period are currently preserved in the archives.
My question is: should not these works be included within the purview of Bangladeshi art history? We are well aware of the influx of foreign painters to India during Britain’s colonial rule. Many illustrious names may be included in this list, including Tilly Kettle, Doyle, George Chinnary. Some of these artists travelled to Dhaka or elsewhere in East Bengal. If these foreign artists are considered to be a part of Indian and Bangladeshi art history, then by that same token, the works of Tagore and those artists who were his travelling companions to Silaidah or East Bengal should also be considered to be integral components of Bangladeshi art history. Accepting them as such is absolutely pivotal. If geography and location are given some degree of importance while constructing history, this merits further research and investigation.
A point of note: it is not that Tagore, Nandlal, Mukul De, et al, are completely absent in the history of Bangladeshi art. However, they have attained prominence by virtue of the works they created in Calcutta and Santiniketan. Their links to East Bengal or Bangladesh hardly feature in any discussions at all. Pre-Partition art history bestows undue importance and emphasis on the works that emerged from Calcutta and Santiniketan. I feel this tendency towards this school of thought is not only limiting and restricting, but also a tad worrying.
The pitfall of relying on linear history
In fact, if we look at pre-partition Bangladeshi art history and conduct some research on ‘local’ art from the smaller regions (as opposed to ‘institutionalised’ art, centred on Dhaka and Calcutta), a range of facts could emerge that could well enrich Bangladeshi art.
I am not aware of any comprehensive research that has been done on East Bengal’s art history during the pre-partition or colonial era. Art critic Abul Mansur says, ‘Despite the fact that there seemed to be a prevalence of rich, localised art, there was no structured, institutionalised practice in the region during the colonial era. If such did exist, there is a paucity of credible evidence. However, quite a few art students from East Bengal did attend art colleges in Calcutta and it is possible that they organized exhibitions of their own work in their “home” districts or even tried to transfer the skills they had learnt. In the colonial era, it is highly likely that exhibitions or transfer of learnings of this nature did occur in certain towns of East Bengal. Again, facts in this instance are sorely lacking.’10
I would like to add something to Abul Mansur’s comment. We do not have detailed information on most of the East Bengal artists who sought training in Calcutta. I am also unaware of any initiative to retrieve this information. If we did have some credible facts about native East Bengal artists who were trained in various art institutions in Calcutta, the scenario would have been entirely different. If we do not ignore the birthplace/native roots argument, we will find that the link between East Bengal and institutional art training dates back to many years before Partition.
The lack of factual information on such artists who had their native roots in various East Bengal districts is not an irreversible problem. In this regard, we may talk about Kushtia’s Rajendranath Ghosh (1897-1953) and Revatiman Pal (1919-2001). Prior to Partition, these two artists attended the Calcutta Government Art School, and also received some local fame and recognition. However, neither has been accorded a place in the Dhaka-centred history of Bangladeshi art.11
Rather than limiting our discussion to institutional art and artists, bringing non-institutional art to the discourse will undoubtedly benefit Bangladeshi art history by enriching it.
The art history of any region is never linear. Each individual region has its own intrinsic styles, and there is also a certain degree of reciprocal give and take within each region. By way of example, institutional artists made their own individual mark on cinema poster art. However, when cinema poster art developed as an independent and self-guided style of its own, it in turn influenced the work of the institutional artists themselves.
In addition to institutional art and artists, each region boasts a whole gamut of non-institutional artists: from the cinema poster artists, rickshaw artists, bus-truck painters to the canvas artists. These, and many other non-institutional artists whose works are fast slipping into the cracks of memory and the mists of time, may prominently feature in a discussion of local art history. Only in this way will the history of Bangladeshi art truly succeed in reflecting the country’s varied layers and facets of artistic practices. The prevailing trend in Bangladesh to simply limit the discussion to institutional, linear and Dhaka-centred art should be obliterated.
A discussion of local art history is not a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. An attempt has been made to reconstruct the art history of various regions, pre-dating from the end of the nineteenth century and more accurately the beginning of the twentieth century to the partition of India. The history of Bikrampur (1316), The history of Subarnagram (1891), The history of Jessore-Khulna (1914), and Srihatta Mirror (1886) are just some of the treatises available.
However, it is shocking but true that these texts do not contain any mention of art from those particular regions. The regional history books that are being written or published nowadays contain hardly any mention at all of the arts and artists. Any discussion is woefully insufficient. It will not be an exaggeration to state that as far as prevailing trends go, the subject of art is hardly highlighted at all in regional historical discourses.
In summary, a discourse on local art history is still sorely lacking in the history of Bangladeshi art. Looking beyond the conventional lenses of a Dhaka-centred, institutional, linear and modernist perspective, the reconstruction of this country’s regional/local art history is a prerequisite for the composition of national art history in all its multiple facets and layers. In this regard, I suggest that this should definitely pre-date the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. The local art history emerging from various villages, towns and districts could serve as an invaluable storehouse and repository of knowledge– knowledge that could contribute to the viable reconstruction of our nation’s art history.
- Rabindranath Tagore (18 August 1930): My Paintings, ‘Desh’ issue: 1399, pp 11-12, compiled by Shovon Shome.
- Somendranath Benergee, ‘Selaidah Parba O Rabindranath’, edited by Abul Hassan Chowdhury, (Dhaka 1990), p 101.
- Somendranath Benergee, ibid, p 102.
- Shovon Shome, Art, Education and Colonial India (1998), pp 312-313. Shovon Shome, in the Srabon-Ashyin No-1374 issue, related to Tagore, in reference to a letter written to him in February 1st, 1915, that three Indian artists visited Selaidah, though, in the book Indian Artist Nandalal, the visit takes place in 1916.
- Shovon Shome, ‘Three Artists’, (Calcutta 1985), p 53.
- Shovon Shome,, ibid, (1998), p 313.
- Dinkar Kaushik, ‘Nandlal Bose’, translated by Shovon Shome (New Delhi 1995), p 31.
- Mukul De, ‘My Words’, (Calcutta 1402), p 39.
- Ashok Bhattacharya, aforesaid (2002), p 192.
- Abul Mansur, 'Art: From Pre-Partition to Contemporary Times', Fine Arts & Crafts, published by Lala Rukh Selim, Bangladesh Asiatic Society, Dhaka 2007, p 25.
- Interviews: Lalu Ghosh, 31st August 2007, Mirpur, Kushtia; Abdul Hamid Raihan, 6th August 2007, Kushtia; Azad Abul Kalam, 2nd and 3rd September 2007, Chuadanga; Sujit Ghosh, 1st September 2007, Kalishankarpur, Kushtia; Mani Pal and Nand Pal, 6th August 2007, Janipur, Khoksa, Kushtia; Mihir Biswas, 1st September 2007, Ishwardi, Khoksa, Kushtia.
Shawon Akand is a painter and researcher, and author of Dhamrai Janopoder Kasha-Pital Shilpa, a book on traditional metal casting of Dhamrai.