Mapping Bangladesh's ascent to abstraction
'…[N]o chemist has as yet discovered the exchange value in diamonds. Values therefore exist 'sensually above the senses' (sinnlich übersinnlich),' he says.
– Ferenc L Lendvai in reference to Karl Marx
Travelling cultural traits and the frame of identity
At the macro-evolutionary scale cultural traits are transferred from parent to daughter populations through demic expansion (vertical transmission), or between neighbouring populations by copying, teaching or imposition (horizontal transmission). Cultural traits may also arise as independent adaptations. So says a monograph on culture study meritoriously brewed by five academics.1 The above differentiation of cultural inheritance and learning – the former taking place vertically and the latter horizontally – assists in locating/contexualizing all cultural traits which artists of this region learned by being in the swirl of things and also by consciously and unconsciously interiorizing the languages and trends of the West.
It is never an independent let alone unique phenomenon that the germination of artistic vocabularies, one which is considered 'new' in the climate of the 1960s, had their cognates in the industrially developed world. The social and political forces that have been shaping this society since the British Raj had left, preparing the ground for modernization, have always been at play assuming a catalytic role in the realm of creativity. The question how cultural traits analogous to those which first appeared in the centre – the place of their origin – continues to overwhelm a locality which lies on the periphery – thousands of miles apart from the centre – is thus resolved.
The issue in need of re-examination is not how cultural traits travel across borders, as it is universally accepted that they do, it is how they conquer a population as modernizing/civilizing force that makes continuous encroachment on the physical as well as the spiritual domains of that people, stationed, as they are, on the Periphery of the world modernism tends to construct. Also important is how cultural traits are integrated into the mainstream defying the gradients known to have been traditional markers of the location in a given time and place. That is what we may call the social processes of re-articulating a certain form of art and culture on a terrain where it has lodged itself with the political-economic order acting as its mentor.
In the early 1960s Dhaka witnessed the house of the indigenous modernism thoroughly shaken when some of the young exponents started effacing from their work all detectable references to the location. The guardians of the fort, who were adherents of a mode of art assumed to have been informed by location-specific praxis, received a jolt, though their own strategies too had been somewhat tangentially linked with European Modernism.
The shift, a radical detour, staged by way of direct interiorization of the Western purist language of art, may have perplexed many at that time, but it certainly was an inevitable outcome of the practices that predated it. Though it is often assumed that during their higher educational hiatus in the West as well as in Japan, these young modernists of the late 1950s soaked in the creed of Western formalism and devised an art form deterrent to identity/nationalist/indigenist aesthetic; from hindsight, it now seems like a logical evolution of the strategies of previous generations whose art deployed some definitive tenets of Cubist origin to effect a degree of newness in their work. That the modernizing principle, in various other forms, had already been there, working as a catalyst for the artist to look beyond the ethnic horizon and nationalist politics in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). That it had the potential to make considerable gains on the cultural space as some of our foremost artists – both young and mature – began to articulate the languages of the West in its stringent of all forms, never dawned on many an 'indigenist', before the purists made their appearance as purist per se.
The nativists seemed to have been living in a make belief world, as did Zainul Abedin. In fact Zainul's dissatisfaction over his young students being christened in the formalist mode is in itself a misjudgment and devaluation of the institutional praxis he himself allowed to take shape in this region. The naturalistic learning processes that governed the basic courses at the institute Zainul established and the experimentation by way of splintering the painterly space or the represented element in the vague echo of Cubist/Futurist stratagem testify to both the pupils' and teachers' inclination towards certain Western ethos. Therefore the voidance of the canvas of any traceable content was a natural outcome; though, perhaps, Zainul himself was eternally under the impression that Dhaka modernism will always carry some vestiges of rural lives, or reference to indigenous cultural inheritance, which he so eagerly looked at as sources of inspiration.
As for the abstraction that began to shoot its roots, first into the circle of eminent practitioners affiliated to the academia and then into the cultural fabric that the cognoscenti constructed, slowly infiltrating the urban milieu, its exponents – Aminul Islam, Mohammad Kibria, Kazi Abdul Baset, Murtaja Baseer, Debdas Chakrabarti et al – as representatives of the bourgeoisie and its acculturated ego-based consciousness – had no reason to 'look back' and search out the traditions that they were never part of. The cultural traits entwined with the bio-ecosystem linked to the soil, irrigation, rivers, and the production/economic matrix had little or no currency among the educated minority. Since, on the one hand, these artists hailed from the rural frontiers, and, on the other, their existential field of play was the city and their mode of thinking was underlined by their allegiance to Euro-American modernist narratives, some of them, especially Baset and Murtaja, remained, for a long time, split between nativism and modernism. No such bipolarity afflicted the other two – Kibria and Aminul, who knew that they were already part of a progressive middle class and the historical reality they inhabited made the transmission of a heritage impossible. These modernists as well as those who are the transmitters of a heritage, were least inspired to investigate the counterpoints and counterpoise already banished from their own urban milieu, which were to be discovered, with effort, in the philosphico-religious line of flights in the heterodoxical plots of the cultural trajectory of the mainstream (often interpreted as peripheral) lives.
For the artists inclined to Modernism, lore equaled 'lack' – especially of visual possibilities. Modernization/secularization had already begun to debase the mainstream praxis of the Bangla speaking population, and the Modernist of the Bangladeshi variant (then inhabitant of East Pakistan) had little time to look back and rethink their stratagem in the context of what they were turning away from. On the contrary, to conform to the sober, sublimated form of praxis of urbane denomination, primarily centered on Dhaka and the taste buds of its cognoscenti, they abandoned all things that smacked of 'the vernacular', and on top of that, as displaced individual in their own clime, failed to give new lease of life to the borrowed language of expression. When some of them came back to reclaim their own tradition, they only manage to glorify idyllic life in the rural frontier through a stylized format of translating nationhood.
Before stepping into the conflict zone where this horizontal expansion seems to have gripped our attention and has lent definitive stature to the category of newness as the only directive that ensures artistic development, let us think through the cultural variables that were present in front of these artists who departed from earlier modes of expression – both Modern and Vernacular.
Framing of the indigenous by way of rational interpretation of the Mythos, identity politics in the Indian subcontinent has already been thoroughly tainted with sectarian bias and sentimentality.
At the end of the colonial rule, the dominant narrative of 'nationhood' itself was a problematic zone – Indianness could only be expressed through recalling Hindu myths and that too from an abstracted position that blinded most of its adherents to all other alternative interpretations and heterogeneous possibilities. This resulted in a monolinear interpretation of the chosen lore as an upshot of an abstracted/alienated position of the agent. One wonders how it would have appeared to them (the artists) if it were their living practice. As we can now clearly see that the actual knowledge pool and its attendant emotive force the myths had in store into their folds, and the possibilities that they offered, were simply set aside in favour of some affinitive signs and scraps of symbols good enough for constructing the Indian Identity. Perhaps the lore of the Hindu majority and its cultural achievements had already degenerated into a vacuous practice, leaving little or no scope for generating aesthetic or philosophical value which could saturate everyday life. May be the only real tradition bearers are to be found among the splintered sub-sects and pseudo-sects who clung on to some precious remnants of the knowledge paradigm and made their home in certain sites across the subcontinent – Kustia being one such culture-infused geography where the cult of Lalon Fakir seemed to have assimilated the essences of multiple streams of inheritance – Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, and Baishnab traditions alongside the theosophical as well as extra-scriptural practices of Sufi Islam, only to inaugurate a unique strand of knowledge. But the babu culture that the urban centre like Calcutta (now, Kolkata) was fraught with, had shown little interest for such vernacular knowledge base, about which they had some notional idea that allowed for little objective evaluation except effectuating some form of osmosis which perhaps helped generate a lot of misinterpretation/misrepresentation and ensure a bit of social approbation, as the status given to such knowledge as spiritual entertainment was a far cry from what it actually is. We are aware how popular baul songs have now become in the urban centres, and also how the antagonism between art and the power structure always remains a blur in the line of vision of such 'happy go lucky kind of culturally inclined' urbanites. 'Who is situated in the exteriority of the [dominant] system?' Enrique Dussel's query may fail to resonate with the ones who often take the plunge into art as entertainment or cultural celebration without any critical engagement.
The surge of 'return to tradition' thus was a result of a false awakening – as, even for the urban hipsters, it was never a living body of knowledge. 'In India, it was not until the 1960s and -70s that the artists would start to draw from the living traditions of folk and tribal art,' which testifies to the fact that the second surge of 'return to roots' was for the first time informed by the fact that all cultural practices are based on living bodies of knowledge in the rural frontier. No matter how indigenist the stance of the previous generation was, culture was always considered to have been on the verge of extinction. However, this problematic positioning of the agent vis-à-vis both the monoliths of Traditional and Modern – the duality it formed almost mirrored the duality of form and content which set the tenor of the aesthetic discourses of the past forty years.
Hardly anybody raises any question regarding these conceptual frames that train us to look at the world only through dichotomies. Perhaps, it was people like Swaminathan, with their insights into the scriptural text who easily rendered these Modernist antinomies null and void by introducing the concept of 'oneness' or 'wholeness' into the discursive zone.
The issue of cultural variables thus is enmeshed with the issue of modernization and the rise of 'nationalism' in this part of the world and also how essentialist interpretation of art, artist as well as identity has afflicted all discourses on these subjects. One can easily see that for an artist living in the first half of the nineteenth century, the search was either for some form of superficial recall of heritage, or expressions of nationhood, which is like playing on the back-foot, or a direct parley with the vanguard practices of European origin – which is like going full frontal with the force of either innovation or imitation of the trends with global currency.
The Bengali Muslim artists chose the latter position either through innovation or mimicry as, for them, the Mughal or Persian heritage seemed too distant a trace to actuate a new beginning. Interestingly, the Mughal and Rajput styles had catalyzed a group of Orientalsits to inhabit a Hindu myth-inspired cultural register, thus the revivalist mode of art of Abanindranath had also become an important component of the Nehruvian nationalism.
The duality of abstraction and figuration
Premised on the duality of progressive and obscurantist, or civilized and savage, Modernism worked as Blanket Modernism through the construction of antinomies. In art, especially in our region, even while typifying the languages of expression, we resort only to the dichotomous frame of argument which all too easily pit the Figurative against the Abstraction. In fact, by not being able to assign value to the rasas or the nuances of emotion art generates, leading to ideas and knowledge, our textual practice both in vernacular and English has been mired in mystification per courtesy of the imaginary as well as actual tug of wars between the followers of abstraction and figurative modes of expressivity.
In the context of Europe, the notion of abstraction seems like a mirrored reality of progress in all other fields – science, philosophy and psychology. In art, reductionism had become the order of the day defining the twentieth century obsession with autonomy of the individual, objectivity of gaze and the collective striving for Order. Though the construstivist and cubist influenced development at the earlier stage has later been replaced by Surrealism's most powerful stratagem – automatism, yet the net result was this: allegory was jettisoned, as was the concept of integrality and fluidity; in came the ruling spirit of the Machine Age – an array of signs and symbols with definitive or vague references to the modernist knowledge base. The only bunch of artists inclined to abstraction who avoided such trappings are some of the artists of the New York AbEx scene of the 1940s whose fluid practice produced works through the invocation of the primal instinct; the primitivizing principle of Picasso is reactivated here rather than the spirit of reductionism/formalism.
Yet, in the whole, what makes us pause and rethink is the question whether the new World Order had made itself visible in forms alone, that too in a reduced and urbane constitution as performance wise Modernism has long since plunged humanity into inexplicable chaos reducing all value to the monetary sign. As content and the empathy it usually generates were made redundant, the simplification/sublimation of the artistic space was underway.
As for the duality of form and content, it was an outcome of the same dehumanizing spirit; therefore the idea of the inseparability of form and content has been abandoned to make way for 'form' to become independent of content. What the English aesthetician Clive Bell called 'significant form' became the ultimate frame for looking at art and constructing its narratives.
Perhaps it was a way to escape what Susan Sontag calls 'the insupportable burden of self-consciousness' brought forth by a modern humanity and secular polity. Couple of Kandinisky's quotes also seems to resonate with it when he says 'Objects damage pictures' and 'The more frightening the world becomes ... the more art becomes abstract.' The artist in repose is trying hard to keep a distance from the world of appearance and immanence not to create what Gilles Deleuze calls 'Nowhere' – the predicate constructed so that the subject could redefine his sense of 'Now-here'– but to escape from the swirl of things for perpetuity, is to deny historical and social sittedness of cultural productions.
Re-articulating vs remaking
The first point of inquiry is whether abstraction in Bangladesh is a new variant of the New York school, or that of a trend that the Europeans thought of as an ultimate gesture of their collective striving for assuaging the Modern ego? If so, how do 'we' negotiate this collectivized form of the process of pacification that bears down at the level of artistic practice. The conundrum called Modern Art, and the mystery/mastery of its novelty seeking drivers, will only be demystified once the psychosocial dynamism that had given rise to it in the first place is brought to the light.
Sigmund Freud speaks of a primitive society where we could find 'olfactory sexuality', which, he observes, degenerated into 'visual sexuality' in the Modern Age. The former, he claims, is part of matriarchal tradition, and the latter, a definitive reflection of the patriarchal order. Visuality is of foremost concern to its subjects in any Capital-driven society, be that of the centre or the periphery. All things are out in the open in the Modern Age to form a cultural register premised on Visuality, which is nothing if not dissociation, or distanciation. So the distance that Kandinisky seeks 'from the world of object' (which is often interpreted as fully fathomable/knowable world through science) throwing the viewers into a seemingly mystical maze, is plain distanciation, and nothing but distanciation. The static positioning of the third world subject vis-à-vis Modern art testifies to a double distanciation – one is from one's self and the other from the location.
When the indigenous ego is displaced and the subject, to fill out the blank, try and echo the ego by whom he has been rendered as the Other what results is mimicry. For re-articulation to take place one needs to have some solid basis for a negotiation between the two registers of egos – be that cultural or political egos. Japan for example had successfully created exponents whose handling of the American Abstraction created artistic personalities whose actions helped redefine the frontier of creativity at the global scale, that is what exactly one should expect from negotiation/re-articulation. For example, Gutai group of artists in particular soaked in the impact of this new Western expressivity in a unique manner, by devising performances that elaborated on the techniques of all-over paintings of Pollack and De Kooning. As Japan's domestic contemporary art market was basically nonexistent, it was not until the western market appeared in the Japanese scene that Gutai members' ephemeral actions were reframed into wall-oriented abstract action painting.
The problematizing of the pictorial space by positing cardinal value to colour and composition to attain poeticity is an issue that has been stressed by many a follower of the 'poet' that was Kandinsky. And more often than not, abstraction has been looked at as the essence of modernism rather than a trend stemming from the Eurozonous location. If it were primarily about discovery of the site of transcendence amidst the confusion following the collapse of the body to mere ego, and the world to the monitory sign and the way Capital-driven society frames artisthood and fame, it would have found its exteriorization in multiplicity of expressions and through multiplicity of means. The monoaxial articulation of Abstraction and the single frame of definition that trails it, are apparently the result of a seeing which is often informed by a fixed frame of reference, overlooking what Abstraction actually is – a mode with multiple faces and at times antagonistic traits.
More contentious for us is the issue of the nature of Bangladeshi abstraction which is connected to the question whether the artists at least had an understanding of what they castigated? And the next question in cue is: were they able to add anything to the already existing repertoire of abstraction?
Note from the EditorWe regret the fact that two of our Executive Editors, Ebadur Rahman and Manosh Chowdhury, have left their posts due to their increased involvement in projects other than Depart. As part of the executive body, which is the creative engine of the magazine, Ebadur, through his theoretically nuanced contributions, helped the Editor set the intellectual tenor of the magazine, while Manosh, by registering the social aspects of art, helped augment on the critical voice with which we always attempt to unpack the cultural horizon of the region. Both will be sorely missed at Depart by their erstwhile colleagues.
We are pleased to announce that our Kolkata-based contributor Paroma Maiti is now part of Depart's core team; she will fill the position of Executive Editor.
- Cultural Traits and Linguistic Trees: Phylogenetic Signal in East Africa, J W Moylan (Department of Anthropology, UC Davis), C M Graham (Department of Anthropology, UC Davis), M Borgerhoff Mulder (Department of Anthropology, UC Davis) and C L Nunn (Section in Ecology and Evolution, UC Davis), T Håkansson (Department of Anthropology, U Kentucky).