The fine and folk arts in (and out of) focus
A book in art can never be 'the Book' in art, as is often imagined by some who are given to the forlorn belief that a book can and should put in a nutshell the entire gamut of art practices of the deltaic land called Bangladesh. We are ruefully aware that the lack of institutional support, rather than inadequate infrastructure, impacted this nation of Bangla speaking majority; and as a result, over the last three decades, writers on art showing depth of knowledge or academic inclination, have been few and far between. One can easily detect a rueful paucity in the production of research-based literature on art in this country, though there is no dearth of news and unqualified opinions in the media. There is, at the same time, a serious lack of initiative to tide over this lacuna in research. Most institutions of the country – private or public – seem to be in a deep slumber. It isn't as if the entire culturescape of Bangladesh has been rendered stagnant; but the fact that the very nature of culture itself is dynamic, as such, the trajectory of which Zainul Abedin and his compatriots forms the apex has coursed through a sinuous track about which no single book can do justice. Yet this has been chronicled by the Bangladesh Asiatic Society, a private institution that came into being through colonial intervention.
The book has been named 'Art and Craft', and it is a part of a comprehensive study on the cultural trajectory of this deltaic land.
Survey (shomikshan) in Bangla implies a certain philosophy: the philosophy of viewing/examining with disinterestedness. To afford a disinterested gaze, as it were, through nothing short of a dialectical process involving excavation of history. And the objective is to bring to the surface the history of ideas and objects. But the nature of survey in Bangladesh seems more and more reliant on NGO narrative as time passes, and the outcome seems lopsided. The 'development narrative' holds sway over most surveys, and the book in question, methodologically compartmentalized into sub-sections, bespeaks the editors' conventional outlook, and also displays some of the symptoms of the totalizing narrative with a 'nationalist' ring to it.
Edited by Lala Rukh Selim, a researcher and sculptor based in Dhaka, with Sirajul Islam, director of the Society, as Chief Editor, the book deals principally with nineteen issues. The paintings of Bangladesh, its sculpture, print, graphic-design, caricature-art, conceptual art, women artists, first and second generation practitioners of contemporary art, cinematography, popular banner art, folk-art, handicrafts, textile design along with the art of jewellery designing form some of the key topics of discussion.
Though the editor doesn't say anything about the methodology of the survey in her introduction, one can guess from the contents of the book that it primarily engages with the entire trajectory of the arts with the prism of knowledge that separates the 'high' from the 'low'. While a substantial portion of the book has been devoted to discussing the high-arts, the low has also been accommodated. Therefore, it would not be fair to assume that the book has been judged from the standpoint of the elite alone? Rather its perspectives, however governed by convention as well as conviction of academic knowledge, indicate that the editors' preference for forging a middle-path. Because the contents have been very broadly divided into two chief categories – the high arts and the folk arts, within which the nineteen sub-categories have been fitted, one should be cautious in jumping into a conclusion. As for the position that they cast, the Chief Editor makes it clear that the main aim of the survey was to highlight the cultural shifts that have been effectuated as a result of foreign influence from the ancient to the present times. The writings that form its 614 page horizon, however fall short when it comes to clearly delineating whether such changes have been for the better or worse; from the point of value judgement or the effects of such influences on our art, we discover little or no trace of meditation.
In order to mark out the twin categories – the high and low in the arts, it is imperative first that we are able to define them in unambiguous terms. Such definitions do not appear in this study, it is the failure of the editors whose views reflect a society that is habituated to look at the world through a colonial framework.
History informs us that when a particular locality is colonized, the first conflict ensues with the flow of its national culture. This national culture has been referred to as folk culture by the editors of this tome! It is not as if the high arts are divine inventions, emanate as they do from human intervention itself. Therefore, the conflict is always between the two cultures – one of the colonized and the other of the colonizer. In other words, it results from the imposition of the cultural mores of one race over and above the other. The resultant culture is hailed as high-art or a sort of hybrid culture. National culture, on the other hand, is what comes naturally to man. It reflects the changes in the relationship of man with nature, society and its physical and immaterial structures over time. And the ties that bind this changing tide are known as traditions. All traditions spread its roots far and wide through this changing dynamic between man and his immediate surroundings. Although the editors agree that years of colonial rule have not been able to snuff out the existence of national culture altogether, there is no satisfactory explanation behind why it continues to function still.
The book begins with the part on the art of painting, dividing into sections, three in all, as it formulates a linear history by tracing the evolution of the same from the ancient to the present times. Faizul Islam, in the first segment, examines the historical development between the ancient and medieval periods. Abul Mansur, with Faizul Islam as co-author, examines the Middle Age and returns to write the third and last section by himself on art of the company period. Although their pieces are based on a historical judgment, they falter in mapping the historical processes by not taking into account how class-conflicts affected cultural evolutions leading to changes, if any. For both these authors, the perspective is heavily tinted by a colonial hangover. Let's cite an example.
In their joint endeavour, they write, 'From a political standpoint, the defeat of Siraj-ud-Dowlah at the hands of the British at Plassey signalled unsure times for the Nawabi in Murshidabad.' Elsewhere, Abul Mansur writes, 'The death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the eighteenth century marked the decline of the Mughal Empire in India.' Difficulty of language aside, the writers in both the articles have understood the Nawabi period as a tailing point. Professor Abul Mansur even goes on to hail the two hundred years of colonial rule as an epoch of mammoth changes! Reading his article it would seem as if education or aesthetic consciousness did not exist here prior to their conquest India by the British! The Bengali 'elite' exsited in the Mughal circles just as much as they did during the British Raj. But during the latter period the Bengali elite tended towards imitating the art forms of their colonial masters, leading gradually, to the proliferation of this so-called 'modern art.' Abul Mansur's critique is an incomplete assessment of this sudden change in course.
The second chapter of the book is called 'Sculpture' and discusses, over four different sections, its evolution through the 'ancient to medieval periods', 'Medieval terra-cotta sculptures', 'Colonial to contemporary times' and 'Postcolonial sculpture and the reflection of the Liberation War in Memorial Statues'.
The first chapter is a translation of Claudine Bautze-Picron's work by Zulekha Haq, who goes on to author the second chapter as well. It is however, suspect as to how wise it is to understand Bengal's sculptures of the ancient and medieval periods, based on Claudine's survey, for it clearly lacks in field-research, as Claudine herself accedes that 'the development of the sculptural styles of this area is indeed a complex subject.' Her writing is therefore more descriptive in nature. Basically, the sculptural forms of this area have sprung mainly from the religious beliefs and patterns of daily life of the lay folk. As a result of which there a powerful emphasis on form is noted even in the sculptures of the very ancient times, as evident from the massive scales of religious icons. Religious fervour is thus inextricably linked to the stylistic forms of these works. In her writing on terra-cotta sculptures, the medieval period has been identified as falling between the 'thirteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries'. The logic behind this periodization however has not been spelt out in the essay. But I doubt if it would be an exaggeration to imply Zulekha's writing as a mere elaboration of Claudine's essay! The remaining two chapters have been authored by Lala Rukh Selim and Abu Mohammed Delawar Hussain.
Rukh Selim's essay gives us a broad view of sculptural developments from the colonial to contemporary times, and comparatively, is a rather well-written essay. The weakest link of this anthology however, has to be the entry by Delawar Hussain's. His reflection on the statues/sculptures inspired by the Liberation War not only comes across a collation of data alone, but is bereft completely of any sense of aesthetics of the language of sculpture, or knowledge of its stylistic development.
A significant portion of this book is its concentration on contemporary art of Bangladesh, which branched out centering around the Institute of Fine Art (now, Faculty of Fine Art, Dhaka University). First and second generation artists of the 1950s and -60s, from Zainul Abedin to Qaiyyum Chowdhury are discussed herein. But what is to be referred to as 'contemporary', especially when there is hardly any survey or data on the artists of the 1970s through the -80s into the -90s? This reductive method has substantially brought down the standard of research in this book. But that lack has been somewhat recompensed through more-or-less comprehensive take on their respective subject matters by the likes of Shovan Shome, Mahmudul Hossain, Nisar Hussain and Sayed Aziz-ul-Haque among a few others.
Now, the question may arise as to why this survey? Truth to tell, there really is no written history of Bangladesh's art, that may have been the inspiration behind the formulation of this book, which attempts to deal with subject matters that are often perceived as things beyond the fine and folk arts, such as photography and film-poster design. Notwithstanding the problematics with regards to the position, this book may be hailed as a primer for understanding the arts of Bangladesh. But the writings that have been included in this edition show a clear lack of field-survey and source-hunting. Even though the lifeblood of this literature is its reliance on history, a prudent synthesis with the politics, philosophy and aesthetic elucidation would perhaps have leant to the study a more holistic tenor. Further, it goes without saying that the analyses of some writers are blatantly amateurish. It is important to realize that history does not imply a value-free look at the past. It is mostly about viewing the present through the past.
Translated by PAROMA MAITI