historicity, city and sculpture
contextualizing two outdoor sculptures by Novera Ahmed and Nasima Haque Mitu
Space is infinite, imperishable. Emptiness is the space of sculptor, space/emptiness surrounds everything and we cannot do without it. As a sculptor, I have a strong consciousness of it. Perhaps, the awareness of space leads to a strong communion with the universe. To be in communion with the universe and the idea of death is the reason why I sculpt. – Gio Pomodoro
Urbanization is, at one and the same time, a socio-economic cultural process and a conditional reality, the external manifestations of which are subject to alter with time and space.
Therefore, it is important to understand why and how, the public sculptures of contemporary Dhaka come to express individual/ related expressions, even while being situated within the matrix of a multilayered pattern of human existence. To be able to locate that, it becomes imperative to understand the historicity of the comprehensive development of a city. For this we may turn to the emergence of the earliest urban centres of Bangladesh and its sculpture-centric artistic development.
Afroz Akmam in his Early Urban Centres in Bangladesh: An Archaeological study, 3rd century BC to mid 13th century AD shows that there are at least two distinct stages of the urban growth in Bangladesh and those at other culturally similar centres. One is the stage of urbanization that flowers roughly between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD over Maurya, Sunga, Kushana, Gupta and post-Gupta periods. In this long span of about a thousand years, the myriad influences of primitive religion, Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism etc play seminal roles in the process of urbanization. The historian writes in context to the sculptural art practices of these urban centres: 'Art of Bengal during this period may broadly be divided into two categories; art of terracotta [terracotta sculptures], and sculptures in stone' (p 83). The social framework of its earliest phase of urbanization may be identified from the remains of Mahasthangarh, for '[t]he Mahasthangarh epigraph clearly speaks about surplus of production, the advanced monetary system and a planned settlement' (p 88). The life and efficiency of man at that time had led him to a stage of such surplus productivity and settlement, that the inevitable result was expressed in the various patterns of sculpture. In the early phase of urbanization thus, sculpture was most definitive art form to reflect social progress.
The author identifies the second phase of urbanization to fall within the time bracket of the 7th century AD and the mid-13th century AD, ie, the 'period of Bhadra, Khadga, Rata, Deva, Chandra, Varman, Pala and Sena.' In this phase, the inter-relation between agrarian economy, trade and commerce, use of currency and craft made the process of urbanization stronger and more complicated than the preceding one. When researching on the artistic, especially sculptural development, of this period, one learns that, 'The general environment of religious life of Bengal during this period helped to rear up an artwork [art form], which was essentially iconic in character' (p 133). What may be noticed in this iconographic context is '[t]hat other than Buddhist images of various types (bronze images outnumber the stone sculpture for such icons), by and large the images of Vishnu remain predominant.' According to this research, the practice or appreciation of Shaiva canons in these regions had not been much prior to the 10th century. But the cults of the Sun God as also that of Uma-Mahesvara have been noticed to be widely spread at that time. As a possible reason for this huge popularity of the Uma-Mahesvara cult, the author suggests, 'The cult of female deity which was possibly linked up with popular substratum became manifested through iconic media connected with all the religious orders' (pp 133-134). The rationale behind the predominance of Hindu deities over Buddhist icons during this period may be found in the author's explanation: 'The task of civilizing this region was at the internal stage given to Buddhism and Jainism, but from Gupta period onwards, it was the Brahmanical Hinduism, which played a dominant role' (p148).
In pursuit of the sculptural aesthetic of Bangladesh in this second phase, sources reveal that, 'Art of Bengal may broadly be divided into two basic phases: one, where a more generalized impetus from Gupta based northern and central Indian sculptural tradition is visible, and the other which emphasizes a tradition that seems to have taken its root in the indigenous core, it may also be mentioned in this connection that in both these forms the sectarian or religious aspect was the motivating force in shaping the forms and styles.
The mediums of art are stone, bronze, besides terracotta, and painting.' (p 134)
The process of urbanization in Dhaka and the development of its sculptural ethos owe much to the two thousand year old long historical tradition and the arbitrary, sinuous intersection of politics, economics and religion. Urbanization is not sudden or sporadic. Again, since this is a process, to judge it in the context of Dhaka's 400 year old history beginning with its formal birth as capital in the year 1608 under the suzerainty of Mughal Subehdar Islam Khan, is also baseless. Because in so doing, the procesual historicity of a city simply vanishes.
According to experts, traces of human settlement can be found in Dhaka from as early as the 7th century. Beginning with the Buddhist regimes of Kamrup, to the Pala and Sena rules, emerges the history of the evolution of Dhaka. The Sultan of Bengal and the sultanate at Delhi merely helped in the establishment of a new sociopolitical and cultural lifestyle in the urbanization process of Dhaka taking from its already heterogenous and non-uniform seriality. At last, colonial rule and the postcolonial creation of Pakistan resulted in the growth of a number of smaller expressions within the overarching infrastructural configuration of Bangladesh. In the backdrop of the complex mesh of historical progression, we may identify the cement-sculpted Family depicting a cow with two figures, done in 1960 by Novera Ahmed, as specimen of the first modern public sculpture of Dhaka. This sculpture was housed in the garden of a rich trader in the Farmgate area in the '80s. Later, it was moved and installed in the premises of the Bangladesh National Museum. Sculpted by Novera, whose eagerness to conflate the modern European avant-garde tendencies with the indigenous form made her aligned herself with the first batch of modernists who emerged in the '60s, the said work represents the 'distance' (as a direct result of deterritorialization that urbanization has brought forth) from the religio-iconographic cult of the past. The reason one cannot agree with the assessment of Nasimul Khabir, who wrote in an article published in Shilpa O Shilpi, that 'this work is a worthy representation of the agrarian socioeconomic life in Bangladesh,'is that it is rather an implicit attempt at appropriating the avant-garde with the aim of indigenization, thus the resultant fusion had been articulated through a framework which is an urban construction.
Individualism, which is the primal associate of urbanization, deriving itself from modernism, is thus the aesthetic inspiration for this work of sculpture. The work represents what the expressions of an individual rooted in urbanized spatiotemporal reality can be when one confronts the masses or one's community, imagined or real. Though the work, crafted in 1960, articulates a sense of dissociation at the spatio-sculptural level, at the same time, in terms of technical formation and theme, gives voice to the very antithesis of alienation – that of association. While on one hand, it speaks of and for the individual and the urban alienation of such an isolated subject, its approach to language is holistic, so that once a hermeneutical interpretation is elicited, the work posits meanings that are embedded in the local geography rendering the work paradoxical.
Memory therefore plays a catalytic role in this paradox. One may gauge the role of memory in the dialectic function inherent in the process of urbanization. The process, especially in the case of Dhaka is basically a role-reversal from that of the rural world. The incompleteness of what is present plays on the memory of the sculptor. Conceptually, there is no village, or actual return to the village ethos, in the entire process of urbanization. Because, in this modernist progression of (linear) time, past is lost forever. And perhaps it is such a loss that incites in some urban artists an unflinching craving for a return to the roots that usually translates into assimilation of some rural characteristics or ethos – especially of aesthetic nature – into the urban construction of artistic languages.
One must be aware of the fact that the dictatorial framework of categorization is the result of urban living, which easily sidelines the rural as 'folk'. This categorical reality gives rise to a problem which invokes the concept of 'lack'; as Novera searches for a language, she does so using this theme. The cow as a motif is that lost/distant reality. She adds human figures for symbolic effect, and, thus, bridges the gap between traditionalism and the living urban cultural ethos that often takes its point of departure from the European avant-garde. In fact, from the standpoint of a peripheral modern city away from the Center, Idealism may be a solution to the two-way tugs an artist feels of tradition and modernity. As for Novera, like some of her compatriots, she had been intent on eking out a middle path. In this particular work, she even invites the urbanites to partake of a celebration, which is the outcome of her romantic vision where the formal aspects of two distant cultures are assimilated to form a narrative. In this manner, Novera sculpts the crises of the urban '60s from within a modern romantic framework. Thus, in many ways this sculpture is an expression of the nostalgic unconscious of the modern urban life. At the same time, Novera also uses this sculpture as a symbol for how the reality of dissociation can be understood as a problematic of modernist aesthetics.
Nasima Haque Mitu's Untitled, a stone sculpture, placed in front of the Chhayanot Cultural Centre, Dhaka on the 19th of November, 2011, represents essentialist abstraction while at the same time conveys an aesthetic of everydayness. In this work, which is her first public sculpture, one witnesses a certain restraint in exploring the formal flourish with which she usually frames the encounter between form and subject matter. Here the artist deals with the idea of sculpture in its reductive form. She herself is of the opinion that it is to be viewed as her attempt at presenting 'idea as form'.
Deeply influenced by the ethos of Russian formalism, her form recalls early-twentieth century modern masterpieces, including those that jettisoned Constantin Brancusi, a Paris-based Romanian born sculptor, into the global mainstream.
'The best known formalist concept is that of “defamiliarization” (ostranenie),' a conceit particularly associated with Shklovsky and discussed in his 'Art as Device', [In other translations, it reads 'Art as technique'] first published in 1917, where he argues that art renews human perception through creating devices which undercut and undermine habitual and automatized forms of perception' (Twentieth Century Literary Theory: A Reader, (edited) by K M Newton).
But Nasima Haque has not taken unfamiliarity as the original guiding light for her take on formalism. The essential concepts of formalism have found a more expended version in this particular public sculpture. In an interview with Depart she makes it clear that this work, sculpted in off-white sandstone, not only seeks to transform itself into unfamiliar but also, at the same time, a pure form.
Now the debate is whether or not the purity of form is created out of a self-motivated process, or does it come into being as a consequence of its unfamiliarity as a core issue as and when the work is made to appear before the viewer's gaze. One might note in this context that there is such an effect of form that works almost like a purifying substance on the human consciousness. In the words of John Ruskin, 'Sculpture is not the mere cutting of the form of anything in stone. It is the cutting of the effect of it.'
In the context of modernist school of sculpture that is produced in the urban circuit of Bangladesh, the forms emergent from the works of Nasima Haque Mitu may be described as an homage to the established urban taste. As we exclude the forms that are clustered under the rubric 'bad taste', what remains is the tradition of being in tune with the modern architectural principles which often encroaches on what we may consider natural or primordial instinct of humans. When good taste governs art and turns it into an object of contemplation, art becomes shorn off of references to any archaeological patterns of the psyche that hold the potential to rupture the patterns imposed by modernism or urbanity for that matter. Therefore, in the much tapered-down version of her own construction principle, the object that is discerned may be understood as an object of urban desire, where, following Platonic principle, we detect an urge to align with the established attitude – to arrive at what is 'not real, but literally mimics the real forms.'
The process of mimicry lies at the core of the process of self-identification/actualisation of every sculptor/artist. Just like Mitu says, 'I have memories of watching the sea in much the same way as how a bird sits on the back of an ox or on the striated surface of a palm-leaf.' The ways of seeing that arises from the lived experiences of a sculptor pave the way for the shaping of his/her aesthetic and critical outlook. At the same time it can be said that, all sculptors are responsible for '...articulation of space as form, which springs from this same responsibility of experimentation and evaluation.' (Robert A Howard, Space as form).
If we only invert Robert Howard's category of 'dynamically static' – one he uses to refer to sculptures in his 'Space as Form' – we may call Mitu's public sculptures 'statically dynamic'. This is because, her piece does not by itself effectuates movement, tension or climax; rather it remains stationed and satisfied with a sense of apparent fulfilment even while caught in the flux of daily, seasonal and other natural changes and evolutions. This is how wrapped in the socio-cultural, tangible and imaginary qualities the work remain alive with possibilities of an aesthetic opposite and an unfamiliar object. Thus Mitu's sculpture may be best described as being a fusion with a dramatic space, more than being a mere non-dramatic form. Even though, by dint of its 'unfamiliar' and 'pure' form, it is able to separate detachment and participation temporarily with its artfulness, the entire procesuality causes a sense of inseparability. Again, quoting Robert Howard, 'culture and sculpture are, of course, inseparable.'
British colonialism brought with it Victorian and Neoclassical ideas of sculpture and in the process of urban development for the then capital Calcutta and other similar sites, removing, for all practical purposes, the link between sculpture and culture. If one turns back at the ancient history of Bengal's rural culture, one may easily notice a social expression/function of sculpture even there. Sculpture is inextricably linked with the socio-cultural life and lifestyle of a society that is built around a settled productive economy and a sound belief or value system. From 'Brishkaashther Sandhane' by Shovan Shome, we learn that around the 16th century, Raghunandan Bhattacharya had composed a memoir – 'Ashtabingshatitattva'. On the basis of this treatise, Sovan Shome writes, 'A wide range of artistic norms and forms have come up as integral parts of the Hindu community centering on numerous rites and rituals that celebrate a series of events from birth to death.' Raghunandan identifies Brishothshargo as the most important form of sradhya (funerary ritual). As part of this rite, an able-bodied ox is sacrificed along with four, or sometimes two, or at the very least, one young cow. Even though the canons were written in the 16th century, it continued the tradition of the Vedic times. The plinth used to tie the sacrificial animals is known as the brishokashtho. Alternately, it is also referred to as jupokashtho in Sanskrit, later, Bengali. The dictionary meaning of jupokashtho defines it as a sort of victory-symbol/minaret or the sacrificial plinth/altar to tie the animal. Fundamentally, it is symbolic evocation of the phallus, as the connotation of a jupokashtho is essentially reproductive in character. Metaphorically, it may be understood as votive art to gain favour of supernatural forces. This particular funeral rite as also the jupokashtho is now on its way to obsolescence. In spite of that, however, Sovan Shome observes, 'Even up to sixty to seventy years ago, the jupokashtho could be found in many areas of Bengal. Even today, a number of jupokashthos may be found scattered facing the west, along the eastern part of the road in a lot of places in Bengal, especially the stretch from the west of the river Mundeshwari to Bardhaman, among the rich and high-caste communities.' The inherent sacredness of this socio-religious sculptural form is thus best articulated within its cultural context. Even without this kind of socio-cultural reality, Nasima Haque Mitu frames her public sculptures in a secular spirit. Yet, in its geometric quality and abstraction principle, it fuses the memory of a familiar place with the finally derived form. Simultaneously, it negates classicist monumentality in celebration of horizontality. What is similar to this particular sculpture of Mitu's and the brishokashtho, is the spirit of being entrenched in the daily life of man and is therefore not overwhelmingly larger than life. In her own words, her sculpture 'is never bigger/greater than man or life.' We may ask, as specimen of an open-air public sculpture, is this work, part of the 'process of substitution for the disciplinary sites of enclosure,' to borrow the words of Gilles Deleuze.