Hybrid freight from an irrational space
Bahram's visionary ideograms
In the beginning there were two painted vinyl discs – each showing a human visage violated by the intrusion of an animal form – a head on collision leading to an unpredictably irrational pictorial solution. They were handed three years ago to artist Nissar Hossain, one who thought that the works bespoke an untapped energy harboured by an artist who, in the course of his life, had allowed little time to explore his personal vision. Bahram, the man behind those untitled, but vigorously explained artworks, which use enamel paint, the medium for all kinds of popular paintings in Bangladesh, was ripe for making the cross over from industry-specific genres he once was a part of to being a progenitor of psychoscape.
His artistic temperament, once decoded to sense its ebb and flow, makes one realize that it courses through multiple emotional sites, including the dream of his early life to become a good portraitist of the matinee idols of his time. Thus, through a language where his past and present desires enter a puzzling juxtaposition, Bahram comes off as an enigmatic story-teller prepared with tools and tendencies to generate unknown effects.
Early in his life, Bahram received hands on knowledge from his own father, who was not an artist but had experiences to share with his fifth son. In the professional arena, the child Bahram debuted, primarily to augment his family income, as an assistant to artist Abdul at his studio in Old Dhaka's Agamachhi Lane which produced cinema banner paintings. As an underage artist Bahram picked up some of the techniques from his tutor and began to make a name for himself during the years he was engaged in honing his craft – producing portraits of 'Wahid Murad, Jeba, Dilip Kumar, Kishore Kumar and Modhubala, famous icons from the film industries of India and Pakistan.' This was in the early 1960s, a time when Bahram's guru often assigned him with the job of depicting the oversized portraits of film stars for his ability to produce good likenesses.
During his early youth, Dhaka had a lot of Bihari and local artists working on rickshaw, banner, bus, truck and baby-taxi (auto-rickshaw) painting. By the time he had established himself as an independent commercial artist working on commissions, his reputation grew due to the personal stroke of genius he could transport onto the industry-standard works. In fact, it is this personal signature for which some working artists became sought-after names in the popular art scene of Dhaka.
Having earned some renown in the early 1970s, Bahram decided to work simultaneously in all the disciplines – catering at once to four industries – cinema, rickshaw, baby taxi, and truck painting. Following his marriage in 1974, he immersed himself into his professional life to ensure an increased income, as compared to his counterparts in the high art arena he, amongst other such 'commercial artists,' was one who were considered artisans and were paid unreasonably low wages.
In the post-liberation era, while busy making art for which the demand was only increasing, Bahram, like many other rickshaw and baby-taxi painters of that era, painted scenes of carnage by Pakistan army, the victorious freedom fighters, and other scenes full of references to the liberation war.
It was in the beginning of the new millennium, that artists of Bahram's fraternity were approached and brought to bear upon a new direction – either to collaborate with their counterparts in the mainstream, or, for the first time, to enjoy an exclusive showcasing of their works at mainstream venues. It was a time when the newly introduced printing technology kept pushing at the precinct of a manual industry – the printed plates started to emerge, threatening the hand-painted ones to fall out of favour.
The players involved in re-channeling the popular visual verve, preparing them for the mainstream stages, had sustenance of the urban popular art forms in their minds. With Britto, an artist-run organization based in Dhaka, Alliance Française de Dhaka, and many other private buyers and collectors intervening through a series of initiatives, popular art, especially rickshaw painting, enjoyed the glare of the media and the attention of the cognoscenti. Though, such an aggregated effort was short lived, the intermittent bouts of exposure prepared the ground for a new beginning. At present some famous names with a venerable track record such as the likes of Bahram, are working for private collectors, or are supported by private organizations working to disseminate traditional and new forms of the popular genres.
Bahram's moment of divagation appeared when he decided to work shunning the production constraint he had been facing working for the popular art industry. Demonstrating a personalized way of responding to the modern reality, he began to think of surviving as a freelancer developing his own aesthetic devices to re-establish himsef as an artist in his own right. The two painted vinyl discs were his first attempts which reassuringly freighted his vision into the physical space of the medium, immediately attracting the attention of the collectors of high art.
Between Bahram's aesthetic achievement in the industry situation, as a producer of rickshaw, banner or truck paintings, and his resurfacing as a painter who decides on his own the outcome of his rational and irrational investment into his craft, there appears a gap – a fissure. But the affiliation too is something one must not miss. The newly-emerged Bahram, with his seemingly ideogramic expression, achieved through a distinct representational ploy, is now set to infiltrate the mainstream; he is many things packed into one – his past experiences easily meld with his conviction to inflect the imagery with a discourse of moral implications.
The cumulative achievement of his efforts in the last three years as an independent artist with a unique vision, thus, simply overwrites what he had done as an industry professional as well as what is considered as mainstream fodder in Bangladesh. Some traits from his previous experience have undoubtedly seeped into his current practice, yet the scenographic model Bahram has now developed mostly hinges on an unconscious reckoning of his reality, a process which in the urban mechanized environment is often de-emphasized.
The nonlinearity of his language where manifold inflections occur resulting in the overlapping of animal form with that of the human, is what ensures a metaphorical interpretation of sense data often leading to indeterminate ends. Unveiling a new horizon full of possibilities, Bahram treads the irrational space where he interrogates the logical rational construction of both knowledge and the individual only to arrive at some moral resolutions. The strangeness one encounters in his imagery, perhaps, flows from the way his aesthetic techné, reflecting his transgressive and iconoclastic spirit, evidently antagonizes his moral position.
Born in Dhaka in 1950, Bahram, whose given name is Syed Qumer Hossain Sheerazi, started making art at the age of 11, at present he is set to have a solo exhibition with the support from Art & Bangladesh, an organization which is playing a catalytic role in the present art scene promoting emerging art.
GOLAM MORTUJA is an art writer based in Dhaka.