Re-framing Lal Miah
There is a whole array of art where the resonance of the seemingly 'private' and 'secular' becomes conspicuous, or so the haute bourgeoisie would prefer to believe. With a high degree of zeal they tend to isolate human emotions from what is numinous in our midst as well as its attendant narratives, while regularly apotheosizing art that reflects a position that seeks to reduce all production as well as reading to a fixed interpretation by assigning monocausality to all effects. But, this very act of cutting lose the divine from the human falls flat on its face when the same bunch give into appreciating the songs of Tagore decidedly dedicated to the 'unknown'.
All things considered, what gets passed as 'high art' in this clime is often that which hardly ever stirs emotion contradictory to the sanguine view of life – an upshot of what may be called 'armchair thinking'.
But there is a kind of art that subverts, topples, and even rends asunder this effete, 'insular' universe to initiate serious reconsideration of the cultural trajectories of our time. This is the kind of art that makes visible the 'esoteric' (so named fallowing its entry into the domain of the cognoscenti), or call it the 'primordial'/'cosmic' energy to become a part of the inheritance that helps define the very contour of the narrative that actually is connected to mainstream thinking.
S M Sultan's art easily occupies such a niche as he belongs to the imagining/reality that makes up the greater cultural map of Bangladesh. His is a language that signposts a departure from the art that thrives by splitting the continuum of home and abroad, interior and exterior, mind and body, individual and collective and also one that remains prostrate vis-à-vis the ideologies that interpellate the individuals as alienated (from both society and self) passive beings, thus turning them into adversaries of hegemonic forces.
The paradigm behind such Bengali creative bend of mind that chooses to confront this constructed realm facilitates a regeneration of the 'organic' reality and myths against those of the 'moderns'. Though, one can also become certain that one who is in possession of such a mind also appropriates some of modernism's positive qualities. In this context Sultan appears/reappears as a force of revitalization, ready to dwarf the 'stars' established on the consensus of the educated few by bracing himself with ideas and utopias connected to a counter-narrative – one that mirrors a future without the hegemonic structure of the present.
Sultan, aka Lal Miah, redefined the artistic mode of production in this region by re-evaluating his own position in the context of the given aesthetic and social matrix to graze at the level of the collectivized, non-hegemonic discourse, through which we make our claim to culture and humanity.
While the forms of art in this region have never been purely vernacular in character since European 'Modernism' began to exert its influence on society at large, the 'middle ground' – a result of the synthesis between English academic learning and the deshi or local gaze – soon made way for a seemingly 'radical' language of expression during the nineteen-sixties. This high-modernist mode easily got the upper hand as first generation artists groomed by Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hassan and Safiuddin Ahmed et al came back to Dhaka after completing higher education in the 'advanced' nations – namely Europe, Japan and the US, and began to try their hands out at the abstract idiom that was then sweeping the world.
It is against this backdrop that Sultan's vernacularism seems most significant. By the time he re-emerged in the Dhaka art scene as a visionary personage on the back of his 1st solo exhibition organized by Shilpakala Academy in 1976, some proponents of modernism were already trying out various means to sync themselves to local-historical realities.
It was Sultan who, by breaking away from the localized modernist ethos had been able to redefine the space within his canvas impregnating with a mythical dimension that defied both scientific certitude about physical reality and logically- or theologically-inclinrd authorities' attempt at manipulating it to their advantage.
His vision of an egalitarian, agrarian society helped him distance himself from the tide of time. In his art he wished to mirror a society that has never been, but may emerge if the struggle for the people is won.
It was the consequence of rejecting the lame, modernist gaze that proliferates through the acculturated individuals linked to the idea of freedom and individualism – a frame of subjectivity that thrived under modernism while its actual predicate was kept hidden from the sight. Sultan's effort simply privileged a collective will that inspires the individual into action and endowed the true agent with agency.
The sheer horizontality of his space – where the peasantry wage war against their opponents, live life, weave and reweave their dreams, are a way for him to indicate a coming social order on the basis of harmonious living of the producer-owners against the design that gives free reign to the owners against the producers. Labour is a means to demolish the vertical constructions of modernity, a way to dissolve the hierarchies into the vast horizontal space of operations, moves, acts or even being – which is an act in itself and more.
Nietzsche in 'The Birth of Tragedy' declares that, 'the past should be remembered and celebrated through myths rather than history, since myths create a sense of spiritual community which analytic history only works to dispel.' Sultan, through his art, convincingly manages to bring into line the past and the present and transports us to a aesthetico-political reality which is an altered space-time conglomerate, and he does so in a way that it at once awakes in all of us a craving for a future where the subjects are able to disentangle themselves from the orthodoxy of the status quo ante.
PS: It is heartening to bring to notice that Professor Syed Jamil Ahmed has consented to become a senior member of the editorial board. Professor Jamil is a scholar, theatre activist, and teaches at the Department of Theatre of Dhaka University.