Identifying Bangladeshi art in the context of Modernism
Locating the indigenous against the widening map of 'internationalism'
International modernism, which had made only hesitant entry into India before Independence, gathered speed after 1947. –Partha Mitter, Indian Art, Oxford History of Art series.
The quote above illustrates how acquiescent the colonized became vis-à-vis the knowledge of the former colonizer in the post-independence (1947) regime. Though the subsequent reflections by the same author otherwise remain silent on the extent to which liberalization/democratization facilitated it under a unified project called capitalism, it seems that his ante is suitably upped to record the turn of the tide.
Mitter's suggestion compellingly brings to light the fact that India's freedom did not really translate into the decolonization of its people's consciousness, which apparently means the consciousness of a ruling minority and its accomplices. And for the two smaller portions that parted company from the greater chunk of the Indian subcontinent to bear the common name of Pakistan, following spates of bloody sectarian violence stemming from brewing discontentment of the competing quarters of religious communities. Institutional practice of art got its start more or less on the same on a similar footing.
The emulation of values – both aesthetic and socio-economic – that are indigenous has long been a topic for a select few to pour into and examine with studious attention. Yet the dominant ideology of the time made easy inroads into the core of a society desperately in need of attaining economic advancement.
The reason for this is obvious. At that point of history, all sorts of alternatives seemed to have eluded the people at the helm; 'progress' could not be imagined without accepting the order of the day. The Green Revolution initiated by IRRI is a case in point. In retrospect, it seems more akin to a mask for what now we may dub as nothing short of corporate invasion in the name of scientific breakthroughs, or put other words – an institutionalization of praxis through new and untested knowledge.
For the artists in search of newness, it is also mostly the already institutionally accepted practices of the West that served as something of an akor – the ultimate source. For most Bangladeshi artists, 'the replacement of tradition by historical consciousness compels a continual choosing among possibilities.' Perhaps the outward march that has been inaugurated in the field of art by the pioneers of Modernism in this part of the world can be explained to some extent citing the above line from Harold Rosenberg's celebrated book 'The Anxious Object.'
Yet the word Modernism and its accompanying trope of internationalism problamatize the philosophical base of the Modernist project of progress and development. In the end, the concept of individuation – the first person expressivity – and its historical trajectories are all gathered under this umbrella of a word: internationalism – which turns out to be an ahistorically articulated linguistic constructiona proxy collectivised form of identity, a pseudo-communitarian position of sorts.
This reveals into view the distance between formed and received notions. The absence of a clear picture of a causal mechanism also reaffirms the fact that most Modern artists in this region have primarily been at the receiving end, leading to self-obliteration, a consequence they feared lay only in the direction of a traditional mode of living.
The road to freedom and the narrowing of choices
I would argue that we are accommodated to a normativized commonality by an ideological facilitation to the laws that govern its symbolic order. This facilitation is charted by visual experiences and fixing traumas, that are reworked through fantasy to become the normativizing elements of our visual memory.
The voice above is of an unnamed writer spotted on the communication web called the net. The ideology mentioned is neatly bound up with the circulatory web of myths across states, individuals who aspire towards a modern life.
Following the independence of Pakistan, in the state of freedom(?), most artists found themselves at a crossroads, awkwardly pressed either to follow tradition or attend to the newness that beckoned from across the borders.
For many the past was convincingly marred by the canonical approach to art, one which was either had an extreme colonial slant – dictated by academic realism, or the seemingly anti-colonial Orientalist posture of Abanindranath Tagore, a revivalist attempt at forging a mode of representation based on past achievements, ironically, one that was loved by the colonial masters, and abandoned by himself at a later date.
Apparently the artists with bolder ambition could only think of a way forward by striking something of a compromise between Paris-cantered avant-garde and the local urban tendencies. These are the artists who were to emerge in the 1960s.
As for the artists tutored in Kolkata, they could only envisage newer trajectories by bringing the deshi brew to meet either the classical era European art or the early avant-garde – Picasso, Matisse et al.
For Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), the linear strength of some European masters provided a basis for his artistic growth. At the onset his foremost reference was Rembrandt, whose fluid rendition in brush and ink was a major source of inspiration. Also, the influence of Chinese art, its unique way of executing nature in bold and spirited brushworks seemed to have formed the basis of Zainul's artistic modality at a point of time when he was preparing to translate his academic acumen into a vital language of art. In the Eastern frontier, call it East Bengal or East Pakistan, where Muslim artists flocked after the devastation of partition their career in Kolkata, most artists who accompanied Zainul took to building a nationalist fort with its loose association with European modernism and a firm commitment to be in sync with all things local.
In Kamrul Hassan (1921-1988) the cubist method of fractured vision found an impassioned expression. Though, the more one excavates the treasure of folk paintings, the more one realizes that Quamrul's scenographic model was primarily of deshi origin.
In the absence of the search for what the western critics call well-defined aesthetic categories or clear-cut historical trajectories, the challenge facing the pioneers of Banglali art – especially those who emerged from the post-Pakistan era – had been two-fold: they needed to show their progressive streak or modernist tendencies and be the man of the soil, the only problem was that they needed both, at once. The generation that has been nurtured by these pioneers had no such dilemma.
In the nineteen-sixties, the artist of ostensibly rebellious nature focused on both location and beyond; they were also split between whether to follow the pathways of the generation prior or to align their efforts with 'international' Modernism. However, the more they got in touch with the world outside, the more they felt the urge to severe the bloodline and take a detour. The footprints that trail most of these new generation artists have only shown some occasional proximity to local narratives, often veering towards a trail curved by the artists belonging to the Northern hemisphere. Not many artists since the sixties felt any actual need for reorienting their thoughts and strategies vis-à-vis the dominant ideology, which began to envelop all 'individual' talent in this clime.
The effort made to listen to the voice that looked inward – attending to the culture – and geography – specific bastions of knowledge to look for practical solutions to the existing as well as emerging problems was negligible. The urgency to remain faithful to ones temperament in a given milieu also received little attention.
As for looking into the possible ways to integrate tradition – both in its cultural and linguistic implications – into modern thoughts, the very act seemed synonymous with obscurantism for many. For some the cultural lore of the land seemed like an alien entity to keep a safe distance from. As for its certain brand of enthusiasts, these apparently were the lot who thought of it as precious data in need of a serious archival.
In short, the continuum of the past, present and the future was broken to run after the chimera of an alternative future defined by Modernist preoccupation with technological advancement and its concomitant political, social, and cultural development. The rhetoric that went with the changes occupied a solid niche in the urban unconscious, and in the arts advancement was thought to have lied in the mono-axial pathway – the Westward drive.
Numinous vs Analytic
Clement Greenberg, during his visit to New Delhi at the time of the exhibition 'Two decades of American painting,' introduced the concept of 'Exportability,' by which he meant 'the exclusive character of a country's art which makes it acceptable as distinct contribution to world art,' as has been testified by late Jagdish Swaminathan in a smallish write-up. Swaminathan was an artist and critic whose stance vis-à-vis the modernist tradition was of critical nature and was tied to his concept of Indianness.
Though he extolled Paul Klee for being an artist 'who cut himself asunder from the analytical stream to create a world of myth, to destroy all representational context to make the mystery of life palpable,' he seemed to have expressed no surplus enthusiasm for the Surrealists, artists who were in favour of constructing a realm of otherness, one that usually occasions an excavation of the deepest recesses of the psyche to make visible its shadowy patches as well as emphasize what is strange and illogical in life.
However, Swaminathan's bias towards what is 'numinous' in art and life had helped reorient his voice critical of Western modernism and its vulgar attention to material progress. He has always been in favour of the artists who attempted a 'break with the analytical and constructivist approach.' He firmly held that 'it is only when the Indian painter tears asunder the false veil of Western progressivism that he will be able to make the “Numinous” image manifest and create an art significant to us, and to the world.'
Quotes by J SWAMINATHAN are from Lalit Kala Contemporaray, No-40, a special issue dedicated to Swaminathan, published by Lalit Kala Academy, India, edited by Amit Mukhopadhyay.
- DEPART DESK
What the 'centre' could not hold
The metropolitan centres became the hub from where the hegemonizing force issued its dispensations marginalizing mainstream culture and knowledge. It happened in Kolkata courtesy of the presence of the colonizer and its accomplices, which was before independence of India and Pakistan, it happened in Dhaka through wholesale baptism of the representatives of its inhabitants to modernism – a creed that operated, and still does to this day, as proxy absent master.
Though in the institutional life, Modernism was accepted without much hesitation in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), luckily the pioneers of modern art – Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), Kamrul Hasan( 1921-1988), SM Sultan (1923–1994) and Safiuddin Ahmed (1922-present) chose not to ignore the terra-firma they treaded on a daily basis.
As educators and conceivers of curricula in a newly established Government Art College in Dhaka, one that began in 1948, they knew no different from what they were taught in Kolkata under the watchful gaze of the colonizer. It was the Government Art College in Kolkata from where they all obtained their respective degrees, and the first major art institution they helped to establish in Dhaka was by design a functional equivalent of the English arrangement they were familiar with.
However, as artists they emerged as 'indigenous modernists' through their efforts to elk out personalized languages that were by and large premised on the relationality between art and life, rather than modernist negation, alienation of the self and cultural indeterminacy.
Their art manifested, to varied degrees, the ethos of their land of origin – the greater Bengal. It is through the coupling of sheer will power and artistic might that modernism's all-pervading surge too was brought under the shade of what was indigenous and local to give voice to what they felt was non-hegemonic.
In the new climate, where the lure of looking outward for visual norms and ethos was overwhelmingly strong, few artists who emerged before or after partition could really attain the individual might, or even reposition themselves to question this very act and debate the merit of doing so, let alone resist it. Long before Pakistan came into being, Souza in India had become a citizen of the world by interiorized modernity via existentialism to align his thoughts with the tradition of the new. Many other artists followed suit, though not solely by way of becoming existentialists.
Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hasan, SM Sultan and Safiuddin Ahmed were of a different more. The pictorially-inclined artists of the first generation that helped shape institutional art practices, did find a way to skirt round modernism's far-reaching gravitational pull. Their position clearly provides a way forward. By dovetailing the personal with the social, the regional with the continental trends, and also the symbolic inflection with the narrative cooption of life in its physical/real state, they distanced themselves from what came to be known as 'autonomous' space of the painting in Modernist dictum.
Sultan undoubtedly had the element of negation in his metaphysically conceived society of peasants – robust and ready to topple the monoliths of power. His panoramic expansionism is a force that favours the manifestation of a futuristic folklore – the lore reversed to identify the true nature of human aspiration.
While Zainul and Kamrul both were somewhat 'off-centre' heroes of their time. Loved by the masses, they formed the mainstream, yet the in the academic and institutional life of today their presence is worthy of archival effort, so to speak, as if they are already part of the past. It is the Modernist surge of the nineteen-sixties that hold sway over today's artists. Yet, at the passing of each year, as we keep pressing ourselves to find a posture that privileges an actual survey and evaluation of the art produced during the last 60 years or so, works of these early modernists figures more and more prominently in the context of the present-day discourses.
Often sidelined as a maverick, Sultan has long been kept out of the central theme of modern art in Bangladesh, though he now exerts a strong influence on all historical narratives and interpretations born out of critical engagement as well as whatever little epistemological forages been made in the last twenty or so years. In his book Deshoj Adhunikata: Sultaner Kaaj, or Indigenous Modernity: Sultan's Work, Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir identifies Sultan as the only artist who problemitizes the idea of 'landscape' by raising the question of 'ownership' through the depiction of battle scenes where the peasant community is pitched against the enemy of communal living.
It is, to say the least, the only sociological viewing made possible through a language of art that finds its primary references in various art forms belonging both to the East and the West. Sultan employs the technique of the European Renaissance masters to the service of the vision of regeneration of the peasantry of his own land.
If these pioneers could manage to be part of the Bengali firmament, one which propelled them into the suitable location of where the subject with his/her atomized psyche intersects with the collective imagination, the artist of the latter generations, for the most part, have so far failed to match that success.
Some, by way of becoming wholly urbane, even managed to uproot themselves from the concept of the collective to lend credibility to the idea of individualism, that to ironically by turning themselves into the mouthpieces of ideas generated by the Western artists and theoreticians.
The utter failure to engage with the modern world with a voice of one's own, which Victor Burgin calls the 'symbolic articulation' of the 'critical forms of sociality and subjectivity,' in Bangladesh, still handicaps all attempts at theorizing and forming of artistic languages from the location of one's own.
GOLAM MORTUJA is a freelance writer based in Dhaka.