The contemplative world of Zainul Abedin
Zainul Abedin, one of the pioneers of realism in this clime, is a national icon whose fame had once splashed across the subcontinent when his sketches based on the Famine of 1943 appeared in the post-famine environment of Calcutta, now Kolkata. With him one is faced with the usual problem of the 'name' overshadowing the 'artist'. Though Zainul has secured a mantle in the national cultural horizon, yet there is less exposure to his work. As for the interest in his trajectory, one can only say the compilations that are available fall utterly short in accounting for the breadth of meaning and the contextual interpretation the master's oeuvres merit. The social-cultural nexus through which Zainul once made his appearance is also difficult to retrace since his early life has not been properly archived. His days in Calcutta, the cultural capital of British colonial India too had been poorly recorded. In addition, to revisit the moments in history that went into the creation of the man and the artist one needs to employ both an analytical approach to his mutating language and a contextual re-reading of his time.
He is known as the 'Shilpacharya' or the art guru – but there is a huge dearth in exegetic gestures dedicated to his artistic achievements. But what is his contribution in this field that has made the nation recognize him as the master? To search for the answer we must look into the collection Great Masters of Bangladesh: Zainul Abedin edited by Rosa Maria Falvo. This collection has plenty of materials to compensate for the deficit in our understanding and recognition the artist Zainul. Although some elements in the collection are controversial, some are undeniably authoritative, what makes it a relevant tome is that it contains certain contextual details through which one can attempt to re-evaluate the master.
Zainul's vision was reconfigured once he set out to respond to the starving villagers who began to crowd the city in search of food. The notorious Bengal Famine displaced a good portion of the rural majority whose plights on Calcutta streets Zainul eternalized in what is now known as the Famine Sketches. One can see how since then he set forth his vision of humanity through the framework of the 'self' placed in close alignment with the 'other'. Zainul's mission never precluded the concerns over materialism, though he might have been focused on placing the 'individual' closest to the idea of 'labour', or rather 'action', thereby arriving at an efficacious union of self and other. For Zainul the idea of Modernity never revolved merely around an abstracted, non-relational individual alienated from his context. His understanding of the term 'human' was decidedly entrenched in the social processes. One can conclude, he saw the individual as a catalytic constituent of history.
There can be a dual interpretation of Zainul's creative personality – that of him as an artist and as an organizer, both of which are interrelated, being activated by the same humanist spirit that placed him on that pedestal, and to discover the man, that spirit needs to be explored. This exploration process has been facilitated by the joint publication of Skira and the Bengal Foundation – Great Masters of Bangladesh: Zainul Abedin. It is not that he is an unfamiliar name; rather he persistently remains an icon of the national culture industry in various ways, fixed in the collective psyche of the cognoscenti. According to Bangla etymology, jati(nation) means janmo(birth) and so nation symbolizes birth and in that sense the organized institutional art education he established rendered him pivotal in a way in the process of nation-building and holding his hand the academic art education has entered the cultural scene of the country in the form of Dhaka Art Institute. This liaison between creativity and enterprise is integral to the system of organized cultural productivity.
In her preface Rosa outlines the philosophical framework of Zainul's thought, clearly showing how his work has been imbued with the resilience of the masses and the cultural heritage of Bengal. The volume contains discussions on art by Abul Mansur, Nazrul Islam and Abul Hasnat and an interview with Mrs Jahanara Abedin, the artist's wife. Details of the artist's life, important events and associations from birth to maturity have emerged from the piece by Abul Mansur. He has explained and analyzed the important aspects of his life, starting from his humanistic ideals, how he established himself in the field of art in that political and social environment and created the base for creative pursuits of others. Two ideas that have emerged from this discussion are – in his linguistic choice Zainul is a realist but in the application of this language he appears, time and again, as a modernist – a pioneer who intentionally severed his ties with the raging idealism of the early 1920s. Both Abul Mansur and Nazrul Islam in their respective ways point out the difference between cultural ambience of East and West Bengal, highlighting the Partition of India in 1947, and how Zainul fulfilled his artistic responsibilities in the new political atmosphere emerging from the creation of Pakistan. But both the analysts have agreed that though he adopted the modern art form from Europe, his subject matters are gleaned from indigenous reality and nature. Additionally, a true appreciation of modern art needs to focus on three important factors. Firstly, an informed insight into the formation of subjecthood with social production framework at its core. Secondly, the language of expression Zainul chose to develop in relation to his artistic project that bore the signs of historical consciousness. Because in his Famine Sketches the characters are faced with the crisis of survival and their plights bring to the fore a 'causality' traceable to the realm of the political, or the fallouts of a modernized society seething in the throes of colonialism, to be precise. Finally, the method of presentation, in which respect Zainul appears unequivocally to be a modernist realist since the figural and other motifs he uses are never allowed to collapse into fragments in the vein of the modern splintered canvases of the Parisian avante-gardists. In his adoption of the naturalist/realist technique Zainul was in sync with the west. That he deployed such a technique to voice the difference which one can find in his choice of subject-matters, marks him out as an indigenist modern. While the west dwelled on the new industrial revolution, Zainul distinguished the culture of farming as his locus, replacing the factory with the farm, which happens to be a highly significant aspect of his thought. Therefore, his sketches represent scenes from the folk culture of Bengal, steeped in the natural order of agricultural life. Philosophically speaking, this leads us to the question – what is the image of this natural order?
Zainul's art from the thirties to the seventies shows how he appeared as an artist of the masses trying to lend voice to the plights of the majority in the face of disquieting social afflictions, while he continually played out the realist schema to the advantage of his true obsession which is the portrayal of rural lives in an empathetic manner. To him the lives of the toiling masses was more important an issue than the depiction of the cultural heritage – though his realist approach to representation had sometimes been intentfully inflected with the styles borrowed from the rural heritage as well as western geometric formalism. His approach to heritage had a genuine anthropological dimension to it – Zainul was responsible for organizing two back to back mela or art fairs at Dhaka's fine art institute to showcase rural arts and crafts. In the late 1960s he embarked on one of the projects he envisioned long ago, which was to establish a craft museum at Sonargoan to house his collections of rural cultural objects he had amassed over the years.
Reality is a composite of objects represented as externalized nature – oriented behavioral patterns of a people incorporated in a production-reproduction structure; since nature leads to thought, thoughts create self-consciousness. Philosophy has classified man as the natural man and the artificial man, both of whom can apply control over nature with their behaviour. Zainul's work is dominated by simultaneous natural and behavioural treatment of modern and rural contexts which reflects the material and the abstract substance of living of people of Bengal – their joys and sorrows, their struggles, their festivals and celebrations, everything that animate them. This can be defined as a 'natural' approach to art. It is not that Zainul never went beyond the scheme of realism he set afoot at the onset of his career, because we do come across a highly stylized phase in the early 1950s after he came back from a sojourn in England. One can look at it as a way for him to merge his interest in cultural heritage and the rural masses. To speak in reference to the sizable essay by Abul Mansur, in Zainul's oeuvre both the quotidian and the sacred revolve around the laity, whose lore he carried over to Calcutta from East Bengal. Zainul's imports (his dialect and his humanistic ethos) smacked of a subaltern anthropocentrism of Eastern Bengal – and in this, Abul Mansur testifies, he was beholden to the poet Jasimuddin and the popular singer Abbasuddin, both his compatriots in bringing the mass culture to the cognoscenti – they were also from East Bengal. 'Abbasuddin, Jasimuddin and Zainul Abedin, created a different ambience steeped in the liberal humanist traditions of East Bengal folk culture …' which can be described as diametrically opposed to Kolkata's cultural climate 'largely influenced by Hinduism.'
Abul Hasnat's monograph Images of Famine dwells on the aesthetic relationship between two different realities – a comparative analysis of the backdrop of the Bengal famine of 1943 and related artworks by Zainul with the writer's commentary on contemporary events.
Now, what is so special about Zainul's artworks on famine? From an ordinary angle these can be considered merely as realistic art. It becomes difficult to capture the inner beauty if we think that they only mirror a social disaster because, realism in art presupposes an independent/objective gaze at work which helps one portray only the true-to-life image where there is hardly any place for symbols and metaphors. In his Famine Sketches the bodies and bones are fused into a single entity though apparently they are two different things. So the realist will see the bone while the naturalist will find it a representation of both the body and the cluster of bones. The famine-stricken emaciated people were realistic symbols of the human tragedy. It is a symbol in the sense that it is the artist's way of responding to reality through its suggestive embodiment.
There are hardly enough albums or books dealing with the styles, the categories, the forms and the techniques practiced by Bangladeshi artists, to deepen our understanding of them. In this sense, the collection of Zainul Abedin's work, edited by Rosa is unique and invaluable in our appreciation of the artist. The weak sides of this anthology are firstly, the thematic similarity between the articles by Abul Mansur and Nazrul Islam, and secondly, though the introductory article has adequately expounded its historical background, there is some lacking in the analysis of the art in question.
In conclusion we can relate to the aphorism of the Greek philosopher Thales that in the world there is nothing more dynamic than thought. And therefore, it is possible to comprehend, in alignment with the theory of Thales, firstly by assessing his artwork and secondly by studying his organizing activities, how, Zainul Abedin transformed thought into reality and chose life to pay his dues to his art. His art is not simply the visual representation of life; rather it is his projection of the political, social and economic aspirations of life. The collection edited by Rosa will surely play a positive role in understanding and appreciating Zainul, the man and also the reality of his art.
Translated by SITARA JABEEN AHMED