The contemplative world of Zainul Abedin
Zainul Abedin, one of the pioneers of realism in Bangladesh, is a national icon whose fame once splashed across the subcontinent when his sketches based on the Famine of 1943 had appeared in the post-famine 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 a considerable lack of attention paid to his work. Taking a look at evaluations of his works, one can only say the compilations that are available fall utterly short of accounting for the overall breadth of meaning and contextual interpretation of the master's oeuvre. 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 Kolkata, 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 of 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 Zainul Abedin: Great Masters of Bangladesh, edited by Rosa Maria Falvo. This collection has plenty of materials to compensate for the deficit in our understanding and recognition of Zainul as an artist. Although some elements in the collection are controversial and 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 had begun to crowd the city in search of food. The notorious Bengal Famine displaced a good portion of the rural people whose plights on the streets of Kolkata Zainul captured and eternalized in what is now known as the Famine Sketches. One can see how he had since set forth his vision of humanity through the framework of the 'self' placed in close alignment with the 'other'. Zainul's mission always took issue with materialism, though he might have been focused on placing the 'individual' closest to the idea of 'labor', 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 that 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, activated as they are by the humanist spirit. To discover the manis to explore that spirit. This exploration process has been facilitated by the joint publication of Skira and the Bengal Foundation – Zainul Abedin: Great Masters of Bangladesh. 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, he is the person who established institutional art education in the process of nation-building. In other words, academic art education has entered the cultural scene of the country, holding his hand, 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 his life and 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 come alive in the piece by Abul Mansur. He has explained and analyzed the important aspects of his life, including his humanistic ideals and how he established himself in the field of art in that political and social environment and created the base for creative pursuits for 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 point out the difference between the 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. Both the analysts have agreed that though he adopted the modern art form from Europe, his subject matters come from indigenous reality and nature. Additionally, a true appreciation of modern art needs to focus on three important factors. Firstly, an informed insight into his subject matters with the 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 suffering 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 those splintered canvases of modern 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 subjectmatters, marks him out as a modern indigenist. 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 1930s to the 70s 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 were more important an issue than the depiction of the cultural heritage – though his realist approach to representation had sometimes been intentionally 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 had 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 behavioral patterns of a people in a production-reproduction structure. Nature leads to thoughts and 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 behavior. Zainul's work is dominated simultaneously by natural and behavioural treatment of modern and rural contexts; they reflect the material and the abstract substance of rural people’s lives in Bengal – their joys and sorrows, their struggles, their festivals and celebrations-- anything that animates them. This can be defined as a 'natural' approach to art. This is not to say that Zainul never went beyond realism 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. According to Abul Mansur, in Zainul's oeuvre both the quotidian and the sacred revolve around common people whose lore he carried over to then 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 poet Jasimuddin and popular singer Abbasuddin, both his compatriots, in bringing mass culture to the cognoscenti. 'Abbasuddin, Jasimuddin and Zainul Abedin created a different ambience steeped in the liberal humanist traditions of East Bengal’s 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 discusses the relationship between the backdrop of the 1943 Bengal famine and related artworks by Zainul.
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 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 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 figurative embodiment.
There are hardly enough albums or books dealing with the styles, categories, forms and techniques applied by Bangladeshi artists, to deepen our understanding of their works Against this backdrop,this collection of Zainul Abedin's work is unique and invaluable. However, the thematic similarity between the articles by Abul Mansur and Nazrul Islam, it seems, could be avoided and also, though the introductory article has adequately expounded Zainul’s historical background, there is some lackof an analysis of the art in question.
Zainul Abedin’s art is not simply the visual representation of life; rather it is his projection of the political, social and economic aspirations of life. This 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