BK Jahangir on Sultan
Looking through a pair of modernist goggles
SHAHMAN MOISHAN uses deconstructionist zeal to read Deshojo Adhunikota: Sultan-er Kaaj (Indigenous Modernity: Sultan's Work) by Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir, published by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, in 1999
Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir, aka BK Jahangir, accepts 'modernism' as the central concept through which to read Sultan and his idiom. Modernism appears in two categories in this rather thin 96 page monologue on the giant of an artist that was Sultan.
On one hand, there is Western or international modernism through which courses through his thoughts on the maestro. And on the other hand, he thinks up a brand of modernism that abandons, at least partially, its global and totalizing characters to become indigenous modernity [Deshojo Adhunikota]. In Jahangir's words: 'Sultan denied Western [thus] international modernism as well as the Pakistan-era colonial modernity defined by a religiosity that is an ingredient of international modernity' (p 14).
This denial, ironically, is identified as 'an alternative modernity' by Jahangir. He defines Sultan's modernity in the following words, 'this is what is indigenous modernity, this is what is the experience of the peasants, the musical trends of aauls, bauls and fakirs; this is what is the experience of resistance by the routed and exploited peasants or aauls, bauls and fakirs, experience that comes from the daily lives. This experience is what is identifiable as different choice and formation within the structure of power relations that is modernism. And this choice and formation lead towards indigenous modernity' (p 14).
Jahangir defines Sultan's indigenous modernity as 'an attempt to “go back” and to reclaim a populace through [various] symbols to reconnect them to an [collective] experience, a kind of connection that will help to discover a language to initiate the process of assimilation of its very own history.'
He also argues, 'International modernism is not of any help in salvaging local histories, and colonial modernity at best marginalizes them. Sultan, through this process, has been able to revert back to everyday realities of peasants.… [This is why] Sultan has desired to go back to Radha, to the peasants, to the livestock, through various histories, through legends, tales and lyrics rooted in those histories. Thus, he needs flutes, animals or ploughing cattle as vehicles to look back and return to the essential ingredients of life' (p 16).
By defining Sultan's denial of modernity and his return to the peasant culture as indigenous modernity Jahangir's critique reveals a paradox. This is precisely because of the fact that while Sultan defies the colony-transmitted, imperially-imposed pseudo-modernism, the entire structure of power relations attending to 'modernism' as a whole is challenged and demolished.
Sultan's deliberate aesthetico-politics of transgression thus should not be treated as 'indigenous modernity.' Jahangir's theses on how Sultan attempted a regeneration and revitalization of the epochal accounts of Bangladeshi peasantry though has a certain novelty to it as his investigation, analysis and conclusions bear some marks of innovation, but are contradictory on methodological ground as he looks at the phenomenon called Sultan through modernism's monocloured prism.
Though embedded in the above problems, Jahangir's reading of Sultan's oeuvre provides us with a philosophical ground in relation to his formulation of the 'indigenous modernity.' According to him, this is the politico-philosophical base of aesthetics where Sultan makes visible the 'presence' of 'peasant' in opposition to 'the aestheticized, alienated world of colonial capitalism.'
To analyze peasants' presence, he then goes on to emphasize that 'peasants are not yet obsolete, nor are they a part of the past, they are alive through their existence and continuity. Sultan's peasants are the part of modern tradition, part of suppressed modernity, and finally presence of that suppressed portion… this presence is part and parcel of that suppressed portion…this presence is the presence of life itself…
Sultan's peasants stand for primary reality, essential innocence and a totality of presence… Peasants are from the lowest stratum, peasants' presence is 'inwardness' at the level of the lowest stratum. Sultan has transformed this 'low-lying' and 'inward' presence into the public domain, and helped transform that inward presence in the public eyes. Peasants, in Sultan's views, are an illuminated social experience… Peasants are, thus, shaped into an active agent of transformed social reality and social imagination. Being an integral part of the social reality and social imagination, the peasants have intervened in the social experience through Sultan.' (p 16).
Intervention is another trope that Jahangir had deployed to dissect the Sultanian ethos. Referring to George Lukacs, Jahangir elucidates the difference between true and mock-intervention…(p 52, Soul and Forms, p 154, 1974, Lukacs). 'Mock-intervention keeps continuity in a flux. Therefore, [for appropriate intervention] Sultan argues why our [agrarian] experience around our existence is looked at as marginal in our everyday lives.
However, in art proper, this experience touches on a hallowed moment, which is the pure experience of being. Ultimately, the deepest impulse that human beings uphold is that of an attempt to make sense of being' (p 52). 'It is this that coerced Sultan to closely inspect the peasants' essential psyche' (p 52).
To make peasant-centered grid of signification central to one's life is in itself a form of 'intervention.' In this sense, intervention too has a twofold meaning. One is revealed in the process of meaning construction by the intervention of Sultan himself as an artist, and the other is the intervention of the peasants themselves, though indirect but active as it occurs through Sultan.
Jahangir deftly shows the link between culture and nature in his analysis to fathom the depth of the Sultanic trajectory. Nature has two aspects: one is the 'real nature of rural Bangladesh,' while the other is 'phantasmagorical, artificial and constructed in accordance to British bohemianism' (p 19).
Scenic beauty appears crucial in Jahangir's analysis, which he refers to as nishorgo. 'Thus, thought, philosophy, beauty, horizon or expansion, where the river turns, the forest is dark, fields are full with golden-yellow paddy, awe-struck gaze of a woman or movements of cattle – all these are revealed as scenic beauty in painting. Scenic beauty has become the think of craving in the city, an element of longing and fulfillment of our wishes, and a kind of “beauty” which is devoid of any sense of reality. This “beauty” has been reduced to a national cultural commodity in the city. Colonial modernity has uprooted rural Bangladesh through this ideological construction of scenic beauty. Sultan has challenged this very ideology and proposed nature in oppose to scenic beauty' (p 19).
Lands are the essential components of nature which Sultan transforms into his artistic expression. Jahangir observes '[...T]he implications of arable land is both economic and political, it is ultimately subjected to private ownership, taxation, proprietorship, sharecropping, production, seeds, water, labour. Land, as such, cannot be considered as mere source of scenic beauty (p 57).'
From within Jahangir's frame of argument, one may surmise that nature in Sultan's work is a meaning signified and its prime signifier is arable land. Therefore, it is fair to conclude in the context of the relationship between nature and culture, the nature that Sultan represents can be defined as an agro-reality signified by arable land. Sultan's nature, thus, stands both for peasants' experience and an ideological expression of that experience.
Jahangir's work has its moments of brilliance but on the whole falls short of the expectations of readers well-versed in the politics of representation. His narrative is at best be defined as repetitive and fragmented, while full of observations which are often issued forth as rhetorical devises and is also replete with euphemisms.
While he attempts to comprehend Sultan to the entirety of his project and to do so posits importance to the sociopolitical background, he seems to sidestep the entire map of artistic practices in this region. He hardly evaluates his artistic strength in the context of those artists who developed their idioms through inflections of Western modernism. Perhaps, the sociological seeing that he introduces in this book has made him overlook some crucial aesthetic issues related to art practices in Bangladesh. But, what he did should be considered a serious attempt at demystifying artistic idiom by reading the work in terms of socio-politico-cultural-historical grid that is Bangladesh. He locates Sultan against this grid.
Translated from Bangla by DEPART DESK.