The resistant corpus
Recontextualizing the communal vision of Lal Miah*
'Oh my body, make of me always a man who questions'!1
– Frantz Fanon
The sage-of-an-artist that was Sheikh Muhammad Sultan bore another name – Lal Miah (1923-94) – which was his original. Of all the articles written on Lal Miah's work, Ahmed Sofa's seems to be of the most informed, as such it provides for an engaging reading. Therefore, a question may surge to the fore – why do we need to lend our voice to focus once again on the same subject? The reason is twofold: firstly, we would like to closely 'read' the paintings of the pre-independence era encompassing three decades (1940-1960); secondly, to seek an answer to the question: why his paintings got into a conflicting relationship with the post-liberation era (1970-90) modern art practices?
Legends abound about Lal Miah who was nothing short of a visionary. We will bypass those today to ensure a sincere search for the answers to a dual query – the task we have set for ourselves.
We may now proceed to discuss the early paintings of Lal Miah. Perhaps there aren't much evidence remaining of the works executed during the decade of 1940. So, it is difficult for one to discuss the characteristics of his work of this period. However, as we gather information from different sources we become more and more aware that his paintings were exhibited in Shimla in India, and Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan, respectively in 1946, 1948 and 1949. There are no reproductions of those artworks for us to be enlightened by. Besides, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy has so far failed to take any initiative to trace the Sultanian lore of this period, let alone carry out a thorough research. However it put out a book where a total of 11 artworks from the 1950s and 60s have been brought together. It bears the title -- SM Sultan (Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Art of Bangladesh Series-4) and is edited by Subir Choudhury, the then acting director of the Fine Arts Department. This book provides glimpses of artistic significance. Flipping through its pages we become acquainted with works such as 'Devotee' (1951), 'Pilgrimage' (1959), 'Dialogue' (1953), 'Drawing' (1953) and a number of nature studies from the 1950s, and also works such as 'woman with Pitcher' (1969), Madonna (1969), 'Naior', which translates as bride's visit to her parents, (1969), and 'Fishing' (1969) from the 1960s.
It is apparent that Lal Miah's creativity saw a resurgence following the 1960s. Before commencing further into that chapter, we will attempt a 'reading' of some of his artworks from the 1950s and 60s; we will try and discover the contextual value of the artistic value which Lal Miah stands for.
The general notion of art is that it functions as an object of beauty that generates pleasurable sensation. Pleasure lies at the apex – it is given a superior status. Beauty on the other hand is determined by pleasure itself, and is also contained within it. If we accept this thesis, we may dispense with the idea of beauty which is subservient to 'need'.
Rabindranath Tagore also assumed somewhat similar position when he formulated his own concept of beauty. In the article 'Sense of Beauty' the poet reflects: 'It seems that beauty is superfluous.'2 Here the expression 'it seems' stands for suspicion, not for skepticism. Therefore, once the expression 'it seems' is omitted the sentence reads as follows: 'Beauty is superfluous'. Tagore further postulates that beauty equals 'surplus'. This thesis may carry some deliberate effect of gravity, but it doesn't contain within its folds the idea of paucity. Yet for this very reason a twofold problem arises.
First off, if we say that beauty has no link with need and still are able to identify someone who has no need (for a particular object), do we perceive that lack (of 'need') as a source of beauty? Secondly, if beauty is considered superfluous, do we take it for granted that there is no beauty in things that are essential? We, therefore, propose that, the problematic definition of beauty which Rabindranath Tagore frames based on the binary of 'general need' and the 'need for aesthetic pleasure' is resolved in the paintings of artist Sheikh Mohammed Sultan, aka, Lal Miah. In short, Sultan's realm is the site where the superfluous intersects with the essential.
How does it happen? The paintings by Lal Miah which subsequently go by the title of 'Dialogue' (1953), 'Kafela' (1953) etc are prime examples where the perceived binary is resolved. We are faced with not only beauty that is related to our need but also beauty that is connected to superfluity.
In the sketch 'Dialogue' the bond among the emaciated children of Adam is emphasized. From the work 'Dialogue' to 'Kafela', Sultan examines the starving protagonists' possibility to initiate an uprising depicting a stage where they are engaged measuring their strength.
Etymologically the Bengali word 'Kafela', which derives from the Arabic 'Kafilah', stands for a band of people, a procession, or simply the act of revelling. The question is, why even conceive a procession/Kafela of the hungry? The capitalist state has had a definitive affect on Adam's children – dividing them into two well-defined groups – master and slave. The mechanism of exploitation, through which modern subjectivity is formed, subjugates the majority to slavery.
The same slaves in Lal Miah's work discuss among each other and prepare to mobilize themselves against inequality. If symbols are believed to be the conceptual framework of art, the emaciated people stand for the capitalist socioeconomic matrix. They reflect its true character revealing its power to impoverish peoples and nations it exploits in favour of the few and it shows how it also dehydrates the minds of all its subjects – both exploiters and exploited. This symbol is simply horrific, though a source of artistic beauty in pictures.
Represented by Lal Miah, the band of 'Subjects' – though in a state of ennui, looking absolutely emaciated and is in the verge of disintegration – are all set to mobilize a procession. Following evaluation of their state of affair they are concentrating not only on what is essential but also what lies beyond – the realm of the superfluous – the Lord. The people in the procession are not satisfied having to bear the identity of a mere 'subject' or 'sub-human', they want to become what Lalon used to refer to as 'shohoj manush' – people who exist in natural/organic terms in relation to their physical/metaphysical environment. They are not dispassionate, neither are they afflicted by any sense of rootlessness. Against the backdrop of the conflicted selves and egos, and the unremitting animosity among the humans brought on by the Modern Age and its capitalistic structure, these subjects are initiating harmony within the site of the body (where various selves reside) as well as the space called society – where class conflict afflicts humanity in myriad forms. Is their any doubt that the peasants of Sultan are strengthened by the communion that is the ultimate bond among mankind?
The culture of art criticism is yet to see maturity in Bengal. It seems as if it is still mostly about viewing and reporting – a way for many to be entertained by. Though some forms of art criticism appear in commercially define space that is newspaper, magazine etc. Even if it is of no major significance, we want to first consider one or two pieces on Lal Miah.
For example, discussing Lal Miah's nature-based paintings, Professor Nazrul Islam focuses on two of the reproductions of Lal Miah – they were published in a book entitled 'Art in Pakistan' (third Edition, 1968). Done in oil colour, both paintings, Professor Islam believes, 'are perhaps based on the scenic beauty of Jessore.' Prof Islam also concludes that the method used in these works is of Van Gogh's – the impressionistic mode that the Dutch master used to employ to achieve his own heavy impasto effect. Mr. Islam's conjectures are not buttressed by analysis or discussion. Such comments surely beg for analysis. Islam advances further into troubled water by concluding that, 'one of sultan's prominent characteristic is to represent the peasantry of Bengal by bestowing them with an unusual muscular physic and strength.'3 The term 'unusual' seems too crude a category in the context of what has been taken for granted by the writer. For the city folks, farmers of Bangladesh are a vision of 'diseased' or 'famished' lot, so is the case with Islam.
There is no way for one to avoid the fact that corruption is part and parcel of the package that is a 'bourgeois state', which, as a rule, is divided along the line of class. In the hegemony of a system where one economic class rules over the other, 'unusual' is the word that is attributed to a state where social ownership seems to be the norm. In any state where an exploitative system is in place, Adam's children remain divided – one forming the class of the lord or master and the other the slave. Perhaps according to Mr Islam, the lords bear the attributes such as physical vigour and stoutness and the slaves seem to display the opposite typology – as they are perceived to be as malnourished and skeletal. The peasants of Lal Miah, on the other hand, are actually neither 'skeletal' nor 'stout', rather defined by their robust energy found in the concept of 'shohoj manush'.
The most uncharacteristic comment comes from the accomplished art critic professor Abul Mansur, who, while attempting to classify Sultan's art, concludes, 'It can be considered as something close to 'naïve' urban art, the sort we see in our rickshaw paintings.'4 Question arises, what is the relationship between the paintings that adorn the backside of rickshaws and the art of Lal Miah? It seems that for Mr Mansur the word 'naïve' stands for art lacking in kill. In the West the word 'naïve' sometimes even denotes 'artlessness'. If we have faith in semantics, it tells us that the word 'naive' means 'simple' in Bangla. But paintings of Lal Mia is anything but 'simple'; we may call it 'shohoj', which means unassuming, spontaneous and organic.
'Shohoj' clearly helps define one's identity not against the 'other' but in the company of the 'other'. It also unites the opposites: visible and invisible, or extrinsic and intrinsic as well as form and formlessness. And what results from such merger is a state of awareness about the present against the backdrop of the past and the future. As an artist who has devised his entire life as a component of humanity represented by the toiling masses, Sultan had his eyes set on dislodging the dominant discourse of capitalism. He envisioned a society against the existing oppressive system that bases itself on the concept of affluence and the city as the hub of achieving that. It is the urbanites' imaginary that allows little room for a counter-discourse which Sultan formulated through his art. It is through the mimicry of the West and the internalization of its development narratives that we often mistake such authentic vision for 'naïve' romanticism. And often these visionaries are considered as people from the margin. Mr Mansur too fails to avoid running into such conceptual morass, when he says that Sultan was a 'praantik' (marginal) artist. But we know for sure that his life and art connects him to the majority of the people – the masses and their culture, which I refer to as National Culture.
The poet Jasimuddin's nationalistic ideology has also been subjected to such misinterpretation that results from the very same parochial politics of (mis)representation. With an appellation that derives from the urbanites, he becomes the 'Polleekobi', which translates as 'village-poet'.
To outline the greater map of people and Lal Miah's place in it, we may resort to the construction of language. The children of Adam are the apostles of language; they reside within it. Language – the result of the Adamic culture – is what turns people into humans and in turns helps them relate to the physical reality as well as among themselves and beyond. Language becomes the means to giving meanings to the earthly attachments and also to frame our desire.
Modern psychology posits that language originates from the realm of the 'unconscious'.5 And the unconscious tends to explode. When it does, nature, matter and even the universe turns into what we may call 'shohoj'. In the art of Lal Miah, muscle-bound 'shohoj' men appear who have resolved the dichotomy of self and other, also conscious and unconscious, and they are set to build a future by demolishing the present power structure. It is because of their might and their muscular appearance that they emerge more like question marks – a form that interrogates the very ethos and also validity of the bourgeois state.
'Modern imperialism' is based on the monopoly of capital. The structure of class exploitation is wreaking havoc with nature and society as a result of the manipulation of capital by the influential few. The solution that the 'high-yielding seeds' once have offered now appears to be of little value, not only as they fail to deliver on the promise, but also for their detrimental effect on the soil. From the so-called 'Alok Dhaan' – which translates as 'The Paddy of Light', a hybrid variant – there is no possibility of reproducing seeds, perhaps timber may be an option, to borrow a phrase often mockingly uttered by all Bangalees. Yet, we know full well that timber too would only fatten the coffer of the master. Imperialism has taken a 'hybrid' form at present; hybridity and imperialism are now synonymous.
Lal Miah knew that 'truth' remains the same even after taking oath to modernization. In the same way it is impossible to change the society through the 'formula' proposed by the forces of such 'sham' agro or economic revolution that introduced 'Alok Dhaan' only to multiply their profit. That Lal Mian never treaded the path of modernism is an aesthetico-political act which was a way for him to resist the exploitative, scientific brand of capitalist-progressivist hegemony. His entire repertoire between the period of 1970 and 1994 substantiate this fact. His exhibition 'Nishorgo o Manush' and 'Prokritee o Jiban' are testimony to his revolutionary ethos.
In the post-liberation war era, when most of the artists in Bangladesh were engaged in mimicking the West, in Lal Miah's canvas the laity were rising to establish their national right and waging symbolic war to occupy the land that provides good enough reason for the powerful to lock in battles over ownership.
Lal Mian had the courage to show how the oppressed could rise and lay claim to the land they till, he also brought to fore how they engage themselves in what is actually our 'national' industry – agriculture. Such meditative engagement with regeneration is called egalitarianism or communism. In the swirl of all the actions the outcome of their labour is equally shared, as Lal Miah's is a society based on equity. If one observes carefully, ploughing land, harvesting, thrashing paddy, catching and cutting fish are the everyday activities Sultan shows to emphasize the fact that there is no discrimination between the wealthy and the poor. A group of 'social men', to borrow a phrase Marx coined to emphasize their sense of belonging to the commune and the ability to delve into all forms of activities including thinking and critiquing, are engaged with pleasure in production, distribution and in reconstruction of life to match its true spirit. Never in conflict with nature, they carve out a living that actually is based on the communion between man and nature -- a life that ensures the sustenance of both. This is the life and its journey towards a wholeness that may be called 'national culture' of this agro-based country, Bangladesh. The symbol of this national culture is Lal Miah's organically inclined people – the mighty peasants.
In the book titled 'The mind of the Bengali Muslim,'6 Ahmed Sofa (1943-2001) devoted an article on Lal Miah. Under the rubric, 'The tradition of painting of Bengal: Sultan's meditation,' the piece provides a glimpse of the true identity of Lal Miah. Sofa evaluates the art of the maestro against the backdrop of the tradition of the paintings in Bengal. In his passionate analysis the arts of Lal Miah's own age are also taken into considerations. This write-up stands as unequal in the annals of criticism. It merits reading and rereading. To underline the significance of Sultan, Ahmed Sofa used to say, 'There is no one before him and none after him.' Which brings up the issue of whether the artworks of Lal Miah are heaven sent? I would rather contend that his thoughts and visions have surfaced by splitting asunder the soil of the state.
This very act of emergence brings to light thoughts that are based on the concept of the 'whole', as opposed to what is conflicted and divided. It is the process through which beings reconcile the self with the other to let the other be revealed in its true character. Lal Miah has been able to redefine the concept of sawraj not in the vein of Mahatma Ghandi but in the manner of a visionary who sees humanity as one.
- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1968)
- Rabindranath Tagore, Sahitya (reprint, Kolkata, Bishvabharatee, 1411)
- Nazrul Islam, Somokalin Shilpo o Shilpee, (reprint, Dhaka, Pathak Shamabesh, 2009)
- Subir Choudhury (edited), S M Sultan, (Dhaka, Bangladesh Silpakala Academy, 2003)
- Salimullah Khan, Jacques Lacan Bidyalay [Dhaka, Assian Arts & Cultural Centre (CAC), 2005]
- Ahmad Sofa, Bangali Musalmaner Mon, (Dhaka, Utthanporbo, 2008)
SHAKHAWAT TIPU is a poet and critic and assistant editor of Notun Dhara, a monthly magazine of literature, art and culture.
Translation : DEPART DESK