Sultan and his spirited peasant population
Glimpses from an organic narrative
My recent visit to Kaliganj of Jhenaidah – an agriculturally developed area, provided a reason for me to recognize once again the holistic life Sultan had envisaged within the context of the village.
As we sat at a store selling seed and insecticide, while enroute to S M Sultan's home in Narail, where we had to stop at Kaliganj when a local village leader was killed at Baar Bazar, a few words from a farmer made my heart sink. Farmers were dropping by to buy seed, fertilizer, etc, and we started to talk with them on a wide range of topics. 'What price do you get for your crops? Why are you applying this fertilizer? What does this insecticide do?' In the mean time, a farmer stopped by to buy something that supposedly controls weeds.
Me: How exactly does it do that?
Farmer: Applying this medicine burns the weeds to ashes.
Me: And what about the crops?
Farmer: Sometimes, even the crops are burnt. You can imagine how expensive it is to employ a labourer to do the job. Using this treatment saves one the labour and the cost as well.
Me: Do you own any cattle?
Farmer: No, we don't need cows anymore to till the land. And if I need to buy milk for my children, I buy powdered milk instead. That's much cheaper.
I heard his replies with astonishment. Where has the zeal for organic living disappeared? This question constantly bothered me as we resumed our journey towards Narail after receiving word that the situation there had calmed down.
On my way I was being constantly reminded of the sturdy farmers SM Sultan used to project onto the horizontal space of his huge canvases where the backdrop depicted either arable land or a village. He saw the farmer as a devotee of the land, putting in his very blood, sweat and tears to extract every last drop of life and wealth from the soil. As I compared that farmer to the farmer I met today, the image of a Sultan's painting kept flashing in front of my eyes, particularly an uncharacteristic piece which showed rows of farmers lying dead on the ground.
Not among them, however, was the young farmer who held a chillum in his hand, but looked completely revitalized at seeing the bright red blossoms in front of him. It was as if he was capable of transforming the world the minute he recovered from his stupor. The two paintings which I'm referring to are pillars in my view and serve as milestones - perfect bookends of SM Sultan's career.
Of all the literature available that I've read on the artist in Bangladesh, there are only two that do him justice, in my opinion. One is the Ahmed Sofa-written essay entitled, 'The Tradition of Art in Bengal: Sultan's Legacy', taken from the 1981 Bangla Academy book called The Mind of the Bengali Muslim. The other is Shahaduzzaman Munna's 'A Rendezvous with Sultan', published by Nurul Alam Atiq on 1st August 1990 in the S M Sultan issue of the little mag – Nree. As the name implies, the second piece is essentially an interview. Ahmed Sofa's piece inspired this naïve youth's consciousness to flow almost in tandem with that of Sultan. It unveiled such an indelible impression of Sultan that his Farmer, like Michelangelo's David, became iconic in my mind. On the other hand, Shahaduzzaman's Sultan was somewhat less ethereal.
Prior to embarking on this discussion, I should say that I spent some of my youth with him. I was in contact with him till before he passed away. I was completely enchanted by him and thus it was impossible for me to put forward any impartial analysis of the man. Even now, I doubt whether my sentiment has been tempered with the passage of time. It is with this doubt that I hereby begin my introduction.
I am conflicted when I attempt to start a discussion of the Sultan – the man I saw. Perhaps he was conflicted himself because the 'achkan' he used to wear over his loose trousers was not from this country, but a Western costume. And what about the language of his art, is that wholly Bengal's own? He used techniques that showed obvious signs of foreign inspiration. This also applies to the methods he used to make his own oils. These were obviously not local techniques – but comprised a mixture of both European and local ingredients. Despite all that, Sultan and his depictions of the farmer are essentially Bangladeshi.
Whenever we discuss him, he transcends the image of himself as an artist and becomes simply Sultan the man. 'The poet is not like his poetry': these words may ring true for many, but not for Sultan. In fact, he made a concerted effort to make himself indistinguishable from his art. When we envision him as an artist, we cannot help but see tinges of the tradition of Bengal that go back many, many years.
If you remove the idiocycracies from the equation, there is some doubt about the extent to which he truly was the S M Sultan that we know him as. In 'An East Pakistan Scene by S M Sultan'- a 1952 article written by S Amjad Ali for Pakistan Quarterly, Year 2, Issue 1, the writer refers to Sultan as a 'landscape artist.' In his view, Sultan was an artist who painted landscapes purely from memory in a style which had no fixed identity or roots. This was a critique of Sultan's work prior to his stay in the United States and Europe. In his own interview with Shahaduzzaman, he professed that the paintings that were exhibited alongside Europe's surrealist master, Dali, were indeed landscapes. Hence, by his own admission and by the testimonials offered by others, we may conclude that his pre-1971 works were essentially landscapes and that 'the male figure' was merely an accessory.
Even though abstract art was all the rage at that time, he had little sympathy for its exponents. His work and his own testimonials provides the basis for the argument that against the tendency to devise art by internalizing some traits of the so-called universal modernism, his muscular working man and the panoramic backgrounds showing bucolic setting formed a conflicting relationship with what perceived as modern at that period.
He envisioned an agrarian civilization where the primary 'actor' was the farmer; the farmer's robust, sinewy form was way for him to bestow heroism on the very people who would construct a collective life based on organic living.
Was it the liberation war that brought about a gradual transformation of his mindset and therefore his art?
That is essentially the topic that this piece seeks to put under the scanner. Sultan arrived in Dhaka during the 1960s. We all know what happened next. We know that he could not find a place in Dhaka. Though he wanted to stay, he soon left for Jessore. Eventually he settled in his own village in Narail – though he made his permanent residence in Rupganj, not in Machimadia. Afterwards, he stayed at the broken down musical hall of the local zamindar.
We see that at this juncture he was in regular touch with people of a particular mindset. According to the research conducted on this, we know that Abdul Hai, Poet Azizul Huq, Principal Abdul Hai, Syed Siddiq Hossain, et al, were among his close associates. Various discussions have brought to the fore the names of people he met during his travels to Karachi, Kashmir and Kolkata.
Although these were individuals who were all prolific and influential in their respective fields, SM Sultan did not necessarily attain that same exalted status by virtue of his mere proximity to them. Thus, we need to examine at closer depth the extent to which their mindsets influenced the artist we have come to be so transfixed by. We notice that his close associates at this phase of his life were either directly involved with leftist politics or were at least left-leaning. His sometime companion was a simple barber by the name of Batul. It was not possible to determine who else he interacted with.
A brief introduction of these men may be able to provide some useful insight into his mindset at the time. We have seen from the very outset that his paintings dealt with landscapes and the inherent beauty labour. However, after he found himself interacting with these very workers at close quarters, he elevated labour to an entirely different pedestal.
First, let us return to the time in Kolkata when Sultan's artistic career began. If we look at that period more closely, we will see that he was at one with the cream of society. In Kolkata was Zainul, who depicted famine in his work; in a short while appeared Shafiuddin, who captured the Tebhaga Movement. There were others whose work reflected their social commitment. Sultan himself was affiliated with the Khaksar movement – one organized by the local elites who viewed the cleanliness of their neighbourhoods as a collective duty to be performed towards the national cause.
However, it is not known whether the erstwhile anti-British struggle, the leftist movement or even the global geopolitical scenario of the time had any influence on Sultan's work. In fact, I am not sure whether he mentioned anything of significance in any of his interviews either. Rather, we see that he blossomed in the shelter and guidance of the elites. Following the creation of the Pakistani state, it is also not known whether the milestone events of 1952, 1962 and 1969 had any bearing on his work at the time. During his stay in Jessore in 1956, I noticed in his study that he was honing his skills drawing muscular, strong men. In the sketches that I saw, they weren't farmers that he was drawing; in one, I could identify a fisherman. He drew these while he was staying at the home of Syed Siddiq Hossain.
When asked about this in 1996, Hossain said, 'At that time, Sultan stayed at the homes of quite a few people, and mine just happened to be one of them. Jessore at that time was quite embroiled in leftist politics; those who were involved in politics of this nature were engaged in a gamut of cultural activities – so it was only natural that he associated with them and they, in turn, looked at him as one of their own.
He also had interactions with farmers. However, the area in Jessore that he regularly frequented did not have many industries or factories – hence there were not many workers. As most of the workers were Bihari and had no sympathy for left activism, practitioners of leftist politics were of the opinion that the freedom for people of the region lay at the grassroots level – in the farmers' struggle. Many discussed their views with him; though he agreed with them to a certain extent, he essentially had his own beliefs. He had his own perception of Utopia – the power of the bow and arrow being one of them.
He never depicted any of these ideals in his work. Actually, he used to pull the craziest stunts sometimes and had a tendency to show off his bravado. One day he asked me, “Can you arrange a sack of lime for me? I want to use it to draw.” Then he started dancing with it right there in the courtyard, and a painting emerged from that!
He used to spend his days doing things like playing the flute, teaching young boys to draw, building a school. He travelled far and wide and he had a wealth of knowledge on so many things. But the hold he had on Bengali literature was something to be envied. This was pre-Tagore literature, though.
He was deeply moved by the works of Michael, Nazrul and Iqbal. He was not interested in selling his paintings. He used to say, 'Paintings are not meant to be decorations for one's living-room.'
I have witnessed Sultan's admiration for Michael Modhusudan Dutt and Bidwasagar at close quarters, particularly in the latter's educationalist ideals. He harboured a desire for social change; as such he was adamant that he did not want to set up an institution. He was profoundly affected by the failed attempt to set up the Jessore Art College in his name. His main objection during the establishment of the college was to do with the constitution of the committee.
Enough on Sultan the person he was, we will now cover aspects of his creative personality that were not touched on by Ahmed Sofa. His artistic gift gift was innate and the very act of painting was tantamount to a simple movement of the muscle for him. The skill and the artistic memory were inbuilt and second nature – the way they are for a potter. However, the sheer instability and peaks and troughs of his life served as obstacles in his artistic expression.
During the beginning of his career, his work followed the Impressionists' school – particularly the impasto technique used by Van Gogh. Though, Sultan's could not come close to the emotional charge often achieved by Van Gogh using his thick brushstrokes on small canvases.
Later he aligned himself with artists of the European Renaissance who had extraordinary visions. And like the artists of the Renaissance period, who received in their formative years the patronage of royal, or bourgeois figures, Sultan too had been mentored by the socialites of his time. Shahed Surwardi, a man of letter and a patron of art, was among the most influential. Sultan had begun to learn how to see mankind as a life-force larger than himself.
He perceived the Renaissance in such a way that he imbibed the humanity and its endless energy for regeneration that he invested that to idea of social revolution. The language of his art was henceforth influenced by social themes, the root of which was farming.
In meetings with him, he would repeatedly say, 'I always avoid vertical lines on my paintings,' which alludes to the fact that modern city had little to offer to him; he was a man who abhorred the idea of reterritorialization of the toiling masses. Once in the urban climate they are simply turned into mere cogs in the wheel of fortune, a fate against which Sultan proposed his organic society.
His Utopist ideals and social consciousness was one with his aesthetic aspiration. The landscape against which he set his stage for human drama displays a yearning for nature untouched by technological excesses. Removing the farmers' robust form from his paintings would simply transform them into the historical documentaries made on Bengal's rural scene in the 18th or 19th centuries. It is his inclusion of the farmers who that radically change that landscape, making fraught with possibilities.
Henri Matisse once said, 'An artist is the mirror-image of his times. But what shows in his art is the way the artist sees himself reflected in that very mirror.'
If we care to analyze his life and times, we will see that the two most significant events that took place in his region were the Naxalite movement and the 1971 war of independence – the former having evolved into the latter. The youths of the day got involved in both struggles, and the same sentiments also germinated in some poets and literary figures of the region.
Both struggles were associated with collective passions and dreams of freedom from the shackles of deprivation. Is it possible that these very aspirations for liberty brought about the transformation of his paintings from mere documentaries to works of art?
There was one painting mentioned in Ahmed Sofa's piece that was not included in the 1976 exhibition. After the 1971 independence struggle, Sultan painted very few pieces depicting typical scenes of carnage, of soldiers tearing each other's life and limbs in war. The war essentially succeeded in weaving our dreams of a fundamental social change. However, following the end of the war, we have been moving further and further away from that ideal.
It was at that point that Sultan painted 'The Young Farmer,' where we see a young farmer lying down with chillum in one hand, a bright red flower in another. It seems as though the flower beckons him to resurface and revive from the melancholy of his opium haze. Does this red flower have any special significance? We also know that the Naxalite leftists were left very disillusioned after witnessing the manner in which the war rapidly evolved. Their vision was of a struggle for monumental social change. However, the chaos and poor governance that followed the war did bring about a high degree of disenchantment.
This feeling of bereft hope at the inability to change the social reality was not merely confined to the leftists, but had permeated across the nation. This fact is aptly demonstrated by the favourable audience response garnered by two films made at the time: 'You Be Human Again' (1973) and 'They Were A Group of Eleven.' (1972) As the then Awami League (AL) government was set to appropriate the distinct Soviet-type political ideology by forming BAKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League), there emerged JSD (Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal), a political vehicle for the left-lenient AL deserters. The fact that JSD was disinclined to accept the government's move as a process of introducing 'socialism', as they themselves put forward a formula of a democratic-socialist haven, rejecting the formar's concept. Consequently, the fissure in the national polity became more and more distinct. It is against this backdrop that Sultan's holistic socialist dream, conceived from within the eco-system of local narratives, emerge in its true significance.
Yet, he was never alienated from the world politics and its unpredictable drifts. When the 1980s witnessed the collapse of communism, Sultan painted a row of farmers lying dead after the devastation of the flood. There had indeed been a flood, but his piece pre-dated that by quite a few years. On numerous occasions, we have seen him capture the farmer's physical strength in all its glory on canvas – his very muscles encapsulating a volume of memories, of blood, sweat and tears, of toil and struggle, of the cultivation of crops that he had honed to the level of the 'sublime'. These same farmers he had now reduced to a pile of corpses.
What devastation that inspired him to conceive this painting? At what point were his dreams got shattered? In Shahaduzzaman's interview, Sultan quotes lines from poems of Iqbal and Nazrul. He specifically mentions those lines where they speak of the uprising of the world's labourers; where he also points out that the crops that do not satiate the hunger of the poor should be burnt to a crisp.
Interviews of this nature bring me to ask myself the same question over and over again: did he paint farmers as physically strong, robust figures simply because he perceived them to be the architects of civilization? Or was there another motivation behind it? According to Ahmed Sofa, the farmers in Sultan's work were indeed imbued with these characteristics, but is this the end of the matter? Then why is that we are hard-pressed to find any noteworthy work after 1987? In fact, the post-1987 Sultan seems to be working almost robotically, by sheer force of habit. There are scenes of rural life, interspersed with depictions of fishermen and farmers, but none with remotely the same physical attributes of vim, vigour and vitality.
So what remains to be asked is this: the farmers with their sinewy muscles representing the spirit of civilization, revolution and struggle – has that strength been exhausted or forever extinguished?