through the prism of art history
Shovon Shome has passed away in June 8 at the age of 78 (1932- 2010), leaving behind a singularly riveting wealth of art criticism which is impersonal and influential in the context of both Bangladesh and West Bengal, the former his birth place and the latter his country of residence.
He had obtained a diploma in fine arts from Visva Bharati University and, at the same time, obtained a master's degree in Bangla language and literature from Calcutta (now Kolkata) University. He was at ones an art critic, a poet, and an artist. The multidirectional approach enriched his take on art and art writing. He also delved into musicology and dramatics, writing reviews regularly.
It was his critiques, overwhelmingly inlaid with historical reflections, that made him the writer he finally became. His linguistic skills allowed for pleasant reading, making him one of the most popular art critics of the region. His unique phraseology and the aptitude for coining Bangla terms to replace the original, and his marked preference for simple words made his writings fluid and unpretentious.
He was one of the pioneers who considered history as the basis for all kind of analytic forays. By seeing art in the social, political, economic, and cultural context, and by reaching to the core meaning of artistic productions by researching the background they stemmed from, he had secured a niche among many other famous names. His three books in this field – 'Three Artists' (1985), 'The Trend of Bangla Art Criticism' (edited: 1986), and 'Art Education and Colonial India' (1998) are proofs of not only his linguistic acumen but also the holistic nature of his thinking.
With these books he had delineated an in-depth picture of the beginning of modern art education in Bengal. His thoughts had meandered through every level and turn of the creative activities of the artists educated during the British rule and after. The understanding of a distinctiveness of every proponent of modernism is also apparent in his writings, as is evident in his other books, among which the most notables are: 'Chitrabhabon' (Thoughts on Painting), 'Openti Bioscope', 'A Review of the Relationship between Dinendranath and Rabindranath', 'Prasango Art Therapy' (On Art Therapy), 'Shilper Adhunikota Banglar Satontro' (Modern Art and The Distinction of Bengal), etc.
Shovon Shome was born to a highly educated family of greater Sylhet (Longla village of Moulvibazar). He had always felt a spiritual connection with his country of birth. His father had a job that entailed frequent transfers and Shome was born when his family was staying at Shilchar in Assam during such a posting. He had his education in Gouhati, Ajmer, Kolkata, and Santiniketan. He started his professional life in Assam, but later moved to Kolkata for good. The family,s tradition had, no doubt, played an important role in Shome developing an intense love of knowledge.
He wrote articles in three languages – Bangla, Hindi and English. Thus, he eventually became an all-Indian and cosmopolitan citizen. He had been a professor of History of Art and in the last days of his teaching career also worked as the Dean of History at the Art Faculty of Rabindra Bharati University.
His attachment to Bangladesh becomes most obvious from two activities: first, he had always held out a hand with great warmth to whoever went to Kolkata from Bangladesh to do research in fine arts. He used to feel a sense of paternal responsibility for these researchers. Second, he wrote essays on pioneer artists of Bangladesh based on long-term research and in-depth analysis. His articles on Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan, and Safiuddin Ahmed were specially acclaimed by art aficionados and connoisseurs. Shome was preparing to write an essay on S M Sultan, before breathing his last on June 8.
However, these information reveal only the surface of his affinity to Bangladesh, the core of which can be grasped from the sincerity and understanding with which he approached the life and art of Muslim artists. As he had ventured into his subjects, displaying unparalleled enthusiasm and an ability to map the social background, his contextualization often led to new insights. For example, in his essay on Zainul Abedin, he examines the reason behind the maestro's success in depicting the Bengal Famine of the 1940s, the famous series done in brush and ink.
In the context of the prominent mainstream schools/trends – the Bengal school led by Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal, and Jamini Roy, and other young artists dedicated to western formalism organised under the banner of Calcutta Group, while the 'progressive' artists affiliated to the Communist Party – Zainul, Shome observes, had been a lone figure without the media support others enjoyed. But, without belonging to any of these schools, Zainul could stand out with his own artistic strength. According to Shome: 'The Bangali Muslim has little burden of myth or fable. Besides the history of his religion, he has neither any domineering trope nor any myth to grapple with. He has not renounced his identity in order to connect him to an Arabian or Persian utopia. In contrast, his next-door neighbour, the Bangali Hindu, is trapped in a tenacious web of myths and fables.' ('Zainul Abedin', Nirontor, Bangla 1402, P 76).
Shovon Shome further explains the phenomenon that was Zainul through the prisms of class consciousness as well as situated knowledge. He points out in the same article that the school of Western academism led by Ravi Varma and the revivalist representational mode espoused by Bengal School and its high priests were elitist in stance. He clearly showed how both schools – the Victorian academism and the style cultivated through the invocation of feudal heritage – secured the support of Indian bourgeoisie as they conformed to the status quo. In contrast, Zainul went to Kolkata from an impoverished middle-class Muslim family of the mufassil (provincial) town of Mymensingh. He was free from both of the elitist trends, which allowed him to be responsive to all kind human sufferings. With such analyses Shovon Shome had accurately identified the crisis and strength of the history of fine arts in Bengal. And it is for his secularist distinction and positivity – through which he always saw Bangali Muslim artists – that he will remain relevant in this part of the Bengal.
Translated from Bangla by AZFAR AZIZ