Negotiating Modernism in Bengal
K G Subramanyan's visit to Dhaka to launch Depart promted our executive editor EBADUR RAHMAN to take the opportunity to lock in a colloquy with the maestro to discuss issues of tradition, modernity and the incursions of market into the culture of art-making
Ebadur Rahman: In the beginning, right off, I am going to take issue with something you said yesterday. You were saying something to the extent that, Zainul Abedin is to this part of the Bengal what Nandalal Bose is to the other part of the Bengal. I would beg to differ, if I may. I have this observation: Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, and the Bengal School inaugurated ground breaking techniques of evoking the Bengali body and the Bengali reality which, in some instances, perhaps, acted as the DNA of invoking the Indian reality.After the partition, when Zainul Abedin and Safiuddin Ahmed et al migrated to east Bengal, these artists were faced with an interesting dilemma ...On one hand, I don't think Zainul was ever very comfortable in the Bengal schools' shoes, it didn't fit him quite right, you could tell right form the beginning… he didn't really want to follow in the great man's – Abanindranath's – footsteps… Zainul , the peasant's son from east Bengal , perhaps , found Bengal school's village was more of a fairy tale village, you know, it was more of a Pouranic/Mythic reality that they–Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore– were evoking. That was one thing. On the other hand , there was this pressure on Zainul to be a 'Pakistani' and a 'Muslim'; Ismat Chughtai and other influential west Pakistani artists were forging new paths , staging a very different reality. In Bangladesh, Zainul et al, at that point, didn't wanted any part of neither the Bengal School nor did they had any interest in following Ismat Chughtai and other proponents of pan-Islamism... As an alternate to both these schools, Zainul, actually, started using very western, academic techniques. Zainul subjects were rural, you know, 'Village Woman', 'Painar Maa', 'Rebel Cow' etc – very rural! But his technique was very western.
K.G. Subramanyan: I don't completely agree.
Please, if you could elaborate your point of contention…
In fact to a certain extent, there are common points to what Ismat Chughtai did or Abanindranath didn't do…
Yes, of course, there was this basic common premise, across the borders, of creating a platform to launch an authentic and uncontaminated self-identity…Bengali identity, Indian identity, pan-Muslim identity , etc. !
You have to differentiate between different oriental styles of painting!
You truly believe, Abanindranath, Zainul and Nandalal differ only in style, then?
If you are thinking in terms of their reading a different reality, each painter, of course, reads in his own way… But, Abanindranath, probably, invokes sort of a story-telling technique while Nandalal's forte has always been the phenomenon, occurrence and experience of the here and now.
If you are thinking in terms of the amount an artist can try to record what is around him–be it the landscape or the people or things of any kind–Nandalal Bose's sketchbooks are stupendous documents; they are full of 'records'.In this respect, you can see his affinity with Zainul Abedin. And of course, the reality that Zainul faced, initially, was the reality of the Calcutta streets…
Ebad: That's right. But I wasn't attempting to point…
It is the tradition. Nandalal Basu created a tradition of painting which is an alternative way of negotiating modernism in India.
I believe, Zainul Abedin was trying to do that as well. Not unlike Nandalal, he had the same kind of interest of seeing art in a broader perspective and he was interested in what modern art was doing to the art scene, but he was also interested in how modern art interpreted folk art and the arts of the bygone days.
This segues nicely to my next question, actually. You are intimately familiar with three generations of Bangladeshi artists. Do you think there is any continuation of Zainul's tradition(s) today? …What's going on today, here, in the name of art and, what you have known from the generations that came before–do you think there is a continuation of 'tradition(s)'?
It depends on what you really mean when you say tradition (smiles)! The thing is, you cannot think of tradition as a style or manner of painting.
I mean it in a dialogic sense, as a synthetic negotiation … We saw that Zainul Abedin has used western techniques but, he is also sourcing from the traditional. Do you see that kind of dialogic exchange or negotiation in the work of today's Bangladeshi artists?
I suppose so. I also suppose they are learning things from various 'non-traditional' places and putting it all together.
You see a representation of a solid Bengali identity or a Bengali-identity-in-construction?
Ah! I don't think any artist should think in terms of identity …I mean at least you shouldn't have any pre-concept of building an identity. Of course, after an artist has worked for a length of time, a certain symbol of an identity, which other people should recognize as being solid, will emerge …
Do you think, you see that in Bangladeshi art?
Maybe… But the artist shouldn't think in terms of a Bangladeshi identity. The artist is a single man in the world. And he is facing the whole reality of the world. But, of course, when you have your roots somewhere, when you have your antecedents, you have your own kind of cultural background–it is bound to seep into your work. But you are not trying to squeeze it in. It should naturally come.
It's a question of representation, and, the politics of representation. Do you see, in our art, the representation of the reality of Bangladesh? The reality that embraces tradition, embraces today's political situation, embraces pretty much everything. Do you see an honest, real representation of today's reality in Bangladeshi Art?
That I do not know – I do not know the whole gamut of Bangladeshi art today.
Whatever you have seen of our art…
From whatever I have seen, I think, there is a certain amount of pressure on Bangladeshi art to, more or less, literally represents whatever has gone down.
And, let us not forget the pressure of market-economics to sell art to the foreign embassies!
Well, great changes have occurred in Bangladesh–the birth of Bangladesh itself was a massive occurrence! Everyone is trying to sort of come up with some kind of a symbolic representation of the new reality here… Well, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't!
(Laughs) that's all I needed to hear from you. Very nice! Ok…Let's talk a little about olden-golden Santiniketan... when you first arrive there as a student…
When I first started out as a student… Santiniketan was, what you call, the doorway to Western Modernity. There was one or two way of becoming modern in those days: one was behaving like a westerner. Then, of course, there was the reactionary types… some people thought, our customs and traditions are so ancient and heavenly and everything from here is good!
So there was this kind of a conflict. It was at that time that a phenomenon like Tagore came into being. A man who, at the same time , could hold in his head a very culture-specific historical reality (in the Indian context) and also the reality of the world being one and, how there are various kinds of things in many parts of the world, which relates to one another.
So, at Santiniketan, there was, let's just say, a sort of a rethinking of the Indian roots and an examination of what modernity and modernism were. To a certain extent, that was where Nandalal made tremendous contributions, because he never very openly postulated his teachings or thoughts, but in his practice he manifested his vision and wisdom more profoundly.
One of the things that we learned from Nandalal is that, there are many kinds of arts as there are many ways of expressing the self; and each artistic mode or expression has its unique building-block or language; it is through absorbing and, imbibing and, cultivating that language that you truly go ahead. But, then, there can be many alternative modes or languages of doing the same thing and, if you are thinking in terms of the world art scene, these alternative modes co-exist. The other thing was the questions of 'seeing' reality... you see, in that sense we were beneficiaries of a rather mature kind of schooling. The question of our reading the world-reality or even what was happening around, had in its background, a sense of analysis and understanding of what is true to the West and what is true to us and what is the kind of relationship between that and this.
I have had the opportunity of reading the diary and letters–compiled by Kazuo Azuma's wife – of Mukul (Chandra) Dey; as a young man Mukul Dey taught etching at 'Bichitra Society' and travelled with Tagore and C F Andrews to Japan in 1916 and came in direct and prolonged contact with Yokoyama Taikan and Shimomura Kanjan – not only two major Japanese artists but also two key politically nuanced protagonists of the Meiji restoration period. By that time, Francisco Fenellosa's most prominent student Kakujo Okakura had been to Bengal at least twice, met Sister Nibedita and wrote 'Ideals of the East' where he postulated – at the eve of Sino-Russian war– an unheard of Pan-Asianism… I think, around the same time, the exchanges between the artists of Nihon Bijutsu Kyokai society – devoted to Nihonga – and Abanindranath translated into Aban Tagore's new way of using 'wash technique'… I mean to say, it was a crucial time,–all through the empire and, in this remote corner of Bengal, at Santiniketan, there were this great enunciations of practical, artistic and ideological imperatives, of conscientious political consistency, to set out an anti-colonial/imperial project, overriding inner-colonialism, decolonizing the culture and the head-space of the 'native' artists.… These interface and relations were clearly formulated as a résistance, no?… Which is, I think, also evident in the contact and contamination Tagore was initiating: the incessant travelling , bringing in foreign scholars to Santinikatan – some of them porto-fascist or fierce anti-imperialist, like Leonard Elmhirst, W W Pearson, Turchi or Sylvia Levy etc – fomenting a strange amalgam of modernism that's not insular, that reaches out… even someone with Ramkinkar's background was doing thoroughly western and modernistic work , if you think about 'Sujata' or his paintings… while there was clear indication of what Homi Bhabha calls a 'psychosis of Patriotic fervor' but, the main thrust was, a diffused attempt to locate the Self… I am rambling a bit, but, do you see what I am getting at?
Let's be very clear on this: it was not an attempt at resistance; at Santiniketan, they were trying to negotiate two things: Modernism and Bengali reality! Some of the things that were being fomented, at that time, might be called resistance – when you think in terms of movements that had started in Calcutta (now Kolkata).
But, Abanindranath and Nandalal were thinking more in terms of indigenous roots and manners and things of that kind. But that was exactly my point, what Rabindranath and Nandalal did was to cut across cultural myopia and nationalistic chauvinism – saying that there are many ways and modes, both here and in the West; each way and mode has its own little language intrinsic to it; all these ways and modes are valid in their own ways. And, all these different ways can interact and cross-pollinate. It was philosophy and teaching like that, that produced students like Binod Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar. So this broadness of outlook was there.... Even if some of the artists were evoking mythology, that mythology was con-committed to and connected with what we saw around us, and the mythology came alive! Otherwise it would have been some kind of a shadow play. It would have been removed from the reality. In everything that Ramkinkar and the others did at that time, their reality was inscribed there – they were rediscovering their reality and, at the same time, they were constructing a mythology of the present.
Now – on a slightly different register – where do you locate spirituality in the process of creation? Or, How do you see the role of instinct in art-making?
Art or literature tends to acquire kind of a meaning that you did not intend in the beginning. Now, when I write a poem, or do a painting, it is based on a concrete experience; but, whether the poem gets a little beyond the actual experience and jumps out of its own skin. I am not too sure about the process – sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.
Don't you think that, in art-making, at some point – after all the training, after learning all the techniques, you just have to surrender the techniques, you have to slaughter the ego and go beyond your self?
Very True! But, I don't know if I would call it 'surrendering the techniques'! I wouldn't call it that.
We are arguing semantics here – what would you call it, 'transcending the techniques'?
The whole object is: the techniques should become a part of your 'muscle'.
Exactly! Technique becomes part of your muscle memory; you consciously don't think about it anymore, no conscious effort is needed anymore?
The mind should automatically flow through the muscle. And when it does, the technique is a part of the whole being, it becomes natural, built-in. That is the stage that every artist should thrive to reach. That is also what, I suppose, I try to accomplish as often as I can. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
I think, this is why you put such emphasis on tradition… the technical mastery enables seamless mechanical discharge of a vision – a vision without a meaning, without values , beliefs, or a context or direction; grounding on tradition allows the artist to realize his nature , to stage and actualize his vision in a way that's native to his nature,… when technique and tradition fuse, artist's instinct becomes infallible!
Well, the way I would look at tradition is – there are so many aspects to it! Because even when you are working – what people call – anti-traditionally, you are certainly working from some point or other, grounding yourself somewhere that you already accept as tradition. So, most of the people who are anti-tradition are the kind of people who just replace one kind of tradition with another. Nobody starts from a clean slate!
But, then, my idea of tradition is: when we speak, now, we are speaking in a language that we didn't devise ourselves. It is already made. We use the language and sometime, perhaps, we use the language in a new way to make space for a new meaning. So, tradition is something which is already there and if it is a living tradition it is developing forward. Tradition has its roots in the soil where it stands but it is always climbing up towards the sky. That is tradition for me.
So it's a question of remembering, learning, re-learning and taking it in the heart and growing with it…
It's a kind of a biological touch…
With the roots?
Yes! With the roots! That is one thing. The other thing is that… here, I can tell you a little story about Nandalal. Nandalal was, I think, by many people's estimation a traditionalist. And, he accepted that description to a certain extent: he took it upon himself the responsibility that he should launch the new Indian art to a certain level of excellence.
I think, it was in 1957, he had a big exhibition… he was, probably, going to retire at that time or something. So, he had a big exhibition in Calcutta where he had, perhaps, talked about his work a little, though, he used to be very laconic in what he said; usually, he evaded discoursing on art. Anyway, somebody asked him at the exhibition, 'Sir, what do you think about tradition?' It seemed, he supposed to have said, 'To me tradition is akin to a kernel that maintains and protects the seed within. But, if the seed has to grow, it has to split the kernel and come out of it.'Then, he had come back to Santiniketan; one of his close student-friends complimented his description of tradition and said, 'Sir, your definition of tradition is very apt!' Later, Nandalal wrote a letter to this student where he says, 'Now when I think about it, I think we should talk more about all these issues. In fact, it is much better to have an open mind. When I was growing up as an artist, I always felt, I was up against a challenge –I had this challenge of establishing Bengali nationalism against the British imperialist narrative – things of that kind. But, look at Abanindranath! He had no challenges. He grew so naturally out of it. In fact, if I get born as an artist again in my next life, I would like to have that kind of freedom.' ...(Laughs) Only a man like Nandalal could have said things like that so frankly!
That's true. You can clearly see Abanindranath imbibed and accepted, freely, from a wide range of influences… be it Picasso's writing or Lear's drawing …
He is sort of a frolicking monkey! In fact one of your Bengali poets/critics calls this quality 'Kalponar hysteria' – Hysteria of imagination! (Laughs)
Yes, Shankha Ghosh came up with that trope.
He was a wonderful man as well. Abanindranath was the chancellor when I was studying at Santiniketan.
OK, so, you got to know him in real life.
Well I saw him in person, but, from a distance mostly. When I first went there, I think, at that point Ramkinkar wanted to do a portrait of him. So, Abanindranath used to come down; he was in a wheel chair, he used to sit and talk away and Ramkinkar did a very good portrait of him.
Abanindranath was very popular among his students, mostly because he was an excellent raconteur and always made up stories for them.
In those days, I didn't know Bengali too well, so I could only watch how people were sitting spellbound by his stories.Nandalal used to be a little afraid of Abanindranath in those days because Abanindranath thought Nandalal was leading students awry, teaching them too much foreign stuff! (Laugh)Which he wasn't! But, then, I have heard from Ramkinkar that, whenever Abanindranath had met Nandalal, he had something to say to him. Once, Abanindranath asked Nandalal, 'These days you don't do any wash paintings. Do you know how to do wash?' Nandalal said, 'Sir, I can do a little bit of that.' And, he said, 'OK, you do it and show it to me next time.' Nandalal did a wash painting and showed Abanindranath and he was very impressed. He said, 'So, now, I agree, you really can do wash!' (Laughs). There are many other stories to tell about how Abanindranath used to chatter away; once Ramkinkar was smoking a cigar and who did he see on the roadside – Abanindranath! He didn't want to smoke in front of such a big man so he put the lit cigar promptly inside his pocket…
What do you think of Jyotirindranath Tagore? I saw some of his sketches.
He is a very good technician.
I think, he was the first Indian to have an (sketch) exhibition in Europe. We haven't really known much about this aspect of Jyotirindranath Tagore.
Because, that was the only art-related thing he did. Jyotirindranath Tagore was one man in that family who had too many talents, if such a thing is possible. He was also a playwright, a musician…
He brought an opera company to Calcutta!
Yes, an Opera Company! And then he got so involved with the opera people that he broke his wife's heart. The whole issue is that, he was an unusual person and, perhaps he was as handsome as his brother…
If not more…
Ahhh! If not more!... And he was the darling of all the girls around him…
And darling of all the singers, theater and film actresses… ( Laughs).
On a slightly different register, in the sub-continents we have all these unique traditions and we have these new globalizing forces moving in, inaugurating this hostile new market-reality that is a great leveler.… My question is, does the regional traditions/ folk arts that are disappearing or being perverted need to be saved if they don't have the strength or savvy to survive in the modern market place?
Well, if we are red-blooded living and breathing people, we cannot let things be the way they are. I mean, nothing survives by being left alone. So sometimes, occasionally, you have to have some kind of an initiate to say, we will let it live.… I mean, an effort has to be there. We know there were great traditions which had been wiped out by historical forces…. You just imagine, three thousand years of Egyptian art went into oblivion and there was no continuity and it is only through Islamic art, much later, Egyptian art got retraced–but, it still didn't connect to what it was before.
So, people should be made aware, what is relevant and what is not. Now if art is transformed into a commodity, the process of making art will follow the vagaries of the market. I kind of mentioned it in my lecture at the Dhaka University: to make art-product profitable, people will outsource and will make art in cost-effective places; then each art-commodity will only have their object characteristics marked out on them. If profitable, business people might put together Kolhapuri chappals in Italy and then sell them in India. I have seen pacific island artifacts are being made in Australia. So the market will be flooded with things because they have their identified characteristics which sell. Well, you can't stop that. But, then, if art is a kind of communication between people, between probably a close community, who sort of share various emotional and intellectual ties, then it has a language, it speaks. Art is a communication of sorts – maybe an indefinite communication but still is a communication – that ties people together and let them express something little transcendental beyond their everyday existence. This has to be realized sooner or later. And I am sure, no amount of trade will wipe out this art from the world. Still, trade can sometimes be deadly to art and can kill its consciousness.
Do you think we are taking enough initiatives to...
Not enough initiatives; we would actually need to have to nurture fragile arts to blossom! It will only happen if people should think about art from a larger perspective and when people would accept various interrelationships of art.
This understanding is necessary and here again, I think Rabindranath was very crucial.
That actually begs for another question re politics – because if we don't understand the logic of cultural politics, we will not be able to save traditional art. The kind of mediation and communication that you are talking about – it happens only through politics. There, on one hand, is this imperialistic cultural domination and there, on the other hand, is this organic political and intellectual connection that needs to be nurtured. And if we cannot counter this kind of domination, we cannot save the communication and contamination of the other, which Rabindranath and Santiniketan was trying to…
Was trying to?
...was trying to initiate… was conceiving. So, you are saying that's not happening. What can we do to pursue that kind of goal?
There was always professional art. People did that since the start of civilization. Now at one time, people commissioned these mosques and temples and this kind of art was a part of common life. People who commissioned them were a little sensitive than people who commission art objects today. Or at least they let certain things to the artist. And even if they didn't they were quite happy not to understand the work of art completely. In a kind of a shadow if ignorance they let it flow. People who made those big temples, they thought that an artist was an instrument to make a grand thing. So they let them do what they were good at. The artist had a certain kind of freedom though he was commissioned. So the whole question is that if there is a kind of a feeling amongst people that when they buy this thing or that thing – the thing should not be evaluated strictly on its functional terms but as something that goes beyond its function – as something that is exciting. That is why when you buy a good piece of pottery, it is not for the fact that it has a certain purpose but that it is good in itself…
It is not only utilitarian. It goes beyond that.
That going beyond is what's most important.
Don't you think, artists need to have strong grounding in the community as well? Because, if their work is not informed by the community voice and, if they don't have the community nurturing and supporting them, how will the artists be able to forge a resistance to these kinds of leveling forces?
I know! But, what community? I mean, is the community already there? Or, a community they will build? Or, it is a number of communities with which they will find a common ground?
A shifting community, I guess…. So, you do agree that, we need a community?
Changing the subject, once again. There is this notion: you have foregrounded this approach that displaces – so to speak – the opposition of 'art' and 'craft'… don't you think, a kind of hierarchy is useful ?
No, no! The whole question, in essence, is not the 'difference' between art and craft or the hierarchy per se. The popular conjecture is: artists creates something original and irreplaceable, and craftsmen cranks out copies, repeats his work again and again! But even great artists make copies. Even Shahabuddin copies his own work! (Laughs) So, it is a question of authenticity, originality vis-à-vis fabrication.
What interest me in craft-works –'folk art' in popular parlance – is its language of specialized fabrication which is a language by itself and in its own right, and from which many artists can learn a lot. And, if artist-craftsman collaboration can come about, then it would enrich both; this notion was inaugurated by the teaching of Nandalal: the cross-pollination of certain qualities, traits and lessons of art and craft would supplement both fields. The other thing is, it also tremendously aids a person to maintain the right sensitivity when he works with his hands and (re)designs everyday implements and objects.
In fact, India has such a glorious tradition of design in various fields – by India, I of course mean the whole sub-continent, including Bangladesh. So, if you think in terms of that tradition, you will immediately recognize what kind of vulgarity is inflicting design these days when it comes to our clothes, our textile and, things of that kind. Now, that is because of not understanding what is essential – of true essence, what is our essential language.
...Just another occasion of Capital dictating and establishing a new market reality'…. There is this essay–written in 1935– by Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' where he says, and I am paraphrasing, before, art was premised on rituals but, in the age of mechanical reproduction, when every copy is an original, when you can repeat the same design on Jamdani again and again, art is premised on politics. So, I think, it's a question of power and power relations that is deciding and giving legitimacy to by saying – well, this is art and, this is not art; this is needed, this is not needed; this should remain and this should be kept out of circulation…
Walter Benjamin or you or I can always talk about this or that – but the right question is what should happen!
Ok, What should happen?
(Laughs) Please, don't think in these terms, I mean, you should say, well, this is not right or, this is better than this. So, you can show people the right way to do things and, perhaps, help them be a little better than what they are – that is all what we can do. The rest is left to them.
What I am saying is, in art practices there is no final word. The only thing that we can talk about: the present day art practices and its shortcomings, only then can we overcome the difficulties and problems. We can, then, perhaps, do things in a little better way and, maybe, have perspectives and can imagine and formulate a future that is better than the present.
On that note, I would like to finish. Thank you so much for your time and patience with me.