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modern art (in bangladesh), syed manzoorul islam
modern art the geographical area that constitutes today's Bangladesh did not witness organised art activities in the 18th or 19th centuries, in the sense of having art schools or artist groups, or even professional artists who, like the engravers of Battala or patuas of Kalighat in Calcutta, would pursue a particular art activity. True, there were block printers engaged in the textile and handloom trade, and sign painters in urban areas. There may have also been painters under nawab or zamindar patronage who did portraits and conversation pieces. There were sculptors and idol makers too, but they worked independently or for small, family groups. Very little of these art works survive today to give us even a glimpse of our art in the preceding centuries, let alone a comprehensive understanding of our artistic heritage. It was not until an art institute was set up in Dhaka in 1948 that an art tradition began to evolve in Bangladesh. The importance of the Art Institute in the cultural life of Bangladesh cannot be overemphasised. For the last 50 years, it has worked not simply as an institution imparting art education but also as a cultural centre for Bengalis, functioning as a force for cultural revival and regeneration. The Institute was set up largely under the leadership role of zainul abedin, who was ably supported by quamrul hassan, Safiuddin Ahmed, Anwarul Huq, Khaja Shafique and others. Zainul Abedin, indeed had made an all-India reputation with his drawings and sketches of the 1943 famine, now known as the Famine Sketches, which, in a minimum of details and in bold brush strokes, brought out the unintegrated suffering of the people and the bestiality of human greed. Zainul of course produced many other remarkable works, such as large scroll pictures depicting the devastation of cyclones or the life of ordinary people. Quamrul Hassan, too, depicted, in oil and watercolours, and in his matchless style, the rural life and the beauty and mystery of village women. The images of Eternal Bengal haunted him, and he tried to find their significant forms in his paintings. Safiuddin Ahmed, during his youth in Calcutta, did both painting and woodcuts. Later, in the 50s, he went to England and took further training in etching, which he has practised with gusto ever since and taught to his students at the Institute of Fine Arts until his retirement. Safiuddin's paintings and prints portray, often in swirling and vigorous forms and motifs, some spectacular symbols: eyes, fishing nets, boats. It continuously evokes such symbols for a fuller projection of his understanding of the disquiet and the anxiety of the time and his expectation of a fuller life. All these artists had been trained in Calcutta Art College, and they felt that, after the division of the subcontinent, their lot fell with East Bengal. Once they were in Dhaka, they felt that there was no alternative to an art school to train the talented young artists of the region, who, without any formal training, had been engaged in various art activities, including commercial art. Within a few years, however, it became quite apparent that what was started only as a training centre had assumed a far greater role, for it quickly became a meeting place for all aspiring artists and a forum from which a new art movement could be launched. The faculty and students of the institute were in touch with what was happening in the West. Many teachers went to Europe and Japan for training and came back with new ideas; but they were also steeped in the traditions of indigenous and folk art and art forms. The West played a formative influence in sharpening their sensibilities, but their firm root protected them from losing their sense of direction and becoming mere imitators of western art. This ability to balance and blend the very best elements of local and foreign art has been a strong point for Bangladeshi artists. Over the fifty years since the inception of the Art Institute, Bangladeshi art has made remarkable progress. The training provided to its students gave them the freedom to develop their own talents in keeping with their dominant inclinations. The heritage of the Bengal school was closely followed by the students of oriental art, while folk forms found their way in the work of many artists (including the founding teachers Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hassan). But younger faculty and a large number of students found western art trends particularly cubism and abstract expressionism to be very useful in releasing their creative energies. As a result, the fifties and the sixties witnessed a great deal of activity in the abstract mode, and for a time, non-representation seemed to be the most 'modern' trend to follow. The case for non-representation was not only made by the obvious freedom of interpretation it provided, or the play of intelligence it demanded and the objectivity it valorized, but also by the traditional, conservative attitudes of the largely Muslim society which disapproved of representational art. However, when folk art took up representation as its staple in its stylized and repetitive forms, the same traditional society withheld its disapproval and even applauded, since folk art appealed to the feeling of nostalgia the townspeople felt for the idyllic rural life most of them had left behind. The younger contemporaries of Zainul, among whom one counts Rashid Choudhury, Kazi Abdul Baset, Abdur Razzaque, Mohammad Kibria, Aminul Islam, Murtaja Baseer, Devdas Chakrabarty, Syed Jahangir, Hamidur Rahman and a few others were the products of the restless 50s. They were restless because too many things were being done in too short a time. The politics of the time had become charged with a new nationalism and an educated middle class had emerged that came to occupy an important position in matters ranging from politics to culture. Students found themselves at the vanguard of the movement for the rights of Bengalees. There were other, newer configurations in society that ranged emergent forces on all sides of the social, political and cultural spectrum. Painters and sculptors were increasingly saddled with the responsibility of creating a national ethos, in addition to presenting their individual visions. A new nation demanded a new cultural identity, which had to be collectively shaped. There was of course, no outward compulsion; it was more a silent consensus, and artists began working towards its fulfillment. The first generation of artists had already stamped a distinctive, local flavour on their work. It was left to the fifties' artists to expand the range of art, and to build on the foundation laid by their predecessors. Three things happened quickly. First, the distinctive Bengali or Bangladeshi art expanded its base. Folk elements penetrated deeper into the artistic psyche, and the fifties canvas began to show different variations of the pastoral landscape, subsuming, in the process, elements of disquiet and discontent. The more oppressive the state machine became, and the stronger the threat to the Bengali identity was, the more involved the artists became in projecting an endangered landscape. In a sense, this involvement with the land has always remained a strong element of Bangladeshi art. Even as late as 1976, sm sultan opened an exhibition of his paintings where, as always, his men and women were strongly built, muscular and optimistic. This was a statement of Sultan's belief that at the end of the day, his peasants are invincible, and the forces of oppression have to make a retreat. The second thing that happened was a clear 'internationalization' of style. A number of artists had gone to England, USA, and Japan for further studies in their chosen areas and came back with a pretty clear understanding of contemporary art in those countries. They were now armed with the latest techniques they could use in their interpretation of their times. Thus futurism, expressionism, constructivism, American abstract expressionism all began to leave their mark on the canvas of these artists. Abstraction and non-figurative art became the primary means of expression for many, with a hugely creative and new interpretation given to colour, line, space and texture. For many viewers, these abstract compositions were synonymous with modern art. Obviously, there were other aspects of modernity in the work of the contemporary artists which a small number of art critics and historians began to explain earnestly to the public. The third development was subtler, but the ends were not so subtle, after all. The artists became conscious, more than their predecessors or elder contemporaries, that art works should sell, that art is also livelihood and has an economic value. What we call professionalism, both in the qualitative and commercial senses of the term, began to develop. Artists became more careful about their canvas, their colour, the framing of their art works, and felt the need for exhibitions and participation in competitions abroad. They also felt the need to communicate with the public, and may be, 'explain' their work. This attitude certainly helped bridge the gap that existed between 'modern' (in the sense of abstract) art and the viewing public. By the sixties, therefore, modern art in Bangladesh had assumed its own pronounced content, and its own language of expression. From almost nothing, our artists had generated, what amounted to, a movement. Art schools, art galleries, an art-loving public, art critics, and a supportive media all found their designated places or roles in that movement. The war of liberation ushered in an overpowering sense of reality. What could be more real than the deaths of so many people and the nightmare of the life that people had to live during these nine months? As a result, post-liberation art saw the gradual coming back of representation, and an inclination in our artists towards more innovation. The latter was achieved through a new understanding of colour and indigenous traditions and through the felt need to create one's distinctive style and to strive for a new art that would reflect the changing moods of the time. The results have been some striking innovations in techniques that challenge us with their skill, creativity and imagination. Today, we have our own versions of postmodern art and installation art, although, understandably, not everyone has been able to pass the test. Not surprisingly, then, we have had our share of bad art, but these have routinely sunk into oblivion as the really talented work rose into prominence. Apart from the Art Institute, what helped our art attain its present level of maturity and our artists the confidence to explore newer and newer horizons have been the art departments in a few universities, and art schools scattered in different district towns of Bangladesh. The art departments of Chittagong and Rajshahi universities are doing splendid work and are training up young minds in the latest trends and techniques. The Department of Fine Art of Chittagong University has employed such talents as Rashid Choudhury, Devdas Chakravorty, Murtaja Baseer, Mizanur Rahim, Monsur-ul-Karim and Abul Mansur to name only a few - and has consistently worked for a cultural resurgence in a region, which, in recent years, has seen an ominous rise of political and sectarian violence. The art schools in Chittagong, Khulna, and other places are also making their contributions to the development of art in Bangladesh. The premier government institution to emerge after independence with specific duties and responsibilities to promote art and culture was bangladesh shilpakala academy or the Academy of Fine and Performing Arts. Set up in 1974, the Academy conducts wide ranging activities in the fields of music, dance, drama and art. The Academy's art gallery was, for a time, the only standard gallery in town apart from that of the art institute, and provided much needed support to established as well as new and aspiring artists. The Academy, besides having a permanent collection, holds regular art exhibitions the most coveted ones being the national young artists exhibition held every year. From 1981, the Academy has also been holding the Asian Art Biennale, an art festival involving nearly 40 Asian countries. The Art Biennale has provided an opportunity to our artists to get to know the contemporary art trends of other Asian countries (now Australia, and a few African countries are also participants). The Biennale has also given our artists an international platform. The Academy also publishes books and monographs on art as well as special albums of works by reputed artists. ©Copyright Banglapedia 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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