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Contemporary Art in Bangladesh : An Overview
(Exhibition of 10 Contemporary Bangladeshi Artists in Denmark, 2002) by
Abul Mansur (Professor of Fine Arts, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh)
Although a new country on the global map Bangladesh inherits a long artistic tradition and shares the heritage of one of the greatest civilizations in history. The geographical area comprising the present Bangladesh had different political status in different historical times. At times it was divided into various small political entities and ruled by local independent feudal lords while at other times its status was of a tributary state under the ruling dynasties of the sub-continent. Also at some historical periods Bengal developed its own imperial power to extend its territory much beyond its boundaries and exerted considerable political and cultural influence upon its neighbours. This region had successively been administered by Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian rulers, and hence its artistic tradition has developed into an amalgamation of different religio-cultural trends. Again it is a land of a predominantly rural people in whose life and culture the traditions of folk and indigenous culture are still a living force. The contemporary artist in Bangladesh inherits this multifaceted legacy and at the same time has remained open to exposures to the contemporary art trends of the west; so that his artistic expressions have developed a synthetic quality. Contemporary art in Bangladesh is thus a mingling of its own past and present as well as of the aesthetic tendencies of east and west.
Bangladesh shares the heritage of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth—the Indian civilization. Some of its archaeological sites bear the testimony of some of man’s earliest habitations. During the reign of the Pala kings, the Buddhist dynasty of the 8th-12th century, Bengal’s political and cultural influences extended from Tibet and Nepal to Cambodia and Sumatra and its artistic characteristics exerted considerable influences on the art trends of south and south-east Asia. During the British colonial rule, which lasted from mid-18th c. to mid 20th c., Bengal remained at the forefront of all political, social and cultural movements and the emergence of the modern Indian art was led by a handful of Bengali artists during the beginning of the 20th c. Thus, Bangladesh inherits the richest of the art traditions of undivided India.
This being a deltaic land of silt, the main source of reconstructing the history of ancient Bengal is its varied and rich clay art. In fact, both in its court and folk traditions, terracotta occupies a position of central importance. Use of decorative terracotta slabs and plaques in architecture attained special finesse during the Pala period (Illus. 1). Bengal also developed its own distinctive stone and metal sculpture tradition during the reign of the Pala and Sena kingdoms and although the influences of the majestic Gupta style were visible, we could find that local art transcend the influences and develop its own vocabulary (Illus. 2). The rhythmic refinement of the ancient manuscript painting of Bengal and its linear and ornamental characteristics over the years developed into the unique traits of the arts of this region. The provincial Mughal style of the ‘Murshidabad School’ of the 18th c. (Illus. 3) continued to be popular until the British rule sounded the death-knell of all art traditions in the Indian subcontinent.
However, the search for the essence and the roots of the art traditions of Bangladesh can find more authenticity through an investigation into the rich and lively world of its folk arts and crafts. Folk arts of Bengal occupy an important place in the whole subcontinent for its simple clarity and aesthetic excellence. Clay utensils, terracotta icons, dolls and toys form the examples of very distinctive folk clay work of Bengal (Illus. 4). Patachitra (folded scroll painting), Lakhsmi Shara (Illus. 5), Shakher Hari, etc. are examples of folk painting. Nakshi Kantha (embroidered quilt) (Illus. 6) and Alpana (Floor Decor) made by Bengali womenfolk are some of the craftworks known among the connoisseurs all over the world for their extraordinary imagery and finesse of form. Most of these are still living and exert considerable influence on contemporary painting and sculpture.
The modern art of India was initiated in Kolkata (Calcutta) by a group of educated and enlightened Bengalis which included two nephews of the celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore—Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, and the poet himself. Abanindranath led a revival of traditional Indian art, ‘Bengal School’ as it was called, which drew upon Ajanta and Mughal art, but reached out to borrow from Japan, Persia and the west as well. The pioneer in assimilating the folk traditions into the modern art was Jamini Roy (Illus. 7) and Nandalal Bose initiated a more accomodative kind of Indian modern art at Shantiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore with a synthesis between the art of the east and the west. At this juncture India won independence in 1947 and was divided into two separate countries—namely India and Pakistan. Bangladesh became part of Pakistan and was called East Pakistan until 1971 when it gained independence after a bloody liberation war against the Pakistani rulers.
The modern art movement in Bangladesh was initiated by a handful of artists who migrated from Kolkata to Dhaka in 1947. Among them was Zainul Abedin (Illus. 8) who is considered the pioneer of the movement. He gained international fame through his powerful drawings of the victims of the great Bengal famine of 1942. Qamrul Hasan (Illus. 9) and S. M. Sultan (Illus.10) are among the better-knowns of the generation. The artists of this genre worked more or less in a mixture of western naturalism, Bengal School and folk idioms.
The artists of the 1950s and 1960s of the Pakistan period initiated a major shift of attitude in our art which saw introduction and appreciation of abstraction as a major tendency in visual arts. The non-figuration practiced in our country is a sort of a free abstraction inspired by the western Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, but most often than not it lacked the philosophical basis and social context. Gradually, it became confined to a selective group of elite connoisseurs and consumers and thus lost contact with the ethos of the more crucial contemporary issues. Nevertheless, it is not to be forgotten that a few of these artists were markedly gifted and did works which displayed a keen sense of sensitivity and craftsmanship. (Illus. 11)
After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the art scene saw a renewed pledge to depict the aspirations of a new nation in multifarious manifestations. There was a revitalized search for tradition and heritage and a return to the figurative and the generation of the 1970s started working in diverse materials and idioms. Students went for higher training not only to the western capitals, but also to such eastern centres as India, Japan and China. This brought in variations in style, technique and material. (Illus. 12) In the meantime, the unprecedented progress made in the fields of information and technology has brought the international art activities of the present time to our doorsteps. Artists are being introduced to activities of multifarious dimensions through exhibitions, films, printed materials, internets and satellites. It is not, therefore, unusual that the generations of artists of the 1980s and 90s are looking at such matters as tradition, identity and modernity with a more objective and dispassionate viewpoint and are more concerned with matters like language, articulation and expression. They are borrowing from any source of inspiration from anywhere of the world and are trying to give expression to their ideas in such diverse modes as installations, light-and-sounds and performances. One distinctive feature of the 80s and 90s is that many women have emerged as serious artists and many of them are addressing issues like persecution of women and children, environment, communalism, social discrimination etc. in more effective imageries than their male counterparts. At the moment, a good number of young artists are working who are displaying a keen sense of consciousness and are negotiating issues like identity and tradition with a more objective understanding and are attempting to address more relevant national and international issues like globalization, consumerism, communalism, feminism, environment and economic and social discrimination in a language which is at the same time contemporaneous and markedly distinctive. (Illus. 13) .
10 Contemporary artists of Bangladesh Presented in This Exhibition :
The 10 artists presented in this exclusive exhibition of Bangladeshi painters in Denmark, which is first of its kind in this country, represent a comparatively younger genre of the Bangladesh’s artistic community. The idea behind this selection is to manifest the fact that Bangladesh, which is known in the western societies at large as a country of extreme poverty, over-population, floods, cyclones and other catastrophes and political and social violence, has also got a positive face to be admired by the world. People in many of the western countries, Denmark being one of them, have no idea that there exists a very active and lively cultural atmosphere in Bangladesh. We have already spoken of the rich artistic tradition of ancient Bengal, the present Bangladesh has a throbbing world of literature, music, dance, theatre, film and visual arts as well. Modern Bengali literature is esteemed very highly in the literary world and its poet Rabindranath Tagore won Nobel prize in as early as 1913 and was the first in Asia to get it. Oriental classical music and dance is practiced and admired by the learned connoisseurs at home and abroad whereas the modern practitioners are working with compositions which are admixtures of oriental and western trends and are very popular among the younger generation. Theatre and art-film, though still in a amateur form, are drawing a large number of enthusiastic younger people and some interesting works are being done. At the same time, folk music and drama forms remain popular and attract the urban viewers as well.
Bangladesh has got quite a large number of visual artists working in the fields of painting, sculpture and other mediums of expression and many of the younger generation are attempting to express themselves in the contemporary vocabularies of the international art scene. The 10 artists presented in this particular exhibition range from the mid-age group to the youngest practitioners. They come from the two major centres of art activity in Bangladesh, namely Dhaka and Chittagong and the selections had to be kept within easel paintings only for obvious reasons, transportation being a major criterion. Artists in Bangladesh work in a wide spectrum of manners, ranging from the traditional techniques to installations and performances, abstraction being a major trend. When selecting artists for this exhibition the primary objective was to present a scenario of the up-to-date developments in the current art world of Bangladesh where one could notice a synthesis of tradition and contemporary ideas and a reflection of the Bangladeshi context.
These artists display many features which could be termed common in most of them, but they have differences and individual characteristics as well. The commonality could be noticed in their use of figurative idioms, whatever distortions being made, use of motifs from tradition and daily life and a tendency towards the narrative. Most of them display a kind of social awareness and are eager to make statements and comment upon the contemporary situation in their particular social condition. The two-dimensional surface of the picture plane is generally treated with a thick use of pigment and many of them have an inclination for vivacity of colour.
Inspirations from the elements of folk myths, tales and arts of Bengal are a strong influence on some of them such as Dilara Begum Jolly, Tarun Kumar Ghosh and in some works of Dhali Al-Mamoon. Most of the artists try to abandon the illusion of depth and use the pigments more or less in a random and expressionistic fashion with a lot of departure from naturalistic rendering. But Nazlee Laila Mansur works almost in an opposite manner. Though she uses a distorted perspective to give her world a multi-dimensional effect, she, at the same time, creates a naturalistic three-dimensional space and her carefully rendered forms also keep close to tactile plasticity. While Shishir Bhattacharjee and Tasadduk Hossain Dulu make comments upon the contemporary urban life and social condition in a language of humour and irony, Mahbubur Rahman and Firoz Mahmud look at the situation with a more psycho-analytical approach. Nisar Hossain negotiates similar social conditions from a more radical viewpoint against fundamentalism and portrays the devil with an assimilation of horror and humour. Sufia Begum, among all of them, departs significantly away from naturalistic delineation to portray her own kind of response.
Three of the ten painters presented here are women and their works, however different their characteristics are, display aspects of woman-psyche and a deep concern for woman’s position in the society. Sufia Begum’s reactions to her surrounding conditions take comparatively a complex shape where a woman’s closed world and her revolt against it is depicted in criss-cross of lines and distortion of forms, creating the feeling of a wounded surface. Nazlee Laila sets her women among the mundane experiences of daily urban life but puts into their expressions a kind of aloofness which perhaps is her way of negation of the condition. Dilara Begum Jolly, on the other hand, puts her womanhood against a more cosmological surrounding. Hers is almost a fairytale world where otherworldly vegetation and mythical birds and anthropomorphic figures loom large in an atmosphere where woman play the central role, but remain victim of the condition.
Dhali Al-Mamoon seems to be one of the most thoughtful among these artists. He not only continues to experiment with language and expression but is concerned with specific national and international incidents as well. As a result, Mamoon’s contextual references and pictorial manifestations are more akin to contemporary international idioms. Shishir Bhattacharjee, who is also a well-known cartoonist, loves to ridicule the hypocrisy of the all-powerful bourgeoisie in his typical linear rendering and disintegration of forms somewhat reminding George Grotsz’s idiosyncrasies. His make-believe world emphatically discloses the horror behind its pretended hilarity. Nisar Hossain depicts similar reactions in a more symbolic way with violent brushstrokes and distorting and dissolving his forms into the picture plane. His agonizing forms and passionate colour-scheme reflect the turbulence and harshness of his subject. At the backdrop of Nisar’s vehement anger and Shishir’s ironic satire, Tarun Ghosh seems to be the quietest of the group. His decoratively delineated surface, cool colour patterning and the stable arrangements speak for it. But his sensitively rendered canvases almost always pick stories from popular folk myths where men or women rebel against the gods—thus relating tradition with the contemporary. Mahbubur Rahman sees the impending danger of the civilization in man’s destruction of himself generated by his senseless greed and aggression. His expressive and powerful rendering of figures in a somewhat multiple imagery invokes strong visual effects. Firoz Mahmud also uses a similar vocabulary, but he arranges his canvases in more complex divisions and in different planes and does not give his figures three-dimensional plasticity as does Mahbub. His surface is bestrewn with images and thus has a narrative characteristic.
Nevertheless, it hardly requires to be mentioned that paintings are better enjoyed and understood by only looking at them. Accordingly, it is hoped that these paintings of a few of the representative artists from Bangladesh would be able to satisfy the primary curiosity of the viewers here and inaugurate further attention in them. It is also expected that this exhibition from a country as little known and as far off as Bangladesh would arouse an interest among the artists and connoisseurs in Denmark about the contemporary art scenario in Bangladesh and initiate a continuous interaction of artistic activities between the two countries.
Illus. 1: Male Dancer, Terracotta Plaque, 9th Century A. D.
Illus. 2: Goddess Purneshvari, Stone Sculpture, 12th century A. D.
Illus. 3: Nawab Alivardi Khan hunting roebuck, Murshidabad School Painting, 18th Century A. D.
Illus. 4: Wheeled Terracotta Toy, 1st Century A. D.
Illus. 5: Lakshmi-Shara, Painted Terracotta, Early 20th Century
Illus. 6: Nakshi Kantha, Embroidered Quilt, Contemporary.
Illus. 7: Shiva and Ganesha, by Jamini Roy, Early 20th Century.
Illus. 8: Famine Sketch, by Zainul Abedin, 1943.
Illus. 9: Bullock-cart, by Qamrul Hasan, 1975.
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