Vol. 5 Num 400 Wed. July 13, 2005  

The lens on legendary artist
SM Sultan
Portraits by Nasir Ali Mamun

There are some personalities who have made a niche for themselves and need no introduction. Photographer par excellence, Nasir Ali Mamun firmly falls in this category. Along his eventful career, he has earned epithets such as "Poet of camera", "a magician of portraits", "a man with mystique", or "a storyteller of the downtrodden." Truly he is more than a photographer-- an artist with a difference.

Mamun's photographs are eloquent and evocative of the experiences of life. As he maintains, "An image goes beyond visual entertainment; you can read a photograph like a book."

Recently, this camera artist has brought out a book of photographs, titled Guru delineating many hidden and obscure facets of the legendary artist SM Sultan's life. The book consists of 68 amazing black and white photographs of the late legend, which Mamun had shot over a decade. The book has been published by Neer Limited.

Mamun, who has traversed three continents and come across many famous personalities, had his first encounter with Sultan in 1976 during the artist's first solo exhibition in Dhaka at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Says Mamun "I was startled by Sultan's weird behaviour, his black Alkhella (long gown), wild long hair and his avant-garde temperament --witness his kissing of the kittens, carrying snakes in pockets, playing the flute, his paintings and his smoking habits which made an impression on me."

After the first encounter with the legend, Mamun became a regular visitor at Sultan's Narail home beside the river Chitra. Reminiscing on those days, Mamun says, "It was back in winter of 1978 when I first went to Sultan's 150- year- old residence at Narail -- a broken edifice of a bygone zamindar. But the first such meeting wasn't that pleasant as I was frightened out of my wits to see the artist playing with a poisonous cobra in his yard."

A smiling Mamun takes a long breath and continues, "The cold night was similarly horrible as I was given a dark and damp room without any furniture and electricity. As the night advanced, the icy wind from the river outside chilled me to the bone. My sleep was also interrupted by the sounds of serpents, birds and small animals that were kept in a series of racks on the wall. Then suddenly I saw a shadow in the room which conversed with those animals. I was amazed by the sudden break in the noises and those strange conversations of the artist with the creatures. This became a regular phenomenon in Sultan's house and I could barely get a good night's sleep."

From thousands of photographs it is very difficult to select 68 special ones, asserts Mamun. Each portrait of Sultan in the book is unique, he insists. They are not mere aesthetic presentations, rather they document the evolution of the bohemian artist's life. Says a modest Mamun, "A careful selection of photographs could make the book more attractive."

Tracing Sultan's life story, Mamun has relied more on darkness than on light. "Darkness is an immense source of inspiration for me. I have tried to darken the major portion of the face, allowing the distinctive outlines of the features to stand out in the whiteness of tutored light. Every single photograph was taken naturally," explains the photographer. As a result, Mamun becomes an archaeologist delving deep into the untold mysteries of the legendary artist Sultan.

"To bring such an apparently simple but symbolically complex artist to life through the lens of a camera is a difficult task. For deep down Sultan's rather easy going personality there is different man altogether, a man who seems to flee from life while embracing it, a man who eludes our efforts at easy classification," asserts Mamun.

Mamun has his share of admirers. One such person is Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam. In his words: "Sultan the man and Sultan the artist may not cohabit all the time. But, Mamun, an accomplished and perceptive photographer, has through his long association with Sultan, understood the man and the artist more than anyone else of his generation." In Sultan's own words, "It is he and he alone who will hold me still in his camera." Mamun's photographs have somehow penetrated the mysterious self of Sultan. What better way to keep alive the memories of the eccentric but talented artist?

Once upon a time, Narail, 1982