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     Volume 4 Issue 7 | August 6, 2004 |

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In Retrospect

Dying Young

Remebering Sanatan Biswas, a budding young artist whose life was cut short by a stroke

Mustafa Zaman

Dying young was the only way Sanatan Biswas could attract the attention of the art establishment, where he was an outsider trying to trudge through the academic routines year after year. After witnessing the series of experimental works that the budding talent left behind, one of the teachers commented, "I didn't know he was this good." The comment came at a time when Sanatan has gone past the barrier of this mortal world and has become immune to any judgement thrown at him or his art work.

Obscured by his unconventional living and his absence from the centre-stage at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka, Sanatan remained a name known only among his own circle that consisted of a handful of students, fringe artists, poets, journalists and strings of well-wishers.

Often he could be spotted sitting in the tea-stalls in front of the Institute or having a conversation with his companions with his back against the boundary wall of the art institution, from where he acquired his Masters in the Department of Oriental Art. His ruffled hair, childish restlessness of the eyes that manifested a constant thirst for understanding the realities around him were all smothered in his marked amity and reticence.

An artist who learned his first lessons from his mother, who taught her school-going child how to draw birds and animals at an early age, Sanatan always knew that he was destined to vie with the norms of art that is not rooted deep into the collective consciousness. Though, in the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) dissertation he wrote, "There is no alternative to the education that one receives at the Institute of Fine Arts, as most of the famed artists came out of this academy", his views on art often questioned the conventional ethos. The ideas and tenets that govern Dhaka's mainstream were never his concern.

Although the bulk of his works, some lost and some found in a portfolio that he built up over the last few years, testifies to his tendency of melding the Western strand of abstraction with the Oriental tendency.

Posterity for Sanatan begins with a book and a show that, for the first time, encapsulate the works produced by Sanatan. The show that took off on July 25 at the Zainul Gallery, Institute of Fine Arts, displays the experimental pieces he produced in his Masters years. "He had been planning for a show, and these are the 42 works that we chose from more than a hundred he kept separately with a show in mind," says Nasimul Kahabir, a friend and classmate.

Sanatan is lucky to have left a cluster of friends behind, who not only mourn his death but also celebrate his art by publishing an adequately illustrated book and by arranging his first solo exhibition. After surveying the works, those who knew him well would always want to crave for more. He was a prolific artist. Yet it was a fact that only his close associates knew, as he never flaunted his ability.

He was an artist freshly out of art school, contemplating the future course. Unfortunately, at that crucial stage his life summarily ended. It is impossible to find the whole of Sanatan in the works of art, as art is more about art itself than about real life. However, Sanatan himself believed that art must reflect the lived experiences. It is a great loss on our part that we could not see that full-blown mind taking charge of his artistic actions.

Yet after taking everything into account, one may recognise a different beat in his creations. And the words of his friends that commemorate his life, too, bring into focus a Sanatan with a different curve of consciousness.

Sanatan was standing at the threshold of his career. His attempts at working out a personalised solution to the problems of artistic creation were at an initial stage. His resolve was firm; he used to assert that art that is not deeply rooted in the indigenous thoughts is meaningless. Sanatan himself found little time to nurture his passion for the traditional. But many who came in touch with him realised that by tradition he was not referring to a body of knowledge that the academics usually consider to be a constant source of Bangali pride. His was a world that drew its nectar from the real and the lived experiences. Perhaps this is why he could string all his experiences -- from the teachings of his mother to that of his teachers -- in one spectrum of thought.

The day his dead body was carried to the institute portico on December 24 last year, many were still busy raising funds for his treatment. He spent ten days in a private hospital in Mohakhali, where after a major operation to remove a clot of blood in the brain on December 16, he showed signs of recovery before going into a coma. During the time Sanatan was in a coma, the student community came forward to help in an unprecedented way. While Ongkar, a student body that coached the admission-seeking students in the year 2003, contributed a hefty amount, his friends stepped up their drive to raise fund. They involved popular bands like Dalchhoot, Mondira, and singers like Mahmuduzzaman Babu to organise a concert. Everyone thought that the money would go to the operation that might bring Sanatan back. Many organisations like Gallery Chitrak, Vertical, a group of ceramic artists, Green Field animators and many others chipped in. There was a concerted effort that helped raise a lot of money within days. When his near ones and well-wishers were doing their utmost and were hoping against hope, Sanatan made his exit from this mortal world.

In the preface of the book, his friends wrote that it is impossible to showcase the life and thoughts of Sanatan, the book only makes an effort to cut a slice through the very essence of what was Sanatan. Both the book and the show encapsulate his memories, the one plausible way to remember one by.

Born in a family where members used to while away their time having debates over Boishnab or Sufi thoughts, Sanatan grew up like a man who takes life as it comes. Alongside his mother, who sympathised with him in his pursuit of study, he had his pishi (paternal aunt) by his side, acting like a mentor, helping the family, providing financial support for his study from time to time. After passing the SSC, it was time to decide on a future course. But for Sanatan, life was not an easy ride. During his study in Rampal Degree College in Bagerhat, financial constraints spurred him to try out his luck as a TV and radio mechanic. He was ambivalent about his future at this stage. However, he soon managed to bounce back to his desired track, which is to pursue his real passion.

In 1990, Sanatan sought admission in Khulna Art College and it is here that he took the first step towards his desired goal, which was to become an artist. He spent three years in rigorous training, and participated in all the annual art exhibitions of the college. It was after acquiring the Preliminary Degree from Rajshahi University that he came to Dhaka for higher education. He stood first in the admission test in the Department of Oriental Art that made his entry into the Institute of Fine Art an occasion to renew his resolve.

However, his artistic pursuit did not make him stand at a certain remove from all the other things in life, as is often the case with many artists. In fact, he kept himself involved in a lot of issues that he felt passionate about. The movements to stop the Dhaka University authorities to take down the existing Shahnewaj Bhaban, the hostel for the students of the Art Institute, to replace it by a market-cum-hall, and to overthrow the former VC after the attack on the students of Shamsunnahar Hall, saw an enthusiastic Sanatan taking the issues to his heart.

He had a history of getting involved in things of social importance. Every time he got involved into a movement, it was to make an effort to right the wrong. He even wrote a drama on the exploitation and discrepancy that went on in the name acquiring plots for shrimp farming in the Khulna-Bagerhat area. That was back when he was in school. That conscientious objector never died in him.

We mourn his departure, but his deeds will always be there to inspire us. It was after the result came out at the end of the year 2003 that he took a breather and retreated to his village home. No one suspected that his sojourn would be the last goodbye. "He stayed in the village for two long months, which was unusual for him, as he was so engrossed in what took place in Dhaka that he never stayed out of the city for more than a week or so," says Tokon Thakur, a poet and a soul-mate. But no one knew that at the age of 37 he would only return to Dhaka to breathe his last after having suffered a stroke.

Dipankar Goutam, a journalist and a friend, wrote in the book, "We look at our faces now and I see we are getting older. Sanatan will forever be of the same age." And it is our loss that we did not have the chance to grow older with him.





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