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Volume 2 Issue 3 | March 2007



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Please, sir, may we have a pro-poor government?-- Afsan Chowdhury
Is this a sea change?-- Farid Bakht
Reflections on leadership-- Habibul Haque Khondker
Chittagong and other ports: An ordinary citizen's view -- Ghulam Rahman
From non-cooperation to People's Raj -- Rehman Sobhan
From March to March: Pakistan's final years in East Bengal-- Syed Badrul Ahsa
Photo Feature
Nixon's demons -- F.S. Aijazuddin
Modhupur-- Tasneem Khalil & Amirul Rajiv
America's "Global War On Terrorism" -- M. Shahid Alam
Welcome to South Sudan -- Nadeem Qadir
Economic and business challenges for Bangladesh -- Mamun Rashid
Pictorial traditions in Bangladesh: Urban, folk and urban-folk -- Syed Manzoorul Islam
Home truths from abroad-- Fakrul Alam
Tingling spines -- Yasmeen Murshed


Forum Home

Pictorial traditions in Bangladesh: Urban, folk and urban-folk

Syed Manzoorul Islam offers a provocative theory of the richness of Bangladeshi artistry that challenges the conventional distinction between high and low art

Zainul Abedin
AGE-old artisanal practices of Bangladesh kept their distinctive style and character even during the British colonial times, and combined aesthetic and utilitarian values without consciously aspiring to the conditions of art. It was much later that a decisive fracture was established between rural artisanal and pictorial traditions and elite visual culture when rural cultural productions were consigned to the category of "low" art, while modern (or modernizing) art done by educated artists in keeping with artistic (mostly painterly) conventions of the west was privileged as "high" art.

The distinction persisted and developed eventually into the current stereotype of art vs. craft. However, within this division, artists who created "art" nevertheless inaugurated an intensely active and fruitful phase of our art. Labeled simply as "modern art," the works reflect a desire on the part of the artists to respond to the varied experiences of living, with styles and techniques that were fundamentally different from the realist-romantic practices of the past. The art vs. craft debate has continued in the academic and elite circles, but many artists ignored it while many others actually exploited craft traditions and incorporated them in their work.

Amirul Rajiv

The craft traditions thrived and diversified in the villages and eventually made a niche in the consciousness of first-generation urbanites, who, reared up in the cities, could only go back there by proxy -- e.g. through folk music and rural art traditions. Different forms of urban and what is sometimes called naïve art, but which is, in reality, as authentic as any other art developed -- such as transport painting -- also attempted to bridge the gap between the cities and villages. And now, changing perceptions and practices of art, such as postmodern art that valorize local cultures, aim to obliterate the distinction between high and low art and promote eclecticism.

Interestingly, the screen culture of Bangladesh (film, TV) also attempts to bring the city and village nearer and is charged with the same urban-folk ethos. It would, therefore, not be out of place to briefly trace the characteristics of the film and video culture of Bangladesh today, if only to throw some light on the urban-folk interface in our pictorial cultures:


Dukhushyam Chitrakar

* A desire to create rural spaces within an urban milieu (which is the setting for many films and most television dramas and films), necessitating shifts in interpersonal communication, attitude towards life, modes and morals, and a readjustment of values. The strange admixture of elements from folk and urban cultures, that I elsewhere described as "urban-folkism," is the result of a first-generation alienation from local roots, and a corresponding rise of urban complexities. The typical attributes of urban living that one comes across in literature about the city, such as mechanization, alienation, or loss of spirituality; boredom, dissociation of sensibilities and a crisis of identity, began to invade the consciousness of poets, writers and artists of the 1930s, but did not assume a crisis proportion until well into the late seventies when cities began to look like concrete jungles, and the middle class was thrown into a rat race for survival. For many an urbanite, an escape from this rat race was provided by urban-folkism. It has been picked up by films where, in a widely applied formula, time-tested local, agrarian values are made to clash with the selfish and narrow demands of an urban money-and-class culture, and ultimately made to win. To take an example from a different field, music: the youthful band music groups, hugely popular with the youth, often experiment with what they call fusion music that attempts to spell out a rural content and evoke rural simplicity in contradistinction to urban complexity. The increasingly ubiquitous television and video culture puts a premium value on folk elements, particularly for the simplicity factor, but also for their replicability across situations, and their ritualistic clarity.

* The folk and urban video cultures both celebrate the spectacular and the fantastic, and employ decorative and narrative forms and motifs. There is a strong emphasis on the production's story-telling ability. In its eagerness to be value-laden, meaningful, relevant and spectacular -- all at the same time -- the video culture usually skirts sharply contemporary themes (such as politics, gender, ethnicity, which are the primary concerns of a small group of filmmakers known as short-film makers, and a few television drama film producers). The overall trend is to settle on "universal" and "replicable" issues (such as the modern morality plays where good clashes with evil). When a film attempts to "ruralize" cities, the individual (the rebel, the hero) is disproportionately glorified but, strangely enough, he works from within a set of codes and values that are broadly generalized.

Amirul Rajiv

* It remains a challenge, thus, for filmmakers to realize a measurable individuality of its protagonists in their rather generalized fight against generalized adversaries.

If we collate the elements of the contemporary film and video cultures of Bangladesh with those of fine arts, three important similarities are imme diately apparent: adaptation and application of urban folkism in both content and form; an augmentation of the spectacular or fantastic or, in more muted terms, of the unusual and the unique; and an emphasis on storytelling. Although a story and a narrative are considered synonymous, there is a subtle difference. In regard to content, both pursue a common line but, in temporal terms, a story is a moment, an experience that makes a point at a moment of time; while the narrative is duration -- more a process than the product. As our young artists began to grapple with complex social and political issues from the late 1970s, and struggle with alternate currents of anguish, alienation, frustration and anger, their works began to reflect either the moments or duration of their happening, giving to their canvas a strange storytelling or narrative scope.

Urban folkism implies an admixture of folk and modern sensibilities in different ratios and compounds, depending on what the artist is trying to create and put across, but its birth was quickened by a fractured cultural ethos that saw folk/indigenous/craft elements consigned to "loss," and "modern" art elevated to a superior level. That fracture -- happening in the 1940s and 50s -- was itself hastened by a colonial logic that firmly demarcated the elite from the subaltern, the ruling from the ruled and the rich (or urban) from the poor (or the rural) for its own practical ends (the term colonial is used here in both its general meaning, and also in its non-territorial, local and class/wealth based forms of exploitation, dominance and control such as is practiced by the administrative-industrial complex of the state). The divide was further widened by the emergence of an educated patron class, an art loving public, corporate support, art-savvy media and critics. A firm faith in a Eurocentric view of art further compounded matters.

Folk forms were once considered pre-modern in a pejorative sense, but the term pre-modern itself has today undergone a value-added transformation. It generally applies to the period before colonization, when the society was more structured and hierarchical, less dynamic and outgoing, and the individual was placed at the disposal of family and community. The lack of mobility at the individual level did not, however, mean an absence of creative freedom. It only meant that traditions were overpowering, and social productions were in line with the community's needs and aspirations. Pre-modern art was, therefore, less individualistic and more social in the sense that it responded to the community's aesthetic and utilitarian needs. Its forms and motifs were often repetitious, and their incentives derived from community considerations.

The history of that art, therefore, is a history of other areas of involvement, such as society, economy, and politics. Subaltern historiography has picked up on that interrelated set of histories and produced an alternate version to the elitist and nationalistic historiography that tends to view history in isolation from "other histories." It was in the "modern" period of Indian history -- generally considered the period after 1850s -- when Company rule had given away to Crown rule, and a modernizing mission was begun in education, communication and industrial production -- that history, including art history began to show the closures of discipline.

Art history was carefully separated from other histories. That surgical operation was aided by a rising intellectual desire for exclusivity -- either in society (where the English-educated class kept a careful distance from the uneducated, and the Babu and bhadralok class from the peasants and ryots, and so on) or in art (with an emphasis on correct representational skills and techniques in search of a universal standard, which was predominantly Eurocentric, thus separating the ground between "proper art" and bazaar art).

Modern art movements and concepts everywhere have been intentional, purposeful, directed and programmed from the start. The British began to set up art schools in major Indian cities from the 1850s. Coinciding with other educational reforms that the British were initiating, this was another systematized phase of colonial intrusion in arts and crafts. Radically new models of "art" and "artist" were imposed on an indigenous society, bolstering these with an elaborate structure of patronage and education. The Bengali middle class was thus given new ideas of taste and aesthetic standards which it happily began to follow.

It was the advent of nationalism, particularly the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, that began to challenge the new "western," "modern" ideals of art, aesthetics and public taste. The nationalist movement in art, spearheaded by E. V. Havell, Abanindranath Tagore and the Bengal School, sought to retrieve the ground lost to colonial intrusion. However, in its search for a pure and historically valid art tradition, it went to a remote past of lost images and neglected practices. practices. The Bengal School's attempt to revive older and authentic Indian traditions (Moghul and Pahari traditions, for example) was an attempt that post-colonial discourse would describe as a "painting back" syndrome. The line of continuity they tried to establish with the past, however, was often imaginary: besides, despite its eagerness to promote a broad-based, nationalist art where everyone could participate, it ended up valorizing its own "high" art. Indigenous and folk art, craft based art forms and the various "pre-modern" art that communities across the country practiced and preserved, were considered low, and not enough to satisfy intellectual, political and cultural expectations of the newly organized, educated middle class.

Throughout the "pre-modern" phase of our history, however, art remained an activity closely linked to everyday life. It reflected both the finer aesthetics and utilitarian values of small communities whose sum total spelled something like a nation. As the art of these communities drew from common roots and shared the same, or similar, values and aesthetics, historians could talk about a "national art." But nation as a political entity, and as a narration inscribed in the history and consciousness of small communities, are two different formations. In Bangladesh, what existed as a nation in the "pre-modern" phase of our history was basically a narration of some common desires, pursuits and values. The diversity of artistic productions within common heritage, forms and practices only proves the practicality of such an idea of nation.

With the coming of a more formalist, populist and territorial idea of nation in the mid 19th century, perceptions began to change as to what was traditionally practiced by artists and what was now expected of them. Folk art does not consciously aspire to the conditions of art -- it does not create icons that can be rallying points for people agitating for rights. It is often strangely neutral in terms of the politics of the day. Nationalists initially considered folk art as a source of strength, but as aspirations for the ultimate space -- a free nation -- grew, they found its productions inadequate for establishing a powerful and authentic new art. The Swadeshi movement, despite its widespread appeal, was essentially an urban movement, pioneered and continued by an educated middle class. Its taste was stronger than what low-keyed folk art could satisfy.

When the partition of India took place in 1947, Dhaka, the capital of the eastern province of Pakistan, had no "educated" or "western" art tradition -- only craftsmen, artisans, and occasional portrait and commercial painters carrying out their respective activities.

It was a "pre-modern" set up which did not see art as being separate from everyday life. However, a small, educated group soon began to raise demands for institutional and educated art as was being practiced in various centres of art, such as Calcutta.

This middle class had been the vanguard of all social and political movements, and came to see itself as arbiter of public taste. Therefore, when an art institute was set up in Dhaka in 1948 by a group of Calcutta Art School educated artists, middle class patronage was assured, although not immediately as religious strictures were strong against representational art and sculpture. The middle class, by that time, had begun a movement against the discriminatory policies of the centre. Culture became an important means of the resistance against the centre. By the mid- 1950s, the art scene was confident and productive. Art galleries were in place, and art exhibitions became part of the regular weekly calendar of culture. Support from individual and corporate clients also started to come. It was time for a push forward.

The works of the founding artists showed a predilection for western styles and trends, perhaps because of the artists' academic training in Calcutta. It was quite remarkable that, despite a vigorous application of traditional, folk motifs and images in the works of Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan, the leading trend was towards incorporating western styles, notably cubism and abstract expressionism. The 1950s artists happily juxtaposed works of both local and western inclination. Zainul did occasionally dabble with western styles, but he and Qamrul Hasan strongly advocated for local contents and styles. Qamrul remained faithful to his patua tradition till the very end. Younger artists, however, many of whom received training in western and Japanese art academies, were inclined towards western trends. This is not the place for a value judgement as to whether such western preoccupation was good or bad for the development of our art, but it cannot be denied that such a preoccupation helped them gain a world view and a degree of confidence which would later push our art to newer limits. It also marked out areas of encounter beyond the narrow insularity of the kind of art nationalists would like artists to pursue.

The 1960s was truly a remarkable time for the development of our art. It was a time of intense involvement with modern western art that helped to evolve a modern character in our art. It was also a time of intellectual and political aspirations that often took a global dimension. The sixties inauguration of the phenomenon called "internationalism" (which morphed two decades later into globalization) in which we had, willy nilly, to participate, helped us see ourselves not as inhabitants of a backwater province, but as a nation among many other nations of the world. Politically, it was a time for movement for autonomy which, through various phases of development, led to the full-fledged war of liberation in 1971. The 1960s art incorporated a diverse range of social and political experiences -- as well as shocks, setbacks and successes -- in its broad canvas. Folk forms and figures remained an important presence however, although the division between high and low art was still quite strong.

In the 1970s, after the country emerged as a free nation through much bloodshed, the liberation war became one of the persistent themes, necessitating a liberation of colour. Raw colours began to dominate the canvas. At about that time, figurative and representational art made a comeback (comeback -- because the figure has always been an important presence in our traditional art). With these came other compulsions, e.g. the need to tell a story. Later in the decade, myths and folklore became a new area of exploration. The liberation war had temporarily reversed migration patterns -- it brought droves of city people into villages as refugees. It helped both groups understand each other better. Artists in search of themes and styles didn't have to go far. A new respect for traditional art/artists/ artisans developed, and, along with it, a new appreciation of their skill.

The 1980s saw the beginning of a decade-long military rule in Bangladesh that curtailed civil rights and freedom and clamped down heavily on dissent. Faced with a rapid erosion of the values that guided our war of liberation, artists, along with other members of the civil society, built up a resistance movement. The art of the time reflected the anger and derision the artists felt towards the state of affairs.

One development of the time was the emergence of post-modern trends in the works of many young artists. They seized upon post-modernism's anti-foundational, anti-hierarchical nature and began to use irony, self-reflexivity, pastiche, and parody to record their reactions to the developments in society and politics. Soon, the post-modern emphasis on local cultures and histories (the plural term was important) became an attraction by itself, as artists began to explore long lost myths, fairy tales, and other village based traditions. It was also the time when Dhaka began to host Asian Art Biennales, and the exhibition introduced our artists to other Asian traditions. Installation art was a new contribution of the Biennales. Today, after a substantial transformation, installation art has come to assume a Bangladeshi identity since the artists' primary concern is to project local colours and aspirations within new spatial dimensions provided by installation art. For the last two decades or so, Bangladeshi art has come to display a number of characteristics. Prominent among these are:

* A tendency to localize experience as against the "universalizing" trend of the 1960.

* Expropriation of traditional/ indigenous/ethnic traditions, and a blending of these with modernistic techniques, resulting in various cross art forms.

* An emphasis on the figurative, the representational and the narrative.

* An exploration of myth, traditional love, fairy tales.

* Doing away with elite-subaltern, high-low divisions, and a celebration of local colours.

* Extensive use of wood, textile, ceramics and other materials -- and the consequent elevation of these materials into "acceptable" components of modern art.

* Use of art for the purposes of social protests, satire or venting personal anger, shock, etc.

* A rediscovery of line and texture -- among other elements of composition and construction.

* Emergence of "individualized" styles in the postmodern sense of the term where artists carry out experiments with varying results.

It should be mentioned here that the listing of these characteristics does not preclude other, more formal/academic/traditional styles being followed. There are artists doing splendid work in landscape painting, for example, or in an abstracted style. This is true for all the time slots mentioned above.

Rural artisans and urban-folk artists such as rickshaw painters also contributed to bridging the gap between high and low art. The colourful painted pottery and clay dolls, the exquisite embroidered quilts, and imaginatively done transport painting (a more recent phenomenon than the other two) brought to the notice of our artists the neglected but vigorous field of creativity that also showed stresses and strains as well as joy of coming to terms with the problems and reality of life.

Most of the embroidered quilt makers, for example, are women who endure a life of double subalternity -- first the result of their gender, and then of poverty -- and who stitch in their desires and dreams in the quilts. Transport painting, on the other hand, is often fantastic and flighty, reflecting the desire of the painters to escape from their difficult situations.

Young painters in search of local and rooted art came to appreciate the quiet and intimate nature of these rural urban-folk art forms, and began using their enduring qualities in their work. Today, the distinction between high and low art is no longer accepted as inevitable or automatic. No one would, of course, say that all rural or urban-folk art has become a staple or has replaced more sophisticated (in terms of technique and style) art. But doing away with artificial barriers certainly releases creative energy on both sides, whose blending is nothing but beneficial for our art.

Syed Manzurul Islam is a Professor of Dhaka University, Department of English.

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