Syed Manzoorul Islam
The present exhibition Unseen Splendour owes its origin to a serendipitous discovery of a small trove of SM Sultan early drawings and watercolours in the possession of Mr. Abul Kasem Joarder, who was a teacher at Jessore Michael Madhusudan College in the 1950s. Mr. Joarder was a friend of Sultan and on his request Sultan drew quite a few sketches and a few watercolours in his drawing book. Mr. Joarder preserved the book as a treasured possession for decades, and then forgot about it. For more than fifty years, the drawing book lay in a pile of papers fighting the vagaries of weather and time. Then one fine day Mr. Joarder rediscovered it and decided to make its content public. Although the pages of the drawing book have turned sepia brown, and the edges have crumbled, the drawings have remained largely intact. Done in pencil and charcoal, with slight touches of paint here and there in a number of sketches, the collection introduces us to a phase of his creativity from which not many of his works survive. It also allows us to have a look at the content and style Sultan pursued at the time. Mr. Joarder must be thanked for preserving the works and making them available for public viewing.
Since the watershed exhibition of SM Sultan’s paintings in 1976 at the Shilpakala Academy gallery, he has reclaimed his position as a premier artist of the country and an early master of our modern art which was shaped by Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin and a few of his contemporaries. On the occasion of the 1976 exhibition, Mr. Ahmed Safa, a writer, thinker and Sultan aficionado, wrote an insightful article which introduced the legendary painter to many of the art lovers who had forgotten about him, or were not aware of his greatness.
One reason why Sultan, in spite of his greatness as an artist didn’t enjoy the prominence he deserved was his bohemian nature and his prolonged absence from the art scene. His wanderlust took him to different places in the subcontinent, although he never stayed in any one place for long. When he came back to Bangladesh, he preferred to live in Narail, the place of his birth. The 1976 exhibition was also his homecoming in a sense, and a celebration of his subaltern world view. Sultan’s heroic pastorals were acclaimed for their vision of the Golden Bengal, although he also painted the conflicts and contradictions in our agrarian society caused by land dispute, a legacy of the class ridden social structure. Sultan painted in large canvas, which is usually crowded with larger than life figures of farmers, fishermen, village women and ordinary people. Sultan liked to paint his people hardy-handsome, with brawny bodies and intense eyes. His women, mostly mothers, too were healthy, with supple breasts, their children glowing with health and happiness. Sultan even painted domestic animals in scale, while his fields were full of crops, households peaceful and contented, his sky a tinge of golden or unencumbered blue, suggesting fulfillment. Sultan thus painted back a vision of arcadia that stood in sharp contrast with reality, which it ultimately trivialized.
The sketches and watercolours belong to a period before his epic pastoral phase, but do adumbrate some of its latent tendencies. By and large, the figures he paints are lyrical and invested with rhythm and grace. The drawings done in pencil are mostly studies of faces, but those done in charcoal have strong, resonant lines which are more curvy than angular, and more suggestive than complete. There are also sketches that are doodle like and random, and are inclined more towards abstraction than figuration. Human figures, animals, birds, flowers – animate and inanimate figures alike– come alive in Sultan’s exquisite execution.
Sultan’s drawing can be strong and vibrant as well as delicate and filigreed. In some of the sketches, the margins have been worked over, leading a large space in the middle, resembling medieval illuminated manuscripts. What distinguishes Sultan’s drawings are their flow and harmony. Human figures, birds, animals and plants exist in a fine balance, each contributing to the other’s ambient existence.
Sultan has drawn a few nude female figures both full bodied, and in torsos. What distinguished these studies is their quiet, aesthetic charm. In comparison the watercolours appear a bit flat, despite their delicate wash effect. The colours have faded, losing the immediacy of effect.
The exhibition shows Sultan with a mastery of drawing, and an appreciation of the charms of Golden Bengal. The exhibition gives viewers a preview of his pastoral vision which seems to be in the making in these sketches and watercolours.
[Syed Manzoorul Islam is a Bangladeshi academic and writer, Alma Mater from D. U. He retired from the faculty position at the University of Dhaka and joined University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.]