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Soul Searching

Curated by Md. Muniruzzaman

“In my youth, I went around the entire (British) India driven by curiosity of imagination and drawn by various attractions and sentiments. I was not contented. So I crossed ‘seven seas and thirteen rivers’, and went around the world led by my whims. Then suddenly on the screen of my mind the beauty and the nature of lovely Chitra (the river) was flashed. ... I was

nostalgic. I came back to her.”

-SM Sultan

To find the artistic sources of the Bangladeshi Modernists one need look no further than the folk life for their inspiration. Even as the urban entity grew prominent in contemporary Bangladesh, the artists of that generation sought their own identity through the vernacular, be it urban or rural.

In his quote “The River is my Master”- Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin always identified the river of Brahmaputra as the muse of his artistic exploration. After many experimentations and explorations across South Asia and the globe, he mastered his artistic identity by returning to nature – back to the riverbank where he was born. His painterly lines contain an indirect similarity to the linear characteristics of the common people of Bengal. We can identify two aspects of Abedin’s works that subconsciously draw from the environment around him.

These are:

1. Natural surroundings have inspired his work, such as the Brahmaputra River.

2. Folk-art and craft from the region.

These two are the common features of other Bangladeshi artists of that time. They were inspired by nature and the simple ways of the common people. The language of Bangladeshi modernism begins with the combination of these two subconscious psychological identities. Needless to say, Zainul Abedin catalysed modernism inspired by the land, river, and culture of Bengal for generations after him.

Another legendary contemporary artist of Abedin’s time, himself a reflection of these two identities, was S.M. Sultan. For him, his creation and his identity were intertwined. Sultan travelled around the world, yet settled in the remote village of Narail, where he developed his artistic practice amid folk life which he adapted as his own after traveling the world on various scholarships.

Quamrul Hassan, on the other hand, created another visual language where he adopted folk into urban entity. The æsthetics of his works came mainly from Potuas (folk artists) as well as cubism. Folk art, Battala prints and Kalighat patas were the strengths of his works. As a result, he is referred to as a Potua.

Brought up in a city, Safiuddin Ahmed explored folk entities through his urban experience.4 As a result of his urban upbringing, Ahmed sought to transform the descriptive language of folk art into a more abstract form. This practice was followed by the next generation of artists who helped develop and mature the movement. These characteristics were the direct or indirect aspirations for the next generation of artists.

Considering the factors that define Bangladeshi art, fifty-two artists of Bangladesh are presenting their works in the exhibition Soul Searching to re-discover their artistic sources. The selection consists of prominent artists who were directly involved with developing the described characteristics of Bangladeshi art as well as the subsequent generation of artists who learned from them.

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