Serenades of Freedom
Photos: Mizanur Rahman Khoka
Bangladesh has emerged as a young nation with a complex cultural identity; the struggles of the past are nothing more than a distant memory now. Yet art must play roles similar to that it had played back then -as is evident in emerging artists to this day. lublee Dewan and Farhana Preya’s recent series of works are set in modern Bangladesh and they focus on contemporary issues.
Perhaps one of the most important roles of art is to impact a society socially and politically. Looking back at the beginning of the modern practice of Bangladeshi art, during the 1950s, one can say this first generation of young artists then were talented and committed, and had slowly begun to integrate into the expanding intelligentsia of Dhaka. Such integration helped the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University (then known as Dhaka Art College), flourish at that time.
A noticeable quality of the first generation of students, which has continued down the years, is that the young group of artists became vocal members of the Bengali community. At the time of the Language Movement, artists and students alike belonged to the vanguard of protesters. They began protesting against the injustice committed by Pakistani rule and were responsible for making posters, banners as well as drawings and alpanas on the streets. This involvement reflected the social functions of art that Zainul Abedin and his colleagues tried to infuse into their students from the very beginning.
Bangladesh, today, has emerged as a young independent nation with a complex cultural identity; the struggles of the past are nothing more than a distant memory now. Yet art must play roles similar to that it had played back then – as is evident in emerging artists to this day. The country might not be at war any longer, but humanity is yet to discover peace. Such was my realisation after discovering two newly trained artists from the second edition of the exhibition series ‘ONLY CONNECT’ hosted by the Bengal Foundation.
Jublee Dewan and Farhana Preya’s recent series of works are set in modern Bangladesh and overall, they focus on contemporary issues. What is striking, however, is the way they use of textiles as the medium of their artwork.
Both artists majored in Drawing and Painting from the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Chittagong, and presently belong to a group of artists experimenting to mark their work with the stamp of originality. Dewan and Preya’s connection with textiles can be traced back to their childhood years when they both learnt sewing, knitting and weaving as hobbies. But the use of the medium began to permeate their work during the conclusion of their Master of Fine Arts degree.
The impulse behind Jublee Dewan’s work was fear; the fear of the unknown and fear for the safety from a war invisible to the masses. She belongs to one of the largest ethnic communities of indigenous people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts – the Chakmas. Despite the common romanticised notions shared by tourists and outsiders of the simple lifestyles of the natives who are surrounded by scenic beauty, a series of political crisis severely impacted the lives of the indigenous people, which can traced back to the construction of a hydro-electric dam at Kaptai in 1960 during Pakistani rule.
The dam submerged 40% of all cultivable lands of the region, displacing about one-third of the total population from their ancestral homes. In 1964, things took a turn for the worse as the Pakistani Government at the time removed all constitutional safeguards. When Bangladesh emerged as a new nation in 1971, the ruling government did not reinstate the constitutional safeguards, and failed to meet the concerns of the indigenous community. This eventually resulted in a rebellion led by a regional political party – Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samity (PCJSS) – and its military wing – Shanti Bahini.
The rebellion continued for two decades and severely impacted the Chittagong Hill Tracts society. A Peace Accord was signed between the PCJSS and the Government of Bangladesh in 1997. However, there are still unresolved issues that continue to disrupt the peace of the region.
Kanak Chakma, also an insider of the ethnic community and a prominent artist, chooses not to directly address the political struggles of her people in her artworks. This artist rather suggests that perhaps contemplating on what seems to be not there might be a more direct way of getting rid of present hardships as she puts it in an interview published in New Age, a Bangladeshi English daily. Dewan believes the opposite to be true. However, her works does not conceptualise the war or the politics. Rather, she concentrates on the impact of fabric on lives in the Chittagong Hill Tracts – which she does through the use of colour and material.
Dewan’s older works are vibrant and colourful – a traditional trait shared by the indigenous community, judging from regional colourful attires and crafts. Though her forms and style remains unchanged, the lack of colour in her work is evident in her recent body of artworks.
In her most recent works displayed at the exhibition, Dewan uses white fabrics woven by craftsmen from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, buckram, cotton, gauze bandages, white threads and filling carriers
(locally known as maku) used in traditional handloom woven by the indigenous people – she skilfully uses shades of white on white. Her use of white does not signify innocence or purity – rather she stitches together a series of textile works which exhibits the scars of war; displaying in the process the hurt suffered by the indigenous community.
Farhana Preya’s works, on the other hand, does not point in a single steady direction. Her textile works were inspired by complicated themes, which often took the form of a rickshaw where stress and relief coexist in harmony. Her series from the exhibition had “nothing to protest, nor did they have any goals to reach,” as she has explained. But the work speaks of realities based on from her life experiences. She chooses to work in jute – a vegetable fibre spun into strong threads and fabric. Entire families often work together to produce jute in the villages of Bangladesh and though she is not as strict in avoiding colours like Dewan on her work, Preya leaves the original colour of the material as a reminder to her viewers of the natural resource and how so many lives are shaped by it.
The form of the rickshaw stood for feminism, love and freedom. Preya often relates the rickshaw, and its curves to the form of women and their status in the existing Bengali society. She does not directly protest but chooses to point out gender inequality within Bangladeshi societies through her work. Regardless of closing the gender gap in primary education and the fact that over three million women are in formal paid employment, social stigmas shared by many continue to plague the lives of independent women throughout the country. Her artworks points to how Bengali society restricts the freedom of women and compares it to how a woman will put up the hood of a rickshaw to shield herself from gawking eyes while commuting in the city. The vehicle is also always driven by men, which in her works relate to how the lives of women are guided and controlled by men.
The rickshaw also being one of the most common methods of short distance commuting, the very same forms from her series also celebrated love and romance. Preya believes life becomes insipid in the absence of a connection and it is generally a lot more difficult to have to face struggles and hardships alone. The rickshaw ride is at times considered a romantic experience by her and this layer of the theme conceptualises the euphoria of lovers coming together.
Both Jublee Dewan and Farhana Preya follow in the footsteps of protesting artists throughout the history of Bengal art. But perhaps what sets them apart is the subtle techniques they’ve used in establishing their voices in the contemporary scene. The main contrasts between the two are their approach to their concepts. While Dewan’s protests take a more direct stance, Preya method is much more light-hearted and subtle in nature. Yet both artists present their message without commenting directly on the political issues, and through various stories based on their personal lives and experiences; leaving their audience to connect the dots.
It is always a welcome change to see emerging artists experimenting with new mediums while breaking away from traditional practices in contemporary Bangladeshi art – which often revolves around photography, architecture, sculpture and painting. But one thing is for certain from the vocal qualities of their art, and a nostalgic relationship between artists and textiles: their journey has only begun and their best works are still to come.
Shah Nahian is an aspiring Bangladeshi writer. He worked as a journalist at the Dhaka Tribune, an English daily, before starting work at Bengal Foundation.
Leading Image : Jublee Dewan Akto bugot akto (Time within Time) Hand-woven cloth, cane, thread, surgical cotton gauze (L) 257 x 114 cm; (R) 165 x 76 cm. 2015
Photos: Mizanur Rahman Khoka Bangladesh has emerged as a young nation with a complex cultural identity; the struggles of the past are nothing more than a distant memory now. Yet art must play roles similar to that it had played back then -as is evident in emerging artists to this day. lublee Dewan and Farhana…