Territorial consciousness in S M Sultan

Territorial consciousness in S M Sultan

The Hindu epic Mahabharat refers to a river as bishwasya mataro or the mother of the universe. Rivers are the lifelines for people who consciously or unconsciously depend on their contributions as ‘interfaces between ecosystems and human well-being’. For the visionary painter S M Sultan (1923-1994), the River Chitra which flows by his village home, always served as a life-giving force, for he was aware of how people and the ecosystem depended on its ever-flowing water.
Sultan portrayed the river of his native village in many paintings, but he made it a point not to de-emphasise the land and the people to which the river water has been providing sustenance ever since its birth. His waterscapes are an interesting take on the ecosystem as they underline the river as the sustainer of life and communities. Sultan’s works on the River Chitra, therefore, never allow the separation between the river, the people and the land, as is often the case with artists who tend to represent the river as a unique entity and an object of attention rather than underscoring its ecological importance. The three elements – river, people, land – become one in Sultan’s canvas as what remains central to his imagery is the ‘naturalness’ found in the struggle people put up to eke out a living amid nature.
It would be efficacious to hark back and take a glance at the panoramic vision the master artist produced almost four decades ago, in the year 1986 to be exact. The painting in question is a landscape with the River Chitra in the middle, flowing downstream in a zigzag pattern while finally disappearing beyond the village landscape. The painting reveals village folks engaged in their daily activities that transpire amidst trees and vegetation. There is a critical gaze in operation, one that slowly unveils a rigorous village life depicted through a gamut of subject matters – women collecting water from the river, men bringing paddy from the field, men and women husking paddy in a lawn at a distance, and even a nomadic family represented by women and children on a boat in the foreground, on the left.

S. M. Sultan : Pen on paper, 1993, Abul Khair Collection

This masterful work, because of its sheer size and the gaze that seeks to reveal the entirety of the lives teeming inside the village canopied by trees, serves as a basis for Sultan’s discourse on and around the river. Certainly, there are other works where the river and river ghats are more prominent. Between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, there have been works where either the river serves as the background or a village scene unfolds right next to the river. If a roster of activities is prepared, it would show that the master’s inclination was to feature the same subject matters again and again to make a point about village life, as Sultan, when attentive to details, used to lay them out as visuals to sensitise the eye. The value of a holistic life is to be realised through these works. So, the themes that recur in the waterscapes, include men bringing paddy from the fields, women collecting water from the river and cowherds bathing cows in the river.
The works that create a feeling of depth are those that appear as if they have been frozen in time. These are not mere spectacles for all to unquestionably savour as is experienced in front of a good landscape painting. They are archetypes, to borrow Jung’s trope, and are plated for the benefit of the people whose sense of time and space has been destabilised by way of the introduction of modern consciousness. They make people pause and rethink the world where time is now perceived as linear and place and identity are regularly instrumentalised. Yet the discourse is not simply based on the nature-industry dichotomy, rather it is about an ethics of living in harmony with nature, a pathway to the future.

S. M. Sultan : Oil paints on canvas, 1989, Abul Khair Collection

When depth is envisioned, there is a sense of revelation inscribed into these paintings. One such late painting is called Towing a Boat. The title of this 1989 work does not do justice to the panorama one is faced with. One must remember that works of art from Sultan’s ‘decolonised’ dwelling , a part of an abandoned palace of a local zamindar turned into a studio-cum-home, sometimes came without a title. There are also instances of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy-produced books carrying titles that did not originate from the artist’s studio in Narail. ‘Towing a Boat’ is a meditation on village life. A bird’s eye view from low elevation, the scene opens a window to a river with limpid water surrounded by grassy patches and crop fields that stretch to the horizon. In it, the inhabitants of the village go about their own tasks, accomplishing what needs to be accomplished as part of their life-world.
If the rivers Sultan depicted in his paintings are different avatars of the Chitra, it appears in many different forms. The river in each painting assumes an essential role, but principally through an imaginary appearance. One may read into these works an ethical position that stems from a non-hierarchical gaze. The act of gazing is also part of the act of living – there is no objectification involved in such representation that seeks to unite the self/body with the environment.

S. M. Sultan
Towing a Boat, Oil paints on canvas, 1989
Image collected from S. M. Sultan Smarak Grantha,
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, 1995

Such an ethical position vis-à-vis natural living took time to gel. Speaking to artist Nasim Ahmed Nadvi, Sultan once narrated how he wandered around the world but still could not find peace, neither in new natural settings nor in so-called advanced societies. Sultan told Nadvi: When I was young, I roamed around India driven by imaginary attractions I felt inside me. Yet this did not bring solace. So, I set off for lands across the oceans. There too I wandered about without any specific goal in mind. Then, suddenly one day I was visited by the apparition of the natural beauty of Chitra-sundary or Chitra the beautiful maiden … I could see through my mind’s eye that the Chitra is beckoning me. What is the use of pursuing a mirage … my mind became restless – I came back to her [the Chitra].’
Way back in the late 1970s, photographer and writer Nasir Ali Mamun, once emphatically brought to light the central role the River Chitra played in the life of the inhabitants of the entire territory. Sultan, in a series of interviews with Mamun described how the River Chitra was known for its ‘unique and sweet water’.
‘Sultan used to reminisce how people of all classes used to bathe in the river and how drinking water also used to be collected from the Chitra. He also used to reminisce how he grew up looking at the reflections of people, trees and vegetation in river water that was so clear that one could enjoy looking at from all the directions throughout the day while sitting on the widest ghat in his village,’ said Nasir Ali Mamun during a recent conversation.
Sultan frequently spoke about the lives around the river as well as the life of the river. ‘The Chitra was not a river that had ever experienced strong current. It used to flow quietly and for this reason its water never looked cloudy,’ Mamun remembers him saying.
One may assume that the name Chitra owes to the Bengali meaning of the term ‘picture’ imagined in the feminine form; or it is a personification of a woman (in Bangladesh only a handful of rivers are considered male) or it stems from the ‘apsara’ (a female fairy) the puranas mention or a particular raga of the name. Sultan claimed to have read in a particular book while he was in Kolkata that the British officials used to collect drinking water from this river. It is a claim that may lead to a historical investigation. But the fact that the water of the Chitra was potable during Sultan’s childhood is still part of social nostalgia.
S M Sultan remained unmarried, but realisation of his vision of social transformation began with the idea of Shishu Swarga, or Children’s Eden, as he believed that if the children could grow up with an aesthetic awareness of their surroundings, if they were involved in art-making from a tender age, they would grow up to be sensitive human beings. He spent a fortune in building a boat for the children of his Shishu Swarga as he envisaged long river journeys across the country to enhance their knowledge of life and nature.

S. M. Sultan
Oil paints on jute, 1986
Abul Khair Collection

Sharif Ashrafuzzaman, who contributed a small but intimate write-up for the 1995 memorial volume edited by S. Manzoorul Islam and Subir Chowdhury and published by the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, writes as a concluding remark that like the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ Sultan dreamt of travelling out into the vast ocean with the children where they will be far from the sorrow, disease and despair of everyday life. Ashrafuzzaman calls it ‘another whim’ of the great visionary. Perhaps this has been an interpretive failure. As is his wont, Sultan perhaps was articulating the essential framework of human aspiration whose analogy can easily be found in how waters from rivers rush to the final destination – the ocean – and find the union fulfilling.
‘Learning how to draw would not only be the basis for children to create beautiful things but also a way for them to appreciate what is beautiful in the world,’ Sultan once said in an interview with Ashish-ur-Rahman Shuva, showcased in the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy book mentioned above. Emancipatory ideals fed Sultan’s imagination. He used to say that the highest attainment for humans is the nurturing of humane qualities; this perhaps is the transcendent goal he had set in relation to a society in transition, one that showed all the signs of degeneration. It is the wearing away of the finer qualities which the humble inhabitants of this riverine region once used to hold so dear that Sultan took issue with, not to remind people of the past but to script anew the social contract as he refused to give up on futurity.

Mustafa Zaman is an artist, writer and curator based in Dhaka. He is currently director of Uttarsury, an organisation focused on history and culture.

Leading Image : S. M. Sultan : Oil paints on board, 1986, Abul Khair Collection

The Hindu epic Mahabharat refers to a river as bishwasya mataro or the mother of the universe. Rivers are the lifelines for people who consciously or unconsciously depend on their contributions as ‘interfaces between ecosystems and human well-being’. For the visionary painter S M Sultan (1923-1994), the River Chitra which flows by his village home,…

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