The ancient and the avant-garde
The tapestries of rashid choudhury
photos: courtesy of the Bangladesh national museum and mizanur rahman khoka
When Rashid Choudhury decided to pursue tapestry as his preferred medium to ‘flittingly depict [the] men and nature’ of his motherland -and later, in 1964, set up a tapestry loom factory – he was doing something new in Bangladesh. The closest to tapestry was satranji, the modest floor mat woven out of jute and cotton yarns which also doubles as wall hanging, but, despite its fairly diverse clientele, satranji never aspired to the condition of art.
When Rashid Choudhury decided to pursue tapestry as his preferred medium to ‘flittingly depict [the] men and nature’ of his motherland – and later, in 1964, set up a tapestry loom factory – he was doing something new in Bangladesh. The closest to tapestry was satrat!}i, the modest floor mat woven out of jute and cotton yarns which also doubles as wall hanging, but, despite its fairly respectable antiquity and its acceptance by a diverse clientele (it was supposed to have won the admiration of Moghul rulers in Delhi) satrat!}i never aspired to the condition of art. Produced mostly in Rangpur, it is an expressive artefact which is primarily expected to serve utility functions, although its aesthetic content – especially its rich assemblage of colour and design, and its formal eloquence – deserves special mention. But the clientele Choudhury was trying to reach out, which, used to the fine distinction traditionally made between artisanal and artistic practices and products, would be reluctant to grant satrat!}i the status of art, whatever level of sophistication it displayed – even a prized satrat!Ji from Nishbetganj (a small town in Rangpur, named after the British district collector of 1830s Mr Nisbet, a great patron of the woven craft work). Tapestry, for them, would be a better option because of its European and avant-garde artistic associations.
In the absence of a definitive biography of Rashid Choudhury, as well as full-length studies, monographs or critical writings on his work, it is not possible to know in what light he viewed satrar!fi, especially since many of his own tapestry designs bear striking resemblances with the geometric patterns used by satrar!fi makers. However, it is clear from the occasional pieces he wrote on art that in taking up tapestry, he had a three-fold aim: In the first place, he wanted to introduce an art form with a millennium old history which could also accommodate modernist aspirations of formal ingenuity and painterly abstractions. Secondly, he believed his tapestry would reinvent the fine art of weaving in the context of changes in people’s perception about artistic categories. A catalyst for this change has been the debate involving high art and low art or art and craft, which has turned these notional categories less rigid and more flexible, allowing embroidered quilts or pata painting, for example, to be considered art (Choudhury was not a traditionalist when it came to interpreting his time through tapestries, but he was fully aware of tapestry’s association with the slow art of handloom and its feminine associations, both of which he respected). And finally, he found in tapestry’s constructive space an opportunity to amalgamate his vision as a painter and sculptor. He had earlier trained himself as a sculptor and painter, and had done some spectacular work in oil, gouache and brush and ink. He knew the limitations of tapestry – the sheer amount of time it needed; the meticulous care with which the tension between warp and weft had to be resolved; the special skills that the inwardly expanding and growing forms, particularly those in colour, demanded; and the expenses it involved. But he not only took up the challenges, but in meeting them, transformed some of the limitations into strengths. Thus, in his execution, the process and production-oriented art of tapestry, displayed no association with slowness or calculated application but gave the impression of speed and immediacy instead – as if a painter’s brush had worked momentarily and executed rich, interlocking designs, tonal and spatial gradations and a certain luminosity which became Choudhury’s signature traits. Like the best tapestry artists anywhere, he also invested himself – his body, so to say – in his art. Such investment no doubt accounts for its lively, tactile quality and its rhythmic depth. His work retains the age-old tension between the taut warp and the flexible weft, but his upwardly opening forms (like flames dancing in the wind) which interlock at many points, give the impression of a sweeping vision and energy at work. In his best tapestries, his bodily investment seems to erase the distinction between the artist and his work. As a result, one can feel the strong presence of the artist in his tapestries, which, even on the impersonal walls of a museum or art gallery, evoke feelings of warmth.
Textile art has been considered ‘feminine’ both in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Increasingly, however, critics are becoming aware of the subversive potential of this art form, its turning the tables, so to speak, on the patriarchal assumptions of domesticity, sensitivity, fragility and invisibility to the outside world that usually underlie its attitude to needlework in particular and textile art in general. In an insightful study of textile art, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (1984), Rozsika Parker shows how needlework had been traditionally considered a means of instilling feminine ideals into women, but which, if wielded with imagination and insight, could also overcome its constraints. In Bangladesh, however, the subversion/ resistance factor has been quite marginal, side-lined by a third but more persuasive reason for needlework – necessity and utility. But subversion of patriarchal norms by the wielders of the needle can’t be entirely ruled out, as the several million strong garments workers of Bangladesh, of whom nearly 90% are women, have shown in recent times. With some training in needlework they have stepped into the male world of work, and earn a living to invest in their and their children’s future.
Whether Rashid Choudhury considered textile and woven art feminine is bound to remain a conjecture in the absence of any record of his ever discussing – or commenting on – the topic. But the late artist Debdas Chakravarty, who was close to Choudhury, once mentioned how much he admired the exquisite saris that both women and men weave in Tangail and other places in Bangladesh. There is certainly no ‘feminisation’- intentional or otherwise – of any aspect of his work. But one feels a palpable sense of physical connection of the artist with his work – something which lifts an embroidered quilt, for example, beyond its utility functions to the level of a precious art object. Choudhury’s tapestry also has a neat, inclusive vision which straddles our everydayness and the world of work and the complex range of activities that define our times. Then there is the palette from which Choudhury chose the colours (i.e. his dyed yarns) – which, alongside the loud ones also includes softer, more sedate tonalities. Indeed, in an age of mechanical reproduction of art, traces of collective subjectivities of art practitioners impart a traditional value to the reproduced art. Factory-made embroidered quilts whose stitch works are mostly done by machines rather than by women, still manage to retain a feminine aura because of the quilts’ traditional association with women makers.
Rashid Choudhury’s tapestries evoke a sense of domesticity because of the traditional location of the loom (especially the low warp type) in weavers’ households and the long stretches of disciplined work the weavers have to put up on a daily basis. Domestic associations are also reinforced by the coarse texture of the material he used in many of his tapestries. The thickness of his fabric allows his audiences to imagine the tapestries to have been woven in some household loom, and not in a factory where smoother weaving, trimming, pressing and other means of sophistication are available. But despite their texture and thickness, his tapestries have to do more with the world than with the interior spaces of a household or any specific cultural location. This is mainly because of his modernistic sensibility and the abstracted forms of his work as well as his sheer geometricity. His audience did not expect him to ‘reconstruct’ a tradition since tapestry had never been a part of our artistic production – tapestry, indeed has been an inherited memory from storytelling traditions or from our reading about Moghul or European tapestry. His audience was indeed more interested to see how Choudhury
‘constructed’ an old art form made new. Rashid Choudhury knew the two-fold challenges he was going to face – elevating tapestry to the level of art and, at the same time, giving it a modernist outlook, even an expressionistic one and finding a place for it in the popular imagination. He met the challenges quite successfully by concentrating on two related concepts of tapestry art that he was initiated to during his brief studentship at Academie Julian in Paris: its contractedness, and its performative dynamics.” One other factor also contributed to the depth and monumentality of his work – his combining the insights derived from his study of sculpture and mural techniques in Spain and France. The French architect and painter Le Corbusier has described tapestries as ‘nomadic murals’ (Mura/nomadic, in 1 biennale international de la tapisserie. Lusane: Musee Cantonal des Beaux Arts, 1962:9) A look at some of Choudhury’s tapestries reveals how besides being movable display items, they maintain an essential, mural-like harmony among their constitutive elements.
The woven images of Rashid Choudhury’s tapestries and his visual language have evolved by assimilating diverse influences and combining them with his own visions of art. He acknowledges his appreciation of Marc Chagall’s paintings, whose warmly textured surrealist imaginings and dream visions, his evocation and memory and his attention to details lay behind the joyous and colourful exposition of nature and the human scene in many of his tapestries. A second source of Choudhury’s inspiration was the Bauhaus school, and the paintings of Kandinsky and Klee in particular. While Kandinsky’s paintings induce resonance and sensuality and a certain jazziness with dynamic shapes and forms, Klee’s paintings are simpler but equally colourful; they grow as if from an inner compulsion by incorporating elements of fantasy and dream. In creating his tapestry art Choudhury too attempted to capture the magic of colour and the dynamism of shapes. His tapestries grow and attain a living quality as he allows his vision to unfold from the inside.
Rashid Choudhury was also influenced by Bauhaus pedagogy, more particularly the principles of the Bauhaus as drawn up by Walter Gropius in his Manifesto and Progress (1919) – the ‘avoidance of all rigidity,’ for example, ‘or freedom of individuality’ as well as ‘strict study of discipline’. Choudhury found these invaluable in teaching art, especially tapestry, to his students.
When he began his journey as a tapestry artist, Rashid Choudhury was fully aware of one of its major limitations: its dependence on patronage. Tapestry, particularly of the size he made, was not for average homes – not certainly for the match box apartments most city people live in nowadays. For his works to meaningfully communicate with audiences, they need large wall space that only museums, galleries and mansions of rich collectors can provide. He was often commissioned to make tapestries, and there is a sizeable collection of his tapestries in public and corporate office buildings, in private collections, and in the Bangladesh National Museum. However, there has been no attempt to make an inventory of all his works, or photograph and document them, and assess the condition they are in. A few exhibitions have been arranged, notably by the National Museum in 2008 (which also included some of his paintings) and a few stray publicationsb contain some reproductions of his work. But even this limited access is no bar to an understanding of the richness and variety of the tapestries, their essential properties, their blending of the traditional and the modern, their organisational and structural dynamics, their transcendence of the limitations of the process-oriented and artisanal characteristics of traditional woven art, and their relation to folk art, sculpture and mural.
Rashid Choudhury chose his themes carefully – these had to do with the everyday world he lived in, the human scene, the feelings and emotions that defined that scene; and love, togetherness as well as separation. He didn’t like to focus on lonely figures or objects in isolation. Choudhury avoided the figurative – his figures are only suggestively outlined – and didn’t like direct representation of objects as much as he liked abstraction. He usually crowded his woven images with forms – interlocking, dancing and dense in their overlapping togetherness. In his tapestries forms and shapes are projected in a splash of colour. He liked colours to evoke a mood or a feeling, something that the ‘talking colours’ of early Expressionists intended to do. Choudhury often replicated the forms and shapes he painted on canvas and clay lids in his tapestry. The colours in these works are also fluid and robust with certain jauntiness that gives the works a dramatic quality.
In a few of his large tapestries that hang in government and corporate offices and buildings, Rashid Choudhury has treated contemporary social and political themes. Abul Mansur in his book refers to two such works, Banglqye Bidroho (Uprising in Bengal, the cartoon of which was done in 1971) and the big tapestry displayed in the inner lobby of Osmani Memorial Hall in Dhaka. Mansur maintains that the suggestion of strong circular movement energising the figures and objects alike in the latter is indicative of an expressive mode unique to Choudhury where memory and dream figure prominently.
Choudhury’s experimentation with tapestry inspired younger artists to choose textile art as a field of creative engagement. They found it accommodative not only of the aura of hand-woven art and its slow paced, physical enunciation, but also the speed and shifting contours of images that dominate our time. Indeed, a couple of artists working with jute and other fibres have turned their work into installation pieces that reflect a postmodern ethos. These artists have found new strength in this old art, and an interpretive power that had earlier drawn Choudhury to tapestry.
At a time when other artists were concentrating on maximising the potential of canvas painting, graphic art and sculpture, Rashid Choudhury chose tapestry, and, working within limitations and the regulated operation and technical procedures that the processdriven work demands, articulated the ideas, issues and preoccupations of our time in an exuberant and evocative manner. He wove into the fabric of his art both the timeless stories of his land and his people, and the anxiety-driven narratives of our time which veer towards the ambiguous and the abstract. His tapestries are indeed a record of an artistic pursuit of the flitting shapes and thoughts that an old form renews in each of its new incarnations and the new artistic sensitivities that an urban and technology driven age generates.
a) While studying at Academie Julian, Choudhury came to appreciate the seminal influence of Jean Lurcat on contemporary tapestry art in France. There is no record, however, of Lurcat teaching at the Academy when Choudhury was a student there, but the artist who was credited with reviving tapestry in the 20th century and making possible its transition from decorative art to modem art, was a vital presence in the lives of students studying tapestry there. Chowdhury’s vision of tapestry art was honed by Lurcat’s method of making tapestry-for example, the use of cartoons in a creative, rather than mechanical way; the introduction of big-stitch weaving; his mixing of realist and surrealist images in his work, and, in Lurcat’s own words “the interlacing of the forms, the sparkling of the colours and the randomness of the colouring that characterize the world of plants, flowers and insects, including the butterfly” (as quoted in Jean Lurcat/Dream in dream.craftsgallery.eu/project/jean-lurcat). Lurcat inspired Choudhury to look for rhythm and patterns that nature produces in the minutest as well as the most monumental of its manifestations.
b) The only substantive publication has been Rashid Choudhury (2003) written by Abu I Mansur and published by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy as part of their Art of Bangladesh Series.
Syed Manzoorul Islam is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (DU) and a Bangladeshi academician, writer, novelist, translator, columnist, and literary critic. Islam has published four novels and five volumes of short stories from Dhaka and Kolkata. He was the recipient of a Bangla Academy Award in 1996 and his 2005 short stories collection Prem o Prarthanar Ga/po was awarded as Prothom Aids Book of the Year. His recent collection of short stories, The Merman’s Prayer and Other Stories, was launched in November 2014.
Leading Image : Title Unknown . Tapestry . Circa 1980s
photos: courtesy of the Bangladesh national museum and mizanur rahman khoka When Rashid Choudhury decided to pursue tapestry as his preferred medium to ‘flittingly depict [the] men and nature’ of his motherland -and later, in 1964, set up a tapestry loom factory – he was doing something new in Bangladesh. The closest to tapestry was…