Born into a peasant family of Narail, Sheikh Mohammad Sultan went to Calcutta Art School and left it after three years without caring to take the degree and at the peak of his career, the master painter painted robust figures of farmers in his native surroundings to glorify them.
He never forgot his humble background and returned to his own village and settled down there after holding exhibitions in Simla, Lahore, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington and London with the dream of creating an art movement that would represent the people and culture of the land.
And it was in London that his paintings were on display with the works of Picasso, Dali, Braque, Klee and other world famous painters at Victoria Embankment, Hampstead in 1956.
SM Sultan was the lone Asian to share the exhibition with the masters.
His masterpieces are seen with awe for their unique style developed by Sultan blending the styles of the renaissance of the west and tradition of the region.
Though he got free residence in Dhaka and monthly stipend form the government during the last 10 years in his life, Sultan did not confined him in the city life. He, rather, stayed more at his ancestral home in the village Masimdia with his beloved folks and pets in midst of nature to get inspiration for his classic paintings.
He also worked for the welfare of his native folks by establishing academic and art schools, and painted robust figures of farmers and simple householders, and toiling men and women on his huge canvases to articulate the massive inner spirit they bear within them to rule over the nature and to build a prosperous future.
Sultan was born on August 10, 1924 at Masimdia in Narail. His father Sheikh Maser Ali was a mason and also used to work as a peasant for additional income and could not afford to continue Sultan’s education after grade five.
It was local zamindar Dhirendranath Roy, who gave Sultan shelter and encouraged him to be a professional artist witnessing his talents of sketching with charcoal and raw turmeric, and pui fruits.
To reach his goal, the zamindar helped him financially to continue education at Victoria Collegiate School in Narail and used to provide him books featuring paintings by foreign artists.
But without passing matriculation, Sultan went to study art in Calcutta in 1938 at the Government School of Art.
With the help of another patron, Shahed Suhrawardy, who was a member of the governing body of the School, Sultan enrolled with the art school in 1941 without having a required matriculation degree for enrolment.
Sultan in an interview with the weekly Prahar, published on May 6, 1987 and again in Tareque Masdud’s documentary titled ‘Adam Surat’, acknowledged their contributions.
Sultan did not complete his education and decided to leave the school after three years to be a freelancer in 1944. Some art historians attribute this to Sultan’s bohemian trait.
Sultan in his available interviews did not even explain the reason but stated that he did not believe in the concept of ‘Bengal School of Art Movement’ credited to Abanindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose and Jamini Rai considering the art practice was taken from the Ramayan and was shaped on the tradition of the west.
As a freelancer, Sultan wandered around different parts of India and used to draw portraits of the British soldiers to earn his livings during the World War II.
He spent two years in Kashmir and Maharaja of Karporetola inaugurated his first solo at Simla, India in 1946, reads Sadeq Khan’s article titled ‘Painter-minstrel Sheikh Mohammad Sultan’, published as a preface to Bangladesh Shilpakala academy’s book on Sultan.
After the partition of 1947, Sultan migrated to Karachi and then again to Lahore. During that period, Sultan used to paint landscapes of Bengal and Kashmir based on recollections.
A trend to idealise thus developed inevitably along with a tendency to render them sentimental, particularly when the local people were brought into the canvas.
It is also said that Sultan had contacts with best artists and Sufis in Pakistan that brought a change upon his mind and this change found a reflection in his art.
He held two solos in Pakistan: Firoze Khan Noon, who later became prime minister of Pakistan, inaugurated his first solo in Pakistan in Lahore in 1948 and his second solo was inaugurated by Fatema Jinnah in the same city in the following year.
The editor of a collection entitled ‘Art in Pakistan’ published in the fifties recognised Sultan as the most promising painter of the then Pakistan.
Being a top ranked artist, he represented Pakistan at an international conference of artists in the USA and held several shows in different cities over there. On the way back, he visited England and France.
From there Sulatn directly returned to Dhaka with the intention of creating an art movement in the mid-1950s, which he mentioned in his interviews.
But, Sultan was not accepted cordially by the established artists of that time in Dhaka as he had no academic certificate.
A leading intellectual and writer, Ahmed Sofa, in his obituary note on Sultan after the artist’s demise in 1998 wrote that the art establishment had deliberately deprived Sultan of his due acclamation. ‘Had he not been the son of a farmer, our art establishment wouldn’t have hesitated to give him his deserved recognition,’ Sofa wrote.
‘Our teachers undermined Sultana and projected him negatively to young artists like me,’ eminent artist Murtaja Baseer, who graduated from the then Govt Institute of Arts (now faculty of fine arts of Dhaka University), told New Age.
‘Later I found that Sultan is the only artist in the country who painted from aerial view or birds point of view and all of his characters are of equal size, which are significant aspects of art traditions found in Rajput or Mughal art. He loved the folks and dreamt of their bright future through his paintings. I believe he did not get due respect in the country,’ Baseer noted.
Sultan in his interview, published in Prahar, however, praised Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin saying it was Zainul who had represented Bengal in a new light which Abanindranath Tagore, Nandlal Bose and Jamini Rai had not done though they were used to be regarded as the pioneers of the Bengal Art Movement by the established artists in Dhaka.
Sultan also held that Zainul’s art represented the realities of the entire Bengal but he did not notice it in his followers.
Instead of evaluating the talent in Sultan as an artist, many established artists and art lovers at that time indeed focused more on his bohemianism and used to criticise his personality, his addiction to narcotics, his dialogues with imaginary radha, his habit of wearing sari and other personal traits.
Sharing his first encounter with Sultan in the mid-1960s, artist Rafiqun Nabi said, ‘While a student, I saw Abedin sir [Zainul Abedin] talking for many hours with a woman in white sari on the Charukala premises. Later, he introduced the person to us as artist SM Sultan. Sultan delivered a brief lecture on art to us and I found the man with vast knowledge on global art.’
‘He did not find comfort living in Dhaka though the city was not that chaotic as it is today. Artists in Dhaka used to call him as Shilper Baul,’ Nabi added.
Nabi evaluates Sultan saying he developed a unique style blending the east with the west, which was very difficult to follow.
‘There are many differences between his style and that of the western renaissance artists who used to depict biblical characters to portray their divinity. Sultan was not a perfectionist like them. He rather he tried to portray the folks as divine,’ Nabi explains.
A frustrated Sultan indeed did not paint much between the period of his arrival in Dhaka and the independence of country as he did not get the desired position as an artist in Dhaka and also found that his ancestral home in Narail was encroached by others.
For some days he stayed at a local Shiva temple. During this period, he established three schools in Narail after getting some lands from his maternal uncle in 1969.
The independence of the country boosted Sultan to resume working with new style and new motivation to portray the farmers as propeller of the country’s economy and development, said the artist in the interview with the weekly Prahar.
In 1973, he founded Academy of Charupeeth in Jessore with the aim to initiate an art movement that would project the tradition of this region to the world.
His characters, forms, compositions and use of colours and materials differ a lot from his works before the independence and afterwards.
After independence, Sultan dreamt of a bright future of the country through the works of farmers and workers.
‘After the war, I felt more of a pull to paint ordinary people and farmers,’ said Sultan in the interview with Prahar. ‘Farmers are the real heroes of the country. Thus they absolutely need to be muscular.’
And his oil painting First Plantation (1975) depicting a gigantic farmer planting a golden tree blessed by two fairies in the form of two beautiful women in the background is considered a milestone in the contemporary art history in Bangladesh.
In his Genocide, Sultan depicts many robust characters of men, women and children lying on the paddy field to present their sacrifices for the land while in Grabbing of Rising Land his mighty folk characters fight with ordinary weapons.
‘His First Plantation is undoubtedly a milestone of Bangladeshi art and it symbolically represents the hopes of a new nation,’ says Chittagong University’s art professor Dhali Al Mamoon, adding that Sultan through his concepts and works denied the concept of modernity in art set by the westerns.
‘He painted with natural colour on raw jute gunny. As an artist he was very much loyal to his ideology,’ Mamoon added.
Sultan’s first solo show in Dhaka was organised in 1976 at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, which got huge response from the art lovers.
But, Sultan lamented saying that no prominent artists of that time came to his show and did not even accept his concept of the use of traditional art materials and style of this region.
The artist, however, continued his fight for an avant-grade in contemporary Bangladeshi art by producing wonderful gigantic painting series in his signature style like Grabbing of Rising Land, War, Remembrance of the Past and others.
And his second and the last solo was held at the Goethe Institut in 1987 which displayed his famous series like Towing, Fishing, Fetching, Harvesting Paddy and several others.
The government honoured him with Ekushey Padak in 1982 and Independence Day Award in 1994. He is the only artist to get the government’s ‘Resident’s Honour from 1984 till his death on October 10, 1994.
‘But, he did not want to stay at home we rented for him,’ said artist Syed Jahangir, the then director of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy.
Though the artist worked for over seven decades, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Bangladesh National Museum and SM Sultan Memorial Gallery in Narail just have collections of 49, 34 and 78 paintings respectively.
And his belongings and institutions that he established are very poorly managed.
Pity that the painter’s generous dream concerning children could not come true till today, wrote Ahmed Sofa in his obituary note.
But, the struggles of the characters of Sultan’s paintings still continue and his dreams for establishing an art movement and a prosperous nation still remain to be.
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