An artist who always describes herself as an intuitive thinker, often working through both human and nonhuman motifs, printmaker, painter and teacher Rokeya Sultana has long been known for her images where one witnesses a spontaneous release of energy — of her own and the world’s. Mustafa Zaman of New Age recently had a tête-à-tête with her on her development as an artist and the rational and irrational dimension of art
‘My paintings and etchings are like my pictorial diaries that I have maintained over the years. I could arrive at this explanation only in retrospect. Today I feel that the link between the life I lived and the works I produced lent my works a certain character,’ says Rokeya Sultana who would turn sixty next January.
At the outset, Rokeya became known for her gendered images — works where she surveyed the every-day struggle she had to put up taking care of her only daughter Laura while simultaneously pursuing her own career in art and as art teacher. This was in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when her colour etchings bearing the title Madonna first started to make waves.
The Madonna series speckled into many different yet interconnected themes — including the one where the mother and child are seen on a bus, wading through a crowded city. If these images are expressive of trepidation which the protagonist mother embodies so explicitly, Rokeya says the anxiety had its source in real life. Her world, in her own word, was falling apart at this stage when her relationship with her renowned cricketer husband Omer Khaled Rumi’s family hit the nadir and she was forced to launch a lonely battle to continue to rear her child maintaining some semblance of normalcy. In Dhaka, where life gradually began to lose its vigour affecting human relations, the city often plunged Rokeya down. Perhaps the uncertainties she sensed first hand during this period made her explore the special relationship between mother and child.
‘For me, striking a balance between professional life and my role as a mother and wife was not easy. Rumi being an immensely busy and a mighty creative person, who had to go to the playfield to practice early in the morning and had his guitar practice in the evening, had little time for us. I was often left to my own devices,’ she says.
Despite all the hurdles, Rokeya Sultana is now a well known artist. Her reputation rests on her etchings, which she still continues to do, though in moderation, as it involves a lot, including a helping hand to run the etching press, organize the acid bath, etc. Acrylic on canvas, on the other hand, is a medium she embarked on in the late 1990s, still yields good results. As she spoke to New Age recently, there were three half-done paintings that bore testimony to her bias towards abstraction — one on the floor wore a mute red aura, while one of the two works propped up against the studio walls was a huge yellow-green composition.
This canvas was teeming with references to nature and cosmos though they melt into impressions rather than forming into obvious motifs. She says, ‘It is a commissioned work I embarked on and I am trying not to bring into it too many easily recognizable elements.’
‘I am not an eloquent person. I converse through my works. To me nature is alive and awake, and it finds a voice in my works,’ Rokeya explains, dwelling on her relationship with the external world. Over the years, she has developed an approach that can at best be described as a reflection of a unitary vision where self and the universe is dynamically related. Rokeya keeps tab on her own emotions by scribbling some of her reflections into her sketchbooks.
Before she reads a few lines from one of her recent entries, she says, ‘There is nothing beyond science, you know. Science has to do with our daily discovery of reality and development of technology including simple methods of survival. Also the way one thing is related to another, the causal frame, as they say.’
‘The world appears to me in dimensions of inconceivable wonder. There are planets and stars across its seven heavens, their trajectories and behaviours are mysterious. Whatever picture I make, this mystery leaves its imprint on them,’ reads one recent entry by Rokeya, while another says, ‘Time passes us by, as does reality — in today’s scheme of urbanization, village has been displaced. Humanity has worn many masks. Humans are progressing aggressively at a pace which easily debases nature in the process … human relations are thus met with uncertainties; it is also rendered vacuous. It is in this backdrop that we, a handful of people, have set out to search for like-minded people.
If imagination and intuition are to be considered as feminine attributes, as has once been claimed by Karen Kunc, Rokeya’s dovetailing of the material and the immaterial worlds takes a mystic turn. ‘Painting is like meditation. You go into a trance while working,’ she once declared to Ziaul Karim, in an interview in 2004.
One can add to that the trauma she suffered in two phases when she was growing up. Once, when her only friend’s younger sister died when Rokeya was only five or six; and later when in 1971, after the war broke out, the family had to part company with her father, an experience that disturbed young Rokeya.
‘I was only 11 or 12 at that time when we had to flee our home in Meherpur, our second home after my police officer father came back to the then East Pakistan. Meherpur and Pabna were areas where Tipu Biswas ruled, the legendary underground leftist. Menwhile, my older brother who was in Dhaka University had also come back few days earlier before 25 March to campaign in favour of Bangabandhu. Since we were not safe anymore in the city, the family kept looking for shelters across villages around the area. Finally we packed our rice in a bed sheet and were off to India from where my father joined the muktibahini. I still remember hearing gunshots behind us,’ recalls the artist sitting in her studio.
‘May be I needed therapy. I am still traumatised from my experience during the first few days of the war,’ she hastens to add.
She claims that much of what she has produced over the years are about irrational fear, a fact some people, especially who are rabid rationalist, might take with a pinch of salt.
‘Now that I am able to hark back and think what really incited me to resort to art, I would say that it was to escape from fear, especially fear of death. Irrational fear, loneliness and also because of curiosity about death, nature and life are what distilled into art as far as I am concerned. Art was my retreat from reality.’ says Rokeya, sending across to her audience some words of reassurance from time to time so that we do not consider her colloquy as sheer drivel.
The story goes as follows: Rokeya’s childhood was spent in Rawalpindi where she, the sixth child of her parents, lived the life of a loner since childhood, and were distant from her siblings. The child she befriended there when she was only five was a baker who worked in the neighbour’s household. The death of the younger sister of that roti maker left an eternal scar on Rokeya’s psyche.
‘I saw this image of the whitened child, lying dead on the floor. From that point on, a certain uneasiness as well as uncanny fear gripped me. And I remember asking my mother time and again what happens to a human being after death. I was too curious and too overwhelmed by the experience of death at that tender age,’ she relates.
But one must also overlap the trauma with the joy — Rawalpindi gave rise to some of the most magical moments too. ‘The yellow orange summer — you could feel the hot, scorching days in your consciousness there. It was a time when cities had their open spaces, trees and vegetations, for a child the experience was crucial, she emphasises. In her work, the colour orange dictates in many a canvas.
‘I used to talk to flowers and trees and my sisters never used to bother me. I roamed the world of my imagination where fairies and spirits inhabited,’ says Rokeya.
‘If you look at my first few experimental works that I did at Santiniketan, from where I completed my Masters of Fine arts in 1983, you will see that the fantastic is there and also the uncanny fear about death is there,’ claims Rokeya, who was lucky enough to study printmaking under the aegis of three stalwarts of Indian art — Somnath Hore, Sanat Kar, and Lalu Prasad Shaw.
‘It was Somnath Hore who taught me how to concretise my drawings into expressive forms,’ she says, adding that ‘if I didn’t go to Kala Bhabana (the art faculty in Santiniketan) I would not have become the artist I am today.’
In Dhaka, when she was inspired by many a relative to get into art college, her parents were apprehensive. ‘They were more than worried in fact. They groomed me as a culturally inclined girl, but boggled at the thought of their youngest daughter pursuing studies in art,’ Rokeya remembers.
Her brother was particularly anxious about her wish to enter Art College and thought it was futile to plan a career in the arts, especially by a woman.
‘Once I was allowed to take admission, what irked him is the unnatural schedule — I started early in the morning and for outdoor studies, had to stay back till late afternoon,’ Rokeya recalls, adding that this made them feel uneasy since the image of the modest girl did not fit into the schedule she had to maintain.
‘A girl from a Muslim family back in the early 1970s returning home in the ungodly hours of the evening seemed to have given them the creeps. But I feel that the society was much safer for a young woman back then compared to what the situation is now, today,’ she says.
Asked whether her coming from a rather respectable family, since her father was a superintendent of police, had anything to do with such restrictions, she says, ‘Maybe, since they feared that I would bring disgrace to the family.’
However, once she landed on the turf of the then art collage, where all the art world luminaries were teachers, her enthusiasm doubled. ‘In retrospect, I see Safiuddin Ahmed as a mentor who helped me develop discipline and get grip of the technical aspect of the medium, whereas, Mohammad Kibria provided the basis for developing an understanding about what is elusive, what we are unable to see but actively guide us in our artistic pursuit — he used to say, truth is eternal and if you look closely you would see that every individual has a unique set of fingers, and this must reflect in your art,’ Rokeya recalls.
Her grounding in art came from these two celebrated artists of her previous generation. These are artists who gave shape to art education in Bangladesh as avid practitioners of printmaking. Rokeya also started teaching in 1987 and to her students she was able to hold out some new insights into image, colour and form as well as a sanguinary vision of the world.
As the reticent faculty, Rokeya’s mysterious beauty worked magic on the students of the printmaking department. She was able to make them pursue along the line that she thought were best suited to their abilities. She was also one of those teachers who unhesitantly communicated what she thought lay latent in her students. Today after spending decades in teaching, she says, ‘I had learnt so many things from my students.’
Being an artist and a mother, Rokeya Sultana’s ascent to fame had not been an easy ride. She could not avail herself of the opportunity to apply for a scholarship that would necessitate her to travel abroad when her daughter Laura was young. Laura’s marriage in 2010 made her feel free to take a hiatus and spend time all by herself to see what happens to her style and practice. The Fulbright scholarship she received in 2012 provided an opportunity to spend nine months exploring a new technique of acid-free print. The results were amassed in ‘Fata Morgana’, her 14th solo exhibition in Dhaka’s now defunct Bengal Lounge.
The scholarship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln exposed her to another bout of uncanny experiences. ‘It was a desolate place and the hostel that got into, there was a student next door who always had a dog as her companion — I heard that the dog protected her. But I never met her. As I arrived there in winter, the solitude seemed absolute. I used to go to bed saying Ayatul Kursi to ward off bad spirit,’ she confesses.
But artistically she struck gold and that she arrived at a new threshold in printmaking — in terms of aesthetic quality and technicality — the solo exhibition in 2012 at Bengal Lounge attested to it.
She received man a laurel for her contribution to art. Notable among several awards include 3rd Bharat Bhavan International Print Biennale in 1995, Bengal Foundation Award at the National Art Exhibition in 1999, Bangladesh Charushilpi Sangsad Biennale Award (2000), French Govt Scholarship at L’Atelier Le Couriere et Frelaut (2003), Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award at the National Art Exhibition 2002, Fulbright Research Award in 2012, residency at College of Art and Design, University of New South Wales, Sydney in 2015, Indira International Imprint Art Festival 2017, India in 2017.
Rokeya is still a member of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka.
For the young people who now jostle for space in the social media, she says, art cannot be conceived as social-political projects! That the changing patterns of life would leave an impact on all of us is a fact we must take account of. But that doesn’t mean that we need to swerve towards a new, unknown horizon. ‘I do not understand these new developments where artistic ideas sit too close to science or sociology. May be I would, in the future,’ Rokeya concludes.
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