Revisiting Lal Mia’s vision

Mustafa Zaman | Published: 00:00, Aug 10,2019


SM Sultan, Farmers in Confrontation, oil on canvas, 1986. - Courtesy of Bengal Foundation.

Born in 1924 into a subaltern family of Narail, Laal Miah or Sheikh Mohammad Sultan died in 1994. He left behind a legacy that helped reframe Bangladeshi art in the light of the emerging postcolonial discourse, 1980s onward. Residing somewhere between an allegory and an actual rural scene, many of his paintings unfurl what some now refer to as the archetypal scene of a peasant civilisation. Surveyed in the context of the historical battles that had been waged against the zamindars and the British colonial rulers by the people(s) of Bengal, they also resonate with the popular tales of resistance.

The maverick that Sultan was in his early years gradually evolved into a visionary. This transformation trails a long history of his personal growth. In Kolkata, where young Sultan studied art while the famous critic and poet Hassan Shahid Suhrawardy became his mentor.  

The maverick left Kolkata art school after three years without completing his study and decided to travel the world around 1944. When came back to Narail, he brought with him the vision to reorganise the social sphere from the bottom up. With his social vision verging on the utopian communism, the comparable artistic acumen saw their application in lending contours and shapes to his corpuses of resistant bodies.

In an interview with writer and poet Shahaduzzaman Munna, published in a ‘little mag’ under the title ‘A Rendezvous with Sultan’ on 1st August 1990, he aligned himself with poets such as Michael, Nazrul and Iqbal. In his work, the grand vision of the epic became entangled with the utopian vision of the rise of the underclass.

Sultan used to say that paintings were not meant to be mere decoration pieces to adorn the living-rooms of the collectors. Paintings functioned differently in his domain. They were the careers of visions to be transmitted across the social-political spaces — at least this is the function he assigned to his own paintings.

He chose to settle down in Narail, his home village, not to seek refuge in the bucolic distance, but to lend voice to the subaltern and to ‘talk back to the centre’ on their behalf.

Sultan made labour visible; he did so by skirting round the cultural-industrial expectations of the contemporary society. 

His fluid movements through myriad social geographies and his proximity with some unique personalities, his engagement with Allama Mashriqi’s Khaksar movement that sought to organise the ‘self’ and ‘Muslim sociality’ to lay the ground for decolonisation; and his sojourns in America and Europe prepared him for his canvases which soon became populated with muscular men and women. These were obvious references to the peasant population he became part of.

Sultan framed the nation as one enormous village — the place where he would plant the seeds of transformation. He dreamt of nurturing the future generation — the rural children — whom he saw as the torch bearers, who would thrive through art and creativity.

He has been associated with a number organisations that he had either attempted to set up or envisioned, though none had materialised since he neither had the heart, nor the discipline to sustain these projects. But the one that finally came into being was an informal institution—the village school he lovingly named Shishu Shargo (lit. Children’s Heaven). His was a clearly defined social-aesthetic mission which never verged on the ethereal: ‘To will a change ... to recast anew,’ is ‘beauty’, Sultan used to say.

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