Run an image search in Google and type ‘Sheikh Mohammed Sultan’. You will get a series of pictures of Dubai Sultans in their various regal attires. Change the search into ‘all’ and see the pages popping up; they too show various Sultans from the Middle Eastern countries. But you are not really looking for these royal heads. You are in search of an artist who lived his life the ‘way’ he wanted. Far from the madding crowd, from the glitter and glamour of the celebrity world of successful artists, at the banks of river Chitra in Narail District, Bangladesh, this ‘Sultan’ lived, painted, exhibited and both the liberal and the conservative governments of the country finally had to acknowledge his contributions towards humanity through his art by conferring the country’s highest civilian award, ‘Ekushey Padak’ in 1982. In 1994, Sheikh Mohammed Sultan aka SM Sultan, a ‘political’ artist who lived that word to the core passed away at age of 71.
SM Sultan did not seek fame and fortune. As he did not go after these, we did not come to know about him. We have this wonderful tendency to celebrate anybody as genius provided he/she has gained material success. Subodh Gupta’s works look extremely exotic when we see those works against the fact that Gupta has recently bought a house for Rs.100 Crores. When an artist purchases a BMW and claims that he is a ‘political’ artist, we tend to believe his words. Most of our political artists debate their hearts out for the poor and downtrodden at the conference halls of the India Habitat Centre and India International Centre and once the heated discussions are over, and the bourgeoisie and fascist regimes are toppled then and thereby force, fatigued these political artists head to the nearest five star watering holes to down some expensive drinks to drown that revolutionary weariness. SM Sultan was none amongst these; Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh too had/has an elite but Sultan shunned it like plague. Sultan was a political artist. And he never claimed to be one.
(work by SM Sultan)
When I go through the life and times of SM Sultan, I cannot just resist myself from drawing parallels with the life and times of our own Ram Kinkar Baij. Strange it is that geniuses manifest on the face off this earth in regular intervals, perhaps in the same geographical locations but eerily separated by the thin membrane of nationalities, lack of information or even by chance. Ram Kinakar Baij was seventeen years older to SM Sultan. In the childhood, however both of them passed through the phase of poverty and struggle. But what goaded them through those tough days was their indomitable spirit to create beauty. Baij was found out by Ramananda Chatterjee, the noted scholar and editor of Modern Review and introduced him to Tagore in Santiniketan and the rest is history. Sultan did not have money to study art and Calcutta Government School of Art was the only institutions that beckoned him. The Zamindar of his village, Dhirendranath Roy offered him a scholarship and the young Sultan reached Calcutta, only to be ‘found out’ by the poet and art critic Shahid Suhrawardi (1890-1965). Suhrawardi prepared the young Sultan to be a future art student and artist.
Sultan was ‘political’ from the very beginning. Within three years, even after studying under the illustrious artist Mukul De who had encouraged his students to throw the British style of copying masters to learn skills and paint from life, Sultan felt that his life was not to be spent inside the classrooms. Sultan became a wanderer. The Second World War was on and along his routes Sultan found military encampments. He drew the portraits of the soldiers and the villages around those camps. He went to Shimla and lived there amongst the villagers. He also had a stint in Kashmir. All these while, written documents as well as sparsely available visual documents say that Sultan was painting landscape and a little bit of people here and there in Impressionistic style, especially that of Van Gogh. After 1947, he went to back to his own village but soon left for Karachi in Pakistan, where he did some teaching and conducted some exhibitions. An international artists’ exchange program took him to the US in 1951 and he could travel there extensively and conduct exhibitions in all the major cities including Washington DC and Chicago. While coming back he visited Britain and participated in a group show which also featured Picasso, Braque and Dali in London.
(work by SM Sultan)
Sultan was political the way Buddha was political in his time. There was a sea change in Sultan once he came back from the US. The materialism of the world seemed to have choked his soul. He retreated to a dilapidated house near the River Chitra and shunned all human contacts for a few years. In the meanwhile Sultan developed the life style of a hermit living with snakes, reptiles, birds, cats and dogs. Slowly he started befriending the rural folk who toiled in the soil to create food for the country. He wondered why those people who work for two square meals a day and owned no land, never got featured in any of the city talks, films, art forms and so on. Sultan felt that the country as a whole and the world in general was doing absolute injustice to the peasant folk of his country; not just of his country but the peasants of any country. He decided that he should be painting the life and times of these peasants. More than that, he decided that he should be painting for the folks, not for the considered appreciation of the connoisseurs in the urban centres. Sultan broke his silence with people. He started meeting the villagers who soon grew fond of him. Children came to learn drawing from him. Like his master Dey, Sultan too asked the children to paint whatever came to their mind or whatever they liked. Poor villagers came to him thinking that they could get some food. He did provide them with food and soon they too were found painting.
An artist operating from outside the economics of the country would find it difficult to gather raw materials for his works. Sultan did not have anything to do with the mainstream economy. Hence he visited village shops, collected gunny bags, seasoned and strengthened it by adding some natural glue. He created his own colours using various oxides; villagers came to help him in making his canvases and also in preparing colours. He painted the lives of the people around him; and made it a point that he would never feature anything urban in his works. He saw the impoverished peasants living in abject poverty and deprived living conditions. Sultan decided to redeem them like a romantic prophet, in his canvases. He painted them with highly accentuated musculatures. The musculatures ceased to look like human muscles on the contrary they started looking like decorative embellishments. He painted complex narratives bringing the agriculture related life of the poor peasants as if they were warriors in the battle of survival and Sultan insisted that in this battle the final victory was always of the peasants. The complex narratives painted by Sultan in his innumerable canvases also show the artist’s familiarity with the mural paintings not only Indian but also of Europe. Somehow, our fixed ideas of reading a work of art under the light of world or national art history fail here in the case of Sultan mainly because he never fixes his works on a single stylistic feature. There is a sense of destabilization in his narratives and apparently what holds them together as the works of Sultan is the presence of musculature. There have been efforts by a few Bangladeshi writers to locate Sultan’s works somewhere in the scheme of Paul Gauguin but both thematically and historically Sultan differs completely from Gauguin. Sultan could never have exoticized or exploited his own people.
(Lumbini Series by KCS Panicker)
When Sultan painted in his dilapidated mansion which was good for shooting a horror movie than actually living in, cats and birds came and climbed on his canvas and looked him working. He never shooed them away, rather he loved them to be there. If there was a plant growing between him and the canvas, he never disturbed the plant and tried to paint above the plant. For the interested ones to see Sultan’s paintings, he/she had to go to the some other houses or shops where they could find his large canvases used as room partitions or reinforcements to roofs. Sultan never thought his paintings were of any other use than what people think about them. Some people, when they saw Sultan painting their live stock celebrated the artist. Some said the plants in his works were their plants. Villagers were very happy about Sultan’s paintings which made Sultan more and more indebted to them and their lives. Sultan was like Baij in these ways. Sultan never married because he was a person not fit for a familial life. But once he developed a close relationship with the village folk, he grew fond of a destitute widow with two daughters and brought them to live with him in the ruined building. One can think of a parallel with Radharani in Baij’s life.
The more I look at the works of Sultan, the more I think about the paintings of K.C.S.Panicker done in 1960s. In his Lumbini series, and all those works he did before embarking on the legendary ‘Words and Symbols’ series, Panicker had created certain stylized images and with the help of that stylization he had even painted clusters of people one of which is surprisingly titled as ‘Malabar Peassants.’ Panicker took a different route and ended up in a very complex art lingua which later helped many of his disciples to escape from reality to some romantic notions about spirituality. Sultan was a materialist in that sense; but a materialism that worked against the capitalist materialism. He placed his works clearly against the urban agenda of development. He found the ‘inner strength’ of the peasant folk and insisted that the ornamental musculature in his paintings is nothing but the inner strength of the poor peasants.
(Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier shooting Adam Surot)
Sultan would have been lost to the world despite the awards and recognition he had received from the neo-rich and the middle class in Bangladesh, had it not been the two decade long documentary efforts of late Tareque Masud. He wanted to study films in Pune Film institute. Masud had obtained a scholarship also. But General Irshad captured power in Dhaka and cancelled all Indian scholarship. Masud collected money from family sources and decided to go to New York to pursue his interest. But then he heard that Sultan was ailing. Between New York and Sultan, Masud waited for a sign to decide. He was waiting at a bus stop and it was getting late. The more he stood there the more he thought of Sultan and by the time the bus arrived, Masud had dropped the New York idea. He put the money to buy film rolls and his university friend Mishuk Munier as cameraman, Masud went into the making of ‘Adam Surot’ (Inner Strength). Today, we learn more about SM Sultan through this humble documentary by Masud which was released in 1989. Unfortunately, Tareque Masud and Mishuk Munier died in a car accident in 2011. Masud’s was a political act of making a documentary on a political artist who stood outside the mainstream course of art.
PS: I am thankful to my mentor, K.S.Radhakrishnan for introducing me to the life and times of SM Sultan and related research materials.