Sultan lived his art, that is to say, his life was synonymous with his art. He embarked on a journey to find what lies beyond pragmatic instruments of knowledge, to retrieve the celebratory impulse that lends life its celestial beauty.
A child of nature, a wild one at that, Sultan did not try to idealise bucolic life that glints off the edge of our nostalgia, harking back to a pristine past. He did not estrange man from nature. Man appears aggrandized as he is invested with a messianic aura. His figures attain a rotundity which became a hallmark of Sultani touch. Round, swirling strokes, puffing up the bodies inordinately, testify to a gesture towards inverse idolatry: the figures are larger-than-life entities, architects of their own fate, and in abeyance of providential divinity. They are seen awash in the glory of their own labour. They have grown out of the soil they till, thus being akin to the crops they yield. These bodies seal the peasant’s birthright to the land, and the significance of the inextricability of one from the other.
Sultan’s palette widely varied in both range and pitch. Sultan’s strokes oscillate between fluidly rhythmic sweeps to jaggedly staccato jabs. When he played with the tonality of colours, the softer, almost tentative plasticity of these fecund strokes leaves no doubt in one’s mind that Sultan was preoccupied with rendering his pictorial planes with a temporality that is not specific to any historical time and space.
A free-spirited artist, Sultan’s soul was anointed with a restlessness that remained unchanged to the very end of his life. He lorded over a life of his own design in conformity to his own panache. His birth in poverty could not deflect his precocity to draw. This enfant terrible, who refused to succumb to boundaries -- be they natural or artificial -- attracted generous patronage all throughout his life.
Shahid Suhrawardy played a pivotal role in enrolling him to Calcutta Art School. Very predictably, though, he failed to obtain any academic certification degree. Yet, his nomadic forays took him all across India or what became of it after the partition; he travelled far and wide, to the US, UK and France, not to mention his intermittent sojourns in Pakistan. But it was Narail, his hometown in Jessore, where he returned time and again, and finally settled. He was embraced by the genteel with open arms, yet chose to wager his fate with the ones who hovered beyond the pale of privilege. He raised a menagerie of animals and birds; he looked after orphans around his solitary life which every so often would resound with the haunting tune of his flute. He decked himself in sarees with flowers tucked in his long, wavy locks.
In terms of proximity of style, Shahbuddin came close to Sultan. Both dwelled upon the innate force of resilience that compels every human caught in a struggle to resist. Shahabuddin’s protagonists who came forth as symbols of the indomitable spirit feeding on a heroic lust for freedom, were inspired by the freedom fighters; they are not be misconstrued as representative of a home-grown nationalist ardour. However, Sultan is poised at a remove, quietly spinning a tale of humans in their earthly habitat. His men and women too are immersed in a struggle for emancipation, “emboldened” in stature through their collectivity, to regain what is lost.
Sultan’s Jessore is famous for its special form of needlecraft. In reference to the “embroidered quilt”, he once said the design requires one to be spontaneously guided by his/her own instinct, and to err on the side of caution, one needs only to be conscious of his natural surrounding and be able to re-present it honestly through these patterns. Suffice it to say, this is just as true for Sultan’s art!
Sharmillie Rahman writes short fiction. Occasionally she delves into writing on art.