Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic forced us into the new normal of lockdown and home quarantine, the vibrant art scene in Bangladesh has lost much of its glimmer. Yet a few galleries, in their quest for discovering new avenues, hosted online exhibitions. Most notable among them were Art in the Fight Against Covid-19 (from Ma1 to 15, 2020) and Art in the Times of Coronavirus (May 15–August 15, 2020), both organised by Edge Gallery.
When we are faced with another lockdown due to resurgence of Covid-19 cases, Edge Gallery is hosting a new exhibition entitled “Colors of Tradition”, featuring artworks by Abdus Shakoor and Shambhu Acharya. The exhibition can be enjoyed digitally from the comfort of one’s home.
A few words about the folk art scene in Bangladesh seem necessary to better understand the artworks featured in this exhibition.
The national imagination changes its tenet according to the dictates of the ruling clique. No matter what tenet or foreign influence the national imagination affiliates itself with, it often fails to recognise the beauty and powers of folk art, practiced as it is by craftsmen as well as ordinary men and women far removed from the centre of cultural and political activities.
Artists, much like writers, musicians and playwrights, are creative people who show a propensity to defy the boundaries demarcated by the national imagination. The dialogue they constantly have with their own selves lead many of them to launch a search for their roots and eventually build a bridge with folk art, which is the biggest reservoir of our most authentic cultural traits.
Against the backdrop of the Language Movement, Zainul Abedin and Quamrul Hassan began promoting folk art. For them folk art was not only their way of protesting against the neo-colonial Pakistani rulers but also a political stance against hegemonic, imperialist ideologies. Both Zainul and Quamrul perfected a distinctive idiom to articulate their vision.
In its post-independence itinerary, the folk art tradition has most remarkably been revived, among others, by Abdus Shakoor and Shambhu Acharya. While both of them draw heavily on the various mythic, religious, literary and cultural tales and legends, each has carved his own unique style and idiom.
A successful academic at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, Abdus Shakoor has received numerous awards for his work both at home and abroad. Perhaps it won’t be an exaggeration to say that he is one of South Asia’s most widely celebrated painters who make diverse use of folk motif in their art.
The journey that Shakoor has embarked on as an artist is unique in many ways. Many of his water-colour paintings and pen-and-ink drawings are done in a distinct modernist vein. Vibrancy of colours is combined with a modernist subtlety of his figures in such a way that it has garnered praise from art critics and viewers alike. Yet since the 1990s he has tilted increasingly towards folk motifs, drawing on clay dolls, palm-frond paintings, punthi literature, patterns and designs sewn onto quilts (known as nakshi kantha in the vernacular), and scroll or pata paintings.
In what appears to be a drastic shift from a modernist vein to a distinct folk form devoid of all foreign influences, Shakoor seems to have retained the vibrancy of his colours, aided by the fact that water colour continues to be his preferred, if not the only, medium. The paintings featured in this exhibition bear witness to this trait of his art.
The other notable trait, that of fashioning his paintings in the style of a punthi with specific reference to characters and verses from the Mymensingh Geetika (the folk ballads of Mymensingh), is equally evident in these paintings.
What distinguishes Shakoor’s approach to the folk form of art is the way he sheds modernist traits off his paintings, assuming a simple, two-dimensional effect, making it possible for people from all walks of life to connect to them, yet retaining a subtlety that opens up many possibilities for interpretation.
That’s how, perhaps, he is also making an artistic statement: Let us not look at these motifs through a modern lens; let us rather look at the world through the lens of these tales which belong exclusively to our village folks.
Shambhu Acharya, who never received any formal training in painting, is an acclaimed pata or scroll painter who has exhibited his work at home and abroad, most notably at the Spitz Gallery in London. One often wonders how he, once an unknown painter from a village in Munshiganj, has managed to capture the national imagination in a world where recognition comes mostly through academic rigour and connections.
Acharya rather lives and breathes folk art in the sense that pata painting as a profession has passed down the family line for nine generations in his family. His father Sudhir Acharya was an award-winning pata painter. A revival of interest in folk culture has led a researcher and a culturally committed advertising agency to discover Shambhu Acharya. Once introduced to art connoisseurs and collectors in Dhaka, he never had to look back.
Patachitra or scroll painting is a once-popular form of narrative painting drawn on a piece of cotton or any other fabric portraying mythic and historic tales. As is the norm in the tradition of pata painting, Acharya makes his own canvas with a stretch of cloth and prepares his own colour with locally procured pigments and materials. In line with representational conventions of this genre, he too draws heavily on the religious myths and legends of Manasa Mangal, Radha-Krishna, Gazi Peer, and motifs such as birds and animals. From the borders of his scrolls to their overly bright, red background, Acharya remains loyal to tradition.
While Shakoor’s motifs are structurally subtle, imbued as they are with symbolic potentials, Acharya’s motifs are simple and when they carry lots of rectangular or square spaces each with their own figures, they seem to indicate progress in a story.
The future of folk art
Many forms of folk art will die out while many would grow and diversify. What makes us optimistic about its future is that it has etched itself almost indelibly on the national psyche due to ground-breaking artworks by the likes of Shakoor and Acharya. This form will survive, we can positively say.
(The exhibition, which runs from April 3 to 23, is open every day for mask-wearing visitors from 10:00am to 8:00pm. To enjoy it digitally, visit: https://www.edgegallery.com.bd/)