How we can learn about our history through art
Is there any artist in Bangladesh who uses the complex socio-political premise of 18th century Bengal as the main theme?
“To the best of my knowledge, no one has done a series on events prior to, and post the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which resulted in the fall of the local Nawab, and consolidated the power of the British East India Company,” says New York-based Bangladeshi artist, Firoz Mahmud.
At the moment, his exhibition titled “Reverberation” (Ouponibeshik/Porouponibeshik) is running at the Abinta Gallery of Fine Arts.
But Firoz is unlike any other artist. His work emphasizes on colonial Bengal, starting from the fall of Nawab Sirajuddaula, amidst a web of duplicity and palace intrigue, to the repressive regime under the East India Company, which bled Bengal, while triggering famines, diseases, suffering, and prolonged economic hardship.
By the way, Firoz is not a budding artist at all, he has been around for more than two decades -- in the late 90s though, his artwork used the macabre and the paranormal as main subjects.
“From the diabolical, I veered towards historical events and took the colonial period as my topic, since the political turmoil prior to Plassey, and the decades just after it, have hardly been covered in visual art.”
Research leads to fascinating discovery
The most intriguing part of taking up the task of painting colonial era history is the need for thorough research to avoid anachronisms and errors. Firoz dived into available books and narratives, bringing out the oft-neglected facts which played a significant role in the eventual debacle in Plassey.
“The East India Company, led by Lord Clive, resorted to chicanery, but the loss in the battle was also due to the weaknesses in the young and impetuous Nawab,” contends Firoz, pointing to one of his artwork which delicately shows the political maneuverings with close aides engaged in a conspiracy with the Nawab.
Obviously, such interpretations of Siraj may seem like sacrilege to many because, in textbooks and films, the Nawab was/is always portrayed as flawless.
Only when one is studying history at the university level, does the question about neutral assessment comes out, giving the student a chance to bring out the much-flawed man from an infallible status.
Firoz read books, talked to historians, and came up with a series of works, depicting the selfish trade of the company which forced many to cultivate opium and indigo in Bengal to be shipped to China.
The oppression, failed opposition, and uprisings
The collection of artwork goes from the pre-Plassey days to the time immediately after the defeat, when machinations and deceit were ubiquitous. Set against a grim background, Firoz tries to tell of the failed attempt of Mir Qasim Ali Khan, the son-in-law of Mir Zafar, who realized the threat from the company and waged war, known as Battle of Buxar in 1763, but lost.
Under a sinister shade, he paints Hector Munro, the victorious British officer, along with Mir Qasim -- the haunting work depicts owls, signs of good luck, surround the former, indicating success for the company.
In progression, the artist also touches the systematic destruction of Bengal’s rich economy, imposition of heavy taxes, mistreatment of locals, the condescending attitude towards local customs by the East India Company, and the steady decline of the region.
But, why paint an unsavoury part of history, when everything about that particular period is linked to loss, defeat, and humiliation?
Firoz has a very rational answer: “There are two reasons -- first, to give a detailed idea about the socio-political dimensions of that period while remaining non-partisan, and two, to showcase the depredations caused in the post-Plassey decades, often with the blatant collusion of locals.”
His first point is corroborated by the poignant painting which depicts the Calcutta Black Hole tragedy, in which 143 British prisoners suffocated to death in a small dungeon after Nawab Sirajuddoula seized Fort William in June 1756, a year before Plassey.
As an extension to the series, Firoz also has plans to depict the quashed Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or the first war of independence.
Again, a topic which has not been painted by anyone in Bangladesh.
More historical art is needed
In New York, when the colonial oeuvre was showcased, there was an overwhelming response from historians, because so far, 18th-century history of Bengal, along with the period prior to and post-Plassey, had been mainly painted by Western artists.
“These works only glorify the victory of the East India Company, cautiously sidelining the immense social suffering that came in the later years,” says Firoz.
He strongly feels that based on research, more such works are needed to highlight landmark events during the colonial period: The Sepoy mutiny, the Chittagong armoury raid by revolutionary Surya Sen, the European Club raid by Pritilota Waddedar, and the struggle of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose during WW2.
The artist, who goes back to New York after his exhibition finishes on 10 November, feels that modern day artists do not attempt to work on untouched themes.
“There has to be some risk-taking, daring endeavours on the canvas,” he feels.
As a writer, I personally think that Dhaka in the 70s, with relentless political upheaval, topped with the intoxicating enigma of leftist ideals can easily be picked up as a theme.
What say you?
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.