Bangladeshi artist who decolonised his art

Art Nilanjan Hajra
Reading Corner
Bangladeshi artist

Shiekh Muhammad Sultan was an important Bangladeshi artist. He worked both on painting and drawing. He is particularly known for his depiction of peasants in their daily life actions. In terms of artistic technique, Sultan, is renowned for moving away from colonial art techniques as he grew older. Critics consider him one of the four pioneers of Bangladeshi modernism, the others being Zainul Abedin, Saifuddin Ahmed, and Quamrul Hassan. He received several major national awards, for his contribution to art, including Bangladesh’s highest civilian award, Ekushey Padak.

Life and times of Bangladeshi artist SM Sultan 

SM Sultan was born in Jessore district on August 10, 1923. At that point in time, Jessore was in undivided British India. The Bangladeshi artist came from a very poor family. After completing his primary education, he worked, along with his father as a mason. Because of his financial difficulties initially he could not go to Kolkata to pursue his dream of studying in the Government School of Art. However, later with the support of noted author, educationist and diplomat Hasan Shahid Suhrawardy, he entered the GSA, Kolkata in 1941. The Bangladeshi artist left the school in 1944 and travelled across India. He held his first solo exhibition in Shimla in 1946.

In 1947 independence came to south Asia with the partition of India. Sultan’s homeland then became East Pakistan. And he became a Pakistani citizen. Following this he organized two more solo exhibitions in Pakistani cities, Lahore and Karachi. In 1950s he traveled to the United States on being selected in the International Art Program of the Institute of International Education, New York. Later he visited Britain. These tours gave him a deep exposure to Western art. Finally, in 1953 he returned to his homeland, and settled down in house overlooking the Chitra River. Over the next 23 years he lived as a recluse, with little connection with the outside world.

In the mean time Bagladesh became an independent and sovereign nation in 1971. This appears to have a major impact on Sultan’s art. He produced some of his best works in the 1970s and ‘80s. He passed away on October 10, 1994 in Jessore.

SM Sultan’s famous arts and works

In the 1950s the Bangladeshi artist primarily drew landscapes. Human figures appeared only passingly in his paintings. According to one noted critic, S Amjad Ali, Sultan then drew mostly from memory, and his art didn’t have any definite identity.

This changed radically in the 1970s. Human figures from then on played central roles on his canvas. He froze on the canvas particularly peasants in their daily farmland activities. What were previously his central themes, nature, rivers, villages, and fields, now became the backdrop to the activities of his human characters. He broke with all artistic conventions of the past but retained a narrative style. He had no interest in abstraction. The famous Bangladeshi artist described his own art in the following words, “The matter of my paintings is about the symbol of energy. The muscle is being used for struggling, struggling with the soil. Power of those arms drives the plough into the soil and grows crops. Labor is the basis and because of that labor of our farmers this land has been surviving over thousands of years.”


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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