Maverick and Spiritualist
SM Sultan’s 25th death anniversary today
SM Sultan was born in 1923 in Masimdia, Narail district. After merely five years of schooling in Victoria Collegiate School in Narail, he joined his father to work as a mason. At one stage, he joined the Calcutta Art School but left the institute without completing his degree.
Today marks the 25th death anniversary of SM Sultan.
A bohemian and mystic, Sultan's works delve deep into rural life - especially peasants, fishermen, day labourers and their simple lives. His works articulate the lives of the working class. His works mainly focus on disadvantaged communities, but also highlight their power of unity and the struggle for power. His paintings visually narrate stories of rural households, where men and women are seen immersed in chores and farmers toiling in the fields. His figures are muscular and powerful, denoting a sense of prosperity - a vision the artist had for rural Bengal. Sultan drew male figures influenced by the European Renaissance tradition, while his women - buxom and curvaceous - belong to the old Indian tradition. Tiny huts and villages are also seen in the paintings. Sultan was mainly recognised for his depiction of rural beauty and villagers.
About him, artist Samarjit Roy Chowdhury said, "Sultan was not only a globally renowned artist but also a philanthropist. When I was admitted to Dhaka Art College (now Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka) in 1955, the college was in Segun Bagicha and Sultan lived in a tiny room behind the college. He frequently visited the institute. He always had a flute with him. In the 1950s and 1960s, I came across many articles on him in several English newspapers and journals published from West Pakistan."
Artist Ranjit Das said, "On a first impression at Sultan's paintings, one gets the impression of strength and vigour. His canvas is huge and denotes the harmony, simplicity and integrity of villagers. He was a good-natured secular. He had the rare ability to quickly become the centre of attention at any social and cultural gathering."
Mohammad Eunus, Professor of Graphic Design Department, Faculty of fine Arts, said, "A bachelor and spiritualist, Sultan stayed in a bucolic environment at Narail. He lived with an adopted family and pets. He had a great fascination for both domestic and wild animals. He liked the company of children which encouraged him to do several projects for children. He later built a mini-zoo at his home."
On first looking at SM Sultan's paintings, one gets the impression of vastness and strength. His canvas is large, like a spacious stage where life's dramas are played out. The cast of the drama consists of agricultural labourers, fishermen, simple householders, and toiling men and women. The men pose an enigma, since their large muscular and sinewy bodies contrast oddly with the emaciated physique of real life farmers and fishermen wasted by hard labour and hunger. Yet, in painting after painting, mostly in oil, but some in striking watercolours, Sultan painted the same human figures, symbolically suggesting the possibility of a dream rather than reality. Sultan believed in an arcadia where happiness and contentment would reign, yet was acutely aware of the exploitation, violence and deprivation that were the daily fare of the life of the villagers.
The tension between expectation and reality is a strong undercurrent in his paintings, sometimes ironising his contrasted studies of innocence and deceit. His strong-bodied men fight with spears for a newly risen sandbank, or kill a fellow villager in a clan war yet, in moments of domestic repose; they revert to their roles of caring fathers or husbands. At times, they turn into thinking figures, as in Reminiscence. His men are drawn in the European Renaissance tradition while his women- supple-breasted and graceful- belongs to the old Indian tradition. Instead of delicate lines however, Sultan uses strong curved lines, and flat body tones so that they do not stand apart from the crowd of active males.
Sultan received the Ekushey Padak, Swadhinata Padak, Bangladesh Charu Shilpi Sangsad Padak and other prestigious awards.
The master painter died in 1994.
The writer is a freelance contributor.