The cities in Indian subcontinent emerged in the last four to six hundred years ago. Their emergence was necessitated by the need of the conquerors/rulers to expand their political and economic power. Dhaka has a history of 400 plus years, Calcutta, today's Kolkata, 300 plus. While the two cities played their part in the expansion and consolidation of the Muslim rule and the British colonial rule in Bengal respectively, they also created a space for urban culture to flourish. Urbanism in Bengal was a new experience, and people dealt with it in their different ways. Basically though, the two cities were defined by their distance from the villages, their contribution to trade, commerce, politics, education, and literature and the arts and social mobility (has been noteworthy).
Dhaka, compared to Kolkata, has a more checkered history. It was the capital of a Moghul province for a long time and in 1905, was transformed into a provincial capital. The city lost that status in 1911, but regained it in 1947, only to find itself under a colonial regime. In 1971, Dhaka became a national capital, a proud city that could proclaim its greatness to the world. But the problem was, Dhaka is increasingly becoming a glass and concrete, industrial, and chaotic city that doesn't fail to impose its own demands of conformity on its inhabitants. Until very recently, Dhaka has been seen as an expanded village, most of its people newly arrived from the villages who wished the city to reflect their village associations. As a result, Dhaka, until only a few decades ago, was not considered a life denying, demanding or sordid city, but a city that you could belong to.
The village, the vast hinterland of the city, still remains a dominant presence. If one looks at Dhaka (or any other city : Chittagong, Rajshahi, Sylhet, Khulna or Barisal) - one realises how close to the villages it has remained both in terms of emotional attachment, and social bondage. While the cities in South Asia share many common histories and responses to modernisation, they have not been fully exposed to certain problems that haunt western metropolises - alienation or the outsider mentality, for example. As a result the South Asian cities, confronting these problems now, either fail to find a solution, or sweep them under the carpet.
Given the sociological and the psychological makeup of cities like Dhaka, Kolkata and Chittagong, it is not surprising that the village retains enormous power on their imagination, and, indeed, dictates terms when it comes to a confrontation with reality. Ashish Nandy, in his An Ambiguous Journey to the City writes that 'the village of the imagination has become a serene pastoral paradise. It has become the depository of traditional wisdom and spirituality, and the harmony of nature, intact community life and environmental sagacity….'
The cities cannot forget the villages; the cities have firmly placed the villages in the position of 'the Other', an entity that gives meaning and value to the 'Self' as long as the Self remains important force that admits an alterity for a better understanding of life's missions.
Nandy tells us that a great failure of Indian imagination has been its inability to imagine the village, what Nandy doesn't consider, however, is that the village already has a place in popular imagination - it does not have to be imagined or reimagined, as it has become a real life presence, even for those who have migrated to the city a couple of generations ago.
When we talk about the beginning of art activities in Dhaka, we refer to a time which is as recent as 1940s, which is surprising given the city's history dating back to the middle of the 16th century. This is so because we have no record of any art activities in Dhaka prior to the 20th century, and we simply don't know if any Bangladeshi artist took the trouble of painting or sketching Dhaka before that, as we simply don't have any record. The little evidence we have of art being practised in Dhaka is from such European artists such as Charles D'Oyly or the nameless artist who did some spectacular work that were brought together in a collection in 1840 but not from any Bangladeshi artist. It was not before the early part of the 20th century that any Bengalee artist can be traced who was active in the art scene of the city. And the work they did was mere portrait paintings and conversation pieces. Many artists made their living by painting signs and cinema banners but they can't be put into the same category as 'modern' artists. They were in fact relegated to 'naïve' artists, a term that is redolent of high-low divide in our art.
Bangladeshi art has traditionally been dominated by a rural imagination that is, at the same time, romantic, nostalgic and celebratory. Rural or folk imagination has never been disconnected from urban history or the struggle of the city dweller to find a place in the growing concrete jungle.
If we look at how the city has been projected in our art, we soon come up with the following observations:
i) The city has been measured in opposition to the village. Therefore, the more the artists have aligned themselves with the city, the more distant the city has become. Eventually, the city is seen as a place that encloses itself around certain core activities - all of which have to do with profit, money, functionality and convenience. However, the city is a recent phenomenon in our art - it thus doesn't have the long history of many western cities where hostility towards it is both self-generated (because of ideological distances) and a result of the enforced community ethos (apartment based living, for example)
ii) The city is often presented either as a negative entity, a despoiler of green and of humanity and as a place where it is possible to revive humanity if we persist with our memories of nature.
iii) Mostly though, the city is presented through metonyms, and not through a depiction of its holistic entity. There are hardly any artists who treat the city (Dhaka or any other city) in a frontal manner, making it a central presence in their work or a special preoccupation. Sometimes an alley, or a tea stall or a wall represents the city, which then symbolizes the city's essential properties. Thus the artists' ideas of the city, and their unease, puzzle or nostalgia are only suggested, not described.
iv) Sometimes the city is presented as an absence, but an absence that is overpowering and obsessive, and not easy to forget.
v) The city is seen as a dehumanising force, a machine that empties people's vital energies and their ability to involve their minds and their imagination in everything that they do. The narratives of the city are thus cluttered with a sense of loss, bewilderment and angst.
vi) The city is also seen in opposition to nature. Many artists prefer to present the city in moments of its entanglement with the world around it. Thus a sunset or a full moon night in the city is overwhelmed by the complexities (or the possibilities of such complexities) that the juxtaposition engenders.
vii) The city, despite the complexities it presents and the problems it unfolds is, for most artists, still a marginal presence. But those who deal with it as an independent and separate entity paint it as an inevitable--but forgettable--matter of history. Unlike in the west, the city in our art doesn't offer the range of incomprehensibilities to lead to abstraction, indirect representation or limitations of understanding. Artists have no problem reading the city, but their treatment of the city shows that we are still like to imagine it in familiar terms. Artists respond to the city largely in terms of its landmark - buildings, neighbourhoods, objects, the traffic, the streets, etc. - and not in terms of stark abstractions (with a few exceptions). In art, abstraction suggests both an impossibility of imagining the totality of experience (as a result of which fragmentation becomes a necessity) and the insufficiency of meaning (thus placing the burden of imagining a meaning to the viewers). Those who use abstraction to paint the city do a brilliant job, as they can relate to the demands of abstraction and go for a separate meaning production.
viii) The city is seen by some artists, most tellingly by the rickshaw painters, as an imaginary--as a place both real and imagined.
ix) In the 1950s, when Dhaka, Chittagong and other towns were changing to assert their urban presence, artists didn't find them challenging. Dhaka, for example was still a sleepy town; there was plenty of green around, and there was a strong sense of community in the neighbourhood. Artists highlighted this aspect, more than its threats of alienation and rootlessness. Their depiction of old Dhaka evoked this sense of community and that of Dhaka's waterfront, particularly the shorelines of Buriganga dotted with buildings and trees, a reassurance that the city would retain its balance between nature and built environment.
x) The earliest paintings of Dhaka, like the ones done by D'Oyly and the unknown artist whose collection came out in 1840 project a sense of wonderment and admiration for the magnificent buildings rising along the southern part of the world was more a playground of spectacle and fantasy rather than worry.
The writer is a Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. The article, presented at a seminar held on the occasion of the month-long 17th Asian Art Biennale at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy from December 01-31, has been placed at the Financial Express by the PR Section of the Academy.