It was to be a comprehensive retrospective, comprising over one hundred works, sourced from several collections, to represent over four-decades of practice of the Bangladeshi artist, Rokeya Sultana. Scheduled to open today at the Lalit Kala Akademi galleries in New Delhi, the exhibition was to mark 50 years of the liberation of Bangladesh. However, now the exhibition stands postponed until further notice due to a last-minute withdrawal of support from Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), which partnered with Bengal Foundation of Dhaka to bring the exhibition to Delhi. This comes amidst news of violence in Bangladesh during Durga Puja. However, when the journalist reached out to Amit Sahai Mathur, programme director at the ICCR on the reason for the withdrawal, the official had no comments to make.
This might be a good time to look at Sultana’s work, which continues to be relevant through the decades. Her oeuvre is somewhat autobiographical. Feminist in nature, her art revolves around the suppression of women, their desire, and societal limitations. “It may seem that I am portraying the negative and dark side of things. But I am conveying the resilience and sheer fighting spirit of the women in my country and world at large,” she says.
Trained as a printmaker and painter, Sultana received the ICCR scholarship to travel and study in Shantiniketan in 1980. Her parents had a conservative outlook and to deter a persistent daughter, they married her off. “My father thought it was the best way to ensure I did not travel but I was determined,” she says. Much against the will of her family, she came to Shantiniketan to pursue her masters. There, she interacted with the Indian modernists. She studied under the guidance of Somnath Hore, whom she considers to be her mentor.
Like Hore, her works expressed human suffering and pain. For Sultana, the reference was the 1971 liberation war. She was 12 years old then. With her father in the police force, she closely experienced brutalities. “We fled from our house in the middle of the night. Bullets and shells were falling like water in the rain. I still vividly recall my mother holding my hand and running,” she reminisces.
She witnessed her father burying bodies of women who were raped and tortured before being killed. The plight of women as a result of the war was particularly moving for Sultana. The event led to large-scale displacement and migration. She vividly felt the sorrow her own mother went through. She felt the impact of these events even more after she became a mother herself. Seemingly minor things that Sultana could do to care for her daughter felt like a blessing in contrast to what her mother had to go through.
Speaking about the critically acclaimed body of work titled Madonna, she says, “I tried hard to make works around the theme of mother-daughter when my child was an infant. But I did not succeed. Many years later, around 1991-92, I made the first of the Madonna series”. Over the years, she has continued to expand on the series, examining various aspects of being a woman in a society.
Sultana’s figurative work often uses imagery that appears abstracted. “There is so much that is unseen in the universe. Some of the forms in my works are like those creatures and objects that we do not see, but they exist,” she says. Most of her non-representational work depicts her vision of ecology and nature. Her series, titled Fata Morgana, references the unusual mirage that can be seen from both land and sea, exploring the relationship between perception and reality.
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The postponement, on the eve of the scheduled opening, comes as a disappointment. Luva Nahid, Director General of the Bengal Foundation in Dhaka says this is a historic project that not only showcases the celebrated artist’s journey but also celebrates half a century of friendship between India and Bangladesh. “Such hitches happen but we are hopeful to get new dates soon,” she says. For curator Ina Puri, the author of the monograph on Sultana, which was to be launched alongside the exhibition, the focus needs to be on the art which has no religion. “A lot has gone into the making of the exhibition and many of us have worked through the pandemic for this first major show of a Bangladeshi artist in India,” she says.
However, during our conversation, Sultana remained upbeat and relaxed. “Throughout my life I have seen adversities. I see the good in everything negative. I have learnt tremendously from India and share deepest friendships with artists here. And that friendship will continue…,” she says.