When poetry coalesces into painting

Shihab Sarkar | Published: September 20, 2018 22:12:25 | Updated: September 22, 2018 21:07:54

Atia Islam poses in front of her award-winning artwork None Shall Blow the Siren before Destruction. —Photo: courtesy New Age via the Internet

"In times of crisis it is wise to keep silent." The words are ascribed to Chanakya, the 4th century BCE Indian teacher, scholar and strategist. He is credited with playing a great role in founding the Maurya Empire. According to many academics, the quote befits a man of Chanakya's stature who is recognised as one of the most intelligent and alert minds of ancient India. But it doesn't strike a chord with a lot of others, including creative artists in general. Despite being temperamentally solitary, few of them would prefer a life detached from day-to-day travails and turbulence. As a result, they even term Chanakya shrewd and escapist.

Crises and socio-political transitions have been affecting artists and troubadours since the early days of civilisations. Few true artists can afford to remain aloof from turmoil rocking the lives of their countrymen. In the early 20th century, T.S. Eliot couldn't turn away from the political and psychological fallout of the World War-I. The same is true with the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. His prophetic lines from the 1919 poem The Second Coming carries the incisive and despairing view the poet formed on man's predicament in the post-War times. The lines "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …" have later been universalised to narrate all forms of decay. T.S. Eliot resorted to expressing disillusionment with the erosion of values and collapsing institutions of his times. Wry observations depicting existential hollowness and futility emerged as his stamp. This unique tonality could be seen in his poems the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) and The Waste Land (1922).

As has been seen in all parts of the world, a section of visual artists never fail to be moved by poems written in line with their insights. A lot of poets inspire their contemporary and future artists who register their mood in the canvasses. With some, the process works indirectly. Thus the bleak view of the times as held by Eliot finds a dominant place in the work of the Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Bacon's grotesque and distorted figures and images could be traced to the poems by many post-WW-I poets.

A similar portrayal distinguishes the art scenario of Bangladesh. As part of modernism in the arts, this country, especially its capital Dhaka, has long been used to the fraternity between painters and poets. Perhaps to prove this fact, the Bangladesh artist Atia Islam produced a work recently on being inspired by a poem by Rafiq Azad. The painting is titled None Shall Blow the Siren before Destruction. In Bangla it reads Dhwangser Agey Keu Siren Bajabe Na. The line is taken from an early poem by noted Bangladesh poet Rafiq Azad, who died in 2016. Like the poem itself, the 12x7 feet art work is replete with a number of allegorical presences of human brutality, morbid love for violence and apathy on the part of oppressors towards the sufferings of mankind. The painting of Atia Islam received a Grand Prize along with two other works at an Asia-based art exhibition in Dhaka. The other artists are Bangladesh's Salma Zakia Brishti and Kandan G from India. The artworks are on display at the month-long 18th Asian Art Biennale that opened at the Art Gallery of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy on September 01. President Mohammad Abdul Hamid inaugurated the grand event and handed over the coveted awards among the winners. Apart from the Grand Prize, three artists from Bangladesh and three from China, Thailand and Palestine received Honourable Mention Awards. This year's biennale features 583 paintings by 199 local and 266 foreign artists.

The blood-curdling orgies of mutilation and, finally, the killing of the faculty of conscience along with isolated protests dominate Atia's award-winning painting. The visual is noticeably sparsely peopled. But an inner power to jolt the viewers into a shocking awakening makes the work appear like a vivid account of the plight of humanity in transition. The scene unfailingly recreates the images and motifs of hubris and the domineering trends on the part of the powerful. Like her deliberately distorted figures -- all of them without heads, as found in the works of Francis Bacon or the Kolkata-based artist Jogen Chowdhury, the six figures in Atia's canvas finally emerge as being representatives of some primitive instincts in man. Upon a sharp scan of the fragmented yet interlinked human figures in the paining, the viewers are left with a bitter and caustic taste in their mouth. Yet despite being highly troubling in nature, the latent message of the artist doesn't fail to effuse through the work. Notwithstanding her in-depth look at the dark recesses of human selves, Atia doesn't fail to discover the faint rays of light. A socially conscious artist in essence, Atia Islam, also known as Anne, hardly forgets her obligation of remaining in tune with the pulse of her times. As an artist she finds her creative passion continuously being shaped by the events occurring around her.

A graduate from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dhaka University, Atia belongs to the country's artistic generation of the 1980s. Like many poets of her own and previous generations, she developed a liking for pointing towards the anomalies and hypocrisies in society. Alongside, premonitions of an approaching catastrophe, in both social and global contexts, have unceasingly added to her deepening feeling of dread. Like any conscious poet, Atia apparently loathes the thought of being detached from realities. Instead, constant changes in the way of viewing things define her creative process. As her works show, Atia is fully aware of her distinctively developing artistic self -- one that prefers exploring the gloomier aspects of life to remaining relaxed in 'feminine' or 'feminist' issues. Perhaps thanks to this distinctive temperament, Atia feels inclined to tear through the deceptive veil hiding the macabre and the dark, as well as throw focus on the prevalent mood of escapism that blurs the scars of injustice.

Production of artworks based on poetry is no novelty in this country. An exhibition of paintings based on the poems by selected poets of the country was held in the capital in 1974. The artist was Mohiuddin, a passionate poetry lover. It was followed by another poetry-based display of paintings by Kazi Hassan Habib in the late 1980s. But Atia Islam stands out with her penchant for focusing on social realities and her subconscious commitment to peace. In an indirect way, Atia's present form of development can be traced back to the launch of the anti-autocracy poetry festival and its platform Jatiya Kabita Parishad in the mid-1980s. Although essentially an anti-establishment and anti-oppression organisation comprising poets, it also embraced painters of the country. While Shamsur Rahman was at the forefront of the poets, revered artist Quamrul Hassan led the painters in the anti-autocracy movement comprising creative people. Perhaps in an ever-living token of complementariness between poetry and painting, Quamrul Hassan passed away on the dais of Poetry Festival while giving finishing touches to a sketch on February 02, 1988.

 Being an artist emerging in the restive 1980s, Atia Islam and some of her contemporaries had reasons to help take the painting-poetry assimilation forward. For various reasons many of her fellow artists found it rewarding to switch over to pure arts, aesthetics to be precise. As a rebel, Atia discovered herself being continuously drawn to social realism as expressed in poetry.


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