The life of Sultan is important not only because it was so unique but also because of its bearing on his evolution as an artist of great distinction. The medium and the subjects of his works were determined by the phases of life through which he went. More than any other artist, for him art and life were intertwined.
Sultan demonstrated his skill at drawing at a young age. In fact he got himself admitted even without the requisite academic qualification because of his prowess in drawing. This skill he partly owed to his father, who was a mason, and to the natural talent with which he was born. While studying at the Art Institute in Calcutta and later during his travel across north India, he did numerous drawings. These were mostly portraits and of human figures in groups, with or without natural background. His drawings, whether in pencil or pen and ink, show a suppleness and fluidity that are more characteristic of water colour. He brought out the same effect of luminosity and translucence in his drawings without using colour. These are also expressionistic in nature because of the emotion of the subjects brought out suggestively by light and shade, as in his pencil sketch of ‘Mother and Child’ done in 1959. There is also an element of semi-abstraction in that lines and forms in his early drawings are not complete. This style, adopted deliberately or not, places Sultan in the modern tradition of expressionism. Most of the drawings done by him in the Fifties show these characteristics. Some ascribe these dream-like compositions to the hallucenegic effects of drugs that make one see things in less than natural forms. If that is true, then his addiction to drug contributed to his creativity in significant ways, rather than being a hindrance or a destructive force. It created a new type of drawing in black and white where multiple colours appear through suggestion of forms and their juxtaposition. Even the curves depicting clouds, denote emotions of ecstasy and billowing whiteness of smoke. Female figures in his early drawings appear lissome and delicate. In his later day drawings, done in pen and ink, this element of expressionism is absent and realism has taken over. The effect of his withdrawal from drug is palpable in those drawings done in 1980s and onward. The subject and the environment remain the same but their treatment is entirely different. The later day drawings bear the signature style of Sultan in that the figures are robust and complete in forms. But whether these are better than the drawings of his earlier period, is debatable. A comparison between the drawings of the two phases is rendered difficult by the fact that many of the earlier drawings are lost to the public or have been destroyed. During the first phase his drawings were done in every imaginable materials, many of which were brittle and did not stand the test of time.
The most important characteristic of his drawings, in all the phases, is the absence of models or actual figures. Excepting the few cases when he drew portraits of people to earn money for his living, he did not base any of his drawings on living individuals. He had a perfect sense of form and drew figure of men and women with the help of imagination. In two drawings that he did after the cyclone in Sundarbans, he depicted a tiger moving stealthily towards its prey so convincingly that it appears like a photograph. For use as illustration in the eponymous novel, Sultan made sketches of men and women in Kashmir and Punjab from memory. Anyone looking at them can immediately identify that those figure represent two different communities by virtue of their physical features and costume worn. It is true that some of the drawings in his big canvas of oil painting show distortion or incompleteness, but that may be due to enlarged scale and the large number of figures that feature in these paintings which made control over lines difficult.
Sultan must have done drawings in urban setting but those are not available for viewing. The drawings of his earlier period, when he was addicted to drug and the later period beginning from 1980s, almost all deal with village men, women and children at work. They are never shown at rest or simply posing for the drawing as inert subjects. In the drawings of the latter period there is the same muscularity and robustness in human figures as those in his paintings. So it can be said that during this period he considered himself more as a painter than a draftsman, always thinking of forms in relation to composition.
As in his paintings, the narrative of the drawings of the second phase concentrates on a limited number of themes. It is men and women working either in fields of cultivation or in the backdrop of water bodies (river, beel, etc.). Domestic scene depicting men and women working at home or in the courtyard of homestead can also be seen in some of his drawings, but they are fewer in number.
In his drawings the lines are not long and continuous. To give the impression of verisimilitude of reality, he used small and broken lines with which he depicted completeness. In some areas of the drawing the line is no bigger than a dot of colour. Through the economic use of lines he gives mere space to white which translates into luminosity and fluidity.
Towards the end of his career as an artist Sultan reverted back to water colours. This is a medium that he had used before sparingly, most probably because he did not feel comfortable in it. With advancing age and feeling of weakness at handling painting in large canvases, he might have chosen water colour again to express himself. His later day water colours are more like drawing because the figures drawn in lines predominate the scene. The role of colour seems to be to complement figures in lines. As a result both the translucency and fluidity are lost or compromised.
Among the colours, used by Sultan in his later day water colours green is common and dominant. This is because of his pre-occupation with nature. But it also creates a feeling of monotony and repetition. Water in blue, in his water colours, is also important. But it looks inert, rather than flowing, because of the dominance of figures in lines that obstruct free flow of colour.
Of all the mediums in which Sultan has worked his water colours appear to be the weakest, particularly of the later period. Perhaps if he had used this medium continuously he could execute better and more satisfactory works.
Sultan’s reputation and importance as an artist rests on his paintings. His unique style and treatment of subject are embodied in this medium. He took to painting in earnest when he stayed for sometime in Kashmir as an itinerant traveler. The ethereal beauty and idyllic atmosphere of the mountains, valley and the lake captivated his imagination. He became a landscape painter in the academic tradition, representing the reality as it appeared before his eyes. He used oil and paint on canvas in the manner that he had seen in the Art Institute in Calcutta, but there was no influence of Bengal School in his work. Rather, he used the Victorian landscape painters as his model. He was also influenced by painters like Courbet who highlighted figures of ordinary peasants in his landscapes. Sultan had seen a few reproductions of Courbet in the landlord’s house at Narail and carried the memory with him.
When he went to West Pakistan and lived in Lahore and Karachi he fell back on painting of landscapes as the staple of his works. This was because of the demand from the buyers of art works who, on social and religious grounds, preferred non-figurative paintings or paintings of landscape where figures did not dominate. As in Kashmir, the landscape paintings of this period followed the academic tradition, more or less. He was yet to develop a distinctive style of his own to make him someone out of the ordinary. In some of the paintings he used gouache and tempera. The size of the canvas was medium to fie the wall of buyers.
The visit to America and later his stay in London gave Sultan the opportunity to look at paintings and art works in museums and galleries. He was very much impressed by works of old masters like Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt. The voluptuousness of figures in paintings of Rubens might have caught his imagination. For the first time he began to think about style and idealised forms. It is not known whether the change in his outlook had immediate impact on the works that he did in London because no specimen of those works are available either in original or in photographs. But the fact that some of his paintings were exhibited along with those by Picasso, Braque, Paul Klee, Dali and other famous European painters indicate that he had developed some distinctive characteristics of his own which qualified his works to be included in the exhibition. It was the first for an artist from the sub-continent to have that honour.
On his return to Pakistan Sultan spent most of his time giving private tuition to earn his keeps. There was no major outburst of creativity and he continued in his leisurely way of working. During this period he did some water colours on the landscape of the hill station of Murree where his use of colour resembled the Impressionists, particularly in its depiction of atmosphere. These water colours are in stark contrast with those done towards the end of his life where colour was less fluid and translucent.
Sultan’s return to his native village in Narail in mid 1950s was a turning point both in his life and works. He mixed with ordinary men and women and led a bohemian life. He sang with village minstrels and moved from place to place. Like a transvestite, he changed into sari, and took on the role of women revealing his androgynous trait. He delved into the tenets of all religion trying to grasp unity in diversity. But most of all, he was moved by the plight of the peasants who worked tirelessly to eke out a living. In them and their toiling life he found the subject that resonated with his sensitivity. He painted them as larger than life, bringing out their inner strength that sustained them through thick and thin. Unlike the rickety figures of peasants that could be seen in real life, he painted them as robust and muscular. In his view that was the true representation of the toilers of the soil, whatever degradation might have visited them through the exploitation of the rich and the mighty. These paintings of sturdy peasants working the soil or catching fish in rivers were the manifestation of their invincible spirit. He hoped that one day the idealized form of peasant in his paintings would become the reality. His paintings were both a protest against exploitation and an affirmation of his faith in a better future.
In his paintings with rural setting, women figure as prominently as men. They are seen as partners in work in fields, along river banks and family courtyards. Women also are shown in corpulence, their voluptuousness reminiscent of the women in Ruben’s paintings. The role of women in his paintings done in Narail and afterwards, from 1970s to 1990s, show the importance that he gave to them. They embody both his romanticism and idealism about womanhood. The overall orientation of his paintings with rural scene and human figures in this phase seems to place him with the post-impressionists. In fact, in some of his paintings influence of Van Gogh is palpable, particularly in the idealisation of forms and thickness of colours used.
The canvass of Sultan’s paintings became bigger as he started painting rural scenes with men and women at work. In most of his paintings, a panoramic view is presented like a widescreen in films. But in the vast canvass no space is left untouched. The colour used is mostly brown, depicting his idealised men and women at one with mother earth. Next to brown, his favourite colour is green and he uses it with dramatic effect as can be seen when a pumpkin is added in a kitchen scene dominated by brown, ochre and red. The various figures and objects that bristle in his large canvas become distinct by clever use of colours. Colour is rarely loud in his paintings and in their mute presence they complement the figures and objects, rather than dominating them. Another distinctive feature of his paintings is the attention given to details. Just as no space is left alone, even the minutest detail is highlighted with tender care. Each clod of earth and object in water is marked and distinguished by drawing: lilies with leaves float on patches of water beside fields where men and women are at work; mother hens pick grains in domestic courtyards with their flock; the composed eyes of cows radiate contentment. Sultan’s minute use of space unites the text with the context.
In panoramic paintings of vast fields stretching to horizon he uses perspective mostly in the traditional way, figures and objects becoming smaller with distance. But in some paintings he tilts the perspective upwards, rather than stretching it horizontally to a vanishing point. It gives the effect of a long angle shot of camera, offering the viewers a sense of proximity to the subject by telescoping the depth. Thus the viewers become part of the scene. This technique also allows each of the myriad figures of men, women, children and domestic animals to be shown distinctly in perfect relation to each other. This unconventional approach to perspective became the hallmark of his paintings, though the purists felt uncomfortable with it.
Once Sultan found his subject and the style, there was no turning back. He was so content with this that he did not explore alternatives. In the process he also became repetitive. But the repetition did not take the shine off of his works. Each of his canvases had its own meaning and appeal, though the tableaux of life was the same. Very few artists have been able to build his reputation and receive critical acclaim by using so limited number of subjects and a signature style. Sultan succeeded because he painted from his heart and with passion. Each of his painting is a manifestation of his lust for life. His paintings are also a tribute to the ordinary men and women of rural Bangladesh who remain unvanquished. Sultan knew that it would be so forever.
Published in Quarterly Padma, Summer 2004.