Folk arts of Bangladesh

Abu Naser Rayhan & Rifat Munim

Folk arts of Bangladesh

Abu Naser Rayhan & Rifat Munim
Folk art is the biggest reservoir of cultural traits and exchanges, traces of which are to be found in modern times in transformations that they’ve gone through over the centuries. For many folk art is the key to understanding a culture and its peoples. Bangladesh, a country with hundreds of rivers, has a very rich and unique folk heritage. While an umbrella term such as ”folk heritage” includes music, plays, poetry, rhymes, etc., this article seeks to introduce readers with the basic tenets of Bangladesh’s folk painting.

It is hard to imagine a formal category that can bring all the different aspects and practices of folk painting together. Some take it as profession, some do it for family legacy, while some practice it as part of a religious or cultural festival. It is very difficult to fit all the parts in a single thread. Say for example, the genesis and growth of nakshi kantha; this is one of those rare areas and spaces owned by and for women.

Based on research, some categories have nonetheless been found as carrying legacies of some ancient or medieval tradition of painting. As collectively practiced in most cases, cultural symbols and narrative conventions are considered more important than aesthetics or other aspects of art.

Originating more than two thousand years ago, folk painting has taken different forms and shapes in architecture, sculpture, handicrafts, potteries, and painting. The land of six seasons has influenced the local arts with the vibrancy of its nature, while the environment and the agricultural activities greatly augmented it.

Alpana is perhaps the oldest surviving indigenous practice in folk painting. It means painting floral motifs and intricate designs on a courtyard or on a long stretch of road during weddings and festivals. Wall painting and wood carvings are two other oldest forms. But alpana has not just survived, it has grown exponentially to the extent that it has become a part and parcel of many national celebrations.
Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
Different crafts made out of bamboo, cane, jute and shell are still popular among village and indigenous peoples. So are items of shara painting and potteries. Potteries are inexpensive household utensils are made of clay painting images of Hindu gods and goddesses for pujas and devotional rites. Dolls, toys and many decorative pieces are also made in most parts of Bangladesh. Shara paintings are large clay plates painted with the image of goddess Laksmi or other religious motifs.

Though on the decline, there still are many families of potters who have taken it as profession and depend for their livelihood on pottery. Though reeling under modernity, they have been sticking to their profession despite extreme hardship as more and more people are turning away from clay-made potteries.
Nakshi kantha or painted quilt is made and used almost everywhere in Bangladesh. However, nakshi kanthas of Rajshahi, Jessore and Faridpur are most famous for special stitching and picturesque designs. Apart from quilts, nakshi kantha work is also used to make pillow cases and covers, prayer mats, seats for puja, or dining mats.

Recurring motifs are the lotus, the sun, the moon, stars, leaves, trees, flowering creepers, human figures, deities, horses, elephants, fish, birds, tazias and rath. Elaborately embroidered quilts depict scenes from mythology or contemporary life.
Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
Patachitra or scroll painting, is an once-popular form of narrative painting drawn on a piece of cotton or any other fabric portraying mythic and historic tales. It dates back to the Buddhist period when Buddhist bhikkus used scroll paintings to spread messages of Buddhism. Subsequently, during Hindu rule, these scroll paintings depicted stories from the Puranas. During the 13th century, after the Muslim conquest of Bengal, exploits of Muslim saints i.e. Gazi Pir, accounts of the war at Karbala, were adopted.

Due to rapid urbanization, patachitra is disappearing fast from public sphere. Yet, a few contemporary artists have made bold strides in promoting traditional scroll painting. Nazir Hossain specializes in scroll painting in his own manner. He mostly paint scroll with a story which includes a tiger, it can be interpreted as the contemporary Gazi(the heroic character from Gazir pat) Recurrence of tiger is common to all scroll painters but what sets Nazir apart is the unsettling nature of his tiger, sometimes attacking while some other times playing a flute to pacify a situation, some teaching and some rowing a boat also. He does not necessarily follow every element of traditional patachitra in terms of mediums, nature of colors and even characters, but his experimental works reflect the essence of this form in terms of composition. And his canvas if complemented with strokes like nakshi kantha stiches too.

In the history of folk art in Bangladesh, Rickshaw art is a rather urban and recent phenomenon, which dates back to the 1950s and flourished in the early 1970s. A form of pastiche with glitzy doses of red and blue, rickshaw art motifs include images of heroes and heroines from Bangladeshi cinema, flowers, birds, religious images and even patriotic images. RK Das, Ali Nur, Dawood Ustad and Alauddin, among others, had initiated this art.

Rickshaw art used to be viewed as a lower form of raw art. But perceptions have changed in its favor as from the 1990s many prominent artists have interpreted it as articulation of the tastes and interests of the masses and have applied the same motifs to their works.

Traditional hand-painted cinema posters have similarities to rickshaw paintings in matters of motif and subject. Sitesh, one of the prominent artists in the field, has been painting professionally since 1985 and it takes him and his team two days to complete a film poster and he paints them professionally. But sadly, it is also a dying art form.
Folk art in the national imagination:
Against the backdrop of the Language Movement, Zainul Abedin and Quamrul Hassan began promoting folk art. For them folk was not only their way of protesting against the neo-colonial Pakistani rulers but also a political stance against hegemonic, imperialist ideologies. After founding the Art College, Zainul also founded the Folk Art Museum, to create an environment conducive for practicing folk art. Both Zainul and Quamrul adopted indigenous motifs and techniques; they developed a distinctive idiom for articulating the indignity of agrarian Bengal.
Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
A lot of artists from later generations followed in their footsteps and broadened the concept of indigeneity in art. Among them, Abdus Sakoor and Tarun Ghosh deserve special mention. Both of them draw heavily on the age-old folk tales with Sakoor taking profusely from Mymensingh Gitika and Nakshi Kanthar Math, and Ghosh from the tales of Behula- Lakhindar.

A few other names also deserve mention for their contribution to folk art. They are Nikhil Chandra Das, Sushanto Paul and Nazmin Mortuza.

Many forms of folk art in their original format will die out while many would grow and diversify. What makes us optimistic about its future is that it has etched itself almost indelibly on the national psyche due to some groundbreaking initiatives by some of our master painters. It will survive, we can positively say.
Abu Naser Rayhan & Rifat Munim