Mario Palma, an eminent art critic (author of L'arte che non dorme) and till recently, the Italian ambassador in Bangladesh, wrote in his Tales of an Art Lover—"In my humble opinion, Sultan is the greatest interpreter of the soil and spirit of Bangladesh… The figures of Sultan are truly fascinating and unique in the contemporary art scene."
Peter Jevits, once the Director of the Goethe Institute, Dhaka, also an art critic, said, "among the few outstanding artists of the subcontinent, Sultan has the most vigorous expression… He is the voice of Asia." In fact, in Sultan's creations, we see deprived, oppressed and struggling humanity boldly looking towards the future with hope, vigour and confidence.
Professor Burhanuddin Khan Jahangir, in his seminal work on Sultan, says "then who really is Sultan? A hidden Picasso? An undiscovered Vincent Van Gogh? In him, Sultan combines the both. Maybe even more…"
I do not think there has been any artist in the subcontinent who has, in his lifetime, received as much international appreciation and acclamation as has SM Sultan of Bangladesh. Indeed, he became a legend in his lifetime.
In acclaiming Sultan in his article "Sheikh Mohammed Sultan", National Professor Kabir Chowdhury quoted the eminent Pakistani art critic Amjad Ali from his review of Sultan's work, years back, in 1952—"In my view, Sultan has attained success and perfection in technical skills. He now needs great ideas and rich experience of life, through which he would be able to create masterpieces of art." Professor Kabir Chowdhury writes, "How correct was the prophecy of Amjad Ali!" In the fifties, Sultan held five art exhibitions in the USA, and four in Britain. Out of these, one was joint, in which Sultan's paintings were exhibited along with works of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh—some of the greatest in the world of arts.
National Professor Abdur Razzaq, in his article "Paintings of Sultan" wrote—"The paintings that he has drawn of Bengal and of Bengalees transcend all barriers and boundaries. They have indeed, become the proud heritage of Mankind."
Sultan went to Kolkata as a poor young boy, but fortunately had the privilege of getting loving shelter at the house of Professor Shahid Suhrawardy. Sultan wanted to be admitted to Calcutta Art College and stood first in the admissions test. But he was not a matriculate, and under the rules did not qualify for admission. At the initiative of Professor Suhrawardy, he got specially admitted. Although he kept on doing very well in his examinations, Sultan could not wait till the conclusion of his final year. The wide world beckoned him. He left the College and Kolkata and went out to discover India through brush and paint. As he travelled, he drew or sketched portraits and scenic beauties, sold them and earned a living.
He visited Delhi, Agra, Shimla, Lahore, Kaghan Valley and Kashmir. At Shimla in 1945, a few local art enthusiasts organised a solo exhibition of Sultan's paintings, which happened to be his first ever. It became quite a social event. The Maharaja of Kapurthala inaugurated the show and it was a big success. Sultan got quite close to the Maharaja and became his personal guest at Shimla and Jalandhar. At Shimla, he also developed a friendship with the young Amir Habibullah. He spent long periods with him as his personal guest. Later on, he went to stay with Amir's father-in-law, the Nawab of Amb. Those were the days when he kept on painting beautiful landscapes of Kaghan Valley and the arduous life of its hard-working people.
In 1946, he went to his cherished Kashmir. There, he drew landscapes and sketched the struggling, courageous people of Kashmir. Years later, when I got to know Sultan well, I asked him, "Besides Bengal, why did Kashmir become a subject of your focus?" He said that early in his life, it was the Bengalee revolutionary poet Shukanta Bhattacharya who inspired him with his two great poems on the irrepressible Kashmiris fighting for justice. He added that he had to suddenly flee Srinagar in late 1947 on a refugee truck bound for Lahore, leaving all his paintings and belongings behind.
On his arrival in Lahore, he was lucky to meet Amjad Ali, an eminent art critic and a well-established person who immediately realised how great an artist Sultan was. He introduced Sultan to another outstanding artist of the subcontinent—Abdur Rahman Chughtai.
In December 1948, with generous help and support, particularly from Amjad Ali and Chughtai, a well-organised solo exhibition of Sultan's paintings was held in Lahore. It was inaugurated by Sir Malik Feroz Khan Noon, who went on to later become the seventh Prime Minister of Pakistan. Next year, Sultan moved to Karachi. Here also, with the patronisation of Amjad, Chughtai, Shakir Ali and a few others, he held a big solo exhibition, inaugurated by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah. Almost all his paintings were sold out. Sultan became a celebrity.
On the basis of recommendations of the Pakistan Public Service Commission, the US Government invited Sultan for a long sojourn in the USA and subsequently in Britain, where he visited galleries and museums, painted, held exhibitions and addressed gatherings. Sultan got very good and wide press coverage, and laudatory critical reviews in papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and many more. He became internationally acclaimed as a great painter of classic dimension.
Eminent litterateur Hasnat Abdul Hye has written a well-researched novel based on the life of Sultan, which was recommended by poet Shamsur Rahman in his article titled "Sultan has not left his Sultanate". He wrote, "To know the artist, reading Sultan, the authentic, well written book of our celebrated wordsmith Hasnat Hye, is a must".
In his book, Hye described the way Sultan was introduced to Bangladesh. In 1954, the then District Magistrate of Jessore (Narail, the hometown of Sultan, was part of Jashore district till the mid-eighties), Ghyasuddin Ahmed Chaudhury (my father), came to know about Sultan, recognised his greatness, helped in setting up an art school at Narail and offered him patronage. I got to know Sultan from then, and when I went to Jashore as DC in 1968, I immediately established contacts with him. We became good friends and Sultan became a houseguest during his visits. I tried to be of help to him in a number of ways, like setting up the Institute of Fine Arts and Shishu Swarga. Sculptor Matiur Rahman has also written on this.
It was in Khulna, where I went next as DC, and where the first-ever exhibition of Sultan in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was held on September 20, 1969 at Khulna Club. It was a tremendous success, and most of his paintings were sold on the inaugural day.
It also happened that around that time, Prince Karim Aga Khan was visiting Khulna with his newly wed wife Princess Selima. They came to our house for tea. As the distinguished visitors were also known as art enthusiasts, and since Sultan was still there, I managed to get some of Sultan's paintings for their viewing. The Princess liked and took two of Sultan's big oil paintings. Her secretary passed on to Sultan two cheques for Taka five lakh each.
But Sultan was too generous a person, loved nature and all living beings, and spent all his money for the good of others. He usually disposed of all his art works without keeping any record.
In late 1975, he participated in a National Art Exhibition. The next year, an initiative was taken by a counsellor of the Iranian Embassy, Sultani, for an exhibition. However, the Shilpakala Academy took up the responsibility, and the first of Sultan's art exhibition in Dhaka and the second in Bangladesh was held in 1976. In 1987, the Goethe Institute organised an immensely successful solo exhibition of Sultan's paintings.
Sultan received multifarious awards and recognitions, including the Ekushey Padak in 1982. In 1984, he was made a life-long artist-in-residence at Shilpakala Academy, an honour given to no one else till now. As Ahmed Sofa, in his brilliant and incisive write-up on Sultan says, "The human beings in Sultan's paintings, though of Bangladesh, are really the children of mother earth… He is incomparable, as unlike celebrities like Abanindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan, Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Ahmed Saeed Nagi, he came out of the orbit of the essential subcontinental ideals, frame and fashion, and became an epic composer."
This is how we ultimately discovered Sultan in Bangladesh. It was only after he got acclaimed internationally that he became well known nationally, and emerged as, to quote poet Shamsur Rahman, "our national pride".
Enam A Chaudhury is a retired civil servant and columnist.