Bijan Sarkar: Retracing Lost Lines

Art, nowadays, is rarely a sadhana. Yet, it is a forceful reminder of every artist’s fundamental element. Bijan Sarkar speaks sincerely about it in an interview with Munem Wasif. To look into this man, who worked with paper negatives in the darkroom, we must adopt in our methodology both the perspectives – from within and without.

We are looking at a man born in 1935, coming from the remote village of Kamarjani (which has now turned into Brahmaputra’s riverbed). In the timeline of history, he is located at such a juncture which, by being a product of many who came before, would produce many more in a different mould for the future. Mid to later 20th century Bangladesh has been witness to a serious turn of events politically whilst complementing a shift in approach to art forms.  

An important aspect of this discussion is to locate the indigenous roots of the development in photographic arts. Whilst we must accept our extensive borrowing from the western philosophical traditions, we can not afford the casualness of overlooking our very own cultural and political backbones that hold, as pillars, the foundation of our very own art forms. This will provide scope to extend our range from regional to global. Before we attempt to locate Bijan Sarkar in the twentieth century, we need to take a few steps back; to the mid-18th century when a gradual amalgamation of European art forms transformed the nature of Indian traditional methods; the earliest impact being a departure from the dominant Mughal traditions. However, in the words of Partha Mitter, ‘as the nineteenth century progressed, the language of nationhood, a legacy of European enlightenment, was internalized by the Indian intelligentsia to fashion their own weapon of resistance’. Major ideological foundations and developments in creative fields were the product of a dialectic engineered by colonialism and earlier stages of nationalism. The advent of European academic naturalism initiated a brand of academic artists (like Raja Ravi Verma) which through the early 20th century was impacted by an emerging swadeshi ideology. Simultaneously, European modernism and consecutive art movements have influenced the exposition of formative elements and conceptional inclinations. The transition and transformation from colonial to a postcolonial condition brought forth an amalgamation of both a spirit of independence as well as an agony of partition. This newly achieved sense of independence urged an immediate enthusiasm to participate in the global ‘race’ for abstraction which was eventually overcome by tinges of political overtones. It must be taken into consideration that the later twentieth century was dominated by a reassertion of the indigenous cultural identity of the newly independent subcontinent. Globalization of art forms evoked domination of non-figurative expositions tending towards abstraction. But, when we arrive at the modern art scene of Bangladesh, we cannot but take into consideration the later shift from the non-figurative, into a realisation of its inadequacy with the 1971’s war of liberation. For example, artists like Zianul Abedin produced works based on their own experience of genocide and resistance ranging from the abstract to the figurative. The further continuation and relevance of this contextualisation will be addressed at a later stage in the essay.

Freedom Fighters by Zainul Abedin

Photography’s development as an art form in the Indian subcontinent (and post-partition Bangladesh) have pertained to these conceptual progressions keeping in line with the technological and stylistic advancements specific to the medium. Locating Bijan Sarkar amidst such a vast array of the evolving nature of form becomes a challenging task because of the lack of availability of materials. His works have escaped preservation and the last remaining few have mostly been lost to posterity (mostly because each print was unique and was not reproduced digitally). Even if that challenge is scantily overcome, the primary challenge remains in the analyst’s dichotomy as to where to place him between two ideological perspectives. This dichotomy, which persists even today was quite visible in Sukumar Ray, who played a pioneering role in the development of photography. Naeem Mohaimen in his essay on social reality points out that Sukumar Ray chose to remain somewhere in the middle of two sentiments – ‘Show it as it is’ or ‘to purge excess ornamentation’. These fundamental dichotomies regarding photography do not arise from Bijan Sarkar himself, instead of as a sceptical response from an intrigued critique. These are also directed at the ‘means’ and ‘to what end’ of these ‘means’ of any art form. While ‘means’ may comply with methodology, ‘end’ on the other hand departs to a larger extent of the greater implications and significance of the medium. While the former pertains to an artists’ relation with practice, the latter does so with extra-artistic intentions.

Image: Bijan Sarkar

Bijan Sarkar had been immensely influenced by his brothers Tarapada Sarkar and Subodhchandra Sarkar who were ten to thirteen years elder to him. They were both passionate explorers of different mediums. He recalls the eldest of them who, like the others, had explored writing, sculpting, painting, singing, and even dancing. From them he imbibed the essence that an artist’s aestheticism was born out of the creative mind but could be channelised in any form. Consequently, painting has been a serious influence on him. His later experiments carried the imprint of such intermingling of forms. In the mid-1940s, he had seen his eldest brother try his hands with a minit camera, producing paper negatives. It was the same brother from whom he learnt that practising art is a lifelong sadhana, a realisation which remained with him throughout his life. In Post partition Bangladesh, survival was itself a struggle. Out of economic necessity, he worked as a compounder, accompanying a doctor providing services on the shores of river Menoka.  Combining various chemical compounds to produce medicines was one of his tasks (compounding quinine mixtures being one of the most challenging ones). At a later stage, he had the opportunity to work at Guni studios where he gained a practical understanding of grades of paper, printing, developing, tonal differences are concepts. Fortunately for him, he was allowed to experiment with the craft; and as a result, he developed his own perspective as he learnt along. All these culminated at a later period when he professionally began producing images.

His lifelong journey of achieving expertise is indicative of both creative and technical practice and perfection which pose as fundamental prerequisites for practising Photography. His confident expertise in crucial subtleties of practicing a manual medium result in his bold emphasis on ‘Photography without camera’. This was the working title for a series of images he had showcased at an exhibition in Pakistan. The images were developed using chemicals while other creative elements were incorporated manually. The history of developing photographs in the darkroom is a history of immense experimentation and a specific range of creativity which comes with aesthetic sensibility reinforced by knowledge and extensive practice of the delicate processes involved. Bijan Sarkar was particularly interested in the intricacies of manual process.

“ক্যামেরা আমার কাছে ইম্পরট্যান্ট হয়নি কোনোদিনই… ম্যানুয়াল দিয়ে আমি যা পারি তাতে আমি স্যাটিসফাইড। আমি অটোম্যাটিকের ওপর নির্ভর করতেই চাই না। আমার যেখানে জ্ঞান আছে, আমি কী করবো বুঝতে পারছি, সেখানে অটোমেটিক চালায় স্যাটিসফাইড হবো কেন?”

“The camera has never been important to me … I am satisfied with what I can do in manual. I do not wish to depend on an automatic. While I have the knowledge and a proper sense of what is to be done, why should I obtain satisfaction by shooting with an automatic!” (Trans) 

‘Photography without a camera can be extended to a larger domain of the viewer-photographer relationship. The viewer by nature tries to trace back the material process which the image creation underwent, while also trying to trace back the philosophical reasoning that influenced such a particular method and eventually the final form. Therefore, when Bijan Sarkar mentions photography without a camera, although his direct implications lie in his particular method of creating images, he indicates a vast array of interpretative and assertive annotations that become a mode of communication between the viewer and photographer. He recalls the memory of an exhibition in Pakistan where, although highly admired for his innovative approach, he was asked as to how he had produced a particular photograph. Sarkar blatantly criticises the lack of introspective ability of the viewer. According to him, had the viewer been connected enough with the art form, such a question would never have been posed.

Perhaps it had been the sense of a newly developing indigenous form that had made a subconscious impact on him. Or perhaps his lone exploration had become a strong backbone to his originality. Because, Mr Sarkar in his own words, has been conscious in trying to keep himself away from any foreign influences. He accepts not knowing the names of many renowned European photographers who adopted similar methods. Instead, it is a painting that he exhaustively explored. While talking about one of his images, he says that the way he played with angle and exposure is reflective of his personal inclinations towards painting.

Image: Bijan Sarkar

“আমি তো মূলত পেইন্টার”

“I am essentially a painter” (Trans.)

This reveals a strong effort of an artist to maintain originality. Mr Sarkar has been successful in maintaining it. It is not a forced achievement but is the result of an honest and continuous engagement with one’s own artistic sensibilities.  While viewers may find and draw similarities, it presents a possibility of overlapping caused by similar methodologies. An important conjecture at this point should be a realization of the fact that until artists become founders of a particular medium (or even they do), it is impossible to not identify within the artist’s works the prevailing essence of the tradition that precedes them. Bijan Sarkar is no exception. The range of artistry that preceded him (as discussed at the beginning) should be able to provide the conceptual apparatus to link the proposed similarities with earlier approaches to art. Following are three paintings and one photograph. An influence of the European academic style adopted in the paintings of Raja Ravi Verma and Hemen Majumdar speaks a fair deal for the propagation of tradition that extends and pours onto the artists of succeeding generations.

‘Lady with a lamp’ by Raja Ravi Verma
‘Blue Sari’ by Hemen Majumdar
'The Lost Heart' by Hemen Majumdar
Image: Bijan Sarkar

Keeping in mind these factors, one might still be curious regarding the content that Mr Sarkar has produced. With the end of the second world war, when Bengal had witnessed a devastating famine, partition had severely pierced through the hearts of thousands, a change in the fundamental nature of art was inevitable. Naeem Mohaimen notes that with partition, the prevalent colonial influence on the practice of photography almost eroded away in East Pakistan. Eventually, the photography of the 50s and 60s, by rejecting the residues of coloniality, adopted an approach of stark realism initiated by Zainul Abedin (especially his ‘Famine’ paintings).

From 'Famine' series by Zianul Abedin
Struggle by Zianul Abedin

Mohaimen considers quite rightfully that further practice of photography can be considered as an extension of this new tradition of social realism. Photographers who produced considerable works in East Pakistan, namely Golam Kasem Daddy, Azmal Haque, Amanul Haque, Naib Uddin Ahmed, Kafiluddin Ahmed, Manzur Alam Beg, Ansaruddin Ahmed, Golam Mustafa, and many more. Naeem Mohaimen includes Bijan Sarkar to be one among them. But what one may ask is, how much has social realism been depicted in his works. A definitive answer to this question will be possible only if his lost works could somehow be retrieved. For, in his aesthetics, there can be found a commonness with the tradition of realism. This is a question for further discussion and underlies no intention to adopt a definitive stance on the matter.  The immediately following photogram was produced during the Bangladeshi Liberation struggle. A notable impact of the semi-figurative narrative poses as the blending of multiple approaches. The images are symbolic of much more than the context in which they are produced, they combine a narrative of the continuing tradition along with its own context thereby evoking a unique stance of contemporaneity.

Image: Bijan Sarkar
Image: Bijan Sarkar

A final aspect to explore is his contribution to the Bangladesh Photographic Society which was founded by Manzoor Alam Beg. Mr Beg was one of the very few who could actually appreciate the concept of ‘Photography without a camera’. The context of organizational contribution exhibits the extra-artistic inclinations of an artist where the initiatives go beyond the personal practice of art.

“…স্বপ্ন ফটোগ্রাফির উন্নতি। আমাদের মাধ্যমে যেন বাংলাদেশ উপকৃত হয়। বেটার ফটোগ্রাফার তৈরি করা। অন্য কেউ যাতে অংশগ্রহণ করে সেই চেষ্টাই আমরা করেছি।”

“… the ambition was a holistic development of photography so that Bangladesh is benefitted. All we have tried is to create better photographers and to enable others to participate” (Trans)

There is a deep sense of melancholy that underlies his statements. Very few people have been able to internalise the essence of such an objective.  Mr Sarkar contributed a large span of his later life towards materialising that vision. It is also true at the same time as to how much Bangladesh has progressed collectively in terms of photography. Institutions have emerged which cater beyond their national boundary. This is where the further emphasis is necessary, especially in India. India, although having numerous practitioners of photography, still lacks an organizational discipline necessary for such a holistic development. India’s practice of photography, though rich, seems to lack coherence and has been left off with a journey of fragmented narrative. Through Bijan Sarkar, we have the opportunity to look at a vast array of possibilities of contemporary relevance. For that, contemplation and practical application must be able to complement each other.

Mr Sarkar provokes us to enter into a domain of fundamentals – the fundamental ethics of the artist, of art and the ultimate purpose of it. The thought process involved in retracing lost lines forces us to pose questions that at times turn back at us. The act of tracing and constructing Mr Sarkar is self-reflexive in nature. An act of reconstructing history provides scope for constructing progress. This whole oeuvre of construction takes into consideration a diverse dialectic of socio-political contextualisation. What he presents, is at the same time personal and impersonal. As we extend upon this dialogue, we shall find new doors opening in front of us. Approaches to art have evolved, methods have changed; yet, the process to achieve an end remains in contemplation and more importantly, in the application.



Saumyakanti Bhattacharya considers himself an investigator of philosophical ideas and finds contentment in reasoning with different approaches to art forms. He completed his graduation in English literature from Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira. His photo series ‘Allegory of the Body’ has been published in Private Photo Magazine. He has also worked as a writer in the 2018 National Geographic photo camp.

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