Thursday, February 21, 2019 | ePaper

Firoz Mahmud dismantles British Imperialism through paintings

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(fig 1) Lord Clive meeting Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey (1762), Francis Hayman

Selima Quader Chowdhury :
istorical narratives have existed in art since humans first learned to express themselves. Visual representations of the past serve as historical documents that enable us to understand and interact with history. Firoz Mahmud, a New York-based Bangladeshi artist, has endeavored to create a rendezvous with history through his recent solo exhibition Reverberation, in Dhaka at the Abinta Gallery of Fine Arts. It is a series of paintings depicting the history, heritage and legacies of Bengal, focusing in particular on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after the British Empire and its colonial representative, the British East India Company, had taken over political and administrative power onthe Indian Subcontinent. In this article I explore Firoz’s work by asking whether headheredto the stereotypical image of the colonizer and the colonized or attempted to visually undermine the imperial power of the British?
The East India Company, a company set up in Great Britain in the seventeenth century, came to Indiato exploit its riches and to establish a monopoly on trade between England and India. It quicklytransformed from a trading company to a governing power, ruling parts of Indian Subcontinent following the Britishvictory over the ruler of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daullah, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The East India Company’s oppressive regime lasted a century until theIndians raised their collective voice in armed rebellion during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which gave birth to Indian nationalism and ended the Company's rule in 1858. The British Crown replaced the East India Company as the governing authority of India, and Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877.
The dominance of British colonial rule in India is vividly reflected in the paintings by European artists who accompanied British traders and rulers to India in the eighteenth century. The paintings these artists produced enhanced the British imperial image by portraying the British (and the western lifestyle in general) as superior through their regal posture, while the Indians (and other eastern races) were shown as submissive and inferior. The east/west dichotomy which prevailed in paintings commissioned by the East India Company began with the British colonization of the East in the eighteenth century, and helped divide the worldintellectually and culturally between Western Europe and the Orient. According to Palestinian literary theorist Edward Wadie Said, the west was responsible for creatingthe cultural concept of the east by producing an image of the east as its opposite. Where the west was enlightened, civilized and rational, the east was barbaric, primitive and uncivilized. In his book Orientalism, Said argued that the peoples and cultures of eastern countries had been deliberatelymisrepresented by western powers in order to shore up their own regimes.
Firoz Mahmud’s Reverberation reflects this east/west binary through repetitive images of Robert Clive, a senior British officer in the East India Company, who was Commander in Chief of British India, and Khwaja Salimullah (fourth Nawab of Dhaka), Siraj-ud-Daulah (the last independent Nawab of Bengal) Queen Victoria and Indian soldiers. These pictures embody the contradictory portrayal of east and west in the company paintings.  
In (fig 1), Mir Jafar Surrendering to Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, Clive stands in an upright and authoritative manner while Mir Jafar, one of the defeated Nawabs, bows before him. The visual segregation of the colonizer and colonizedis also evident in Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock fight in which dark-skinned Indians dressed in shabby attire are sitting or kneeling on the ground while East India Companymenstandregally, flaunting their clothes. Some of the British employees of EIC are seen sitting on a sofa under a silken ornamental canopy, as if to emphasizethe superiority of the British. However, Firoz Mahmud’s work maintains a balance in itsrepresentation of the east and west. In (fig 2), the jeweled crown of the Nawabs is at the center of the picture, with Nawab Khwaja Salimullah and Robert Clive on the either side of it. Salimulla his holding a sword and Clive is standing erect with one hand in his pocket. Both figures convey authority and dominance. Ink blue color-wash has been used over the two figures while a path of red color reminiscent of spilled blood hasbeen used at the bottom of the painting to createa visual balance. In (fig 3), theskeletal jaw of the Bengal tiger divides Siraj-ud-Daulah and Queen Victoria equally on both sides. This equivalence in theportrayal of east and west challenges the westernperception of the orient as savage and inferior, offering in its placea vision of the east as a place that is just as civilized as the west.
In some of Firoz’s work, Indian soldiers appear more prominently than the Nawabs or the British officers.
In (fig 5), the Indian soldier sitting arrogantly in a chair looks bigger in proportion to the Nawab and the company officials, making him appear as a person of authority.
In (fig 4), shows an Indian soldier riding a horse, holding a sword in one hand and the horse's reins in the other. The soldier exudes gallantry and is seenencountering the British without a tinge of fear or a hint of inferiority. His eyes have been treated as a powerful symbol, with rays of light shining from them, representing his passion to destroy British imperial rule in India. Such anaudacious and rebellious portrayal of Indian soldiers underlines the seriousness of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which represented “the biggest threat to the Britain’s colonial power during its rule of the Indian subcontinent.”
Firoz also offers a powerful rendition of Indian women in British India, demonstrating their vital role in the Indian independence movement fought against the colonial British Raj in 1947 as well as their persistent and tenacious struggle for gender equality against the constraints imposed by the patriarchyand British imperialism. According to historians Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi Women's subordination was perpetuated by the British to legitimizetheir rule andto show that India was not fit for independence. There was a growth of women’s organizations in the early twentieth century which emerged with the agenda of gainingnational independence from Britain and women’s independence from men. Women played a vital role during the Indian Independence Movement; many women participated, and eventually led protests after the arrest of the male leaders. Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian Independence said “To call woman a weaker sex is a libel; it is men's injustice to women. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior.”      Contd on page 5

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