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Today's modern Bangladesh is heir to a rich cultural legacy. Situated at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, nestled
Comilla, Bangladesh
photo: Woodcock 1994
between Myanmar (Burma) and India, Bangladesh has about 120 million people crowded into an area of 55,598 square miles. It emerged as an independent state in Asia in 1971 by breaking away from Pakistan after the horrors of an incredibly savage civil war.
Nature has given her bounties so generously in Bangladesh. The fertile alluvial plains roll out into a vast ocean of lush green crop-fields, which stretch for miles to the distant horizon. While the hills of the borderland, cut by numerous deep gorges, open valleys and hill streams, are
Gulshan, Dhaka, Bangaladesh
photo: Woodcock 1995
thickly covered with evergreen virgin forests which wear the most vivid colors of nature throughout the year. It is a vast garden where the highland forest throbs with a multitude of fancy colored songbirds, and the streams teem with fish as the other fauna of the forest complete the landscape. Ancient chroniclers have described the country as "a land of emeralds and silver." Bangladesh is the largest Delta in the world, the gift of the mighty Brahmaputra, Padma and the Meghna (Ganges) rivers. Their countless tributaries, meander across the basin in a vast network of channels and streams. These rivers, acting as arteries, are largely responsible for shaping the destiny of the land and its people. Like a river that draws from the snows of the Himalaya, Bangladesh is eternal, and will continue to nourish everyone who draws on her for inspiration.
The face of Bangladesh is rapidly changing. Centuries of monsoon rains, varying between 70-100 inches a year, the highest in the sub-continent, and the excessive humidity averaging well over 80%, encourages the
Tangail, Bangladesh
photo: Woodcock 1994
prolific growth of wild vegetation. Once an historic building has fallen into a state of neglect it is quickly overgrown by heavy foliage and this plays havoc with its structure. Especially damaging is the banyan tree, which holds the building in its fatal grip of fast expanding roots, like an octopus, until the structure is gradually torn apart.

Deliberate destruction caused by man has also been extensive. Many monuments, which might have escaped natural annihilation due to the use of more durable building materials, were purposefully destroyed by each new conqueror, either to satisfy his iconoclastic zeal or to secure readily available materials for the
Dhaka, Bangaladesh
photo: Woodcock 1995
erection and embellishment of his own edifices. This continues today, many leaders are keen to restore, renovate, enlarge and modernize the "ugly" old monuments by giving them a modern look and thereby stripping them of their original historical character.
Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world. Its alarming growth and consequent pressure on the extremely limited land is distressing. The spread of urban development in the last twenty years has become the greatest threat to obliterating Bangladesh's historical beauty. Paddy lands give way to new development, and buildings dating from the Mughal period are turned into housing for the many families seeking a living in the towns and cities.

One of the most inspirational places I often visited for my work was Sonargaon. Situated in a fertile tract of land between the old course of the Brahmaputra and the Meghna rivers and about seventeen miles northeast
Mughal Temple, Mograpara, Sonargaon
photo: Woodcock 1994
of Dhaka. This once proud city is now virtually buried under heavy clusters of shady trees and scrub jungle. By virtue of its location on the confluence of large rivers, it acquired great importance as an inland port, connecting ancient Bengal with the Middle East and the Far Eastern countries. From 1296 to 1608 it was the capital of the Muslim rulers of East Bengal, and was an important center for the manufacture of the finest cotton fabric, known as "muslin." The ruins of the old city are represented by only a few straggling remains of isolated earth mounds, bridges, moats and monuments which picturesquely peep through the heavy foliage of encroaching jungle. A very few surviving pre-Mughal and Mughal period monuments are scattered around undetected. Most visitors arrive on the assumption that the picturesque stucco-decorated array of ruined houses, on either side of the townships only street, is the ruins of the ancient capital
Panam, Sonargaon, Bangladesh, British Period
photo: Woodcock 1994
city. These are, in fact, buildings belonging to the British period.

I once had the opportunity to meet, S.M.Sultan, one of the leading artists of Bangladesh. Six months after my pleasant afternoon with him at his farm by the river in Narail, Jessore, he died peacefully in his sleep. Sultan lived his life the alternative way. He did not care about money, status or security. He kept no track of his paintings, sometimes leaving them in abandoned places of abode. He never attached prices to his work, or put on exhibitions except when others persuaded him to.
S.M. Sultan, Narail, Jessore
May 1994
During my visit, several of his later works were strewn around his bedroom, he offered them for the taking, even though they commanded lofty prices in Dhaka and elsewhere. He preferred canvas made of jute, and paints made from earth and plants of Bengal, even when his friends offered to supply him with materials from abroad. He was never married, preferring the company of cats and birds to people.
He chose to live deep in rural Bengal rather than the big cities that beckoned when he received recognition early in his life. In 1950 he toured America on the invitation of the US government. His work is exhibited in London's Leicester Gallery along with paintings of Picasso, Matisse and Salvador Dali. His paintings were celebrated in foreign magazines and journals. He painted his land and his people, but not as others see them. In canvases so large that to create their swirling forms he danced from one end to the other. He painted the villagers of Bengal muscled and strong, because they had to be strong to
The First Tree Planting
Sultan 1976
survive centuries of poverty, oppression, flood, storm and war.
Sonargaon also inspired Sultan, in the late 1970's he was given a house in the Panam Bazaar area of Sonargaon. "It was a totally dilapidated building, even the doors and windows were about to fall apart. The plaster was gone, there was no coating on the brickwork, the little ancient bricks showed through like red sores. A young banyan plant peeped along the cornice of a window. Sultan had a long-standing weakness for old abandoned houses. He had lived in many of them, some much worse than this one. He decided that he would live on the upper floor room and do his painting work there and teach little boys and girls to draw pictures in the ground floor gallery." Sultan envisioned Sonargaon as a commune for artists and writers like Greenwich Village. Sultan spent several years going between
Sonargaon Gallery, Panam Bazaar
photo: Woodcock 1994
Sonargaon and his Village in Narail.
"The huge Bengali river on whose banks he stands is our river too. Most of us look across it and see the towers and pylons and smog of a city. But he looks across the river at a different, tree lined shore, where people and nature are not at odds. The villages of Bengal may in the end be more durable than the cities that currently threaten them."

portfolio ii
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