Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Vastukala: The Architecture of Muzharul Islam

November, 1993

Written in Philadelphia, November 17, 1993. A shorter version appeared in The India International Centre Quarterly, New Delhi, 1996. Also published as main essay in Muzharul Islam Architect, edited by Zainab Faruqui Ali and Fuad H Mallick, BRAC University Press, 2011.


The work of Muzharul Islam, coming from a single figure, frames the contours of recent Bengali cultural history. In fact, the work is an intense registration of post-colonial dynamics, engaging all the issues of contemporary existence: modernization, westernization, nation-building, “world dialogue,” cultural amnesia, and the more tenuous “return home.”


Muzharul Islam does not offer an easy access to his world. While his architecture owes much to the language of modernism, there is a more complex relationship with modernity. Furthermore, his buildings, not produced for photographic purposes, are more than what they appear; they are organizational and constructional. Finally, the buildings constitute only an aspect of Muzharul Islam's broader relation to architecture culture. This includes his role as teacher, mentor, activist and plainly the enfant terrible. This is further complicated by his political consciousness and, in the last twenty-five years (written in 1993), by his direct political involvements, spilling the scope and substance of architecture beyond its conventional boundary.


Architectural modernism might have begun in Bangladesh with Muzharul Islam, but modernity has a long lineage and deep strata in Bengal. Muzharul Islam emerges from this condition, and it is against that his output can be situated. It is however necessary to rethink the relationship beyond the demonization of modernity that characterizes most contemporary architectural criticism. For most Asian societies, modernism is often conveniently seen as the perpetrator of cultural ruptures, pitting it against a “pre-modern” condition, that is, tradition. The reverse claim, present in the work and thinking of Muzharul Islam, needs to be examined too. It might be seen that Muzharul Islam adopts and employs the principles of modernity in order to overcome what was perceived as colonialist rupture. Modernism, in this sense, becomes an attempt to “return home.”


The Return Home

“How do we enter the twenty-first century?” wonders Muzharul Islam. The oft-raised question throws us immediately in the throes of modernity. The generality of the question leads to more concrete reflections: on the idea of the nation (“we”), on the political and economic nature of society, and on its spatial manifestation. One also senses in that query a degree of hesitation, a momentary stalling. The question, as much as it is about propelling forward, takes in by that hesitation and that collective “we,” a glance at the other direction, the past. All the issues that recur in Muzharul Islam's thinking are in this query: what to hold on to, what to abandon, what to take.


The idea of modernity in Bangladesh, and by extension the ideology of Muzharul Islam, can best be understood by that broad sweep of cultural and intellectual upheavals ushered in Bengal by the 19th century movement often described as the “Bengal Renaissance.” As the basis of modern Bengali society, the movement was a complex intertwining of acceptance and resistance; a resistance to both the traumatic experience of colonialism and the tyranny of tradition. The condition of acceptance was also two-fold but more complex: it involved an outward voyage to embrace from a global repository anything that assured a new degree of social and intellectual liberation (as for example, the scientific, progressive and humanistic institutions of Europe seem to promise), and, an inward journey, a conscious “archaeological” excavation, so to say, of one’s own uncharted and taken-for-granted cultural strata.


The inward journey involves the process of understanding oneself. This is important, for this implies that one is suddenly made aware of oneself, and, as often understood, self-awareness is double-edged: it is a moment of self-discovery, it is also a moment of a distancing from the familiar. The search of self-discovery presupposes a sense of alienation and remoteness from tradition and does not arise so long as, as Jaravalal Mehta comments, “we unreflectively live under its domination, or fail to see the novel present as it actually is and claims us.” Both Charulata and Bimala, characters from two Rabindranath novels, signify that at the moment of self-awareness the familiar is made foreign, or conversely, one is made a stranger to the comfort of familiar setting. And, yet, it is within this condition of self-awareness, where tradition is no longer available unreflectively, that the idea of identity – cultural, gender, or national –  can arise.


In essence, it is this paradox that creates the project of return home. “Return home” is a metaphor, even if an exaggerated one, by which we can name the the struggle encountered particularly by the “Bengal Renaissance,” the movement to articulate an identity when tradition is no longer available uncritically. This leads to, on one hand, the appropriation of foreign ideas in the very core of society, and, on the other hand, zealous efforts to resolve what it means to be Bengali. As often, the words of Rabindranath Tagore poetically encapsulate the Zeitgeist: the inevitability of the journey, and the exilic anguish of departing. In “Probash,” Rabindranath speaks of the thousand bonds binding one to the ancestral home (bhita).  Yet, he realizes that “the vast universe is beckoning me from every shore/there is a thousand knock of the world at my door.”


It is by way of attempting to “return home,” and not by a stylistic or a rhetorical sense of progress and development, that I would like to pose Muzharul Islam's alignment with modernism. This encompasses the work, the political commitment and the personality of Muzharul Islam. Such an estimation may appear dubious, and I have a feeling to Muzharul Islam himself, but it is by this one can understand the apparent distance between his rootedness in Bengali culture and the modernistic forms of his architecture.


What is the historic root of this alienation from “home,” the point of departure, so to speak? In Muzharul Islam, the question of “return” emerges because of the colonial experience, through interpreting colonialism as a “rupture,” as a fatal and irreversible condition created by its disruptive mechanisms. In the context of Bangladesh, the “rupture” is compounded, since the time of Pakistan, by the added pressure to undermine “Bengaliness” by a pan-Islamic ideology. These disruptions urge Muzharul Islam to speak of “mone-prane-karmokande khati bangali houa,” that is, to be a “true” Bengali in mind, spirit and praxis. This is another sense of the “return” metaphor, taken up particularly as a political agenda, that one is displaced from where one was once mone-prane-karmokande bangali, and the return to that site is prior to any ethical and creative behaviour.


Modernity, for Muzharul Islam, is as much a returning as going away. It is a going away from the immediate colonial past, and a returning to an “essentialist” condition that seems free from specific religious ideologies or traumatic inheritance. It is this which might distinguish it from the radicalizing motive of European modernism. For most Asian societies, colonialism is still the datum. When Franz Fanon speaks of “defamiliarization” as the immediate project of post-colonial culture it is not difficult to see why modernity was adopted with such ease. Muzharul Islam wishes to use modernity as a way of critiquing colonialism, particularly what he sees as the nature of colonial “rupture,” and to use architectural modernism, as the term suggests in its formal and spatial characteristics, as a way of overcoming the rupture. The rupture cannot be overcome by the adoption of traditional motifs, although that partially helps. As much politically avowed to a Bengali identity and a suspicion of Western domination, he would not immediately transfer this onto architectural making. It is this overcoming, which is not to go away further, but to go forward to an essentialist condition encircling both the past and the present, that may be understood as the metaphor of “return.”


But, one can no longer return to what once was. Actually, one can no longer know what once was. Overt traditionalism, in most cases, is a sentimental return hiding behind it a consumerist intention (as in the interior decorations of five-star hotels) and a lack of critical and intellectual rigour. Or worse, traditionalism could, and does, slip towards national chauvinism. When Romi Khosla proposes an “Asian consciousness” poised obviously against the “West,” it verges close to an old “us-versus-them” theme, never clarifying what consciousness means, or questioning the validity of this pan-Asian monolith.


There is no longer the return. One can now only return critically, there is only a transformed or a “constructed” return. Once self-awareness begins, we are forever fated to a “re-construction.” But what distinguishes this construction from the facile method of instant traditionalism? What might give the former a greater degree of authenticity?


It is this: Muzharul Islam’s position is dialogical and dialectical. Although hinged to a specific place – its socio-cultural milieu – the position does not falter in engaging in a “world dialogue,” and is not daunted that such engagement might necessitate a different, or a new way of making. Muzharul Islam wants to operate within the nexus of cultural particularness and the humanist idea of “the-world-as-my-village.” This is what brings him close to a Rabindrik ethos, and to the central tenet of the “Renaissance” movement.


In fact, Muzharul Islam grew up within the intellectual and spiritual shadow of the idea that living in the twentieth century is living in a nexus; one can no longer escape this, no matter what ideological posturing one adopts, and no matter if V.S. Naipaul calls it the “burden” of the middle-class. That one can no longer live in ethnic, racial or national “purity” is pretty much certain.


Architecture and Nation-Building

The American architect Stanley Tigerman, who has been a close friend of Muzharul Islam, relates how he found Louis Kahn very disturbed when they met at Heathrow Airport in 1974. Tigerman was on his way to Dhaka for the Polytechnique projects, which he was designing with Muzharul Islam, and Kahn was going back to the United States from India (and to his tragic death). Tigerman remembers that the only thing that was bothering Kahn was the thought of Muzharul Islam and “how could he leave architecture for politics?” Kahn conceded that he could never do that, and yet, as Tigerman recalls, did not seem relieved by his own statement.


To begin to understand Kahn’s query is to be lead to the problematic juncture of architecture and nation-building. This is highlighted in Muzharul Islam by two strands of inheritance: the Rabindrik and the Marxian, in other words, the contradictory commitments of artistic detachment and political engagement. The antipodal strands of Marx and Rabindranath form an illuminating intersection that can be mentioned only fleetingly here. While Marxism would tend to flatten out the topography of cultural differences leading to ideas of a radical humanism, Rabindranath would universalize a local experience such that reading lines from his work would make a W.B. Yeats quiver on a London omnibus, or a Victoria Ocampo weep in distant Argentina.


In Bengal, “aesthetics” and the idea of nation have always constituted a critical (and problematic) intersection. In fact, the articulation of the nation may be understood, and the recent political and cultural history of Bangladesh may be made clearer, by bringing up the debate on “national” style in aesthetics. This took place from the 1900 to 1930s as a direct outcome of the “Renaissance” movement.


The most vivid record of the triangular tension of tradition, nationalism, and modernisation is seen in the development of “modern” Indian art. It was primarily through the writings of E. Havell and the work of Abanindranth Tagore that art becomes a site for nationalist discourse. Abanindranath’s work was seen by critics and his supporters as the rediscovery project of the aesthetic ideal of India. The implication was broader; it was no less than the political project of national rediscovery, it came to symbolize the recovery of tradition and lost identity. Through the Havell-Abanindranath discourse, art – Indian art as well as Indian ethos – came to be regarded as “essentially idealistic, mystic, symbolic and transcendental.”


Abanindranth’s attempt to forge a link with Mughal miniature schools, and later Japanese and Chinese traditions, with a view towards “aesthetic and national recovery” was countered by two other camps. One was the Academic tradition, which in the name of progress as understood through colonial training, was contented with doing realistic rendering of Hindu mythological scenes.


The third position attacked both pro-colonial Academism and the pathos-filled “national” art of Abanindranath. The protagonists of this position were suspicious of the Hindu exclusivism of the Academists, but more than that, were apprehensive of both the pretentiousness of “Indianness” and the exclusiviness of the ideal and spiritual art as envisioned by Havell, Coomaraswamy and Abanindranath. Various thoughts can be claimed as forming this third camp: from the historian Akshay Maitreya, who had said that just by painting in India one does not produce Indian painting, to Benoy Sarkar who, writing from Paris in 1922 in his path-breaking essay, extolled the necessity if not the inevitability of a “truly International modern style of art.” The exhibition of the work of Paul Klee, Kandinsky and other German artists organized in Calcutta in 1922 by Rabindranath and Gaganendranth was a major event. Furthermore, there emerged a group of younger Calcutta artists who declared in their manifesto that the “Bengal School paintings lacked vitality and that the false sense of Indian art and the propaganda for the eastern art should be resisted.” These artists were referring to the idealized, but sentimental themes of Abanindranath, and also to the more politically-motivated program of a pan-Asian ethos urged by the Japanese writer Okakura and Sister Nivedita. The analysis of the third camp was significant: In their attempt to confront the colonizer, the “traditionalists” took refuge in a “recovered” pre-colonial past, or more correctly, in a fabricated past, never questioning which or whose past was being recovered. This invariably lead to eulogizing “a pre-capitalist social order ... rather than the grim realities of a people striving under sub-human conditions.” Such moves lead to the recovery of a specific past at the cost of excluding others.


The most important figure in this debate is Rabindranath Tagore. Although he appears like his nephew Abanindranath disengaged from social realities, and actually comes close to the idea of Havell and others of the spiritual artistic persona, he is sharply critical of the “narrow-mindedness” of an ‘Indian’ art. “I strongly urge our artists vehemently,” Rabindranath wrote, “to deny their obligation carefully to produce something that can be labelled as Indian Art by conforming to some old world mannerisms. Let them proudly refuse to be herded into a pen like branded beasts that are treated as cattle and not as cows.” Further, he said, “when we speak of Indian Art it indicates some truth based upon the Indian tradition and temperament. At the same time we must know that there is no such thing as absolute caste restriction in human cultures; they even have the power to combine and produce new variations, and such combinations have been going on for ages, proving the truth of the deep unity of human psychology.” A “world dialogue” is seen as fundamental to a modern existence.


Although these two strands – commitment to the idea of a nation and to the realm of architecture – are tied up in Muzharul Islam’s thinking, his architecture remains consciously distant from nationalistic polemics. He understands that nationalistic posturing does not automatically lead to a ‘regional’ architecture. Here, political ideology and architectural fabrication enter an impasse. But even if unresolved, architecture and politics lie inextricably intertwined. The intertwining raises questions about understanding the premise of architectural production, about the subtle thread of creation and vested interests, and about the nature of social engagement of architecture.


The dilemma brings to focus, on the one hand, the figure of the truly artistic persona, as Rabindranath and the architect Louis Kahn, who are suspicious of political arguments, and, on the other hand, the impossibility of political aloofness particularly in nations like Bangladesh and India. Political engagement however has convinced Muzharul Islam about the insufficiency of architectural form to address social conditions, and that has gradually shifted him towards a more politicized role.


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