Willem van Schendel had written A Short History of Bangladesh way back in 2009, giving us his concise take on South Asia’s youngest nation and its history at a time when none such existed. I was reminded of that book while reading Naeem Mohaiemen’s Midnight’s Third Child; it could well be described as an eclectic history of the arts in Bangladesh (including its East Pakistan phase), mapping as it does that evolution in a non-linear, idiosyncratic manner. The 31 essays of this anthology, on artists and movements, under three tellingly titled sections – Chilekothar Shepai (Sentry in the Attic), Hajar Chobir Deshe (In the Land of a Thousand Pictures), Deyal’er Lekhon (Writing on the Wall) – amply bear this out.

In his crisp Introduction, Mohaiemen clearly articulates what he intends this book to be:

“Midnight’s Third Child” is my more polite translation of a phrase we use in Bangla: chagol’er tritiyo bachha lafay beshi (the goat’s third child jumps more). It suggests the youngest needs to strive harder for maternal sustenance; it also proposes a clarity of purpose from being the last born. Bangladesh has existed under three signs – “East Bengal” under British India until 1947, “East Pakistan” under United Pakistan until 1971, and Bangladesh after the Liberation War of 1971. Given these movements, reversals, and renewals, the idea of Bangladesh remains contingent and contested. Cultural workers can reinforce essentialist ideas around this, or they can choose to challenge majoritarian views. The people, projects, and conversations in this anthology frequently take on a role of speaking back to power.

The introductory essays by Tanzim Wahab and Zirwat Chowdhury are, in a way, the best reviews of the book. Wahab outlines the specifics of Mohaiemen’s self-reflexive approach and the framework within which it operates, “driven by particular obsessions (history, myth, language, borders)”. He also reminds us, crucially, of Mohaiemen’s role as a campaigner within social movements in Bangladesh. Chowdhury draws our attention to “the facility with which Mohaiemen writes” and his “commitment to the written word, wherein preciousness is never allowed to prevail over the urgency of facilitating discourse”. The rest of her essay is taken up with Tareque Masud’s documentary about SM Sultan, Adam Surat (1989).

Recurrent notes

Both Masud (1956-2011) and Sultan (1923-1994) – one of the most non-conforming artists of Bangladesh, known for his celebratory depictions of muscular peasants working in the fields – and the former’s documentary on the latter, are the subject of an essay in the second section of the book. That they are special to Mohaiemen was evident in his recent book launch in Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery, where the author was in a conversation with singer/songwriter Mousumi Bhowmick.

A clip from this film was shown at the event, and a detailed context of the cover photograph of the book (taken during the filming of Adam Surat) was given. Two of the five people in the photograph (Masud and Mishuk Munier) died in a tragic car accident in 2011; a third (Dhali al Mamoon) survived after long hospitalisation. It was a turning point in Mamoon’s life; he discusses this, and what it did to his art and personal relationships at length in the conversation that is the last entry in the book. Masud, the friend and the filmmaker, peeks in and out of several other essays in the volume.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) area is the other recurrent note in the volume; and the predominant one of the first section. Beginning with the piece “Chittagong Hill Tracts: My Own Private Palestine”, the text of which combines a post of Mohaiemen’s in the blog “Alal o Dulal” with the Introduction and Afterword of his co-edited volume Between Ashes and Hope: Chittagong Hill Tracts in The Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010), it follows up with an essay on the art of Joydeb Roaja from the catalogue of his solo show in Tokyo in 2016. What is emphasised here is the presence of the military apparatus in CHT in Roaja’s drawings, “with faces metamorphosing into machines with purpose”, which is worlds away from the bucolic scenes of the Jumma people that were the hallmark of Kanak Chanpa’s paintings a generation back. “Cheragee Pahar: Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Dhali Al Mamoon: Unfolding Themselves”, placed consecutively, can be considered companion pieces.

The interview with Mamoon is taken up with comparative pedagogies in art education in Dhaka’s Charukala and Chittagong Art College (established in 1975), and the role that the latter has played in establishing Chittagong as an alternative – and more experimental – art space within Bangladesh. Mamoon has been both a student and teacher in the latter; and his students’ provocative installation art (among others) is discussed in “Cheragee Pahar”, at an event organised by the Jog art collective.

There are a number of other interviews in the book, among which the ones with Tayeba Begum Lipi and Shahidul Alam are interesting for their insights into not only individual/specific art practices but also into the process of building and nurturing institutions – Britto for Lipi, Drik and Pathshala for Alam. Talking of Alam, the graphic depiction in another piece, of the evolution of Chobi Mela from 1989 to 2019, makes it stand out in the anthology.

The literal “building” of an institution – that of “Sangsad Bhaban”, the Parliament in Dhaka – is the subject of both an interview and an essay. The interview is with architect Salauddin Ahmed, who left a life and career in the US and returned to Dhaka in 2000; the essay is on the documentary on Louis Kahn, My Architect (2003), made by his “unofficial” son, Nathaniel Kahn. Both look back with longing at the time when the vast green outside the Parliament was open to the public, making it a default place to “hang out” in the capital; and lament the cordoning off of the area, as well as the inordinately strict regulations governing the visiting of the Sangsad – for “national security” reasons – after a bomb blast in 2005.

Bengal connected/divided

“Bengal Connected” is the title of the essay on photographer Sarkar Protick’s “Ishpater Poth” (The Path of Steel), chronicling the history of the East Bengal Railway (EBR), set up by the British in the 1860s, which was sundered from its Indian segments after 1947 and completely cut off after 1965. Starting with a comparison of Protick’s photographs with the iconic train sequence in Satyajit’s Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), the essay is a long meditation on “the sinewy rail system” that thrived for almost a century, of what it meant for both the coloniser and the colonised, as well as what was left behind after decolonisation.

Railway tracks between East and West Bengal may have gone asunder, but artistic influences have always percolated across the border. Ritwik Ghatak’s is one such, to be found in the work of filmmaker Molla Sagar. Sagar “grew up on the river Bhairav, attended and then left Charukala, and found his inspiration through movement struggles.” In his work, he also resolutely “stayed focused on the village, the river, and its peoples”. In “The River You Never Knew”, Mohaiemen discusses Sagar’s film The River Titas (2016) and its intertextuality with Ghatak’s Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), based on the novel by Adwaita Mallabarman. Ghatak’s was the first Indian film to be directed in newly created Bangladesh; and in 2016, it was given a fresh lease of life when Sagar organised floating exhibitions of it along the Titas river.

What Ritwik Ghatak did, Mrinal Sen never could. Diplomatic hurdles stood in the way, as Sen himself said, dramatically waving his passport when he was asked why he had never made a film in Bangladesh – after the screening of Interview (1971) in his first retrospective organised by the Indian embassy in Dhaka in 1994. Mohaiemen was part of the audience that day, and shares this anecdote in “In a Time of New Uprisings”.

The major part of Midnight Third Child is concerned with the visual arts. Among the few essays on literature are reviews of two acclaimed English novels by Bangladeshis – Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know (2014) and Numair Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh! (2019). I however find the essays on two magazines featured in the book – Depart and Juktakkhor – more fascinating, because of the way they lay bare the politics of language and borders as played out in this part of South Asia.

Depart explores the question of whether English is a viable option for art criticism in Bangladesh; I found its inclusion ironic in this volume. It is an essay on another earlier magazine that most resonated with me in this anthology – “Juktakkhor: Stranded on the Borders of Two Bengals”. Juktakkhor (Bengali for “conjoined letters”) was a cross-border experiment in publishing, brought out from both Dhaka and Kolkata, which unfortunately had to close down after only a few issues owing to structural constraints.

Mohaiemen delves into some of the cultural discrepancies of the time with relation to the magazine, but more importantly, makes that little euphoric moment in the 1990s the locus of a broader discussion – about why the Partition of 1947 was considered a traumatic division of a land and people by India but a successful secession by Pakistan (a difference that is brought home to him every time he visits Kolkata and is invited to dinner); about other (communist) “political possibilities”, utopian in 1947 and very real in 1972; and the changing nature of West Bengal’s, and in turn India’s, attitude to Bangladesh. He ends the essay on a most hopeful yet pragmatic note:

The next time there is a dinner in Kolkata, I may try to nudge my hosts in a different direction. Instead of loop memories of a river cottage, perhaps it is better for us to think of ways to revive experiments like Juktakkhor. Once twinned, now tragically separated, people cannot hope to now, after all this time, reverse midnight’s trajectory. But they can, at least, begin to work together as equals.  

That’s a suggestion worth pursuing!

Midnight’s Third Child, Naeem Mohaiemen, Nokta and ULAB.