This blog was written by Tanjil Sowgat and Shilpi Roy

Art and craft works are deeply rooted in Bangladesh’s culture and society. Different motifs in religious, residential, and public buildings have represented the image, thinking and ideologies of people and society in the Indian subcontinent. Artists and their intellectual thinking have played a significant role in the changing of Bangladesh. For example, during the independence war of Bangladesh posters and banners inspired the common people. Infamous sketches from Jainul Abedin captured the sinister faces and sufferings of Urban Dhaka during the great Bengal famine. Sir Charles D’Oyly’s paintings also contributed significantly to capturing life in Dhaka between 1814 and 1823. His works are still cited in many works of literature while briefing the urban transformation of Dhaka (Figure 1). Thus, if artists bring urban issues of Dhaka in their works and installations, those will on one hand, document the current crisis of Dhaka, while on the other, influence philosophical thinking and intellectual inputs for a sustainable Dhaka.

Figure 1: Engraving of a marketplace in Dhaka from D'Oyly's Antiquities of Dacca first published c. 1814

SHLC is currently engaging with renowned and young artists of Bangladesh to understand their reaction to the urban problems and potentials of Dhaka and secondly to encourage artists to capture the current urban issues and opportunities of the city for future generations. As part of the engagement, a discussion series was held in which young artists (Kuntal Barai, Mojahid Musha, Anisuzzaman Farorue, Sunanda Rani Borman, Asim Chandra,) were invited to debate and learn from eminent artists (Sahid Kabir, Dhali Al Mamoon, Tayeba Begum Lipi, and Mahbubur Rahman), and to undertake critical thinking about the urban challenges in Dhaka (Figure 2). This blog highlights the key issues that emerged during the dialogues:

The urban problem in Dhaka is influenced by a complex set of issues beyond space. The social attitude of citizens, philosophical constructs of policy-making, economic context and ethnographic background significantly shape the urban problems of Dhaka. The artists feel there is a need to engage with the issues and that lenses of art need to capture these criticalities.

Figure 2: Artists and academics sharing their views during the discussion on urban Dhaka
  • Philosophically, intellectual thinking is often bounded within the construct of ‘colonial’ thoughts. Developmental and western biased thoughts affect our thinking process and deny the rhizomatic nature of urban problems in Dhaka. Post developmental ideology could help us rethink our context and the change-making within and outside urban development.
  • We tend to ignore ‘non-human’ species (birds, plants, animals) and their contributions to urban life. Animals, trees, and the natural environment are undervalued in the urban studies of Bangladesh. Human-built forms, big structures, western bias space making are affecting the current practice.
  • Chances of enlightenment fade away with limited non-interactive public space. Lack of urban space within and outside the buildings constrain flourishment of mental, physical, and psychological enlightenment of individuals and the society.
  • Practical urban problems found in the neighbourhoods include lack of solid waste management, lack of schools and healthcare, shortage of public space, lack of water supply and sanitation in poor areas etc.
  • Quality of space is often signposted and branded as good by following international vocabularies. For example, eco-resort, sustainable building, healthy city. Yet, the big words often fail to represent the name tag.
  • There is a western and modernist bias in certifying the quality of the built environment. For example, gridiron roads are considered reasonable and organically grown roads are bad. However, local context, temporality and culture must be acknowledged and considered before certifying the quality of a space.
  • Affluent areas are too regimented and ordered but completely ignore the local social and economic dynamics.
  • Our organic growth nature helps ease access to urban services within walking distance, encourages social cohesion in informal space, and allows flexibility.
  • People often violate building regulations or setback rules because of the lack of awareness about the benefits of setback rules. As part of the workshop, the artists captured words and terminologies that they thought were critical to describing the urban issues of Dhaka (see images). They highlighted: poor garbage management, lack of fresh air, rubble, traffic congestion, modernisation of space, lack of balance between nature and man-made environment, conflicting mind set of city image (some argued for modernisation of space while others advocated for organic image of the city), identity crisis of citizens who are thrown together, temporality of space, and right of non-human species.
Figure 3: Immediate response on art cards regarding keywords linked to urban Dhaka

The insights from the artists resonated with the rhizomatic urban issues beyond object focused technocentric thinking. The discussion brought forward the challenges of modernist universal standardisation of space, and a learning  that the natural environment and organic nature of growth are an integral part of urban Dhaka. The artists felt that Dhaka’s  issues need to be highlighted in the contemporary works so that strong messages regarding urban issues can be conveyed for a sustainable Dhaka. The artists are now co-developing the ideas into artworks including paintings, sculptures and other installations, which will be exhibited in March during an engagement event with citizens.

The engagement event resonates with the beauty of cross-disciplinary knowledge and idea-sharing. Research findings of the SHLC team have contributed to the knowledge, experience and idea development of the artists. At the same time, SHLC learns from beyond conventional academic thinking regarding city life. This event showcases how creative methods can contribute to learning and knowledge.