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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture


    People’s Republic of. Country in the northeast of the Indian subcontinent, bounded in the south by the Bay of Bengal, on the southeast by Burma (Myanmar) and on all other sides by India. Although a small country of 144,000 sq. km, it supports a population of 147 million (2006 estimate). The region formed part of British India, and in 1947, on partition of the subcontinent at the time of independence, it became East Pakistan. In 1971, following civil war with West Pakistan, it established itself as the independent state of Bangladesh with its capital at Dhaka (Dacca). This entry focuses mainly on the art produced in the country since 1971. For the art of the area in earlier times, see appropriate sections of other articles.

    I. Introduction. II. History. III. Architecture. IV. Painting. V. Textiles and embroidery. VI. Other arts. VII. Art education. VIII. Museums and collecting.

    I. Introduction

    In terms of geography, much of Bangladesh is a vast delta traversed by numerous rivers (see fig.). The climate is monsoonal, with high humidity throughout the year. Coastal areas are particularly susceptible to cyclonic storms. Of the population, 98% are Bengalis. The Santal, Khasi, Garo and Hajong peoples live in the north and the Chakma, Mogh and Tipra peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.


    Map of Bangladesh; those sites with separate entries in this encyclopedia are distinguished by Cross-reference type

    view larger image

    Bangladeshis are predominantly Muslims; however, there are large numbers of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians among them, as well as those who practice traditional religions among the minority peoples. The area’s long adherence to Islam has exerted a deep influence on the development of architecture and other art forms. Religious strictures, for instance, have hindered the flowering of sculptural art, which has not developed as a forceful form of artistic expression, although the visibility of sculpture has increased greatly since the 1960s. The bias against figural art is still strong; monumental figures are scarce in public places. Rare exceptions are Freedom Fighter by the sculptor Abdur Razzaque (d. 2005), at an intersection just north of Dhaka, and Aparajeya Bangla by Syed Abdullah Khaleq, which represents a group of freedom fighters and is located on the campus of Dhaka University. Both works commemorate the 1971 war.

    II. History

    The ancient terms Vanga, Banga and Bangal probably denoted a region between the Bhagirathi and Padma rivers. In antiquity, the rest of the country was known as Varendra or Pundravardhana in the north and Samatata in the southeast. Early references in mythology indicate the region was divided into many small kingdoms. The “Gangaridai” mentioned by the Greek historians of the 4th century BCE have been identified as the inhabitants of “Banga.”

    During the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE north Bengal was controlled by the Mauryas, but no conclusive evidence of Kushana (1st–3rd centuries CE) rule has been discovered. The Guptas (4th–5th centuries) brought all of Bengal under their rule, but on the break-up of their empire, independent kingdoms were established in both Banga and Gaur in southeast and northwest Bengal respectively. The authority of the Buddhist Pala dynasty (8th century–early 13th), was centered in north and west Bengal but often encompassed Magadha (Bihar), Kamrup (Assam) and Orissa as well. They were supplanted by the Hindu Senas (end 11th century–13th), who had moved northeastwards from their original home in Karnataka.

    These earlier Buddhist and Hindu traditions were submerged when Turkish Muslims attacked and conquered the Sena Kingdom in 1204. It took the invaders over a century to establish their power in Bengal. Local governors were rebellious and took advantage of their distance from Delhi. After intervening in 1325, Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq divided the region into three administrative units: Lakhnauti (Gaur), Satgaon and Sonargaon. In 1345, Sultan Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah, as first Muslim ruler of a consolidated Bengal, founded an independent line of dynastic kings. They were followed by the converted descendants of Raja Ganesh, the restored line of Ilyas Shah, Husayn Shahi, Sur and Karrani rulers. The last of these were defeated by Akbar’s army in 1576. Bengal then became a province of the Mughal Empire, but local landowners (zamīndārs) continued to resist. Meanwhile, Jahangirnagar (Dhaka) became the capital of the province. As the power of the Mughals declined and the privileges of the British East India Company grew, the Muslim governorship of Bengal became hereditary. The capital was shifted to Murshidabad in 1717.

    In 1905 the British rulers divided the Bengal presidency and created a new province, East Bengal and Assam, with a majority Muslim population. However, the partition was annulled six years later. In accord with the Muslim leader Muhammad ῾Ali Jinnah’s “Two-nation theory,” East Bengal became East Pakistan in 1947, separated from its western counterpart by 1600 kilometers of Indian territory. Economic issues, as well as linguistic and cultural differences, led to a civil war in 1971, from which Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation.


    • Enc. Islam/2
    • R. C. Majumdar: A History of Bengal, i (Dhaka, 1943) [Hindu period]
    • J. Sarkar: The History of Bengal, ii (Dhaka, 1948)
    • A. M. Chowdhury: Dynastic History of Bengal (Dhaka, 1967)
    • N. K. Sinha, ed.: History of Bengal, 1757–1905 (Calcutta, 1967)
    • A. Karim: Banglar Itihash, Sultani Amol [History of Bengal, Sultanate period] (Dhaka, 1977)
    • M. A. Rahim and others, eds.: Bangladesher Itihash [History of Bangladesh] (Dhaka, 1977)
    • H. Rashid: Geography of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1977)
    • F. Robinson, ed.: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, SriLanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives (Cambridge, 1989)
    • S. Islam and A. Hussain: History of Bangladesh 1704–1971, 3 vols. (Dhaka, 2/1997)
    • C. Baxter and S. Rahman: Historical Dictionary of Bangladesh (Lanham, 3/2003)

    III. Architecture

    During the 1960s the architectural scene in what was then East Pakistan generally lacked animation. The work of some internationally known architects commissioned for public institutions and buildings and that of Mazharul Islam, until independence the only trained architect in the region, brought some distinction. The National Assembly Building in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (see color pl. 1:X, fig. 1), by Louis I. Kahn (1901–74), completed in 1984, is the most monumental building in Bangladesh. The use of water, open courts and enclosed volumes reflects the architect’s understanding of Mughal architecture, though the stereotyped vocabulary of that tradition has been avoided. It received an Aga khan award for architecture in 1989. The Shaheed Minar in Dhaka, built in memory of the martyrs of the Language Movement of 1952, and the National Monument in Savar commemorating the Liberation War of 1971, both in concrete, achieve a striking sculptured effect.

    As land is scarce, multi-level office and housing space has become popular. Concrete and glass are widely used, but increasingly more architects are designing in exposed brick. The country remains predominantly rural, and most villagers live in thatched huts of mud, bamboo and straw. In recognition of the technically superior prefabricated huts that it designed for the rural poor, the Grameen Bank, which seeks to help those without assets, received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1990.


    • ArchNet, http://archnet.org (accessed June 11, 2008)
    • Shah Alam Zahiruddin and others, eds.: Contemporary Architecture: Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1990)
    • M. A. Bari: “Mughal Mosques of Dhaka: A Typological Study,” Orient. A. (1992), pp. 93–102
    • S. Ksiazek: “Architectural Culture in the Fifties: Louis Kahn and the National Assembly Complex in Dhaka,” J. Soc. Archit. Hist., lii (1993), pp. 416–35
    • I. Islam and A. G. Noble: “Mosque Architecture in Bangladesh: The Archetype and its Changing Morphology,” J. Cult. Geog., xvii/2 (1998), p. 5
    • M. Rahman and F. A. Haque: “Multiple Courtyard Mansions of Dhaka: Form and Context,” Trad. Dwell. & Settmts Rev. xii/2 (2001), pp. 57–71
    • A. Nabi Khan: Islamic Architecture in South Asia: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh (Karachi, 2003)
    • P. Hasan: Sultans and Mosques: The Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh (London, 2007)

    IV. Painting

    The first Bengali artists of East Pakistan were trained in Calcutta and moved to Dhaka after Partition. The best known was Zainul Abedin. He taught in the Calcutta School of Art and achieved fame with his sketches of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Though he experimented with semi-abstract themes, his style was in the main characterized by realism, as in Bulls in a Storm, executed in ink and wax. Most of his work is in subdued colors. His near- contemporary Qamrul Hasan (b. 1921) developed a style that combined the techniques of traditional narrative scroll painting (paṭṭa) with Western techniques. He depicted his rural subjects in semi-abstract line drawings enclosing strong, bright colors.

    The first graduates of Dhaka Art School, working in a variety of media, were directly influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement in the West. Among them were Muhammad Kibria (b. 1929), Aminul Islam, Murtaza Bashir, Rashid Chowdhury (b. 1932) and Hamidur Rahman. In spite of the large number of women who receive formal training in painting, few have pursued it as a full-time career.

    Since independence, participation in international expositions has increased markedly. The Asian Art Biennial is held regularly in Dhaka. Growing numbers of artists are going to India, Japan and Europe for further training. By the early 1990s a number of artists had begun to move away from the abstract style of their immediate predecessors towards a mixed style incorporating definite forms.

    Increasing appreciation and patronage have en-abled some painters to become full-time professionals earning a living from their art. Most newly built public buildings display paintings, commissioned generally through the architect.


    • B. K. Jahangir: Contemporary Painters: Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1974) Selected Paintings: Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1988) [album with excellent pls]
    • T. Ahmed: “Art in Bangladesh: Five Decades,” A. & Islam. World, xxvi (1995), pp. 69–75
    • S. Manzoorul Islam: Appropriations, Influences and Inspirations: The Case of Bangladeshi Art, Dhaka University Studies, vol. 55, part 2 (1998), pp. 1–17
    • A. & Islam. World, xxxiv (1999) [entire issue devoted to contemporary art in Bangladesh]
    • P. Vann: “In the Mind’s Eye: Philip Vann Looks at the Art of Shafique Uddin,” Raw Vision, xxvi (1999), pp. 46–9
    • H. H. Khondker: “The National, the Religious, and the Global in the Construction of National Identity in Bangladesh,” Asia and Europe in Globalization: Continents, Regions and Nations, ed. G. Therborn and H. H. Khondker (Leiden, 2006), pp. 81–106

    V. Textiles and embroidery

    Since ancient times weaving centers in what is now Bangladesh have specialized in a large variety of handloom cottons for both domestic use and commerce. Over 100 varieties were exported—some on the overland route via Agra to such destinations as Bukhara, Isfahan, Jiddah or Istanbul; others in the coastal trade to ports in South and Southeast Asia. From the 16th century the finest pieces of plain cotton, striped goods, checked fabrics (cārkhānās) and flower-patterned muslins (jāmadānīs) were made for Mughal emperors and Bengal nawabs. From the mid-17th century to the early 19th European companies traded in medium quality piece-goods and in such embroideries as kaśīdā (a form of chainstitch using mūṅgā silk thread) and cikan (fine white thread on white cotton). “Bengalla quilts” were exported to Portugal. Made of fawn-colored tasar wild silk, they carried elaborate biblical or hunting scenes backstitched with mūṅgā thread. By 1780 America had become a market for assortments of coarse bāftā silk cloth, seersucker cotton, gurrah muslin and spotted clothes, usually handkerchiefs, known as “bandannas,” a term derived from “bāndhnā” (to tie) and reflecting the tie-dye technique by which such patterns were originally created. The most famous weaving centers were located around Dhaka and Mymensingh.

    Traditional textile products revived in the second half of the 20th century included jāmadānī sāṛīs and quilts (naqśī kānthā). The quilts, which were in the past made mainly by village women in the districts of Faridpur, Jessore, Bogra, Pabna, Khulna and Mymensingh, represent a rich synthesis of folk culture. Traditional examples have a lotus pattern at the center. The field is colorfully embroidered with such fertility motifs as fish, the sun, dancing figures and fetus-like shapes of animals or birds. The four corners are decorated with tree-of-life designs. Usually six different borders are stitched around the edges. The entire space in-between is covered with white running stitches to create a wave-like effect. Some late 20th-century examples follow the traditional design, while others are more experimental. Women from ethnic communities continued to weave geometric designs on a waist loom for their sarongs or scarves.

    Important collections of textiles are housed in the National Museum of Bangladesh, Dhaka; the Gurushaday and Asutosh Museums, Calcutta; the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Association pour l’Etude et la Documentation des Textiles d’Asie, Paris; the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, MA; and the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art.


    • J. Taylor: A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Cotton Manufacture of Dhaka (London, 1851)
    • J. Forbes Watson: The Textile Manufactures and the Costumes of the Peoples of India (London, 1866)
    • N. N. Banerjee: Monograph on the Cotton Fabrics of Bengal (Calcutta, 1878)
    • A. Ghose: “Figured Fabrics of Old Bengal,” Marg, iii/1 (1949), pp. 38–43
    • S. Kramrisch: Unknown India: Ritual Art in Tribe and Village (Philadelphia, 1968)
    • A. Karim: Dhakai Muslin (Dhaka, 1975)
    • N. Zaman: The Art of Kantha Embroidery (Dhaka, 1981)
    • M. A. Chen: “Kantha and Jamdani Revival in Bangladesh,” India Int. Cent. Q., xi (1984)
    • H. Hossain: Company Weavers of Bengal: 1750–1813 (New Delhi, 1988)
    • Woven Air: The Muslin and Kantha Tradition of Bangladesh (exh. cat., London, Whitechapel A.G., 1988)
    • H. A. Begum: “Nakshi Kantha of Chapai Nawabganj: Impact of an Unique Heritage on the Socio-Economic Life of the Region,” Bangladesh Hist. Stud., xviii (1999–2001), pp. 241–52
    • D. C. Johnson: Agile Hands and Creative Minds: A Bibliography of Textile Traditions in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (Bangkok, 2000)
    • R. Crill: “Indian Embroidery in the Victoria and Albert Museum,” A. Asia, xxxiii/2 (2003), pp. 46–55

    VI. Other arts

    The traditional work of rural craftsmen has ancient roots. It still keeps its social utility and to some extent its ritual value. Terracotta plaques have been used to decorate the walls of brick buildings from the earliest times, but European technology overtook the indigenous skills in the 19th century. Many terracotta artists of the Kumar caste changed to producing dolls. These are made either in molds or by pinching balls of clay into suitable shapes. Mymensingh is the best-known center of production.

    A whole range of domestic pottery, used for cooking and storage, is made on a simple wheel. Painted pottery is manufactured for festivals, and pot covers featuring Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, are often used for private worship. Village fairs marking Muslim or Hindu religious festivals offer a variety of decorated pots, masks and toys of both terracotta and wood, sometimes mounted on wheels. Although once used exclusively for ritual and votive purposes, such objects have now become secularized.

    The scroll painting of ancient times, which illustrated narrative tales of village minstrels, has almost disappeared. Ā lpanā, a decorative design with auspicious purposes, which women traditionally made on floors by applying rice-flour paste with rags, has become popular in urban areas and in public settings, though paint and lime are usually substituted for rice-flour paste. Decorated rice cakes best reflect the secular and aesthetic sense of rural women. Fine designs, ranging from decorative ālpanā to motifs of kitchen utensils, are drawn on the cakes with a piece of bamboo or thorn from a date palm.

    The marshy areas of southern and eastern Bangladesh produce an abundance of pith, which is used by the Malakar caste to make statues of deities, ornaments and flowers. Bamboos, reeds and cane are used to make baskets, mats and hand-held fans. The finest mats are made from Sylhet cane. Village women who began by making hammocks and storage receptacles out of jute now also produce bags, table-mats and floor coverings for export as well as for domestic use.

    Highly skilled traditional metal craftsmen make vessels and utensils of various shapes and sizes from copper, brass and bell metal, sometimes with hammered or incised patterns. Jewelry is an integral part of a Bengali woman’s attire. While silver, brass and stone beads are popular in the poorer rural areas, filigree gold jewelry is made for a wealthier and more sophisticated clientele. Pink pearls, rare outside Bangladesh, are also set in gold. Filigree silver containers for rosewater, perfume and betelnut are also produced.

    Most of Bangladesh was once thickly wooded. Forest resources, however, have been greatly diminished, and although teak of a good quality is grown in Chittagong, it is so expensive that most people use cane instead of wood for furniture-making. Steel, aluminium and glass are now replacing wooden doors and windows.

    The most visible form of popular urban art appears on three-wheeled rickshaws, which are pedalled like bicycles. These are lavishly decorated with brightly colored plastic; the back-board between their rear wheels is painted with fantastic landscapes, skyscrapers, scenes of war and scenes inspired by popular cinema. Continuous political agitation has resulted in a profusion of posters and banners, often designed by students of the department of graphic art of the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka.


    • S. R. Ghuznavi: Naksha: A Collection of Designs of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1981)
    • Z. Haque: Gahana: Jewelry of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1984)
    • T. Ahmad: Lokshilpa [Folk Art] (Dhaka, 1985)
    • E. Haque, ed.: An Anthology on Crafts of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1987)
    • K. Tsuzuki, ed.: Traffic Art (Kyoto, 1990)
    • S. M. Hasan: “Rural Arts and Crafts,” History of Bangladesh 1704–1971, iii of Social and Cultural History, ed. S. Islam (Dhaka, 2/1997), pp. 590–620
    • J. Kirkpatrick: Transports of Delight: Ricksha Arts of Bangladesh (Bloomington, 2003)

    VII. Art education

    In the rural areas, the techniques of traditional craftsmanship are learnt and passed down within the family. The Bangladesh Cottage Industries Corporation from time to time sends out teams to familiarize the traditional craftsmen with more modern technology.

    Formal training in art is available at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University; the Department of Fine Arts, Chittagong University; the Government College of Arts and the College of Arts and Crafts in Rajshahi; and the Khulna Art College. The first two include the history of art in their curricula and award Masters degrees, while the rest award Bachelors. Students are admitted after ten years of high school to be trained for five years for the degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts. Two additional years are required for the Masters. The Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka has a Pottery and Ceramics Department; the other schools offer it only as a subject.


    • A. Matlub: “The Teaching of Art in Bangladesh,” A. & Islam. World, xxxiv (1999), pp. 73, 76

    VIII. Museums and collecting

    The most important collections in the major museums are of ancient Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, epigraphic records, coins, architectural elements, and manuscripts pre-dating the 19th century. The National Art Gallery in Dhaka is devoted solely to contemporary art. The National Museum in Dhaka also has important collections. The Zainul Abedin Sangrahasala in Mymensingh houses a collection of Abedin’s paintings and memorabilia. The Folk Art and Craft Museum in Sonargaon and the Bangla Academy in Dhaka specialize in folk art and crafts.

    Outside Bangladesh, India has the largest collection of rural and modern art and crafts of Bengal, divided between the Gurushaday, Asutosh and Indian museums in Calcutta, and the National Gallery of Modern Art and Polytechnic Institute in New Delhi.

    Collections of contemporary Bangladeshi painting are also held by: the Pakistan National Council of Arts, Islamabad, and Society of Contemporary Art Galleries, Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi; Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan; National Art Gallery and Museum of Asian Art, Kuala Lumpur; Silpakorn University of Fine Arts Archaeology Museum, Bangkok; Non-Aligned Countries’ Art Gallery, Podgorica [Titograd]; Istituto per il Medio e Estremo Oriente, Rome; Cité des Arts, Paris; Asia and Pacific Museum, Warsaw; Nordness Gallery, New York; and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. A large collection of folk art and crafts was purchased by the former Inner London Education Authority in 1987.

    Contemporary art may be purchased from the National Art Gallery in Dhaka as well as from a number of private galleries in the capital. There is no bar on the export of such art; but any object more than 100 years old is termed an antiquity under the Antiquities Ordinance of 1976 (Amendment of the Antiquities Act of Pakistan, 1968) and cannot be sold or exported without a licence from the Director of the Department of Archaeology and Museums.


    • F. Mahmud and H. Rahman: The Museums of Bangladesh (Dhaka, 1987)
    • N. S. Nahar: “The Art Collection at the Bangladesh National Museum,” A. & Islam. World, xxxiv (1999), pp. 60–61, 65
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