Sultan was born in Machimdia village, in what was then Jessore District, British India (now Narail District, Bangladesh) on 10 August 1923. After five years of primary education at Victoria Collegiate School in Narail, he went to work for his father, a mason. Even as a child he felt a strong artistic urge. He seized every opportunity to draw with charcoal, and developed his talent depicting the buildings his father worked on. Sultan wanted to study art in Calcutta (Kolkata), but his family did not have the means to send him. Eventually, he secured financial support from the local zamindar and went to Calcutta in 1938. There poet and art critic Hasan Shahid Suhrawardy restyled him S. M. Sultan and offered him accommodation in his home and the use of his library. Sultan did not meet the admissions requirements of the Government School of Art, but in 1941 managed to get in with the help of Suhrawardy, who was on the school's governing body. Under Principal Mukul Chandra Dey the school deemphasized the copying of Old Masters and moved beyond Indian mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects. Students were encouraged to paint contemporary landscapes and portraits expressing original themes from their own life experience.