Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013

Learning the basics from Zainul Abedin

Murtaja Baseer reminisces

Baseer (L) with Abedin, a few days before the latter's demise in 1976.  File Photo

Baseer (L) with Abedin, a few days before the latter’s demise in 1976. File Photo

Murtaja Baseer is one of the most accomplished painters of our country, who has made a great contribution to Bangladeshi art. Baseer recently reminisced on his association with his teacher Zainul Abedin, a pioneer of the modern art movement, who founded Dhaka Art College in 1948 with some of his comrades.
Says Baseer: “I heard of Zainul Abedin before going for admission at Government Art College (now Faculty of Fine Arts) in 1949. I heard the name of another painter — Shafiuddin Ahmed. At that time, Nandalal Bose, Atul Bose, Sudhi Ranjan Khastgir, Ramendranath Chakroborty, Hemanta Kumar Roy and others were famous in the art scene of the subcontinent.
“My elder brother Muhammad Shafiullah was a regular reader of Peoples War, a prestigious newspaper of the time. In Peoples War, I first saw Zainul’s famine sketches (1943). The sketches were deeply embedded in my mind. Somnath Hore and Chitra Prasad’s images were also published in the newspaper. An article by Sarojini Naidu on Zainul Abedin helped me get an insightful glimpse into his life and works.
From his childhood Abedin intended to study art. He gained admission in Kolkata Art College in 1933, without appearing at the Metric examination. He came first in first division in 1938. While in Kolkata, Abedin associated with two noted personalities — Abul Monsur Ahmed and Abul Kalam Samsuddin. He used to tell us various stories of Kolkata life.
I was introduced to Abedin under unusual circumstances. I didn’t intend to become a painter initially. I was closely engaged with a political party and I always tried to abide by the party rules. The Communist Party asked me to generate awareness about our intentions and objectives among the young. With that intent I got admitted to Art College. When I was a student of class nine, I became a member of the party’s Student Federation.
When I went for admission at Dhaka Art College, I carried a letter from my elder brother Muhammad Shafiullah. My brother and Abedin were close friends. I got admitted at the college. At the time, the college was on Nawabpur Road. Some rooms on the ground floor of National Medical College were allocated for the Art College.
Abedin Sir was tall and sturdy, and had an indigenous look about him. His appearance exuded confidence. His voice was deep and eyes were bright. He was a chain smoker.
He taught us to draw human figures, faces, curb lines of figures and various animal forms. He focused on drawings and sketches. He taught us to copy from Ajanta Ellora drawings and some renowned Indian painters. He also went over charcoal drawings. He meticulously observed and corrected our wrist and hand movements. When I started working as a teacher at Chittagong Art College, I gave importance to those particular aspects.
Vivek Das Gupta and Zainul Abedin were the pioneering watercolourists in the subcontinent in our time. Vivek’s work highlighted the intricacies of urban life whereas Abedin focused on rural landscapes and riverine life.
During my second year in college (1950), I was incarcerated for six months on political grounds. I went back to the college afterwards, but could not continue because of the long absence. Teachers were going over watercolour and brush works. I became frustrated and told Abedin sir, ‘I cannot become a painter.’ He then asked Aminul Islam to help me with painting and watercolour.
In 1955, Abedin Sir visited my studio in Old Dhaka and praised my work. He attended my marriage ceremony (in 1962). In 1976, a few days before his death, I went to meet him. He warmly hugged me and asked artist Quamrul Hassan to take a photo of us — an image I continue to cherish.