Journey of an
on the Rear-view Mirror
"As a child, I had a sleeping intuition about art, had
a virgin mind with a provincial outlook on anything artistic,"
says Monirul Islam. The artist spent the first 18 years of
his life in Kishoreganj, a sleepy provincial town near Mymensingh.
As a child, he grew up copying portraitures of both literary
giants and stars of the silver screen and in designing the
school wall magazine. It was not until he graduated to the
high-school that he became an exponent of the popular culture
and ventured out into the world of banners, signboards and
rickshaw paintings. Once he did, "lacquer" became
the medium of choice. "Oil colour as a medium was unknown
to me as was the idea of any artwork other than rickshaw paintings
or banners. In that provincial backwater, having been given
the chance to paint a large sign for the local laundry itself
was a challenge, artistically," Monir says with his signature
down to earth sincerity. He painted a signboard featuring
Suchitra Sen, the screen goddess of that time, carrying laundry.
He picked up the icon from the few magazines that his father
subscribed to, and the rest was Monir's imagination; he was
then only 15.
in the ’50s and the ’60s, could only boast of
few urban physical traces. "Yet there were those people
who gave their nod of appreciation to a meticulously done
portrait or a scenery," testifies Monir, whose first
mentor, whom he still remembers with much reverence, was Jogodish
Roy, the headmaster of his high-school.
"You will have to grow up to be an artist," was
the incessantly used phrase of this teacher. On every occasion
Monir showed his acumen in either decorating the classroom
during the Ramadan vacation or providing visual supplements
for the school wall magazine "Poruar Puthi"
(readers' manuscript), the headmaster reminded him of what
he should prepare for.
high-school, Monir struggled to cross the hurdles year after
year. However, he took painting to his heart, although he
had no inkling of what growing up to be an artist meant. "I
didn't feel any passion about becoming an artist, I could
not envisage a course that would lead me to the world of proper
artistic training or studies. To me the concept of art revolved
around the exquisitely done portraitures, the banners that
hung at the front of a cinema hall or a nicely painted rickshaw,"
recalls the painter, who, at the age of 61, has left behind
more than 30 years of his life spent as a professional artist
in a European country, Spain.
Kishoreganj, a small provincial town, was more akin to a village,
it had vibrant economic and cultural scenes. And the kishore
(young boy) Monir soon earned the epithet: "artist",
doing what he did best, producing images that people were
first chance to try his hand at an innovative venture came
when he plastered a bamboo partition of their house with newspapers
and attempted a huge mural that explored a scene of riverine
Bangladesh. This painting was the crown on all the portraits,
banners and rickshaws he brought the touch of his talent to.
When the time came to enter Art College in
Dhaka, (the Institute of Fine Arts at present) he was caught
in something of a tug of war. At one end was the promise of
continuing with his passion for making art, and at the other,
there was the requirement of passing the Matriculation exam.
"I failed my Matriculation twice," Monir recalls,
"It was in the third attempt that I barely managed to
escape the same fate." And this freed him eternally from
the clasp of rote learning, which he never pursued seriously.
While Monir was having difficulties in his
studies, his parents thought a vocation of an electrician
might suit their son. Though Monir's mother was supportive
of her son's zeal for creating images, his father was distraught
over how his passion was impeding the prospect of doing well
at school. By the time Monir was allowed admission in Art
College, his father, Yusuf Ali Patwari, an officer at the
health department, had already passed away.
died in 1960. He never approved of my creative adventures.
But at the end of his life he did realise that I was destined
to go wayward," the maestro reflects, whose childhood
ruminations brings into light how the artists of his generation
had to brave both social barriers and economic hardship to
become what they are today. Yet, now, things look sweeter
in retrospect as art was then a passion for both the artists
and its connoisseurs. "I never got paid for what I did,
I thought it was a privilege to be asked by somebody to do
a piece," Monir reflects.
the Corridor of Creativity
The mode of artistic production changed after the entry into
Art College in 1961. "I used to draw a lot, my teacher
Shafiuddin Ahmed will testify that I was a workoholic,"
Monir recently related to a journalist. Today in his 60s he
remains one of the most prolific artists alive.
began to sell his works early on. During his study at Art
College, the watercolour studies kept piling up. After diligent
ventures outdoors day in and day out, he ended up with the
most number of works. "I used to sell watercolour works
for Tk 20 to 40 each. And the buyers, mostly foreigners, used
to come to the college premises to take their pick,"
back in the ’60s, was a hub of resources for an artist
trying to develop his skills outdoors. "Karwan Bazar
was in walking distance from where I used to reside, which
was at Kathal Bagan. The house I lived in used to be where
the Green Tower stands today. And Karwan Bazar was a village
of potters surrounded by water bodies and greenery,"
Monir reconstructs the Dhaka that consisted of many such villages
on its outskirts. The now famous artist, in his early years
of art training, took refuge at his maternal uncle's house,
where an overabundance of family members and shortage of pillows
forced each to get hold of a pillow early on in the evening
to be sure of a good night's sleep.
during his third year in college, Monir moved on to the hostel
that came into being at that time after years of demands from
the students. A brilliant student at Art College, where he
never stood second, Monir's future course was already sealed
as an artist, and on top of that, he joined the teaching contingent
in the Department of Drawing and Painting after his graduation
in 1966. He taught only for three years and left on a scholarship
for Spain in 1969, and after that, his path never swerved
to any other direction. Even when he came back in 1979 after
ten years in Madrid, going back to teaching was the last thing
he had in mind.
Artist at work
In the moderately large apartment at Dhanmondi, Monirul Islam
is bent over and engrossed in putting a coat of colour on
his tiny papers prepared for work. Even before venturing out
into the kitchen, he makes use of the time to finish the ground
for two new small paintings, both of which looked sombre compared
to the vibrantly coloured paintings that await the last touches
that may significantly transform them. However, even the unfinished
images carry signature Monir brilliance.
is this signature about? Is it a conscious effort to entrap
the onlookers into a pictorial solution that thrive on beauty
alone? The artist denies having to resort to any such simple
ploy. He says "It is an unending quest. You find yourself
in a 'marathon' on a daily basis. It is a personal struggle
that goes on forever." And he emphatically states that
"without a 'personal vision', without a well-defined
'inner world', artistic skill yields nothing but plain good
an artist anchored in the tradition of Spanish "Informal"
art, Monir recalls the Spanish adage -- "El artista
nace pero no se hace” (artists are born, not made).
Perhaps by resorting to this age-old epigram he wants to elucidate
that what is artistic in human nature cannot be found in the
ability to represent reality or thoughts but in the personality
of each individual. "Picasso could at once paint in realistic
fashion and in Cubist style as he had a strong personality,"
Monir argues. However, honesty and dedication are the two
things that he believes are the essential qualities that go
into the making of great artists.
adding two more small works to the pile of the hundreds of
similar pieces with grounding in different hues, Monir sips
the coffee he brought in from Europe. Then he playfully dwells
on the plight of the artists while reflecting on his early
days in Spain. His protracted stay in Spain was an accident.
He was cautioned by his family members not to come back home
after the war broke out on the home front in 1971.
The war of independence and his stay in Spain,
however, made him explore a whole new world of imagery based
on the scourge of war. "I was afflicted by the fact that
I was far away from the war that ravaged my country. The sense
of not being able to contribute to my country's birth was
gnawing at my conscience," he remembers ruefully.
Monir got engaged in a different kind of struggle
on a different kind of frontier – he struggled to formulate
a proper expression for his newly discovered medium of art,
"etching". When the war raged at his birthplace,
in Madrid, Spain, he found solace in creating pictures based
on that very scourge. It was a test for him to make etching
his pet medium, which would remain so for the rest of his
He calls art "a cruel profession",
not only because he himself had to go through an ordeal to
prove his worth in a foreign land at an early stage, but also
because "once you are out of the academy, you are faced
with an uncertain future; few get to pursue art as a profession.”
Creation of art certainly locks an artist
in a tough cycle.Even Monir, a man who has accomplished so
much both in Spain and at home, are constantly struggling
"not to get trapped" in the process of regurgitation
-- going over the already treaded path -- repeating oneself,
in plain English.
As for the signs of the mental disquiet that
stem from the quest for newer pictorial solutions, Monir carries
them with gait. Even in his visage, the traces surface. Though
for a man who turned 60 on August 17 last year, he looks younger,
his eyes give the hint of drive and passion. Over the last
few years he lost the youthful vigour of his face, yet in
his soul he seems eternally anchored in candidness and verve.
In his Dhanmondi apartment, where he greets his admirers,
journalists and fellow artists both young and old with equal
enthusiasm and cordiality, paintings replace the furniture.
Though a solo show at the Gallery Shilpangan
is on, his apartment-cum-studio is still teeming with paintings.
It has been so since he delved into this media back in the
mid-1990s. From that point on, Monir, who back then already
attained mastery over printmaking by introducing a whole new
approach to it, has been exploring this other media with equal
Before October 10, 1969 – the day he left for Spain
on a scholarship to study traditional mural – Monir
was very much into painting, both oil and water colour. "It
was an inter-exchange programme between the two governments
that awarded him with this "30-dollar-a-month scholarship."
"Spain then was considered a folkloric country, but to
live there was cheap," recalls Monir.
It was in Spain that Monir first got introduced
to the beauty of etching, to which he later would submit his
artistic energy. "I may have done a few graphic works
in Dhaka, which included two tiny etchings, but that was only
to get acquainted with the method. It was in Spain that a
fellow scholar from the Philippines drew me into the magical
world of etching," Monir retraces his meteoric departure
from painting to graphics.
One evening in their Madrid hostel room the
Filipino etcher -- Virgilo Aviadio -- was looking at his own
colour-etching. For Monir, who used to share a room with the
etcher, it was a moment of awakening. "It was tempting
and surprising," Monir now reflects in retrospect. It
was Virgilo who after seeing his enthusiasm, asked Monir to
buy a cheaper plate to try his hand on etching and he also
chose for him a subject, which was self-portrait.
"Setting up an 'acid bath' in the hostel
was against the rule, but I arranged for it and worked on
my etching," remembers Monir. After that, "etching"
became a whole new world to explore and to conquer. And conquer
he did. After a decade in Madrid, not only was his transformation
to an 'etcher' complete but his artistic exploits made him
a man of considerable international fame. It went all uphill
Now, there is even a phrase to mark out the
way he works. In the Spanish art world, the result of his
"free-bite" technique is known as "Escuela
de Monir”. And its most striking feature is the casual
informality in agglomerating lines, shapes or colour fields.
He brought into graphics the freedom with which he used to
execute water colour paintings back home.
Munwar showed us how to handle this medium with 'liberty'.
The non-academic approach I developed towards etching sprang
from the grounding I went through in college, which was based
on quick execution of water colour," says Monir, linking
his present work with that of his early studies.
What Monir refers to as the 'personal touch',
is something that one cultivates while drawing from all the
sources that attracts one the most. Monir is always gravitated
to "image that provokes", a quality that he often
finds in squiggles, textures and even a resonating line.
Reality is always a springboard for him. The
real experiences, visual and otherwise, always found their
way into his abstract compositions.
Monir is about sensibility, not at all about
style. "Style and technique are never the main concern,
it is the 'inner spirit' that matters," he declares.
This exteriorisation of the inner being is what makes his
creations so fraught with energy. And perhaps this is what
helped him go beyond the bounds of traditional art, defying
academic sets of rules.
In Madrid, during the first year of the '70s,
following the suggestion from his Filipino friend, he joined
the graphic studio "Group-15" as a printer. This
was an opportunity to rub shoulders with artists of international
stature. "Matta and Tapies used to come here to work,"
Monir recalls. But, as a printer, whose job is to help printmakers
to roll out prints, he and his friend were often looked down
It was the "elite artists" who worked
there, Monir was the printer who was trying to produce his
own work during the lull in the evening. No matter how his
works were considered by the working artists of Madrid –
where after the time of Goya and Fortuni, etching was in decline,
and modern masters like Juan Miro and Autoni Tapies only initiated
a revival in the mid-twentieth century – Monir went
on making prints whenever he had time. And it was the fetching
of a prize at a biennale in Lubjana, Yugoslavia, in 1977 that
astonished the establishment consisting of the "elite"
etchers. Before that, a prize from the Madrid Museum in 1972
catalysed Monir to pursue his dream -- to become an artist.
The printer gradually found his footing on
a foreign turf and established himself as a compatriot of
the famous names in the continent.
artist, who never considers himself to be "a Bangladeshi
artist”, now has the leverage to take a spin around
the world. His stints as a juror keep him busy transgressing
boarders across the globe. Yet he often sends his entry into
international shows as a Bangladeshi. "In the Cairo triennial,
I was a jury representing the country of Spain, but my artwork
was entered under the rubric Bangladesh. As an artist, I represented
my country of birth," explains Monir, whose international
fame never weighed heavily upon him.
Monir wears his achievements lightly, and
he knows how firmly his feet are lodged on the soil of his
motherland. "I don't feel much difference as I come back
to Bangladesh in regards to living and working, but the minute
I set my feet on the ground, a sensation grips me, which I
never feel any where else in the world," confesses Monir.
has seen Spain rising out of the deep slumber that resulted
from the misrules of one of the most hated ogres of the world
-- Franco – and the life that he is able to breathe
in his artworks, be it an etching or an acrylic on paper,
seems representative of the vigour that his country of residence
regained over the years.
It has been 35 years in Spain, where he has
sired a son, now a teenager with a passion for football, born
of his Spanish wife Mela, who is an etcher in her own right.
Monir is no longer an expatriate in an unknown terrain; he
has lived through the ups and downs and made it a point to
savour all that life had to offer. From the point of the cancellation
of his scholarship in 1972 (as East Pakistan dissolved so
did his scholarship) to the time when he bagged his first
international award, five long years were spent consolidating
his might, constructing a mode of art as well as reinventing
a Bangali psyche well adjusted to the characteristics unique
to the Mediterranean zone.
The individual signature, the anarchic state
of mind and the vehemence of passion that, in Monir's opinion
colours the cultural horizon of Spain, are the ingredients
that a Bangali can recognise well and be a party to. As the
maestro himself declares --"you can never really encounter
such passionate art from Japan", where discipline and
rules relegate works of art to mere decorations.
"Artists live in a state of violence,"
Monir declares, and explains how, by doing so, he also becomes
disassociated from the regular social life. However, he strongly
believes that alienation or withdrawal from everyday existence
is not an option for artists who would want to remain in touch
with what is real and palpable in life.
Zainul Abedin advised him "not to chase
a lame man”, and Monir took this to heart and at the
age of 61 he remains at the helm of his universe composed
of colour, lines and form, chasing a dream to explore newer
(R) thedailystar.net 2004