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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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Cover Story

Retracing the
Journey of an


Mustafa Zaman

Reflections 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.

Kishoreganj, 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.

In 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.

Though 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 fond of.

The 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.

"He 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.

On 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.

He 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," Monir recalls.

Dhaka, 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.

Later, 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.

The 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.

What 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 pictures.”

As 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.

After 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 career.

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 might.

The Spanish Rhapsody
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 from there.

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.

"Mustafa 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 upon.

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.

The 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.

He 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 horizons.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004