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     Volume 4 Issue 16 | October 8 , 2004 |

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Looking at Portraits

Mustafa Zaman

Twenty-three greatest Bangalis of the last thousand years by Bikash.

Commissioning portrait paintings is a hedge against oblivion. Having one's portrait done by a reputed artist seemed like sure shot at immortality for the rich in olden times. It also was a thing of pride. History of both Western and Eastern art is replete with evidence of such pride-fuelling, age-defying acts. However, it all changed at the onset of modernism. When Picasso wielded his brush to put his severely subjective version of portraits on canvases in the beginning of the last century, this sense of historicity took a beating. And on top of that, having one's portrait painted by an artist was no longer the prerogative of the rich. The modern painters started painting the portraits of common people, even sex workers, and this has changed things forever.

Almost one century later, in Bangladesh, portraiture seems like a genre practised only when commissioned. Most portraits nowadays are done to appease their patrons. As such, portraiture as a genre has never been given the status of a full-blown art form. It is with this view in mind that Gallery Shilparag at Dhanmondi arranged for an exhibition where 18 artists showed their ability to produce a good likeness of their chosen personalities.

Nasir Ali Mamun by Saiful

Shafiuddin Ahmed by Taufique

"We wanted to have a show of the major portrait painters of Bangladesh. And we also wanted the artists to have painted the portraits of internationally famous people," reveals MB Huda, the proprietor of Shilparag. But things went a different way. The exhibition that the gallery planned was scheduled to take place six months ago. "The devastating floods and the grenade attack on Awami League's rally forced us to keep postponing the inaugural date," says Huda. During this time, he and his associate Mahmudul Hasan kept changing their plans, and in the end, it turned out to be a huge task.

Huge in a sense that getting art works from eighteen artists was something of a managerial nightmare. However, in the end the result was stimulating, if not mind-blowing. Most of the portraits are of recent yields. Even Monirul Islam, the eminent expatriate artist produced a portrait of his domestic help which he completed with this exhibition in mind. Although the gallery, at first, asked for portraits of eminent personalities, in the end self-portraits and even experimental portraits were submitted, which added to the diversity of the show.

In the midst of all the paintings one gradually realises that, here in Bangladesh, the genre is practised with a strong zeal only by a handful. It was Sheikh Afzal who used to reign over the artdom during the eighties. Although, Shishir Bhattacharjee did only a few, his portraiture had a character of their own, which tended to scour the soul of the subject and lay it on the configuration of the face. As a realist, Afzal still retains the acumen he was famous for. In this exhibition his handling of Kamrul Hasan's portrait reveals his ability to capture the essence of a personality.

In recent times, Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash made his reputation with commissioned works. The dexterity with which he tackles his subject is something to be reckoned with. His BBC 2004 is a homage to all those who made it to the top of the list of the BBC poll for the greatest Bangalis of the last thousand years. The painting is the biggest canvas on display.

As for finesse, SM Saiful Islam had shown an extraordinary knack for details. Especially in his portrait of Nasir Ali Mamun, he comes off as something of a super-realist.

However, if capturing the personality with empathy is considered a sign of a good portraiture, one must refer to a very old piece by Shishir Bhattacharjee. His water colour entry dates back to 1980, when he was still a student of the Fine Arts Institute. Another such portrait of an early date is by Nisar Hossain. It's an expressionistic rendition carried out during his studies.

The classic realist approach that is practised in the art academies has been handed down to a newer generation of artists. In works by Shafin Omar and Abdus Sattar Taufique, personalities such as Humayun Azad and Shafiuddin Ahmed come alive.

As for the senior artists, Jamal Ahmed, Alakesh Ghosh and Abdul Mannan brought in their stylistic ardour to their portraitures. Ahmed, in fact, does not veer from his paintings that usually use the faces of subaltern men and women. Mannan, however, remained faithful to the photographs he used as his source.

Moulana Bhashani by Mannan

Portrait of a boy by Shishir

The experimentally prone works come from the older generation artists. Rafiqun Nabi and Qayyum Chowdhury simply come up with their self-portraits and Samarjit Roy has just toyed with some female faces that look more like exercises in a rather sketchy style. Hamiduzzaman Khan's "Lalon" is an experiment in expressiveness, a reminder of the early modernist modes.

The most interesting set of portraitures comes from Nasim Ahmed Nadvi. His water colour-like treatment on canvas lends his works an altogether different characteristic. With MF Hussain he is at his best. His works are like examples of portraitures being a complete form of artistic expression.

Considering the response the exhibition has generated, the gallery has decided on a plan to repeat this show each year. "We have the intention to have a portrait show each year in consort with the other yearly shows like the one on landscape," says Huda, whose smallish gallery is out to create this curatorial practice of doing shows centred on particular subjects.

The exhibition titled "Portrait" took off on October 1 and will continue for the next two weeks.

Kamrul Hasan by Afzal

Humayun Azad by Shafin









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