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     Volume 4 Issue 26 | December 24, 2004 |

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Cover Story

The Artist of
People's Struggle

Mustafa Zaman

Zainul Abedin is the name eternally tied up with the unforgettable Famine Sketches, and with images of humans toiling to move a bull-cart stuck in the mud, which he titled "Struggle". But it was also paintings like "Monpura" -- the mural-like 96 cm-long scrawl that encapsulated the aftermath of the cyclone of 1970, and that image of "Rebellion" depicting a raging bull, as well as many other images of boats, women and Santal life that makes him undoubtedly the "pioneer" in art in the true sense of the word. Many claim that he left behind few masterpieces. Most of his detractors insist that the Famine Sketches are the only significant bulk of work that Zainul ever produced. All things said and done, the name Zainul Abedin still retains the vitality and verve that existed during the artist's lifetime. The legend lingers on; the genius whose fame had once splashed across the Indian subcontinent and made the artist stand out among his peers, is beaming up all the signs of his luminosity to today's viewers through his magnificent works.

Back in his early years in Kolkata (then Calcutta) his supreme artistic abilities immortalised him and placed him at the apex of the brewing art movements. But what really made him out of the ordinary among a myriad of other talented young artists? Each had an ingenious way of representing the reality that they were a part of. Some, like the already famous art gurus, Nandalal Basu or Jamini Roy, had an inclination to draw on the tradition, but Zainul had an empathy for the masses that had rarely been expressed in the visual arts, let alone used to make bold artistic statements.

In the European art scene, Daumier, Goya and Hogarth's efforts predate Zainul's forays into the sufferings of people. However, noone had articulated the passion for the masses with the disarming simplicity that Zainul brought into play in his famine sketches. And the dignity of the toiling men, too, had never been expressed in a language that would leave such a lasting impression in the collective psyche, as did Zainul's paintings. Perhaps he is the only artist whose work has been reproduced by self-taught denizens strewn across the country. The acclamation that he received certainly broke boundaries of class; his "Struggle" even ended up being on the back of scooters and rickshaws. No 'high-art' exponent had this luck. Many may not even look at it as such. But, Zainul obviously did belong to the ilk that professed to have put their ingenuity to the task of making images that had socio-political as well as artistic relevance. His was an aesthetic sense that was inclusionary. In fact, when he came to Dhaka after the partition of India to establish an art institution, he led a number of artists to galvanise an art scene that doted on the reality of the then East Bengal, the eastern province of newly independent Pakistan. He fertilised the ground by practising and professing a mode of art that never severed its link with the "people of the soil" to set a precedent for the younger generation artists.

Murtaja Baseer, a prominent artist who was a student of Zainul, says, "One can easily draw a comparison between Zainul and Jasimuddin. Both are recognised at the drop of their names all around Bangladesh. Zainul too felt a strong affinity towards the rural masses." In return, he was loved back, and 18 years after his death, in the year of his 90th birthday, he still remains the most recognised and revered artist of his land.

"During the famine of 1943, Zainul suddenly discovered that the peasants, the fishermen and women that he identified with were rotting in the pavements of Kolkatta. He was horrified that they came to the city to die," Baseer throws light on the working of the maestro's mind.

What Zainul did was not mere documentation of the famine. I the sketches the signs of famine manifested in all its sinister attributions through the emaciated and skeletal figures of a population fated to die of starvation in a man-made plight. Zainul depicted the inhuman saga with an intense human passion only possible for a great mind.

As the drawings of the famine-struck men, children and women remains a cornerstone in the history of art in this region, they helped shape an artist's path. Zainul's conviction kept him forever in sympathy with the poor. Zainul may have rendered damsels in leisure; doing their coiffure, or while bathing in the river, but his idiom was distinctly laden with a strong sense of reality. His gaze was never 'disinterested' or 'abstract.' Beauty he sought, beauty he achieved in many of his paintings without sacrificing the struggle that is associated with the lives he depicted.

Abul Monsur, a noted art critic, writes, "If one considers the rural people's life and what they have created as a whole in the form of the very fabric of their lives' saga -- one will realise the originality and the appeal of Zainul's creativity." The notion of an artist internalising the human experiences by remaining at a human level was unique, and Zainul remains the pioneer by forging this marriage between life and art.

His death on May 28 in 1975, was sudden. Although he was suffering from cancer of the lungs since December of the previous year, the time when the disease was detected after he fell ill and was flown to London for treatment, Zainul's death at the age of 62 caught many by surprise. The outpouring of grief on the day he died was unprecedented.

Since his death, little has been done to advance his aesthetic goal. With the leading man absent, his works too remained hidden from the public gaze. Except for the January show of 1977 at the Shilpakala Academy that coincided with the publication of a book on the master by Nazrul Islam, an art writer, the sightings of his real works have been sparse. In a handful of group shows and in the regular display at the National Museum his admirers had the chance to look at some select paintings.

The current giant of a show organised by the consortia of Bengal Foundation, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and the Bangladesh National Museum has put an end to that situation. With the help of Zainul's widow, Jahanara Abedin, these three organisations have pulled off, at last, a retrospective of the master artist of Bangladesh. This is a landmark in the history of curating; no retrospective show of this proportion has ever been envisaged before.

"Our intention was to re-introduce Zainul through his works--the pieces many might've seen in reproduction but never in original form. His big paintings like Nobanya or Monpura succinctly tell of his artistic might," exclaims Subir Chowdhury, the former Director of the Department of Fine Arts at the Shilpakala Academy who now remains at the helm of Bengal Gallery as its director.

Dispersed in three different venues, the show of 573 original works has been launched simultaneously at the National Gallery of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, at the National Museum and Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts on December 12. There are side-shows and events that centre around this main exhibition that will last till January 7, 2005.

Zainul is the first artist to have been given such an honour at the 'national level.' "For many years people have been unhappy about the fact that there has been no effort to showcase Zainul's works. The dominant tone was that there has been effort at the national level for Abbas Uddin, the legendary singer, but the man we call the 'father' in the field of fine arts has never been a subject of a full-blown solo show," notes Subir Chowdhury.

However, while in the hot seat of the Shilpakala Academy, Chowdhury and his colleagues toyed with the idea of having a grand retrospective of the maestro. In fact, Shiplakala Academy did arrange for the first solo after Zainul's demise. On January 1977, a show of his works in the former national gallery was the first tribute at a national level. "The book that was published on the occasion was the first major publication on Zainul. And it was planned and executed at very short notice," remembers Chowdhury who joined the Academy in 1975.

For the present show, a lot of brain-storming as well as time have been invested. "Planning started as early as last May. I was still with the Shilpakala Academy and on July 7th a formal meeting among the three organisations were arranged. The family of Zainul Abedin was also there. It was Jahanara Abedin, who played a pivotal role and it was the Bengal Gallery that was ready to pay the bills," explains Chowdhury.

To give the event national significance, assistance was sought from the government of Bangladesh. "On August 14th we met with the Cultural Minister, who gave us the green light," Chowdhury notes. He then goes on to reflect on the maestro's artistic proclivities. He says, "He had immense interest in craft and the craft people of Bangladesh. In fact, he had this idea of a fine art that was already stilted on the traditional practices of the land that is kept alive in our craft. To pay homage to his love for craft we have arranged for a 'Karumela' (craft fair) that strives to show the present state of craft."

Crafts were significant to him, they even moulded some of his stylistically rigorous paintings. During the mid 50s he tried his hands at folk-art motifs-derived images. In an interview with Nazrul Islam, Zainul once vented his dissatisfaction over a string of the first and second batch students being caught in the trap of 'modern trends' that defied any link with the cultural brio that characterises the land and people.

The man who was known for his art and compassion for his people, lived a simple life. Born in a humble abode of a "minor police official" he had an even humbler upbringing. Though his grand father, a petty trader, lived in Mymensingh, Zainul was born in Kishoreganj, where his father was posted at the time.

His mother Jainabunnessa came from a family that "hadn't yet welcomed modern education," writes Syed Azizul Haque in the preface of the catalogue that has been put out on the occasion of the retrospective show.

The periodic transfer of his father from one place to the other exposed young Zainul to mofussil towns of Mymensingh and to its rural rustic life. His peripatetic father, Sheikh Tamizuddin Ahmed settled in Mymensingh town proper in 1926. He built a small house for the family. It was in Mymensingh that the cultural firmament finally brushed on to young Zainul.

As a high-school student, he developed the knack for drawing and painting; it almost came naturally to him. Rote learning could never interest him. In Mymensingh he found his peers among a few 'like-minded friends, among them Ashish Ghatak (1914-1974), brother of the celebrated film-maker Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976), and Premranjan Dasgupta, owner of a photographic studio which was a meeting ground for Mymensingh's artistically inclined youth," writes Haque.

In 1932, upon completion of high school, young Zainul left for Art College in Kolkata. He took the admission test at the then Calcutta Art College in 1932, and topped the merit list. It was Mukul Dey, an eminent artist and the principal of the college, who recommended Zainul for the "District Board stipend," which was duly awarded to him. Soon, the budding young artist made a name for himself for his studiousness; he devoted much of his time in drawing and painting.

Zainul as a student lived in a boardinghouse to cut down on expenses. It was during his advanced years when he started contributing cartoons and illustrations to newspapers to earn money that helped pay his own bills and to send some to cover the expense of his younger siblings. Later he moved into a flat, probably the one that Jahanara Abedin remembers as the first home to the newly wed couple in Kolkata.

"At the Tarok Dutta Road house he used to cook, as I told him earlier that I had no expertise in that area," recalls Jahanara Abedin.

They got married in October 1946. "It was Shafiqul Amin, the elder brother of my sister's husband, who was the matchmaker. We came to know that 'Zainul was a good man and what others couldn't draw using paint and ink he could using ashes of cigarettes," notes Jahanara.

Zainul started teaching even before graduation. He started teaching at the college when he was in the fifth-year. In the following year he got the Gold Medal in an all-India Art Exhibition organised by the Academy of Fine Arts.

Before this, he had to make an important decision in his life. He was in the third year and it was time to choose his area of specialisation. Mukul Dey, his mentor, wanted him to pursue "Oriental Art", but Zainul thought it was important for him to learn the Western academic technique than to restrict himself in a stylistic ardour, namely oriental art that draws on Moghul and Rajput paintings.

Zainul's intention was to capture the lives and rhythm of the reality that he was a part of, and the best way to capture that was to learn realism. Studying painting served this cause.

Robust talent and goodness came together to make up the character that Zainul was. During her first sojourn to Kolkata Jahanara Abedin had the opportunity to meet Jamini Roy, the famous painter, who came up to her and announced, "From where did he find this poter putul (iconic doll)" and then added referring to Zainul, "Take care of this precious gem, or else there will be a great loss

Before the Second World War, Zainul was awarded the three-year British Government scholarship in the UK, but the war prevented him from taking it up. By then his temporary appointment as a teacher was made permanent when the untimely death of Abul Moin, the first Muslim teacher of the college, created a vacancy.

In 1943, the Bengal Famine put Zainul in the role of an artist who had little energy to live in the aesthetised world of beauty and grace. What he produced in a series of brush and ink drawing was to become the most memorable images of human suffering.

"The Chinese ink that he used to use made the brushes hard, and Zainul used to smash them with a brick to soften them," Murtaja Baseer recalls his teacher's foray into making do with whatever was available. Baseer believes that the distinct "hard-brush-technique" resulted from the manhandled brushes. "And he later deliberately put that into use."

After marriage came the partition of India. Zainul moved to Dhaka with his wife and became a teacher at the Dhaka Teachers' Training School.

"Dhaka had limited lodging facilities and we had to settle for my mother's house at Johnson Road. This is how our life in Dhaka began," remembers Jahanara Abedin. "He was constantly disturbed, as his job did not suit him. And he had to do all those works to make money -- from painting book covers to the labels on oil containers," Jahanara explains.

Then he went off to Karachi where he was gainfully employed as a designer in the government Publishing Department. "The salary was more than six hundred rupees; but he was not content, as his mind was set on establishing an art college," Jahanara recalls.

In March 1949 he took up the position of the principal of the art institute in Dhaka, one that started off using a couple of rooms of the then National Medical School. There was an outcry from the religious bigots, but Zainul was undaunted. A resolute man, he soon started lobbying the government for separate premises that would house the first full-fledged art institute of the then East Pakistan. His dream came to fruition in 1952, and a two-story house at Segun Bagicha was alloted to the institute. Zainul could only turn it into a college in 1963, the year the authorities agreed to convert it into the Government College of Arts and Crafts, which for the first time offered the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

As a teacher Zainul was a dedicated soul. Baseer, who entered the Government Institute of Arts in 1949 remembers how his teacher emphasised the practice of "drawing". There were two ways he planned to strengthen the wrist of a novice. One was to copy in a sketchbook the format of hand, leg and face that Nandalal Bose put forward; and the other was to do the same on a blackboard. It helped a lot for any striving artist to gain control over lines and its rhythm," notes Baseer.

He also remembers the day his revered teacher visited his home to "have a look at the paintings." "The day was March 22, 1955. I even kept his autograph signed on the day," recalls Baseer. "He was as usual full of praise. With a particular piece on a brown cardboard, I took caution, I said, 'this is unfinished as I haven't covered a part with paint,' but he was judicious in his verdict and he said, 'It is finished and an excellent effort.' A good painter knows when to stop putting on colours, he taught us that," Baseer testifies.

He had the most cordial relationship imaginable with his students. When Baseer was in the second year, he and his friends, Qayyum Chowdhury, Rashid Chowdhury and others even pulled a nasty prank on their beloved teacher. They forged the letter of the governor's wife, inviting Zainul to meet her on the evening of April 1. "We on that day wanted to fool our most revered teacher. We kept a watch on him after sending him the false invitation. When in the afternoon he took a rickshaw to meet Lady Viqarunnessa, a friend and I followed and stopped him to tell him about our design. He was not angry. The kind of relationship we had with him can never be imagined today," Baseer contends.

As an artist he related to Baseer what can be termed an eternal motto for life. Zainul said, "You build yourself to be a person so that when somebody praises you, you will smile and if somebody criticises you, you will smile."

In 1967 Zainul took an early retirement from the post of the principal at the Government College of Arts and Crafts. "I became aware of the disturbances at the college, but he never used to talk about it. After he left college, the Chief Secretary came with his wife to visit to coax him to go back. But, his answer was clear, he said, "I couldn't do much, as I was engaged in establishing the college. Now, I like to devote my time to my own work," Jahanara remembers. It was at that point of his life that he created many of his oil paintings. He had always preferred to use watercolour or brush and ink for their immediacy, but now he had time to delve into oil.

"He went off to Karachi to sell his works," recalls Jahanara. He did a stint as Honourary Advisor to television, film and publications department of Pakistan from 1968 to 1970. This was the time he spent mostly is Karachi.

As a pioneer painter of this region, he devoted a lot of time in organising the artists to advance the cause of culture. Perhaps the sojourns to UK, Japan, USA and many other countries in the mid-fifties made him more aware of the heritage of Bengal. He organised the first exhibition of folk art and craft at the institute's campus. He even urged fellow artists to look for inspiration in the folk heritage of the time.

His political visions too were as clear as the artistic ones. During the last few years of the Pakistan regime, when the movements for an independent Bangladesh gained momentum, Zainul aligned himself with the political force that wanted freedom and fought for an identity of their own based on Bangali nationhood. At a mass rally called by Maulana Bhashani in February 1971, he publicly renounced the civic honours he had received from the Pakistan government. On March 12 of the same year, he led a procession of the "Artists' Revolutionary Council ("Charu O Karu Sangram Parishad) and at a congregation at Bahadur Shah Park declared that the Bangalis had no alternative but to fight for independence.

An organiser of the Dhaka Group in the 50s, Zainul, after Bangladesh came into being in 1971, became immersed in responsibilities of national importance. He suffered a mild stroke in 1972 that resulted in partial facial paralysis, for which he went abroad to seek treatment. Upon his return he was entrusted with the responsibility of preparing a calligraphic copy of the country's new constitution. He was also appointed as chairman of the Bangla Academy for two years. He also was selected visiting Professor at Dhaka University. In 1974 he was nominated member of the governing council of the newly formed Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. He became one of the first three national professors the following year. 1975 also saw the inauguration of the two institutions he had long dreamt of setting up -- the Sonargaon Folk Art Museum and the Zainul Museum in Mymensingh.

The present show has created an opportunity for the art lovers to discover the maestro by scrutinising his real works. The Bengal Foundation wanted to turn the occasion into a celebration of Zainul and his work.

At a seminar on December 24, where Abul Monsur presented a paper and was attended by Ganesh Halui from India, and Jalaluddin Ahmed from Pakistan. Ahmed wrote a book in 1958, the first major publication on Zainul.

The Foundation wants to instil in the young generation the spirit that guided Zainul. "We arranged for two buses sponsored by Grameen Phone to bring the school children to the venues of the show. It started from December 14," reflects Subir Chowdhury who is not all too satisfied to see the lack of attention this mega show has attracted.

"I have seen long queues in front of museums abroad to see art shows. I feel there must be more effort on our part to augment the interest of people on art," Chowdhury continues.

The novel attempt also has its detractor, who accuses the organisers of displaying a forgery or two in the retrospective show. Subir Chowdhury has a clear answer to that, "There was a selection committee where eminent artist like Kibria and Qayyum Chowdhury as well as Jahanara Abedin were part of. They chose the entries. We honoured their decision."

However, there are paintings that still remain missing from the public domain. The oil works in Pakistan had never been traced. And Jahanara Abedin gives more examples of paintings that disappeared. "There was a visit to Palestinian camps at Syria and Jordan in 1970. He worked on 60 to 70 paintings there. He was to have a show in Egypt but by then the war broke out and the pictures were lost forever," laments Jahanara.

She also says that the paintings that are kept in the Zainul Museum in Mymensingh are ill maintained. "I asked my husband not to donate such beautiful and important works to the museum when it was just being set up. He was adamant he shared the sprit of Sheikh Mujib 'of building everything from the root-level,'" exclaims Jahanara.

"Even the huge collection of the National Museum is in need of a permanent space, as only a small portion can currently be shown in their regular display," says Jahanara. Her contention is clear: she wants the works of the maestro who is the Shilpacharya (the Master of Arts) -- to be given the proper treatment by making sure that his original works are preserved properly to inspire and delight future generations.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004