A focus on change and decay in Dhaka
The Daily Star met the late artist Abdur Razzaque at his home in Baridhara DOHS about a month before his death on October 23, 2005. In what was probably among the last conversations with the media, Razzaque talked about his work, about Dhaka as it once was and the transformation wrought by the inexorable march of time.
|Self Portrait-5, Oil, 50 X 42 cm, 1997
“To me Dhaka is a mysterious reality. It is a city of emotion,” said Razzaque, a long time Dhaka resident. Razzaque's works reflect the changes that have crept into the city over the last five decades. In his home in Baridhara, he motioned towards some of his art works with this theme. For one, there was a painting of the Buriganga river in 1953, juxtaposed with the river in the mid-'90s. Where once the river was at its pristine best with one or two boats, by 1994 it was highly congested with vessels and buildings. In another work, the lush green jungle behind a paddy field gave way to the chaotic present day Old Dhaka. Razzaque also recalled how he used to go to the paddy field in the Dhanmondi area near the Balaka Cinema hall.
A lot of hard work has gone into his works on the capital city. As he pointed out, he had closely observed the population, streets and lanes, buildings, languages, customs of the inhabitants and the lifestyle of Dhakaiyas. Some of the paintings reflected the diverse occupations of yesteryears: fishing, laundry, carpentry and even farming.
Some of his observations on the metropolis in times gone by: Old Dhaka had very few roads such as Nawabpur, Islampur, Sadarghat, Bangla Bazar and Chawk Bazar. There were a lot of sub-lanes and posh residential areas along with the markets. Likewise, the main forms of transport in the Dhaka of those days were horse carts, rickshaws and a few Ford cars.
Razzaque offered other insights into Dhaka as it was in days past: There was a diversity of language and profession in different localities. While traditional and sophisticated people lived at Hare Street, Wari Street and Swami Bagh, traders and businessmen usually lived in Shakhari Patti, Thatari Bazar and Islampur. “I still feel and visualise the soft and calm atmosphere of old Dhaka through my paintings and experience it,” said a nostalgic Razzaque.
Razzaque was witness to the havoc wrought by unplanned construction. As he said, “The rising apartments and buildings give me a glimpse of urbanisation which goes simultaneously with the loss of my known Dhaka, the trees and narrow alleys.”
Originally from rural Bangladesh, Razzaque came to Dhaka as a student. After his Bachelor's in Fine Arts, Dhaka University, he went to the US on a Fulbright scholarship in 1955 to the University of Iowa. After his Masters in fine arts, he returned to Dhaka in 1957. The next year he began to teach fine arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University. A major part of his work later on related to Dhaka since he spent close to five decades at a stretch in the city and observed the changes in its socio-economic scenario. “I had the privilege to know and grow up with this old and new Dhaka. I tried to draw, depict and sometimes imagine my city on my canvas,” said Razzaque.
A major milestone was in 1987 when an exhibition, '40 years of Dhaka' based on his works, was organised by the Dhaka (Nagar)City Museum. The Museum's mission was to collect--Dhaka related history, photographs and information. In sum it sought to establish a data bank on the history of Dhaka. In this exhibition 89 works of his over the last 40 years were selected. “ This was the first exhibition of its kind since it had a historical value rather than just aesthetic appeal. A book was published on the same theme,” said Razzaque.
His antipathy, he emphasised, was towards unplanned growth not change per se. In his words, “Change is welcome if well-planned and designed for the benefit of city dwellers, otherwise it is harmful. Today you see problems with drainage, sewerage and communication in the country. Dhaka should be well planned like other cities in the world. One only needs to look at cities such as London, New York, Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok--all of which have a clear concept about urban planning.”
Today Razzaque is no more amongst us but his aspiration for a well-planned, beautiful city continues to find adherents.
"To me urbanisation means growing, and at the same time I believe that life means changing," said Razzaque, but I have antipathy towards this type of unplanned construction."
Abdur Razzaque, was the professor of Sculpture Department, Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006