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The Loss of Light

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

In life we often find ourselves in the presence of greatness; be it greatness of mind, greatness of soul, greatness of will or even greatness of body. We find ourselves inspired by such people, who not only encompass this greatness, but also take charge of it and learn how to channel it. Artists, for example, or musicians and poets -- they all pave the way to a brighter and more enlightened future through their works of art. They make our lives more beautiful by displaying the innermost corners of their souls for the public. They encourage us to learn from their experiences by offering us a peek into their lives with no inhibitions. They educate us, and, in some ways, offer us a shortcut through life, by freely bestowing upon us the knowledge that they so painfully acquired.

Such a man was Debdas Chakraborty, one of the most renowned artists and painters that Bangladesh has had the privilege to call its own. Debdas was a versatile artist and experimented with many different forms of art. His noteworthy skills in drawing sketches on paper with pen and ink were evident even in his later works on canvas, in which he often drew outlines first and then went over them with paint, sometimes ignoring the outlines that he originally drew. Initially most of his works of art were figurative. As he grew older his paintings leaned more towards the abstract with fewer figures until finally, they were completely abstract. His death on February 5, 2008, after many years of being ill, left a gaping hole in the country's art world.

Debdas, originally from Faridpur (now known as Shariatpur), where he was born in 1933, spent the earlier part of his life in Kolkata, where his family moved in the hope that some day, they would return. Somehow, they never did and ended up settling there. Young Debdas, a Leftist, completed his Matriculation and began studying in the Calcutta Art College in 1947, where he studied both music and paintwing.

Due to the scarcity of food in West Bengal many students staged a rally, in which police opened fire. This caused a string of protests which eventually led to a demonstration against the governor of West Bengal. He was supposed to appear as a chief guest for the annual exhibition at the Art College and the student protests prevented him from doing so. As a result many students, including Debdas, were kicked out of the college and were banned from being admitted into any institution in the country for the next three years. It was then that Debdas decided to come back to Dhaka. He became a student in the Zainul Abedin Art College in 1948.

“What is very interesting is that he did not have any blood relations in Dhaka,” says son and renowned painter, Goutom Chakraborty. “Throughout his life he was surrounded by his friends. He considered these people his family.”

Goutom, Director of GalleriKaya in Uttara and of design company and advertising firm, Karukriti, lived with and took care of his father during the last years of his life along with his wife, Sumana Sharmeen and their son.

“I saw my father as a very good friend,” says Goutom. “He was obviously a father figure to me, but more than anything, I considered him a friend of mine. There are so many things that I learned from him, things that set him apart from other people. For example, something I remember about him is that he never differentiated people according to their age. He had friends who were both 15 years older and 15 years younger.

“He also never discriminated against people. He always spoke to everyone with an equal amount of respect, whether it was a rickshaw-wallah or a man of some considerable stature. He just felt that if the person was a human being, a good human being with an open heart, they deserved respect. That is not something that all of us can do, as much as we try, but he managed it very well, perhaps because it came from within.”

Debdas' ability to see all human beings as equals comes out in many of his works of art. One of his more popular works, a poster circulated by the Publicity Department of the Government of Bangladesh in 1971, stated very simply the words: “Hindus of Bangla, Muslims of Bangla, Christians of Bangla…We Are All Bangali.” This, and many other paintings that he came out with in 1973, indicated the deep impact that the Liberation War had on him.

By the time the Liberation War broke out, Debdas had long since graduated from the Zainul Abedin Institute. After his graduation in 1956, he worked for a year as a teacher in the Armanitola High School before leaving his post to join the Agricultural Extension Centre of the Government of East Pakistan. He soon met Saleha Begum Rani and married her in 1962, having two sons -- the elder being Goutom and the younger, Rosseau. In 1970, Debdas left Dhaka to be a guest lecture in the newly founded Department of Fine Arts at the University of Chittagong, but returned suddenly to Dhaka in order to make sure his family was safe during the war.

After liberation he went back to Chittagong and in 1976, he was awarded a Polish government scholarship for studying graphic arts for four years. He had a solo exhibition in Warsaw in 1977 and a year later he won first prize for painting at the International Art Workshop. His elation, however, was short-lived, as, in 1979, he found out that his wife had cancer. With a year left to complete, he left Poland to be with his ailing wife, who soon died, leaving Debdas devastated. Like most artists, his pain came out in his paintings, which according to his son and his friends, made him unique.

“My father was the type of painter who got his inspiration straight from life,” says Goutom. “He was inspired by anything beautiful. He always responded to the times. It is not necessarily true that he always had a message that he wanted to convey, or a particular issue, but just that whatever he felt or saw around him, influenced him.

“Another thing is that he always tried to find new openings. I guess that is what enlightened individuals do, they try to find something new. It's like a journey in which a person's character is formed. For example, when we are looking at a drug that will fight diseases, scientists are always looking for new ways to refine the drug. In that same way my father was always looking for different ways to refine his work. He would leave some of his paintings for months without looking at it, and I would think it was finished, and then one fine day he would take it out and work on it some more, painting over the painting, with a use of tone and texture, which reveals your deepest feelings in a subtle way. In that sense, nothing was ever finished for him, but there was always a time where he would have to let it go.”

In addition to his untiring dedication to perfecting and re-perfecting, another thing that made Debdas Chakraborty so different was his stark honesty and lack of pretension.

“What he felt, he did directly, without any bias whatsoever,” says Goutom. “Every artist should try to do this more often. It is so important to be unpretentious in your art, to be honest and to not be afraid to be oneself. My father had that ability. He would just do something because he felt it and that is what made him so special.”

Another thing that made Debdas stand out in his son's eyes particularly was that he never tried to influence either of his sons to take their lives in a certain direction. Goutom, for example, did not always want to be a painter. For years he dabbled in different fields, such as architecture and filmmaking. It was only later on that he decided he would, like his father, become an artist.

“My father never forced anyone,” he says. “He always left our options open in front of us and let us decide what we wanted.”

It is these unique characteristics; to love and be involved without having your own expectations and dreams for those you love; to see everyone, even little children and those less fortunate than us, as equals; to be able to showcase your soul so openly, so honestly; it is these characteristics that made Debdas Chakraborty, renowned and award winning painter, one of those inspiring beings, who, even when they leave us, are still able to influence and affect us for days to come.

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