Faces fuming with fury
Which young artist is not angry at the world around him? Salahuddin Ahmed -- who has 20 solo exhibits to his credit -- is weary with the way authorities appear helpless or inadequate in combating the destruction of nature around man. So far, his past paintings, protested against the destruction of rivers, roads, parks, old buildings -- and of course the pollution of water bodies, like the Buriganga River, located at the edge of the city. Now, in his latest exhibition that opens on May 6 at “Shilpangan”, the painter veers away from his geometrical aerial views of the city -- with its en masse jerry-building, and encroachment of land and water bodies.
This time Salahuddin's focus is on the bewildered and bedeviled people of Dhaka. Their faces appear overwhelmed, angry and disturbed with their existence. There is not a hint of smile or a ray of contentment on a single face. Whether young or old -- each face speaks of disappointment and disharmony. If one studies the portrayal of faces by master painters such as Caravaggio, Goya or Picasso the agony and anger in Salahuddin's portraits of Dhakites are in the same measure. Eyes speak of despair; mouths are twisted; necks are elongated in pain, noses appear misshapen and there is misapprehension and fear in every expression. At times, with unabated anger and disappointment, even gnashing and snarling half-rotten teeth are visible.
The colours, lines and textures that Salahuddin has used are as vibrant and rhythmic as they were in his earlier semi-abstract depiction of the city. This time, the figurative works are pulsating with life's vicissitudes. Just the faces alone are depicted. They are sufficient to mirror the element of despair and disharmony among the people. They reflect the lack of clean air, clean water and hygienic food in the city. It is in cities that commerce, administration, education -- the heartbeat of Bangladeshi life is felt.
It is not enough to say that there are “radhachuras” and “krishnachuras” to be found in abundance in the 21st century. Yes, ponds, trees, trailing creepers and birds are there -- miles away -- in the countryside. But the metropolis remains a claustrophobic cement jungle that contains millions of people who can't breathe clean air, or even go about their work without fear. Rampant mugging, acid violence, maniacal driving of public vehicles and private cars make life insufferable. It is of these incidences that Salahuddin cries out against in his depiction of angry and traumatised faces. This is what the artist's portrayal of bloodshot eyes and the twisted faces speak out against. Parks and playgrounds have been taken over. Eating-houses have been shut to curb foul play. “Is this progress?” asks Salahuddin, in desperation.
Multistoried buildings -- even in Old Dhaka lanes and by lanes, swallow electricity, gas and water, says Salahuddin. Cars, buses and taxis dispel hot, black fumes. When one comes home and washes up, the water is black that is, if there is water available at all. Fruit, fish and even milk are tampered with. What, then, will our children breathe and eat, asks the artist. It is natural that one is nostalgic for the life two decades back, when people of Dhaka were not so desperate for purity and peace. The strain seen in the faces in Salahuddin's fifty paintings don't speak of any light at the end of the tunnel. Can the artist not think of anything else but disaster and doom for the future? Not in the way the city is growing in its mismanaged and unplanned gargantuan manner, believes not only this artist, but also many others.
“Bangladesh is green and golden in parts of the districts -- but certainly not in the capital city. Capital cities -- in this day and age -- are often crammed to the point that they are ready to burst. But Dhaka takes the cake,” is the artist's belief.
Nostalgic, like so many other creative artists and writers, Salahuddin had spent years painting its details. “Born in Sham Bazar, buildings like Ruplal House, which belonged to a 'zamindar' are dear to my heart. It is historical edifices like this, which should have been restored. The lords of yore used this place for festivities. 'Chok Bazar' was established by the Moghuls , mainly for the ladies. For administrative purposes there were the “Choto Katra' and 'Boro Katra'. The Buriganga nearby was a place where we swam and on whose banks we lounged in a leisurely way.
“Rose Villa, too fails to be preserved despite its colonial period beauty with painted windows, statues of angels and animals, pillars and balustrades. Ahsan Manzil is another such place of unparalleled beauty and full of historical relics. This belonged to the 'nawabs' till before the Partition of 1947. Going back to the British raj, it originally belonged to the Armenians. Then it passed hands to the French. Reconstructed after a tornado, the 'nawabs', who represented the Muslims of Dhaka, bought it.”
This time, in “Faces of the Millennium”, due in early May, Salahuddin depicts the angst ridden faces of Dhakites, wracked by the tension ridden existence of today. “Socially, economically, politically, one doesn't feel safe to send one's wives and children to and from the workplace, schools and malls. Anything may happen even en route a medical check-up, or during a routine weekly collection of comestible for the house. Visiting friends is an agony, unless one has a car and enough in the pocket to pay the gas bill. A normal route of 15 minutes today may take an hour to complete due to the daily traffic jams sometimes three times a day at the same place--even though this may not be at the city's main intersections. Reaching home, I'll often find that there is no electricity. Next I'm informed that there is no electricity or water, and so no food, till heaven knows when. What an abominable life!”
The media is acrylic on paper and canvas and the subject includes 40 portraits, in different angles and moods.
Salahuddin, who studied International Relations at D.U., went into painting, encouraged and guided by well-known artists of the Department of Fine Arts in DU (Dhaka University). -- like Rafiqun Nabi, Shashir Bhattacharya, Nasreen Begum and Jamal Ahmed. His family at home was not against his choice of career. “But you must stick to it,” insisted his father. His patrons came to his house; and he had success overseas (the States, Europe, China, Japan, and Australia) as well.
Earlier, he used the palette knife, his fingers, bits of rubber and leather too, in place of the paintbrush in his work. This time the texture is more detailed--so that surfaces appear to be scratched on -- to depict frustration and agony. He has won eight awards for miniature painting from California, Florida and New Jersey. He received an “Honourable Mention” award for his installation work in the recent Asian Biennale. His future plan is to do more installation work.
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