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     Volume 9 Issue 45| November 26, 2010 |


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Living legend of Prints and Paints

Fayza Haq

Red and Green, oil on canvas, 1994.

Safiuddin Ahmed's solo inimitable exposition begins at Bengal Gallery, under the title, “Limitless Luminosity of Art” on November 26. The second part of this exhibition begins of December 10, and ends of December 23.These displays are not just full of idyllic lines and forms. Behind the play of multiple eyes of various dimensions is the pain of persecution of military power and antagonism, as well as forced silence during 1971. During the Liberation Movement, Safiuddin was forced to stay indoors, within the confines of the house. He received reports of massacre, burning of houses, rape, and starvation: The mindless killing and destruction by the Pak forces.

Much earlier, in the fifties, he felt the impact of cruel military power, which fired bullets against any protests – cry against violation of human rights, of self-determination. This had made Safiuddin Ahmed turn inwards, to bring in the dark, decisive, and dramatic tints of black and browns.

There were too the floods and famines of the early forties. Tree trunks submerged in flood waters; people escaping with families, household and domestic animals in slow moving boats leave indelible marks of suffering against natural calamities. Sure, Zainul Abedin' s pen and ink sketches of crows, pot -bellied hungry children and their families groping for thrown away food on the roads of Bengal, left indelible marks on the minds of men, both at home and abroad. Added to this image of stark poverty and unending suffering are the prints by Safiuddin. They present the constant endurance of the people of Bengal against being homeless and hungry.

Safiuddin Ahmed is the oldest living artist of Bangladesh. Safiuddin went into fine arts and studies in Calcutta with the encouragement of his teachers and support of his mother when his father had passed away in the times of British Raj. Safiuddin has been famous for his lyrical prints from the time of 1947 Partition. Along with Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hassan, he helped establish the Dhaka Art College, teaching and print making for decades, as long as his health permitted.

Safiuddin Ahmed

Today, in his studio, hang paintings and prints – his more recent ventures, in which he amalgamates both the past romanticism and his more recent meanderings into the world of dreams and symbols. Imagination, reality and experimentation go into these sombre works in gray, black and white, which are a sharp contrast to his neat and precise prints of the past where waves, curves, lines and dots blended with one another to present days of sunshine and harmony over the land of rivers, boats, banana trees and endless birds in the valleys. Bulrushes, treetops, bushes and human beings were woven into his tapestry of dreams and reminiscences of the raindrops and musk -laden emerald and mustard fields of the Bangladeshi countryside.

He used muted colours along with his more buoyant ones but always the message was that of peace, tranquillity and harmony for days to come. Man was seen as working in unison with nature so that the farmers, fishermen and honey- gatherers were seen as the triumphant heroes of Bangladesh. Blending in the impressions of European masters with the impact of the Indian icons, Safiuddin made his own creations as his mood and imagination took him.

The recent pencil and charcoal sketches are in black. “I like black as I consider it the queen of colours. The quality of etchings in aquatint has been brought into my drawings in order to make them rich. The images hark back to the past. I carry on with printmaking, painting and drawing as I don't wish to be divided into two different personalities,” says Safiuddin, resting at his residence cum gallery in Dhanmondi, Road 4 adjacent to the present “Chitrak” gallery–scheduled to be shifted shortly, next year, in spring.

Asked why he went into print-making, Safiuddin says that when he had finished studying in Calcutta at the Government School of Art in 1943, Romendranath Chakraborty, the principal, taught him printmaking, although it was not in his syllabus. With him in this pursuit were Adinath Mukharjee, Shotten Goshal and Murdhithal Tali – his colleagues.

He considers Abdul Moin a great source of inspiration too. Mukul Dey also guided him at one stage. “His dry-point print was like poetry in paints for me. I worked in the college studio, as I didn't have one of my own. I later studied printmaking in London at the Central School of Arts and Crafts,” says Safiuddin.

When in London, he found more inspiration and materials. “I avoided imitating,” says Safiuddin. However, Hetter's prints in Paris, in between his career, also affected him.

Commenting on the contemporary art scene in Bangladesh, Safiuddin says that one had to maintain one's individuality, minimizing here and adding there, not forgetting one's roots. A complete study in academics should be kept in mind, he adds.

Speaking about where he had enjoyed himself the most, in his long years of gallery observations overseas, the printmaker nonpareil says, that he found the French and Roman exhibits, the richest in his experience. Each place in Europe had its own charm for him to guide him on in the journey of life.

The Sound of water, etching and mixed media, 1985.

In Safiuddin's much admired “Still Life” Etching and Aquatint 1957 we find mind-boggling geometrical shapes within the dramatic black lines. These are in shades of gray, black and white. The poetic lines –bold and bursting with joie de vivre present anything that the viewer wishes to see. These overwhelming lines hold triangles, ovals, semicircles and rectangles that could be presenting an abstract view in a peaceful yet thought-provoking sense: The viewer could make anything of the lines and shades.

“Homeward”, Safiuddin's superb Wood Engraving (1944) has all the peace of the past and idyllic Bengal. Black, stately palm trees, with spread-out, fan-like tops; skidding, billowing clouds–done with sweeps, lines and curves blend with the hillocks at the back and right of the scene. Six black bullocks with three steady herdsmen–some carrying umbrellas – plod on with a gentle rhythm. Leaves of grass are included in the forefront.

Clockwise from top left- The Angry Fish, etching aquatint, 1964. Sunflower, oil on canvas, 1956. Thrashing Paddy, oil on canvas, 1952.

The much-admired “Angry Fish”, Etching and Aquatint (1964), brings an interplay of a catchments of fish, Bengal's vital food for centuries. Fish– the pride of Bengal– for ages, is depicted with deft sweeps, glides, dots, dashes and miniscule crosses. The gay and buoyant orange blends to make this piece immortal.

Another piece by Safiuddin, that will live forever – the well-known and well-loved “Sound of Water”, Aquatint Soft Ground, Mezzotint and Deep Etching, (1985)– is surely a nonpareil print of all time to come. Shapes that could be Safiuddin's all- seeing eye, or boats – which have been an integral part of Bengal, since man can remember – are presented in lively orange and lemon – yellow shades. These are placed mosaic- like collection of dots and lines that bring in the beauty of the piece at its best.

Despite accidents and other ailments, the legendary artist works on. Such is his spirit and stamina!



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