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Friday, January 16, 2009
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The thriving art scene in Dhaka

Apart from holding exhibitions of works by renowned and promising artists, (clockwise, from top-left) Zainul Gallery1 & 2 at the Institute of Fine Arts, Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, Shilpangan, National Art Gallery at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Drik Gallery have become popular cultural hubs for art enthusiasts.

In recent years Bangladeshi artists have demonstrated a distinct edge in the international art circuit. They now receive international exposure and participate at various competitions. Nowadays, the scope for pursuing fine arts in Bangladesh is much wider than ever before.

Even a decade ago, art galleries in Dhaka were few and far between, and the sale of paintings was poor. But that atmosphere has changed completely -- and for the better. In the last few years, new galleries have opened in different parts of the city and sales of artworks have picked up gradually.

Artists are becoming professional. Art connoisseurs show a great eagerness to collect new and innovative works. This trend is noticeable since the beginning of the 1980s.

The history of art galleries in our country does not date back a long way. Kolkata was the focal point in the art history of this subcontinent. Some talented and avant-garde artists have flourished in this region. Their artworks represented the local culture, heritage and native atmosphere. The formal art scene thrived in Kolkata in the second half of the nineteenth century through the establishment of art schools. No art gallery existed at that time. So far as we know, the first art gallery in the subcontinent opened in 1876. However only prominent artists got the chance to exhibit their works. Only a select few used to visit the gallery; it was inaccessible to commoners.

However, after the establishment of Art College in Dhaka in 1948, a new epoch began. Our artists got a new home for honing their creativity. East Pakistan Arts Council (now the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Art Gallery) was established in 1963. After launching the gallery, our artists got the opportunity to display their works in their homeland. During that time, Shilpakala was intensely involved with our contemporary art movement. After that, some painters and cultural activists set up a number of art galleries in Dhaka. Art Ensemble, Desh Gallery and La Gallerie were in this category.

Sadeq Khan, one of the better-known art critics of the country, had a number of artist friends, through whom he met several senior artists. There used to be a kind of cold war between the young and senior artists. The senior artists were not appreciative of the younger ones. Besides that, the up and coming artists did not get enough exposure. So Sadeq Khan and some of his comrades decided to open up a gallery. The gallery was called Art Ensemble and it formally opened in 1962.

Two galleries named Desh Gallery and La Gallerie were established in the '70s, but they didn't survive long.

The first art exhibition in this part (the then East Pakistan) of the sub-continent was perhaps held in 1951 at Lytton Hall of Dhaka University. Dhaka Art Group organised that exhibition. The credit for organising the first gallery-based exhibition goes to Art Ensemble. Works of almost all the would-be great artists of Bangladesh including Zainul Abedin, Aminul Islam, Hamidur Rahman, Murtaza Bashir, Abdul Baset, Abdur Razzaque, Qayyum Chowdhury, Debdas Chakrabarty were on display. The exhibition was held at the then Tourist Bureau office at Segunbagicha. The second part of the exhibition was however held at Art Ensemble's own gallery in June 1963.

After these galleries, Aftabuddin Ahmed opened Jiraz Art Gallery at Shahbagh in Dhaka in 1970. This gallery helped both young and prominent artists sell their works.

At present there are a few other galleries in Gulshan and Banani that are more art shops than galleries. The biggest one of them is Saju Art Gallery. Saju has made notable contributions to the promotion of art, especially by means of attracting many foreign buyers. Its owner is Ramiz Ahmed Chowdhury Saju. The gallery was opened in 1974.

Saju Art Gallery, E-art Gallery and Haque Gallery are still in existence. Tivoli Art Gallery, which opened in the same decade and in the same area, has also made a name for itself. Tajuddin Ahmed, himself a recognised painter, is the proprietor of the gallery.

Generally, these art shops don't have not enough space for exhibitions. These galleries are in the Gulshan-Banani area. The area is home to the affluent, various diplomatic missions, embassies and other important offices. As a result, these galleries have had a successful run as commercial ventures. The '80s were a significant decade for these flourishing art galleries. At that time Gallery-21 was a popular joint in Dhanmondi. Subrana, herself a painter, was owner of the gallery. The gallery however, closed after a few years.

Beside these, a number of galleries were set up by the government such as Shishu Academy Gallery, Osmani Memorial Hall Gallery, National Museum Gallery, National Art Gallery (Shilpakala Academy). Several cultural centres of foreign diplomatic missions also provided space for art galleries after the mid '90s. Alliance Francaise de Dacca, Goethe Institut, Russian Centre of Science and Culture and Indian Cultural Centre are among them. After the establishment of these galleries, promising painters had the chance to exhibit their works. Besides holding exhibitions, these galleries also became a hub for art enthusiasts, critics and cultural activists. Other well-known galleries in the city are the Divine Art Gallery at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel, Cezanne Art Gallery and Zainul Gallery-1 & 2 at the Faculty of Fine Arts.

At present, there are many art galleries in Dhaka. The '90s saw a boom in the art gallery scene under private ownership. Shilpangan is one of the full-fledged galleries in Dhaka, which opened in January 1992. Faiz Ahmed, a veteran journalist and poet is the founder of the gallery.

Over the years a good number of art galleries have sprung up in Dhaka and there is always one or another art exhibition on. Gallery Shilparag is one of them; the owner is architect M Badrul Huda and it is located at Dhanmondi-27. Gallery Chitrak, another homely gallery, opened in 2000 at Dhanmondi-4. Dhanmondi has become a popular venue for art galleries. These galleries are doing well commercially too.

Among the more recent art galleries that have gained a reputation for becoming centres of art appreciation are Bengal Gallery, Drik Gallery, Gallerie Kaya, Art and Soul, Art Club and Samotot Art Gallery.

According to art enthusiasts, Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts is the most successful among these in promoting Bangladeshi art. The gallery was opened in 2000 by art enthusiast and industrialist Abul Khair Litu, and has evolved into a thriving cultural hub. It has featured about 300 artistes in solo and group exhibitions so far.

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