Volume 5 Issue 34| December 03, 2011|


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Journey Through Bangladesh


Dr. Zainul Abedin
and his contribution to Bengali Art

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin Sangrahashala (Zainul Abedin Art Gallery) was established in Mymensingh on 15th April, 1975. It commenced its journey with a total number of 70 artworks comprising of both the oil paintings and sketches.

As I visited Mymensingh in mid-October on some official purposes, I had rushed to the green banks of the legendary river the Old Brahmaputra soon after the professional engagements were taken care of. The old Brahmaputra, originating in southwestern Tibet as the Yarlung Tsangpo River, flows across southern Tibet to break through the Himalayas in great gorges and into Arunachal Pradesh of India where it is known as Dihang. It flows southwest through the Assam valley into Bangladesh as the Brahmaputra. The Old Brahmaputra seemed long but slim as I laid my first sights on it. The river is still beautiful and the scenario besides the river bank is more pristine with plenty of trees and huge fields of green grass. What appeared to be the most precious gift, to me as a mere visitor in this town, was the presence of the Zaniul Abedin Art Gallery besides the river bank.

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin Sangrahashala (Zainul Abedin Art Gallery) was established in Mymensingh on 15th April, 1975. It commenced its journey with a total number of 70 artworks comprising of both the oil paintings and sketches. We should not, however, forget that this renowned painter was born in Mymensingh in 1914 of the then undivided Bengal cum India. Despite his admission into Kolkata Art School in 1933; coming into limelight for the first time since drawing of the series of black and white sketches on the 1943 Great Bengal Famine; returning to Dhaka in 1947 and getting engaged in movement for the establishment of Dhaka Art School; frequent travels across the countries and continents; nothing could blur his obsession for the Brahmaputra River and his birth place. As recourse to remaining attached to his hometown, the artist prompted the establishment of a museum in Mymensingh in a building owned by Mr. Barden who later sold it to a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council. The gallery opened with approximately 70 pieces of art that included oil paintings and drawings by Abedin during his tours abroad. Unfortunately enough, 17 of 77 artworks were stolen in 1982 of which 10 were again retrieved in 1994. The National Museum of Dhaka undertook the onus of this museum in 1999. There are 53 oil paintings in this archive at present.

Zainul Abedin art gallery in Mymensingh

Garden view from Zainul Abedin Galley

No sooner had Zainul Abedin been admitted into the Kolkata Art School in 1933, a number of art movements were already being carried over there by artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy in fusion of the oriental and occidental art style, form and genres. Established in 1854, the Calcutta Art School rose to great worldwide fame and glory as soon as Mr. E. B. Havel undertook the charge as its principal. Havel was quite devoted to the fusion of eastern and western art techniques which encouraged artists like Abanindranath, Bose and Jamini Roy. Of them, Abanindranath offered a combination of Mughal and Japanese techniques. Nandalal Bose was noted particularly for the technique he assimilated from sculptures in Indian temples, the craftsmanship seen in the art of decorative floral patterns of flowers known as Alpana, and the methods evolved locally by humbler artisans in Bengal who illustrated religious texts on pottery or wooden plates. The effects he achieved, reached an astonishing new level of perfection in Jamini Roy who showed that folk motifs and the techniques of rural, semiliterate artisans could be the basis of great art. Abedin studied all the works of his immediate predecessor and he first emerged into the limelight during Jamini Roy's lifetime by his famine sketches of 1942. Syed Ali Ahsan in pages 32 and 33 in his book titled: Zainul Abedin: The Man and His Art describes the then young artist and his employed metods as:

“the impact of the terrible famine stunned his youthful mind into a sudden perception of the horror of death, of utter helplessness of countless thousands in the face of disaster, of human misery on a prodigious scale inspiring work breathtakingly effective as a representation, by bold brush strokes, of emotions aroused by pain, hunger and suffering. Basically the artistic significance of Abedin's famine sketches lies in the method he uses to depict human misery, the spectacle of dying or dead men, and the manipulation of contrasting lines. Contrasts of vertical and horizontal lines, the anatomy of human and animal figures, or the contrast of the dead and living were all there.”

A scenic view from Zainal Abedin's museum boundary

Syed Ali Ahsan further informs us that the famine pictures bought Abedin fame. He returned to the same technique in his sketches of the indigenous Santals of West Bengal in Dumka whom he visited in 1945. Soon after the India-Pakistan partition, Abedin settled in Dhaka and launched a movement from an art school in the city. The eventual founding of the Dhaka Art School was followed by the formation of an organization called the Dhaka Art Group which aimed at initiating an art movement. In 1951 Abedin visited London and studied western modern art techniques at the Slade School. His experience overseas taught him that:

“the purpose of art was not to unfold stories, nor was art a mere exteriorization of the artists' imagination, its real purpose was to discover the infinite possibilities inherent in color, it was a discovery which had been made by Chagall, by Picasso, by Van Gogh.”: page 38-40, Ibid

Returning home, Abedin turned to the use of color in western style through frequent and extensive use of orange, blue and yellow colors in his paintings on village women in Bangladesh. Abedin, in this particular period of his artist life, was also hugely impressed by Cubism, an explosive movement in 20th century art and a revolt against past convention. During the fatal sea cyclone of 1970, he drew upon a huge scroll painting entitled as “Manpura” which was no less than 50 to 60 feet in height. Later he took the venture of drawing upon several more scroll paintings like “Navanna” and others. Apart from his most celebrated famine sketches, his colored paintings include and depict storm in summer of Bengal, still life, gypsy boats, towing, fishing scenes, boats, leveling the ploughed field, women with pitchers, Dumka Santal village, flute players and other archetypal images of Bengal.