The arts of Bangladesh have a position of great importance in the understanding of the heart of its culture. The arts are the unbroken link of the present to the distant past. Particular emphases has been placed on traditions that bear the distinctive characteristics of this country as they represent the way of life, hopes and aspirations of the people as well as the way that this civilization has developed.
The art of Bangladesh may be divided into two streams, the folk and the ‘high’.These two separate streams control the total cultural sphere of this country. According to Heinz Mode, ‘A completely illogical standard has been imposed to consider the art of the palace and the temples as high art and separate it from the folk arts. Yet the culture which is intimately connected with the daily life of the people has been rejected as common and low-class art. As a result, accepting the class and racial differences in society, art too was evaluated by the same standard.
Folk culture has evolved through the ages and successive generations in a rural environment in an almost spontaneous way, without state patronization. Though it is rooted in the agricultural society of the past it is also subject to change. Rural culture may again be divided into two streams. One stream is deeply connected to the all Indian and primarily Brahmanic or Islamic culture. The source and development of the other stream has much less outside influence. It is primarily the culture of the ancestors of the non-Sanskrit language based peoples who were the originators of this culture in their own homeland ages before the arrival of Brahmanic culture. A part of this divided folk culture lies within aesthetic activity, the examples of which are seen in the sculptures, masks, paintings, pata, decoration and utensils, the elements for puja, utility implements, furniture etc. which are associated with the beautification of objects and dwellings. The concerned artists are common people skilled from generation to generation in the rural tradition, but they are not trained within the regulations of an influential school or style. ‘However when the rural artist creates art upon being educated in a special technique or style through the patronage of high class people for their use or the use of the common people, or had created such till the mediaeval age, it can be categorized as so-called “high” art created and nourished by the “higher classes.”’
The difference between folk and high art may not always be clear-cut. The same artist if provided with enough financial and social benefit may overcome the boundary of folk art and become a mainstream artist. Thus, these two types of art are not isolated from each other. Classical art patronized by the higher stratum of society, with its evolution and aggressive influence has not been able to wipe out folk art. On the contrary, the ancient trend of folk art has continued to flow in the face of the all embracing attraction and enticement of classical art. The predominance of folk art, the birth and evolution of the classical style and the co-existence of folk art and “high art” created the environment of the art of Bengal. Furthermore, it is to be noted that the folk art of Bengal is not only limited to the rural areas. They are to be discovered also in urban settlements. Thus, some disagree if these can indeed be included in the true folk arts. Though these arts cannot be scientifically categorized, it has to be admitted that we have to turn to these ephemeral art products if we want to touch the mainstream of Bengali life. Heinz Mode tries to prove ‘that the most important and ancient part of humanity’s history is the folk arts.’
Various social, political and religious factors have played a vital part in giving form to the art of Bangladesh. Furthermore, the exchange with many external cultural influences has changed the concepts, forms and aesthetic sensibility of the culture of this region. In this context, the present volume aims at observing the important chapters and changes in the visual arts of this country in an attempt to analyze the uniqueness of Bangladeshi culture.The way of life of a people develops within the context of its particular geographical background. Therefore, the environment is a prime factor in the culture, and thus, the art of a people. In addition, exchanges between various cultures take place through people who come from foreign parts as well as communications with the external world. Bengal is situated at the farthest south eastern boundary of the subcontinent and is comparatively isolated and inaccessible because of its natural boundaries.The waves of new cultural influences are modified and lose some of their distinction on their way to Bangladesh. However, it is also true that this country has attracted foreigners throughout the ages because of its legendary wealth. Moreover, from ancient times the wonderful textiles of Bengal as well as other agricultural, industrial and mineral products have been exported through intermediaries.Until the early part of the eighth century the merchants and artisans enjoyed a high social status.Very possibly, from the eight century onwards, foreign and internal trade began to decrease and the economy became more dependent on agriculture and small cottage industries. That is when the wage earners and working classes began to lose social status. The people who depended on their manual skills for their livelihood found themselves at the lower and lowest castes of society. Sutradhar (carpenter), takshan (carver), chitrakar (painter), attalikakar (architect), swarnakar (goldsmith) etc. castes lost their social standing.
From the remote past, it is to be noted that people of many different races have come to Bengal for missionary, commercial or imperialistic purposes. Foreign cultural influences have taken new forms within a long process due to the very slowly changing agrarian way of life. Through the process of acceptance and rejection, local and foreign cultures have combined to develop new forms of art and aesthetic expression. However, the original, unchanging and primary stream of Bengal art has never been completely lost or forgotten. Almost like the fluid movement of the rivers of Bengal, when confronted by an obstacle, they have found a fresh path to flow onto and taken on new and varied form. This most ancient, unbroken stream bears the major current of the essence of Bengali culture, the undistorted, true identity of what is Bengali. This flow bears the core of the thousand-year-old aesthetic consciousness of the people of this country, which still holds an indefinable attraction on the spirit of people used to the mechanical life of the current age of globalization.
Sheikh Mohammed Sultan (better known as SM Sultan), was a Bangladesh avant-garde artist who worked in painting and drawing. His fame rests on his striking depictions of exaggeratedly muscular Bangladeshi peasants engaged in the activities of their everyday lives.
Sultan was born in Machimdia village, in what was then Jessore District, British India (now Narail District, Bangladesh) on 10 August 1923. After five years of primary education at Victoria Collegiate School in Narail, he went to work for his father, a mason. Even as a child he felt a strong artistic urge. He seized every opportunity to draw with charcoal, and developed his talent depicting the buildings his father worked on. Sultan wanted to study art in Calcutta (Kolkata), but his family did not have the means to send him. Eventually, he secured financial support from the local zamindar and went to Calcutta in 1938.
There poet and art critic Hasan Shahid Suhrawardy restyled him S.M. Sultan and offered him accommodation in his home and the use of his library. Sultan did not meet the admissions requirements of the Government School of Art, but in 1941 managed to get in with the help of Suhrawardy, who was on the school’s governing body. Under Principal Mukul Chandra Dey the school deemphasized the copying of Old Masters and moved beyond Indian mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects. Students were encouraged to paint contemporary landscapes and portraits expressing original themes from their own life experience.
Indian and Pakistani period
Sultan left art school after three years, in 1944, and traveled around India. He earned his living by drawing portraits of Allied soldiers encamped along his route. His first exhibition was a solo one in Shimla, India, in 1946. Next, after Partition, came two individual exhibitions in Pakistan: Lahore in 1948 and Karachi in 1949. None of his artworks from this period survive, mainly due to Sultan’s own indifference towards preserving his work.
The Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York ran an International Arts Program that brought exceptionally promising foreign artists between the ages of 25 and 35, selected jointly by their country’s ministry of education and the IEE, to the United States for a stay of several weeks. The institute provided round-trip transportation and grants for living expenses. The program included visits to museums, a period of creative work or study at a school, consultations with leading American artists, and exhibition of the visitors’ work.
Sultan’s official selection by the government in Karachi made it possible for him to visit the United States in the early 1950s, and exhibit his work at the IEE in New York; at the YMCA in Washington, D.C.; in Boston; at the International House of the University of Chicago; and at Michigan University, Ann Arbor. Later he traveled to England, where he participated in the annual open-air group exhibition at Victoria Embankment Gardens, Hampstead, London.
The following year, while teaching art at a school in Karachi, he came into contact with leading Pakistani artists Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Shakir Ali, with whom he developed a lasting friendship. After a period living and painting in Kashmir, Sultan returned to his native Narail in 1953. He settled down in an abandoned building overlooking the Chitra River, where he lived with an eclectic collection of pets. He lived close to the land and far from the outside art world for the next twenty-three years, developing a reputation as a whimsical recluse and a Bohemian.
Sultan’s drawings, such as his self-portrait, are characterized by their economy and compactness. The lines are powerful and fully developed. His early paintings were influenced by the Impressionists. In his oils he employed Van Gogh’s impasto technique. His watercolors, predominantly landscapes, are bright and lively.
The themes of his paintings are nature and rural life. S Amjad Ali, writing in 1952 for Pakistan Quarterly, described Sultan as a “landscape artist.” Any human figures in his scenes were secondary. In Ali’s view Sultan painted from memory in a style that had no definite identity or origins.
Between Sultan’s 1969 individual exhibition at the Khulna Club, Khulna, and the first National Art Exhibition (a group exhibition), in Dhaka, in 1975, a transformation took place in his work.
Agricultural laborers engaged in everyday activities such as ploughing, planting, threshing, and fishing took center stage on his canvases. The landscape – farmland, rivers, villages – was still present, but as a backdrop. What was distinctive about his figures, such as those in Char Dakhal (1976), was their exaggeratedly muscular physique. In this way he made obvious the inner strength of the sturdy, hardworking peasants, the backbone of Bangladesh, something that would have remained hidden in a more realistic depiction.
Sultan did some of his best work in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1976 the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy put on an individual exhibition of his work. It was his first major exhibition and his first in Dhaka. The next year he was selected as a member of the panel of judges for the Asian Art Biennale in Dhaka. The catalog of his solo exhibition at the German Cultural Center, Dhaka, in 1987, described how he saw his subjects:
These people who lived close to the soil, who bore on their shoulders the burden of civilization did not appear to Sultan to be weak, debilitated, starving creatures who deserved pity and sympathy. Quite the contrary, he saw their bulging muscles, their vigorous torso, their overpowering vitality, their well-rounded buttocks and swelling breasts ready to come to grip with life.
The peasants were heroes to him. He described their place in his art:
The matter of my paintings is about the symbol of energy. The muscle is being used for struggling, struggling with the soil. Power of those arms drives the plough into the soil and grows crops. Labor is the basis and because of that labor of our farmers this land has been surviving over thousands of years.
Sultan’s paintings never included urban elements or anything produced by modern technology, which he considered imported. They are modern art in the sense that he broke with the artistic conventions of the past, but they remained figurative art with a narrative. He had little interest in abstract art.
Professor Lala Rukh Selim, Chairman of the Department of Sculpture, University of Dhaka, described Sultan as one of the four pioneers of Bangladeshi modernism, along with Zainul Abedin, Safiuddin Ahmed, and Quamrul Hassan.
Sultan received the Ekushey Padak, Bangladesh’s highest civilian award for contribution in the field of arts, in 1982; the Bangladesh Charu Shilpi Sangsad Award in 1986; and the Independence Day Award, the highest state award given by the government of Bangladesh, in 1993 for his contribution to fine arts.
Harvesting (1986) is listed by the Bangladesh National Museum as one of its 100 renowned objects.
Sultan established the Kurigram Fine Arts Institute at Narail in 1969 and another art school, now named Charupeeth, in Jessore in 1973.
In 1989, Tareque Masud directed a 54-minute documentary film on Sultan’s life, called Adam Surat (The Inner Strength). Masud started filming it in 1982 with the help of the painter, and traveled with him all around Bangladesh. According to Masud, Sultan agreed to cooperate only on the condition that “… rather than being the film’s subject, he would act as a catalyst to reveal the film’s true protagonist, the Bengali peasant.”
In 2005, photographer Nasir Ali Mamun published a book Guru with 68 photographs of Sultan. These were selected from thousands of photographs taken by Mamun in the period from 1978, when he first met with Sultan, until his death.
Bangladesh Charu Shilpi Sangsad Award 1986
Independence Day Award 1993
Died: 10 October 1994 (aged 71) Jessore, Bangladesh
Resting Place: Narail, Bangladesh
Quamrul Hassan (Bengali: কামরুল হাসান, 1921–1988) was a Bengali artist. Hassan was born in Kolkata, India. In Kolkata, where his father, Muhammad Hashim, was superintendent of a local Graveyard. His paternal residence was in Narenga village in the Burdwan district of West Bengal. Quamrul Hassan studied at Calcutta Model ME School, Calcutta Madrasa and later in the Government Institute of Arts, also in Kolkata. He graduated in Fine Arts in 1947. During his student life, Quamrul Hassan was also involved with Boy Scouts, the bratachari movement, Manimela, Mukul Fauj etc. Apart from his interest in art, he was also interested in physical exercise and, in 1945, he became the Bengal champion in a physical exercise competition. Like many Bengali Muslims, he was involved in the Pakistan movement and trained the young boys and girls who belonged to the Mukul Fauj.
In Bangladesh, Hassan’s fame as an artist is perhaps only second to that of Zainul Abedin. Hassan is often referred to in Bangladesh as Potua, a word usually associated with folk artists, due to his down to earth style yet very modern in nature as he always added Cubism other than the folk style to his artworks. In addition to his artistic legacy, two of Hassan’s work have come to be part of Bangladesh’s political history. The first of this is a monstrous rendition of Yahiya Khan, the Pakistani president who ordered genocide in Bangladesh. The second was just before his death, mocking the then dictator of Bangladesh, Hossain Mohammad Ershad. This sketch was titled Desh aaj bisshobeheyar khoppre (Our land is now in the hand of the champion of shamelessness).
A Bangladeshi propaganda poster in 1971 against Pakistani military ruler General Yahiya Khan by Quamrul Hassan. (photo from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quamrul_Hassan)
After partition of India, Quamrul Hassan came to dhaka which was then the capital of the eastern part of the newly founded Pakistan and, in collaboration with Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, established the Government Institute of Fine Arts (at present, the Institute of Fine Arts) in 1948. He taught at the same institute till 1960. In 1950, Quamrul Hassan organised the Art Group in Dhaka.
The East Pakistan Small and Cottage Industries Corporation was established under the leadership of Quamrul Hassan in 1960, and he worked there as Director of the Design Centre till his retirement in 1978. After his retirement, Hassan worked as a free-lance artist.
Politically active with leftist inclinations, Hassan was involved in the long political process that led to the creation of independent Bangladesh. He partook in the non-cooperation movement against Ayub Khan in 1969. During liberation war he served as the Director of the Art Division of the Information and Radio Department of the Bangladesh Government in exile. In 1972, He also redesigned the Flag of Bangladesh, excluding the map as the contortion of Bangladesh’s southern islands made it very difficult to place the map inside the red circle.
Quamrul Hassan was a constant painter. Even in the midst of company, he would keep on doodling or sketching. While presiding over a session of the Second National Poetry Festival held on the Dhaka University campus on 2 February 1988, he drew a sketch of a snake, satirizing Lieutenant General hussain muhammad ershad, the army general who had become president of Bangladesh through a coup. Hassan had barely completed the sketch when he suffered a massive heart attack.
Getting inspired from Zainul Abedin, Jamini Roy, Quamrul Hassan chose to give the folk art tradition a breath of life by incorporating modern ideas in it. He always borrowed the two-dimensionality of pata paintings of fork art in his work, he also attempted to give the quality of three-dimensionality in it. Instead of using mixed colors, in most of his paintings he used primary colors like pata painters. Sometimes, like folk artists, he applied flat colors without creating tonal variations. However, he has attempted to create color perspective by using various colors in one plane, so that a sense of height, distance can be created in the image. This technique was inspired from Henri Matisse. Patriotism was born in him due to his involvement in folk art. Some of his notable works are: Goon Tana, The Happy Return, Biral, Nabanna, Gorur Snan etc. All of these paintings highlight the lives of lower-class people which has been the topmost priority of his paintings.
Hassan was a versatile artist working in practically all media-oil, gouache, watercolors, pastel, etching, woodcut, linocut, pen and pencil. He also worked with woodcuts, especially after the famine of 1974, works that expressed his rage and anger. Quamrul used snakes, jackals and owls to portray the evil in humans, both in his political work and his famine work.
Rural women and their plight is another theme Hassan has repeatedly worked on. His treatment of women emphasizes the bond between them, most of his paintings of women are of a group of women, only rarely a solo painting can be found. However, he mixes romanticism with realism; the strong curved lines and the contrasted use of color contribute to a sensuous appeal that blunts the edges of harsh reality. His paintings of women can be divided into three phases: the 50s Love and Premarital stage, the end of 50s and the beginning of 70s the happy conjugal life, and the 70s and the 80s the time of marital separation. First stage marks the memories of his late mother. The paintings of the stage were made simply from the painter’s memories of his lost mother but in an abstracted form. Like the painting three women gossiping over a topic. It was actually his mother gossiping to two other women. Second stage marks the time when he was in love with his wife and they together had a daughter. The notable works of the period can be Afterbath, Jalkeli (waterplay), Loneliness etc. And the third stage marks the time when he and his wife were separated due to some reasons and at this period instead of highlighting some emotions that are visible in his other paintings, he kept on drawing female nudes.
His political paintings reflected his political understanding and patriotism. Some of his notable works under the category are: Freedom Fighters, Female Freedom Fighters, Gonohatyar Agey O Gonohatyar Porey (Before and after the mass killing) etc. His series titled Image’74 shows his political view which portrays the tendency of sacrificing morals and ethics over some personal gains among politicians, bureaucrats and the businessmen of Bangladesh.
- President’s Gold Medal (1965)
- Independence Day Award (1979)
- Bangladesh Charu Shilpi Sangsad Honour (1984)
- Fellow of Bangla Academy (1985)
Hassan died on 2 February 1988 after suffering a massive heart attack while attending the National Poetry Festival. He was buried beside the central mosque of the University of Dhaka.
Rashid Choudhury (1 April 1932 – 12 December 1986) was a Bangladeshi artist. In 1956-1957 he got a post graduate scholarship and went to the Central Escula Des Bellias Artes De San Fernando in Madrid. In 1960-1964 he went to the Academy of Julian and Beaux Arts Paris in 1961. He was awarded the first prize in RCD Biennale exhibition held in Iran in 1968. In 1977 he received the Ekushey Padak (highest civilian award) from the government of Bangladesh and got Bangladesh Shilpakala Award in 1980.
Rashid was the pioneer of tapestry in this country and definitely the finest artist of this particular genre to date. He successfully introduced tapestry in various forms. His works are unparalleled in their subjects and style. Blending of our tradition with modern western art is the main characteristics of his works.
About the iconic artist, sculptor cum painter Syed Abdullah Khalid said, “His forte was to search for fresh themes and present them with a novel approach. The artist established his uniqueness — particularly in terms of design and colour composition. The thickness of colours, geometric compositions and aestheticism distinguish his works.
“This style helped him to hold his position at the forefront of the Bangladeshi art scenario.”
Born in the village of Haroa, under Faridpur district, Rashid completed his five-year course in fine arts from the Dacca Art College (now Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka) in 1954 and attended a teachers’ training certificate course at Asutosh Museum of the Calcutta University. He did his post-graduate studies under a Spanish government scholarship, and studied sculpture at the Central Escula des Bellias Artes de San Fernando in Madrid from 1956 to ’57. He also studied sculpture, fresco and tapestry at the Academy of Jullian and Beaux Arts in Paris from 1960 to ’64.
In his artworks, the artist used azure, white, black, crimson, green, brown and more. He was deeply inspired by varied organic forms, like vegetation, flowers and plants. Rashid made a great attempt to present synchronisation of colours in his works. He used colours with vivid splendour to give a distinct message through his works, which for many years impressed art aficionados both at home and abroad.
Rashid received the first prize for fresco painting in Beaux Arts in Paris and first prize in RCD Biennale in Tehran. He also received Ekushey Padak and the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award.
The artist died in 1986.
Artist Zainul Abedin described her work saying “What Novera is doing now will take us a long time to understand – she is that kind of an artist.”
Early life and education
Novera Ahmed was born in March 29, 1939 in Bangladesh. Her ancestral home was in Chittagong. But she was born in Calcutta. Ahmed studied in Calcutta and Comilla. In 1955 she was awarded a Diploma in Design in the Modeling and Sculpture course from Camberwell College of Arts in London. At Camberwell she studied under the British sculptor Jacob Epstein and Karel Vogel of Czechoslovakia. She studied European sculpture under the sculptor Venturino Venturi in Florence and later in Vienna. She was influenced by many western modern sculptors such as Henry Moore.
Ahmed jointly worked with Hamidur Rahman on the original design of the Shaheed Minar, Dhaka. During 1956-1960, she had done about 100 sculptures in Dhaka. Out of her 100 sculptures, 33 sculptures are currently in Bangladesh National Museum. Ahmed’s first exhibition was held in University of Dhaka in 1960. Another exhibition of her works was held in Lahore in 1961. Her last exhibition was also held in Paris in July 1973.
Ahmed was married to a police officer in mid 1945 in Calcutta. The couple got divorced in late 1945. Ahmed later married Gregoire de Brouhns in 1984.
Ahmed suffered a stroke in 2010 and she was in a wheelchair since then. She died on May 6, 2015 at a hospital in Paris, France at the age of 85.
Novera, the first modern sculptor of Bangladesh, was born in 1930 in Kolkata. She earned a Diploma in Design for the Modelling and Sculpture course from Camberwell School of Art in London in 1955. At Camberwell, she studied under the renowned British sculptors Sir Jacob Epstein and Karel Vogel of Czechoslovakia. She also enriched her perspective on European sculpture by studying under Venturi Venturino in Florence and later in Vienna. She was credited alongside Hamidur Rahman for the original design of the Central Shahid Minar in Dhaka.
In 1970, the stage was set for Novera’s exit from her former idiom and her homeland. The signals of change in her praxis came via a solo exhibition, second extensive showcasing of her work, held in Bangkok, displaying sculptures made of bronze, steel, sheet metal, welded and stainless steel. In the bronze sculpture called Murti (statue in literal translation), one can see that the structure is rather engraved and not smooth. A torso standing on a spine giving an impression of an erect, uncompromising posture. A piece of art that can be considered ahistorical or timeless by virtue of its eternal appeal. Her third show was held in Paris in July 1973. There was a sculpture entitled The Sun Dance (showing a figure balanced on one leg, the other raised high — an image of physical dislocation reflected in the brooding melancholia of the abstract face. Or the Suryamukhi Nari (sunflower women), longing for a liberating force of light, because human desire for freedom is lodged in a ‘counter’ logic. It is nature that leads to reflection and is transformed through it. Novera moved along that line of thought.
This modernist stalwart breathed her last on May 5, 2015. She was buried in the city of Val-d’Oise in France. She was much attached to her adopted domicile in the last days of her life. From 1984 through 2015 her partner in wedlock has been Gregoire de Brouhns. Novera Ahmed embodies the angst of her time. She isolated herself from the general trends of thought. This isolation vested her with a unique personality, turning her into a reclusive loner. She lived the silence in her art, the silence that gave her the freedom that she so cherished. This need for isolation cannot be separated from the idea of modernism, definitely not in the case of Novera and the history of her art speaks of that. We will look at history and think she is there, in a different land. In Bangladesh there have not been sculptors of her calibre preceding her and one comparable is still rare to find. In this life we have simply made gestures towards her work; the rest will be done by the grand beyond and for that we depend on the ever after. hopefully true vindication will be served in the ‘elsewhere’.
Zainul Abedin was a painter and a political activist involved in the development and advocacy of fine arts in his country from the end of the British colonial era through the tumultuous decades of Bangladesh’s infancy. He is also considered by many to be the most foundational figure in Modern Bangladeshi art. His best-known works are his sketches in Chinese ink on simple packing paper portraying the horrors of the great Bengal famine of 1943—a catastrophe that killed at least 3 million people, due in large part to British food diversion and hoarding. Still, his work transcends the strictly political, attaining a broader humanism that is timeless and cross-cultural.
He was Born in Kishoreganj, Mymensingh, on 29 December 1914. He was admitted to the Government School of Art in Kolkata in 1933 and graduated with a first class degree in 1938. After graduation he joined the same institution as a teacher.
As a young boy, Zainul was more interested in drawing than his studies. He would draw pictures in his textbook during lessons. He was greatly inspired by the river Brahmaputra and the surrounding countryside.
This is reflected in a series of his watercolor drawings which pay tribute to the river Brahmaputra. He earned the Governor’s the Gold Medal in 1938 for these paintings in an all-India exhibition.
The Great Famine of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin
In 1943 the Great Bengal Famine killed about three million people. Zainul Abedin Was touched by the devastation of the Famine which was caused by the colonial policies and other reasons during the World War II and drew a series of sketches depicting the misery.
Though Zainul had little material help to offer to the starving, helpless people, he paid his greatest tribute to the famine victims through his famous famine sketches. He drew the sketches on cheap, brown packing paper with Chinese ink and a flat brush used of oil painting.
This was Zainul’s way of showing the world what the starving and dying Bengal people were going through.
The move to Dhaka and a new institute
After the partition of India in 1947, Zainul left Kolkata, came Pakistan and settled in Dhaka. He joined a school as a drawing teacher. At that time there was very little artistic activity in East Pakistan. He, along with some friends, tried to convince the government to start an art institute.
He was given the responsibility of establishing the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts in Dhaka. It started on 30 September 1948 in two rooms of the National Medical School.
It was the first art school of East Pakistan and he was made the Principal-designate of the Institute. Eventually this institute grew in reputation and size to be known as the institute of Fine Arts.
The Great Master of the Arts
In 1951, Zainul attended the Slade School of Art in London, for a two-year training programme. In 1959, his contributions were recognized by the highest award for creative artists from the Government of Pakistan, Hilal-i-Imtiaz.
He denounced the title in 1971 during the War of Liberation. He was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. degree by the University of Delhi in 1974. He was also a Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at Peshawar University in 1965 and in Dhaka in 1973. He was appointed a National Professor of Bangladesh in 1974.
Zainul retired from the post of Principal of the Government Art College in 1967 and devoted himself to painting. He was given the title, Shilpacharya, the Great Master of the Arts, in the same years for his artistic and visionary qualities.
In 1970, he organized the nabanna festival at the Shilpakala Academy. He drew a 65-feet long and 6 feet wide scroll called nabanna (in Chinese ink, watercolor and wax), in celebration of the mass movement of 1969, in which he depicted the story of rural Bangladesh in phases.
He started it with the abundance of golden Bengal when people were happy and in peace and went on to show how the same Bengal became impoverished under the colonial rule and the Pakistan regime and finally reached a pitiable state of poverty.
In the same year, Zainul Painted another scroll, the 30 feet long and 6 feet wide Manpura, named after an island in the Bay of Bengal. This black ink drawing over wax outlines depicted the devastation of the terrible cyclone of 1970.
Illustrating the constitution
Soon after the liberation of Bangladesh, Zainul was invited by the Government to illustrate the Constitution of Bangladesh which he did along with three other artists. They used folk art and designs form nakshi kantha, the famous embroidered quilts made by rural women of Bangladesh.
In 1975, a year before his death, Zainul Abedin set up the Folk Art Museum at Sonargaon and the Shilpacharya Zainul Sangrahashala, a gallery of his own works in Mymensingh. The Folk Art Museum was set up to preserve the rich but dying folk art of Bangladesh.
One of the characteristics of Zainul Adbedin’s paintings is the black line. He has made use of the line in many of his sketches including the Famine Sketches. He has painted in a wide variety of styles.
After his return from Slade School of Art, he began to draw in a new Bengali style where folk forms with their geometric, sometimes semi-abstract representations, the use of primary colors and lack of perspective were prominent features. Some of his well-known paintings are Dumka (watercolor 1951), sandals: Return (watercolor 1951), The rebel Crow (watercolor 1951). Two Women (gouache 1953), Painna’s Mother (gouache 1953) and Face (oil painting 1971).
His last days
Zainul Abedin died of cancer on 28 May 1976. He drew his last painting, Two Faces, while he was lying sick at the PG Hospital just before he died.
He was buried in the campus of Dhaka University, beside the Dhaka University mosque, with access from the Institute of fine Arts which he had founded.
In an extremely poverty struck country and within an environment of a huge uneducated population, this journey of the fine arts has naturally been impeded time and again. Artists have had to practice art amidst extremely adverse circumstances engulfed by the lack of minimum availability of materials and institutional facilities, uncertainty of employment and limitation in earning a living. Along with the practice of art, the artist had to struggle against the indifferent and often hostile social atmosphere. Apart from political instability and economic uncertainty that is characteristic of third world countries, the cultural workers of our country had to fight against the Pakistani colonialist policy of suppression for twenty four years. Throughout the fifties and sixties, the artistic community of this country had to struggle against the conspiracy to destroy the tradition and heritage of Bengali along with creating artworks, they had to perform the duty of making the public aware and conscious. Needless to say, in this cultural struggle, the fine artists were in the front ranks and played the pioneering role in generating passion to create the mass
movement of sixty-nine. Many artists have fought in the Liberation War of seventy-one with both brushes and weapons. The lack of institutional facility and shortage of materials did not go away, the certainty of employment and livelihood was yet to be achieved. In the new state, the artist had to be occupied with duties beyond creative pursuits–duty of establishing institutions, duty of earning the minimum of professional convenience, duty of artistic decoration in the affairs of the state and institutions and playing an advisory role in that regard etc. Apart from that there are many areas of crisis and trouble in the artist’s individual creative world; he has to create his path by resolving these difficulties. Just like any other country of the third world, the art and culture of Bangladesh is also going through a crisis. There is the conflict between tradition and modernity, the debate of indigenousness and internationality, and above all, the all consuming influence of western culture. Within these multidimensional forces of purpose and inspiration, it is not easy to be able to indicate one’s distinctiveness in contemporary art. The art of Bangladesh is the endeavoring to come out of this crisis. Some artists wish to create a form of our contemporary art by combining local tradition and the modern western styles of art. Others want to create art with cosmopolitan features using an international language of art. This vacillation and diversity turned into a unique feature of our art.
Despite all this variety the achievement of the art of Bangladesh is undoubtedly praiseworthy. Many new institutions for art education have grown in various parts of the country through completely private and collective efforts, a few state and institutional structures have developed, national and international exhibitions are taking place regularly. Quite a few galleries have already been established privately, the exhibition and patronization of art is continuously on the rise– these are all positive efforts. The diversity in medium and material of art and the tendency to practice various styles has increased greatly in comparison to the past, the tendency to experiment and to accept the context of our country is gradually beginning to be imbued within young artists through various encouraging effort. The artists working in various media and cultural workers of this country are carrying out the responsibility to keep this honor continuing. It can be said without doubt that fine artists are playing a visible and leading role in the contemporary world of cultural activities in this country.