Shahabuddin in India
Two back-to-back exhibitions explore the abiding theme of 'liberation'
Shahabuddin Ahmed, famed for his figural propositions through which he often exteriorize the drama of movement, has recently had two back-to-back exhibitions in India. The Bangladeshi expatriate living in Paris for the last thirty-five plus years, is known to the wider public for his impassioned embodiment of the spirit of the independence war of 1971.
The first of the two painting exhibitions entitled Liberation was held at Ganges Art Gallery in Kolkata, from February 25 to March 14; and the other at Lalitkala Academy in New Delhi from March 22 to April 6.
One of the most well-known painters in the country, Shahabuddin's reputation has long since spread across all borders. Beginning from the early 1970's, a point of history when a new generation of artists was struggling to make the best out of the post-liberation era situation, he started to draw attention as a painter given to intense emotion exploring human and animal forms. Linked to the concept of the Bengali national identity, his signature trait is often animated by sweeps of brush strokes and painterly contrivances leading to the near-illusionistic imagery.
An artist who prefers working on large canvases, often tackling sizes according to the requirement of his larger-than-life themes and style, a common thread that runs through most of his works has to do with the spirit of emancipation of the human being.
If his canvas is a way for him to toggle between patriotism and a personal eagerness to capture the spirit of the humans in their state of freedom, the emotive dimension that makes his figures look bold and stimulating to the eye also, at times, seems to issue thought-provoking codes.
The created space – one that is conceived as the field of action for the protagonists whom Shahabuddin portrays – is broad, so that it provides for a large backdrop against which to enact his visual drama.
Shahabuddin's oeuvre at the Kolkata exhibition articulates the velour of the freedom fighters by emphasizing their muscularity, as is his norm. Figures for him are means to infuse the painterly space with a mythological sense; and he brings them into view as instigators of freedom as they are made to traverse a vast, expansive domain defying time and space. One can say the artist's personal desires, emotions, hopes, and aspirations are aligned with that of the Bengali masses, whose zeal centering the independence war is unwavering.
This time, the emergence of horses and bulls as motifs signifying force and vigour provides a respite for viewers already familiar with his advancing human figures. This batch of paintings present the same Bengali will that seeks to revive the forgotten ethos of the liberation war.
At the Delhi exhibition, Shahabuddin seems decisively keyed to expressing a sense of beauty through representing Bengali women. The artist attempts to express 'eternal beauty', captured in a range of moods of the represented women set against backdrops that provide little or no traces of the location. The canvases receive the same vivacious painterly treatment and the figures are subjected to the same spirited executional technique, creating some memorable aesthetic moments.
The portraits of Bangabandhu, Maulana Bhashani, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rabindranath Tagore, and other legendary personalities – the political and literary giants he has been tackling since the early 1990's – were also part of the exhibition.
The 'Liberty' series has been one of the most compelling of his recent works, which apparently draws on the joy and ecstasy of the collectivized masses. These images are vast and they assemble multiple episodes culled from our lives in broad spectacles. The colours red, blue, and white help set its predominant mood of euphoria.