Safiuddin Ahmed : An artist of pragmatic intent
Safiuddin Ahmed, one of the most venerated pioneers of modern art in Bangladesh for his individuated style of indigenous modernism, turns 80 this June. A major retrospective has been organized on this occasion to pay homage to the maestro whose penchant for linearity and formal rigour has always been the hallmark of his artistic diction. Two back-to-back exhibitions at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts created an opportunity for an extensive survey of his oeuvres. The creative strands of Safiuddin resulting from seventy years of artistic practice bespeak a persistent engagement with some basic problems of image-making – pictorial precision and an abiding propensity for investigating the metaphoric possibility of image to address the subject matter of choice. These are the means through which the artist always found his personal register to voice the particular/local in a rather generalized form of expression. His has been a pragmatic method which has galvanized his reputation as one of the pioneers of modern art in the country.
As a leading practitioner of modern printmaking of the region, he is often considered a purist, one who works with the bare minimum with the intention to find a middle ground between the subjective and the objective. Being a classicist modernist he always adhered to a certain compositional strictures as the basis for visual encryption.
Famous for his reticence, Safiuddin has lived a secluded life, away from the crowd and noise that accompany fame, which he never hankered after. The intense cerebration, the inbred sophistication, and the emotive force that one senses in his art is grounded in long and well-informed preparations, which include working out exact scenographic models to express his ideas alongside his development as an artist whose resolve to perfect his craft dates back to his student days at Government School of Art, Kolkata, where he had studied from 1936 to 1942.
Although in no way comparable to the perception of the artiste maudits, whose morbid disposition was one the highpoints of their personalities, Safiuddin has always borne a deep sense of discontentment which apparently resulted from his tendency to continuously attempt at transcending his own artistic achievements. The proverbial unhappiness that consumes him after he finishes each piece – be that a drawing or a work that uses oil-on-painting – seems to have been the driving force of his creative process. It has kept the umbilical cord intact till the end as he continued to work towards a final pictorial solution, which often seems elusive to artists of genuine aesthetic intention. The dissatisfaction that accompanies the process of creation is essentially a way for him to reach his desired destination; it pushes him to a level of excellence which otherwise might not have been possible. As it is exactitude that he seeks to attain, his work method seems to trail a meticulous discipline that few have the capacity to match.
As Safiuddin had become known as a master printmaker since the early days of his career, exactitude is precisely what was in order; and it is the vital element that served him in the past as well as at present as an enabling point.
When the artistic space, which is an art work, is conceived as a pure aesthetic turf, and is traversed in measured steps, the concept of precision gets an upper hand, often resulting in a conscious devising of what one produces as the final work of art. Therefore, Safiuddin's entire oeuvre, though diverse and awe-inspiring in many respects, are succinct in expression and its inner dynamics too is governed by predetermined pictorial logic.
He made prints, worked with charcoal and pencil, and delved into oil painting but never tackled any of the media in a perfunctory manner. Rather, his mission was of a serious examiner of the pictorial possibilities that every medium had in store for him, which starts to unfold only when the probing mind begins to intervene and commits his energy and time in accordance with the desire. Consequently, his route to achieving his aesthetic goal has always seemed directional and the result of a pragmatic engagement with both art and the reality.
It is a pragmatism that inspires spiritual growth, which is neatly bound up with the development he makes in his artistic diction. And the connectedness of his aesthetic world with that of the reality has always been an important aspect of his process – always giving way to the method of representation that is, by design, symbolic. As such, the references to the riverine land he made his home are broken down into calligraphic encryptions – those that serve as abstracted symbols yet, somehow, are evocative of the existential world. What this artist has always been attempting to achieve in his art can be summed up thus: He employs the abstract to address the real.
Safiuddin Ahmed was born in 1922 in Kolkata, a city he had been based in until he turned 25. In 1947, after the partition of India, he migrated to Dhaka as did many other Bengali Muslims in the wake of communal violence. He has been living in Dhaka, since, making it his home base, working both as an artist and an art teacher.
Urbane to the core since his early youth, civility is one thing that dictates his behaviour, so much so that its imprint is also apparent in his creation. Raised in an educated and culturally active family, where there was an atmosphere that encouraged artistic development, the budding talent found his inspiration in music. And if there was any art form that held sway over his life, it was music, one that bore down on his works, infusing them with a sense of musicality. He has led a quietist's life through and through, and his parents, with their meticulousness in organizing their family life, influenced his works to a considerable extent.
Safiuddin graduated from the Government School of Art in 1942. His outstanding academic results allowed him access to enrolling in a two-year teachers' training course at the same institution,where he would later to become a teacher in 1946.
His student years were the time of his artistic growth and to this day Safiuddin recalls his teachers for their role in shaping the artist he was later to become. Mukul Dey, Basanta Kumar Ganguli, Atul Bose, Monindrabhushan Gupta, Ramendranath Chaterjee, Prahlad Karmaker, Hrishen Mitra, and Abdul Moyeen, all these artists then working as teachers at the school served as the anchors during his formative days.
As a student, Safiuddin along with his friends enjoyed the opportunity of exploring the outdoors. Besides venturing into the city outskirts, he went to the surrounding rural areas as part of outdoor study classes. His memorable excursions into Modhupur in Bihar, Deoghar, Jesidi, Giridi, Chaibasa, and Jhajha between 1936 and 1941 and his visits to Dumka of Santal Pargana during puja vacations of 1942, 1944, and 1945 have all been a subject of historiographic attention, as no other Bengali artist had been so keen to depict nature and the people who lived in its midst. What moved young Safiuddin the most was the bucolic simplicity of life at Dumka: Santal life and the communion of these people with their immediate natural surroundings and the accompanying animals. He had the eyes of a tropical naturalist, one who believed that recording the real was an act of human empathy as it enhances one's understanding of the self as well as the world around.
A plethora of watercolours, ink drawings, dry points, wood engravings, and oil paintings, which date back to his student days, were intensely felt renditions of natural environments – pieces in which the artist captured with humility the most vital aspect of nature and natural life – the archetypal beauty.
Back in the 1930's, Safiuddin aligned himself with what Mukul Dey and Ramen Chatterjee were then engaged in – promoting printmaking as a mode of expression. He followed in their footsteps by pursuing higher studies on printmaking only to have become an avid practitioner whose sincere take on landscape and Santal life still echoes of the romantic emotions that they once used to rouse in the Bengali mind. Landscape as a point of departure was introduced by the romantics – and Safiuddin's construction of the indigenous sublime was not notional as was the case with many modern poets. Rather, it was grounded in immediate experience.
The view of Dumka, its sal forest, the Mayuraksmi River, the physical beauty of the indigenous Santal women, and the lifestyle that spoke of a deep understanding of nature had once stirred in him the feeling of inheritance. If his later works are about an urbanite's craving for aesthetic order and precision, his early naturalistic works are a response to the aesthetic appreciation of the tranquillity and joy he had witnessed/experienced in the rustic life untrammelled by urban existential crisis.
In recognition of his early works, between 1945 and 1947, he was awarded Academy President Gold Medal by the Academy of Fine Art in Kolkata in 1945 for his oil painting Parabat, won the first prize in international black and white section for wood engraving tittled Santal Girl and another first prize for Parabat in printmaking section in the Inter-Asian Fine Art Exhibition in New Delhi in 1947, and received Darbhanga King's Gold Medal, also in 1947, for his oil painting Hut in the Sunlight. By the time he turned 25, he was already in the receiving end of kudos from across the subcontinent.
The partition of India in 1947 marked a turning point in his life. As he migrated to Dhaka, leaving for good his birthplace Kolkata, his career underwent a drastic change. He played a key role in establishing an art institute in Dhaka. Being one of the main initiators accompanying Zainul Abedin in the struggle for establishing the first modern art institute in this deltaic land, he was appointed as head of the printmaking department in 1948.
Throughout his life his main aesthetic quest was for a way to bring into view the real-life experiences through his rhythmic execution of lines and shapes. Dhaka provided him with the scope for making a new beginning. The two consecutive deluges the country experienced in 1954 and 1955, which brought the city life to a halt, prompted Safiuddin to start working on a series on flooding. Swamibagh, the area in which he lived, went under knee-deep water – just four inches shy of the ground floor of his residence. In the next few days, an entirely different Dhaka was revealed to the artist, where he saw people trying to make the best of the situation, boats playing the roads, and the incessant rain, though playing havoc with the day-to-day activities of city dwellers, infusing the environ with a new kind of visual and acoustic symphony. To him it seemed like an invasion of the artificially built environment by Nature. He was visibly touched by rain pouring on floodwater and the rhythm it created. Though it was an inopportune moment for the city dwellers, the new experience later emerged in his works as a series of ciphers to fall back upon. The etchings that followed brought to the view scenes of fishing nets cast in the hope of landing some stray fishes by chance, boats floated as elements from bygone Bengal, and similar references to inundation of the land, thus initiating a return to his natural themes, which, in turn, had the capacity to inundate the Bengali soul that seems to connect to such experiential realities without much effort.
In 1956, Safiuddin went to London for higher studies and received a diploma in etching and engraving from the Central School of Arts and Crafts. The experience he brought back home would have a permanent impact on the language of his art. During his stay in London, he visited a number of museums across the Europe, interiorizing the methods that were in vogue. The fact that in London Safiuddin worked under the tutelage of Meluine Evans, a friend of Stanley Hayter, an innovator in the realm of modern printmaking, influenced his later works.
London provided him with a scope for learning copper engraving, a method through which he was later to redefine his pictorial space veering towards a disciplined way of organizing the elements. The near-abstract works had played a vital role in the rise of abstract expressionism in Bangladesh in 1960's.
During the liberation war of 1971, Safiuddin was confined to his Swamibagh residence. The indiscriminate killings by the Pakistani occupation troops and the subsequent organized resistance by the Bengali – all these left a decisive mark on his art. The gory details of the war had never been his métier as the concern for realistic representation was already behind him – he was more attuned to the aesthetics of symbolism through agglomeration of near-abstract references.
In Dumka he had lent a soul to the reality that he had been witness to. He was able to depict sublime views of nature in a way as if they were visions brought forth to attend to the Bengali psyche. The images were smallish but what each of them captured is an entire world in itself source as they do the vastness of natural views.
Stationed in Dhaka, Safiuddin eyes gradually became alive to the difference between the two Bengals in natural beauty. East Bengal and the profusion of greenery its countryside is blessed with was a source of pure joy for him, though he was a man born and brought up in Kolkata. He spent several years in honing his craft to get attuned to the specific colours and tints he would use in his paintings and etchings. The values of blue and green that came out of that meticulous search can be found in his oils.
Safiuddin was aware of the surge of folk art in the creative circle in Bangladesh back in the 1950's. But he did not get himself involved directly with the colours, lines, and elements of this form of art, rather he only interiorized some basic features and, avoiding what is often referred to as folksy, created a parallel, urban lore.
The style he adopted during his studies in London made it inevitable for him to take to images and symbols culled from reality in a manner akin to that of a composer – dealing with shards rather than representing things in their full corporeal presence. He continued with this semi-abstract method of art-making even after the independence. But the eye symbol which became a way for him to recall the days of 1971 first emerged in the 1960's. He used to draw images of fish and fishnets and also boats by emulating the shape of the eye. In the work titled Agitated Fish (1964) the eye of the fish expresses agony mixed with a strong sense of disapproval. In the 1980's, the eye motif re-emerged in his works titled Kanya, Ekushey Smarane, and Ekattorer Smriti, and later in a series of copper engravings titled Ekattorer Smarane.
Safiuddin has always been experimentally inclined to using such media as etching, aquatint, and metal engraving. This is best exemplified by the work titled Roar of Water (1985), in which all the techniques of printmaking meet, though the deep-etch method defines its contours and textures. He adopted the idea of creating ripples – appealing to the eye only in its pure form – from orchestra – an art form where layers of melody are made into one to create a harmonized landscape of sound.
His proverbial weakness for black, developed during his student years, has had a considerable impact on his art throughout his life. He considered black to be the king of colours. Early in his career, the Shealdah Railway Station in Kolkata provided him with an opportunity to test his ability to paint images where black takes the centre stage. The nightscapes he had done in 1930's and 1940's are the best examples of this obsession. Perhaps wood engraving offered him the most appropriate vehicle for him in this regard. His attachment to black has continued to date, often making him adamant to make the optimum use of such a difficult-to-handle hue. After the early years of his engagement as an engraver, when black had been his inevitable means of expression, Safiuddin, in his own words, could manage to match the success of that time of making black a deciding element of the imagery only as late as in the 1990's by producing a series of works over a period of three years. The satisfaction that he sought by effecting the magic imbued in that mute hue could only be found at the very end of his career. He named these works simply The Black Series.
Safiuddin's works manifestly brings into play his attachment to a spectrum of ideas and subject matters often linked with the tumultuous events of his time, though his takes give off a low-key sensibility and are always laid out on a visual grid of his own devise. In his work the reflexive subjectivity has been brought in alignment with the domain of the real understood through a nationalistic frame of reference. The Language Movement, the floods, victimization of people during subsequent military rules, and, most importantly, the nine-month War of Independence and the joy and agony resulting from them – all these have had a hold on his personality, colouring his mode of expression. Home, for him, was a nation struggling to make headway in the face of natural and man-made catastrophes. The inner life that had always been at a certain distance from the outside world throughout his life was the focal point through which the lives and events surrounding him were being negotiated. As the East and the West had united in his uniform language of expression so did the subjective and objective notions of reality. It is through the unrelenting juxtaposition of dichotomies that Safiuddin Ahmed has so far been able to carve out an artistic diction, thus successfully producing the ingredients of an auspicious career in the world he inhabits – his home, the deltaic land known as Bangladesh.
SYED AZIZUL HAQUE is a researcher and freelance writer,
and professor at the Department of Bangla, Dhaka
an indigenized ethos of recall
Safiuddin's wood engravings are sights of naturalistic intent – this line may throw some light on how the Ruskinian concept of observing nature from close quarters has been made into a creed by the urban middle-class whose humanity used to be judged against such craving – one that had sent many an artist into the direction of the rural/natural landscape to initiate a return to nature through artistic creations.
However, the word 'naturalism' does not fully capture the spirit of how Safiuddin Ahmed operated from within a conceptual frame expressing his urban thirst for the wilderness while remaining active under the influence of a 'gaze' that attempted to pay homage to nature's unbound beauty by effectuating what may be referred to as 'collective nostalgia'.
There is more than just 'idyllic romance' to his brand of naturalism – if this claim is to be given a valid foundation, one may starts to unpack the very ethos that makes these attempts at capturing life and nature in their most intimate relationship, which has been intrepidly explored by a number of practicing artists of Safiuddin's time and among whom Safiuddin was the most successful for his empathetic gaze and the sense of situatedness. How the starkness of the method of wood engraving instigated a retooling of naturalism, a concept brought into this land by its conquerors, the English elites, is a fact that can be read and re-read in Safiuddin's early nature-scapes as well as in his life-celebrating images.
He instituted an unearthing of an emotional link to a past that was never to be discovered through historiographic excavations. The mental thirst for such visual stimuli is connected to the nostalgia of the urbanites for a lost Eden – the rural/original turf. Safiuddin's images, thus, work like archeogeographies brought in through the process of memorializing the scenic beauty of a slowly disappearing rural Bengal.
The concept of naturalism, which is often accepted as a synonym for realism, was given a psycho-social dimension in these pictures of emotive force. Naturalism's much celebrated tendency of attempting verisimilitude to capture nature in its true appearance was one of the major goals of artists and writers of Safiuddin's era, which was, in the large part, instituted under the 'colonial gaze'. But, in Safiuddin's early naturalistic works one finds the Bengali gaze attending to the emotions of the capturer of the truth – one who usually is an inheritor of European naturalism. This hybridization is also obvious in the very method of execution, which, unlike the technique preferred by his European counterparts, based itself on the graceful delineation of silhouettes or employed a linearity which lent the images inverted rapture or emotional depth. The enabling tools that are the paraphernalia of the printmaking medium, a method of European origin, were used by Safiuddin to depict the natural splendour and the organic life of a people (Santals) in their immaculate state of existence. Thus, they become a way for him to transcend the method and create the exact imagery he envisioned as part of the regenerative process, creating sights/sites that spark recall.
Judging by how he cast a sensitive eye on Dumka, the region in the Santal District that provided a respite from the urban economic-social-existential matrix, and how the idea of the 'soil speech' is erected through the indigenized way of employing the European methods, Safiuddin's wood engravings instigate a contiguity that very few modern-day imagery of this region have been able to accomplish. His is an expressivity fitting to the 'tropical eye' and it is neither a way for the artist to apotheosize nature, nor is it a transgression by way of producing records for historiographic or archival reasons. As the wood engravings act as repositories of urban memory-inciting data, they create possibilities of returns to an imaginary past, surreptitiously occupying the wilderness of the mind.
The series on Dumka was executed between 1942 and 1945.