Partition, folk art and Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin
Both as a practitioner and an organizer, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) had been the driving spirit behind the modern art movement in Bangladesh. The discourses of the last 70 years, between 1943 and 2013, on this pioneer have hardly been adequate in scope and breadth to encapsulate fully the achievement of this modern master. Though his contribution to fine arts has been evaluated and acknowledged through numerous essays, articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines, and also through books, yet, there is always some relevance for contemplating Abedin from a new angle. Especifically, in the context of the socio-economic, cultural and political history of Bangladesh, Zainul Abedin's role and contribution can always be revised and reevaluated.
This treatise attempts to explore firstly, Zainul Abedin's role and ventures in the pre and post-partition Bengal alongside his connection with the folk arts unearthed through his reflections on and responses to them.
Partition of Bengal and Zainul Abedin
When the British, after a long colonial control from 1757 to 1947, took leave of this region, two different nations called India and Pakistan were created. Then again, Pakistan had two parts – West Pakistan and East Bengal renamed as East Pakistan. This partition broke apart Bengal, the habitat of the Bengali-speaking people, impacting significantly its socio-cultural, economic and political matrices and fine arts in particular. Dhaka, the capital of the then East Pakistan, was lacking in a proper infrastructure to promote artistic endeavour. It would not be an overstatement to assert that it had been mainly partition-related circumstances which led to the establishment of the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka that gradually developed into the nucleus of modern art in this country. Needless to say, the pre-eminent leading force behind the creation of this institute had been Zainul Abedin.
Long before this, in the year 1904, the Maheshwarpasha School of Art had been established in Khulna by Shashibhusan Pal (1878-1946). This had been the very first art teaching establishment in the Bangladeshi sphere, now affiliated as an institute with Khulna University. This institute in Khulna had lost its importance when, after the partition, the very first government-backed art learning institute was established in Dhaka. Zainul Abedin and his associate artists had to employ plenty of stratagems to activate this project. Before getting into his post-partition engagement in Dhaka, one should view Zainul's pre-partition artistic phase in Calcutta, now Kolkata.
As a young teacher of Calcutta Art School, Zainul gained fame for his drawings of the famine though his early reputation was built on watercolours. During the early twenties, he had been among the few artists from East Bengal who earned accolades at the all-India level, the only Muslim artist to have attained that. Undoubtedly, a magnificent and attractive artistic career was waiting for him in Calcutta. In fact,the process of steady progress had already started only to be interrupted by the partition of 1947.
Zainul Abedin returned to East Bengal ignoring the beckon of the tempting possibilities of Calcutta, now Kolkata. Not only that, but he, along with other artists like Quamrul Hassan and Safiuddin Ahmed, who were also educated at the Calcutta Government Art School and returned to Dhaka after the Partition, initiated the founding of an art institute here in Dhaka. The word 'returned' is applicable to Zainul Abedin only because he had gone to Calcutta from Mymensingh of East Bengal, whereas the others 'relocated', having originally hailed from West Bengal. Quamrul Hassan was born in Calcutta, his ancestral home being Bardhaman, and Safiuddin Ahmed was born and brought up in Calcutta, now Kolkata.
The idea of starting an Art Institute in Dhaka had been in Zainul's thoughts for some time. A writing of Aminul Islam says that when, in the May of 1947, he wanted to get admitted to the Government Art School of Calcutta, Zainul commpelled him to join the evolving Dhaka Art Institute.
It was not easy to establish a school of image making and sculpting in a state founded on the basis of a religion which discouraged these. To convince the contemporary ruling elite of West Pakistan on the importance of fine arts, he and his associates used a unique tactic. In the month of August 1948, on the first anniversary of the establishment of Pakistan, a poster exhibition was held in Dhaka, the subject matter of which had been a sort of running commentary or artistic documentation of history starting from the earliest Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent moving up to the inception of Pakistan. Two titans of the art world, Zainul Abedin and Quamrul Hassan played major roles in creating these posters. It needs to be mentioned here that the exhibition was organized mainly for the bureaucrats and high officials of the government directly invested with decision making power. Thanks to this display, the highest ranking administrative body of West Pakistan observed the practical applicability of art and realized its potential use towards promoting their self interest so that the establishment of an Art Institute became an easy next step. The Government Institute of Art was created in 1948 which is now an affiliate of the University of Dhaka as the Department of Fine Arts. It is believed that the history of modern art in this country synchronizes with the founding of this Institute and it continues to be an important hub of all fine arts related programmes and activities in this country, and yet, its birth, ironically, has been sullied by the motive of sycophancy through an exhibition of a non-aesthetic subject matter – a hundred posters aimed at glorifying and aggrandizing Islam and the state of Pakistan. The point I wish to make here is that there have been further examples in Zainul's life of this tendency of avoiding direct conflict to achieve his objective through strategic maneuvering. For example, at a time of the awakening of Bengali national consciousness centering the Language Movement, he organized a folk art* exhibition at the Art Institute to make the Pakistani ruling class and the general public aware of the rich culture and heritage of East Bengal.
When on returning from Calcutta Zainul Abedin and his group of artists were trying to create an academy of fine arts in Dhaka, they got help from some government sectors and a number of local intellectuals and connoisseurs of art. Zainul Abedin led this endeavour and yet, even before the Government Art Institute would start functioning, Zainul Abedin got appointed by the Central Government as the Art Designer of the Department of Publicity and had to accept the position. Then again, the government was also considering him for the post of the Principal of the Institute. On behalf of the government of East Bengal, the Assistant Secretary sent a letter to Zainul Abedin (DO Letter No 87-Edn) to which Zainul responded in seven days. Before presenting this response, let us cast a glance at the contents of the Assistant Secretary's letter.
Dear Mr. Zainul Abedin,
I write to inform you that the Government of East Bengal has been considering the question of appointment of a Principal for the Government Institute of Art , East Bengal, in the East Pakistan Educational Service and your name is being considered in this connection. The government of Pakistan has been addressed separately as to whether they would be prepared to release you sometime after in case you are finally selected for appointment to the post. Meanwhile, the Government desires to know whether you will agree to accept the appointment on the minimum pay in the East Pakistan Educational Service, and if not, what minimum pay in that service will you be prepared to accept in case you are selected for appointment to the post. I shall be glad to hear of your views in the matter at a very early date. (June 17, 1948)
Zainul Abedin's answer to this letter is intriguing and significant. After the appropriate expressions of thanks and references, he wrote-
… I am glad to hear that the Government of East Bengal is considering me for the principalship of the proposed Institute of arts in Dacca. As you know I have dedicated my life to the cause of fine arts and it will be a unique opportunity to associate myself with an educational institution of the kind proposed to fulfill that mission. (Karachi, the June 24, 1948)
In the same letter he points out ‘… I believe you are aware that I am in receipt of Rs 700 p/m in the scale of Rs 700-50-1000. I naturally expect that the Government of East Bengal will give me the pay which I am in receipt under the central Government, if not the scale.’
And then he added, ‘If the Government does not see their way to agreeing to this I am prepared to accept even Rs 500 p/m only in consideration of the fact that I shall have the opportunity of serving the educational interest of my province in the sphere of art. I am sure the government will appreciate the sacrifice….’ (Karachi, June 24, 1948)
This simple formal government letter acquaints us with Zainul Abedin's selfless devotion and conscious dedication to the people of East Bengal, our present Bangladesh and towards the promotion of formal art education in this region. And that is why it can be considered as an important document pertaining to the history of art in Bangladesh as well as from a biographical point of view.
The letter under consideration has made us reflect and strengthened our belief in how he prioritized this country and her people over his personal interests. One may get an idea of Zainul Abedin's financial state in post partition Dhaka from the following account of Aminul Islam:
In those days, financially Mr. Abedin was not that well-off. While in Calcutta, he could sell some of his paintings side by side with his teaching job. Some income was also generated from the illustrations and cartoons he had been drawing for different papers, magazines and from designing book covers. Almost all the possibilities of such income were absent in Dhaka, in a new formed state. …. And still he used to get some work by keeping in touch with some publishers in Banglabazar, though they were mostly for school texts and the fees for each of these would be Rs 20 to 25 only and that too had to be obtained through days of solicitation.
At a time when the situation was like this, he left a permanent and lucrative job and expressed his desire for a lesser paying position as the Principal of a newly founded or just proposed Government Art Institute, just by taking into consideration the interest of the people of East Bengal and the need for promoting art education in this region. Definitely, for all of us this is an example worthy of emulation.
Zainul Abedin and the art of the majority
Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin's inclination and affection for the arts of rural East Bengal, found in various different genres which are often clustered under the rubric 'folk art' by the urban educated minority, is a well known fact. But how and what circumstances created this urge might be a compelling issue to discuss. In this context it is worth presenting before readers an article published about sixty years back. The magazine was the monthly 'Mahe-Nao' and the article appeared in August, 1954, in the fifth issue of its sixth year.
The title was The Heritage of Art and Craft of East Bengal and Zainul Abedin and the writer was Syed Nuruddin, a renowned poet and journalist and a posthumous recipient of the Ekushey Padak for journalism in 1983. Besides being a journalist, he was also an art enthusiast and the aforementioned article is an excellent example of that. In spite of its great relevance and significance, the article did not receive much publicity or exposure and in consideration to that, a substantial part of that article is being presented here.
The article sheds light on the issue of cultural memory: 'Many will agree to the fact that the heritage of arts and crafts in East Bengal had gone through fragmentation or decadence because long time subjugation by a colonial power saps away the natural vitality from every aspect of life of a nation, including the field of art, turning it inane, parasitical and shallow. The same thing happened in Calcutta. As for East Bengal, for a long time there has not been any known artistic activity of some worth. The artists of East Bengal sought refuge in Calcutta and for the sake of livelihood, drew pictures that belonged neither to the east nor the west of Bengal.'
Syed Nuruddin also reflects on the problems that arise out of the sense of displacement. He writes, 'But there has been a stream of indigenous culture of East Bengal which has been flowing continually from the distant past to the present times. That stream consists of the folk arts of this region and if we are in search of the true cultural heritage of East Bengal, the only place to find it is in this domain of traditional practices of the common people. What is more important in this is the vibrancy, the mutability of these traditional practices. They have nurtured themselves by gathering the flavour and the beauty of their surrounding and have added new forms, designs and symbolic constructs accordingly. Surprisingly, some local students of foreign portrait painters have gone to the extent of censuring folk art as coarse, formless and pointless scribbles of the inept hands of the rustic and uncivilized, showing at best the attributes of totem, but definitely not art.'
Then he aptly closes in on the vital cultural trajectory of the land, 'We can say that the folk arts of East Bengal are our only dynamic art form. We lost our connection with this legacy because our educated middle class has slowly turned into parasites, being grafted from the native soil and growing in a strange half local and half alien urban setting. On the other hand, we could not even sustain the strain of our city culture either, resulting in a sort of ignorance and insensitivity towards art. This is more acutely felt in the cities of East Bengal where the middle class society is least interested in artistic activities.'
While considering such unfortunate state of affairs, the writer has marked out Zainul's liberating role through these words, ‘The person who delivered the Muslims of East Bengal from this miserable mental destitution, this barren stagnation, happens to be the artist Zainul Abedin.’
He has described the contemporary scene in the following way: 'Finally, through Zainul Abedin, something exceptional happened for the first time. It was as if we discovered for the first time the true aesthetic image of our country and her people. The word aesthetics is being used here in a general way. It encompasses a panoramic vision of our society, on one side its endless struggle for existence, its sorrows, hardships, strength, love, indifference, and on the other, the features of our landscape, the interplay of the colours of the sun and the clouds on the fields and farms, the sudden or gradual bends of the wide rivers, the two tender lines of the boat – everything about East Bengal was captured for the first time in the drawings of Abedin.'
Nuruddin's discussion continues to analyze extensively the contemporary milieu surrounding Zainul's evolution culminating in a robust maturity. He wrote: By following Zainul Abedin's artistic development, it is possible to gather some ideas of the problems and solutions to this field of art. Abedin came from the countryside of East Bengal. After overcoming a lot of hurdles and misfortunes, he came to Calcutta Art School. He did not lose heart even when he had to go hungry or half fed, spending his nights on the park bench or under the porch of a mosque. While this shows a clear picture of the society, it also exemplifies the unyielding determination of Abedin's character. This tenacity possibly would not exist in a city-bred middle class boy. In no time Zainul Abedin proved himself to be the best student of the Art School and won gold and silver medals as well as medals from the Governor and Governor General. He became the subject of animated discussions among groups of famous artists and critics. He was appointed as a teacher of the institution even when he was still a student there. At that time Abedin went on painting in large numbers- in the impressionistic vein as well as in water colour, bringing to life the Brahmaputra and her sandbanks, travelling every year to the countryside and the Santhal districts of East Bengal, returning with prolific amounts of art work. There was a time when it was said in Calcutta that nobody could ever match Abedin's drawing output in terms of number. The fame he gained as an artist at home and abroad was due to this tireless toil and total dedication.
So, he gained renown at home, received accolades abroad, and yet his thirst for excellence was not quenched. To quote his own words, ‘I never felt content by the external features of an object and was always agitated about discovering the essentials that lay at the core.’ His problem seemed to be how to eliminate the redundancies from his subject.
Then came the famine of 1943. The artist kept on sketching the roadside images of this gruesome human suffering, the dramatic quality of which showed him the way out of some of his artistic limitations. These sketches had to be done on plain paper using just a thick paint brush and ink. As a result, the artist's energy, coupled with his unparalleled inflection of depth on the one hand and his amazing control on the other found expression in these works. There were no shades, no effort to disturb the surface, no needless detail to clutter the picture plane – just a few lines went into achieving the right effect. They exhibited not a grain of sentimentality and no naturalistic detail, but only the bare signs of human consternation. Some have compared the famine sketches of Abedin with Goya's Desastros de la guerra. In these sketches nothing but a thick brush has been used to create the effect of volume or thickness. Though oriental tradition of pure lines has been fully utilized by Abedin, the object was to give it a realism akin to that of the European masters such as Rembrandt. His natural inclination has always been towards following his own project – thus the method was always in accord with the intent rather than a predetermined technique of representation.
From this, we can see Zainul Abedin's initial disinterest in photographic realism. So he moved towards a more challenging path, setting his face away from re-duplication, conformity and representational art forms. He pondered over the great divide between the emotion-laden painting of the farmer of Millet and the representation of the farmer's persona through the intense lines of Van Gogh and Daumier. In the hand of the impressionists, design loses its importance.The lines get superseded by colour. According to the impressionists, any representation of life or thought does not require any explanation. Therefore, it is no surprise that Zainul Abedin would reject his link with these artists. This is when he went to England and had exhibitions of his paintings and also in some other cities in Europe. The rave reviews that he received might have been the cherished dream of any artist anywhere.
Surprisingly for everyone who had known him, prior to his visit to England, for almost four years, Abedin had almost given up painting. He was not enjoying the continuation of the old realistic style, feeling the pointlessness of being mere eyes to life for which a camera is more suitable. During this period of inactivity, he was gathering the courage and materials to move along the novel and yet time tested path he had discovered, executing his drawings of the famine.
The return from Europe initiated a new phase in Zainul Abedin's life as an artist. He started his creative activity at his usual prolific speed, having as his base East Bengal's cultural heritage. Abedin is not a revivalist, nor does he allow western influence to inhibit his art extensively. He has gained astounding success by making symbolist use of our folk life and folk arts. The use of these symbols does not contain the sentimentality of nineteenth century nationalism. His daring use of eloquent designs and suggestive colour exemplifies not only his great creative strength, but also the amazing transformative dimensions of our folk culture. Abedin collected his motifs from our embroidered quilts, our designed cakes, dolls only to add new connotations to them which are relevant and meaningful for an understanding of the contemporary social concepts.
This analytical discussion of Syed Nuruddin is of great significance in the context of Zainul Abedin's artistic trajectory. From this we can see that on his return from the European tour (1951-1952), he became a great enthusiast of the folk arts of East Bengal and its impact on his art works can be noticed in his choice of subject matters in some of the most important paintings of this period like, Painya's Mother (1953), Two Women (1953), The Village Woman (1953), The Bride with the Mirror (1953), Pulling the Boat, (1954) Bride Carrying Pitcher, (1954) and Family (1956).
Zainul has asserted that as a student he was quite interested in the western conceptions of art and culture. At the Government Art College he diligently studied and acquired those skills. But, soon after the partition his mind was focused completely on founding an art Institute in Dhaka and the experience of his European tour encouraged him to turn his attention to indigenous art. So he devoted himself to a modernized adaptation of the local artistic elements for crafting his own special field of art. (Something to note in this connection is a fact that with a few exceptions, all his students who had gone to Europe in the fifties and sixties, spontaneously took up Western Abstraction, showing very little interest in the local culture.)
It was not just the foreign experience, but the contemporary political situation which might have worked as a significant catalyst in formulating Zainul's artistic stance. In 1974, he made the following statement in an interview taken by Nazrul Islam:
…The British rule came to an end. Came to Pakistan, the capital of East Pakistan, Dhaka. Felt the social ferment – the agitation revolving round Bengali language, Bengali culture and may be subliminally it took root in my thoughts. I felt the urge to uphold our own culture, to set ourselves free from western influence and reject the control of our culture by West Pakistan – and so, this aspect of my artwork emerged as, may be a rebellion, a strength even unknown to myself. My paintings are nature, human and subject oriented and the source of their form and hues lies deep within the cultural heritage of this country and their inspiration comes from the local customs and traditions.
Zainul Abedin employed his art as well as other activities to attract the attention of his audience to his cause and one such effort had been organizing exhibitions of folk arts. Possibly it was for the first time, in 1955 the folk arts of East Bengal were collected, first at a local and then provincial level, for an exhibition of folk arts in Dhaka. It was held at the Segunbagicha Government Art Institute organized by the Pakistan Arts Council, though we can imagine Zainul Abedin's role behind the materialization of this government project.
His great interest, respect and love for folk culture is reflected in another unconventional event when the son of the notable Pal family of Rayerbazar, Maranchand Pal came to the Art College and was given a teaching job in the department of ceramics. Needless to say, it was possible only through Zainul's enthusiasm for this local art form.
As a continuation of this, in post independence Bangladesh, he planned the establishment of an Artist Village in Sonargaon, close to the city of Dhaka, mainly for the promotion of folk culture. His aim was to provide the folk artists with residence, work place and sales and marketing facilities. The project came into being in 1975 and is known as Bangladesh Folk Arts Foundation, though it remains questionable how much of its purpose has been met in later times. Zainul has explained this devotion in the following words:
Placing art on a solid foundation gives me more pleasure than the happiness I derive from my own paintings. Compared to my own artistic success, I get a more profound satisfaction creating a space to generate more artworks by others. Because this is the place that nurtures the makers of Beauty, through them Beauty is conceived and takes birth. Compared to that achievement, how negligible would my single act of beauty or nobility seem! I do not believe in ‘Art for art's sake’. I believe in its human connection.
He also said, ‘A decent, cultured, honest and aesthetic life should be as desirable as affluence. I reiterate this over and over again that our present state of destitution is more about our lack of refinement than physical starvation and we must overcome that.’
I would draw my conclusion by borrowing once more from Syed Nuruddin's statement made in 1954, ‘Abedin has retrieved the dormant aesthetic sensibility of the middle class of East Bengal. He has opened our eyes to the neglected but vibrant wealth of our folk art. He is not just a great artist, but our mentor too.’
Translated by SITARA JABEEN AHMED