A requiem for Subir Chowdhury
The passing away of Subir Chowdhury was sudden. At the age of 61 he succumbed to neurological cancer on June 30, 2014, in Sydney, Australia, following his admittance to a local hospital while he was on an official visit to promote Bangladesh art. At home, artists and art connoisseurs alike, even before recovering from the shock, sharply felt the vacuum left by the death of the country's foremost art organizer – a man who had been an arbiter of mainstream aesthetic standard while deftly maneuvering in a burgeoning art market to advance the cause of art and artists. If one is to list the avenues through which he successfully intervened as a catalyzer, one must take into account his seminal role while he subsequently held the office of Deputy Director and Director at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy (BSA) in the past and recently as Director at Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts (BGFA), where he joined in 2004. In both organizations he left his mark of steermanship while planning and administering a range of art related activities, deciding rather intuitively to prioritize the living masters of modernism.
At BSA, the government organization he officially joined in 1975, where he was unofficially engaged since the year before following his graduation, his dream of becoming a mediator came true. He joined as a Deputy Director, and it was not until 1998 that he was promoted to the post of Director of the Fine Art Department due to bureaucratic indecision. Following his promotion, Subir had continued to juggle an array of tasks related to national and international level programmes till 2004, the year he left BSA. The projects he steered included the National Art Exhibition, Young Artists Exhibition, and most importantly, Asian Art Biennale, the last being an influential site for shape-shifters and the very first attempt on part of the nation at attracting international artists whose languages would have a lasting impact on the art scene.
Artist and writer Syed Jahangir, who joined BSA in 1977 as Director of the Fine Art Department and held the post till his retirement in 1991, puts Subir's character in a nutshell: 'He was a dedicated organizer, a workaholic who was very intelligent, yet very naïve. One who never said “no” to any tasks in challenging circumstances.' While reflecting on Subir's contributions, Jahangir feels that alongside the Asian Art Biennale, two of the most influential projects included the Mobile Art Exhibition and a series of publications on the modern masters of the country. 'He was always there to ensure that the projects were administered properly and had yielded the anticipated results; he worked with me assisting in every step of the way,' Jahangir adds.
Years after, when Jahangir retired and Subir was at the helm, again, at first unofficially, and later as director, he successfully demonstrated how to steerhead multiple projects, at least Jahangir's evaluation of the man testifies to such acumen.
How did Subir Chowdhury find himself at the centre of Bangladesh's artistic evolution? Since Subir's student years, he showed a marked inclination towards becoming an organizer rather than an artist. Young Subir, freshly out of school, secured admission to the Charu o Karukala College (now, Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University), in 1969. Artist Nasim Ahmed Nadvi, Subir's friend from student life and colleague at Shilpakala Academy, remembers how at the end of the 1st academic year Subir's character was already cast. Throughout the entire duration of the first year, they were under the tutelage of late Aminul Islam, who, following a successful yearend exhibition, asked his students to gather under the lichi tree to review the year's achievements. In the concluding session, Aminul Islam asked each student what they aspired to become, and Subir Chowdhury, without hesitation, announced that he would prefer to take a political course in order to promote art and artists, while others remained loyal to their goal of becoming an artist.
Subir Chowdhury was born in 1953 in Jamalpur in a well-to-do middleclass household. From early on his life was enmeshed in active politics. He appeared in the SSC exam from the jail. His friend Nadvi remembers how this particular fact made him inquisitive and eager to seek Subir out from amongst his co-students. Once confronted with Subir, Nadvi asked how it was that he had appeared in the exam while he was incarcerated. Subir, the tall and well built young man, replied in an offhand manner: both he and his elder brother were arrested as they were members of the student wing of the then Communist Party. Following their trials, 'Subir was sentenced to four months in jail with the additional execution of five betraghaat, or whiplashes. The latter was rescinded considering Subir's age. He was only a young boy then,' Nadvi recalls.
As he was busy advancing the cause of student politics while he was also immersed in cultural activism, Subir became known for his irregular attendance at the academy. His friends remember him as a young man always carrying pamphlets and posters under one of his arms, which effectuated a distinct gait.
Concurrently, he was working a job. 'Subir was employed by Sangbad, the intellectual bastion of the liberal left. As for his engagement at the BSA, Aminul Islam, their teacher, recommended him to the post of Deputy Director of the Fine Art Department,' recalls Nadvi who also adds that, 'The idea of Asian Biennale was broached by Subir. It had all begun when an invitation from the Indian triennial reached us. It was Subir who felt that BSA should have an event of that stature and scope.’ The idea stayed with him for a while and it was not until the capable headship of Syed Jahangir, who joined the academy's Fine Art Department two years later, that the actual event was planned and implemented and had its launch in 1981.
In the late 1990s, Subir got embroiled in the contentious issue of the national gallery, the first of its kind in Bangladesh, as he wrongly sided with artists and architects, involved as consultants, who thought that it was unwise to build it in Agargoan, several kilometers away from the planned Shilpakala Academy complex. His colleagues and friends as well as the then retired Director Syed Jahangir rued over the fact that an acquired land was relinquished and the National Gallery space was incorporated into the new BSA building that now stands next to where the former circular gallery once was. It stands like a mammoth construction, albeit not the best space configuration in terms of staging of art.
At the BSA, if Syed Jahangir had been known for his tidy and superlative organizing capacity, Subir represented an alternative – he was one who took to his task with the passion of a poet. At Bengal Gallery, this informal and poetic working principle had resulted in both advantages and disadvantages while the organization swelled into a corporate hub playing a key role in the nation's aesthetic evolvement and regeneration. Yet, his colleagues are unanimous on one crucial fact that, as a workaholic he had demonstrated how multiple projects are to be handled with poise, and 'no one is here who would be able to match that feat,' says Luva Nahid Chowdhury, Director of Bengal Foundation where Subir was made one of the trustees following his entry as Director of its maiden gallery.
Syed Jahangir puts it plainly: 'When he joined BGFA, only then could he show his talent for fierce and simultaneous activities which was impossible at BSA because of bureaucratic hurdles. Here he would be remembered for the exhibitions, workshops and even promoting young and striving artists of varied stripes.'
Since his marriage in 1977 to Rochita Sen Sharma, Subir Chowdhury, in his entire married life, had never been able to develop a strategy to give precedence to his family over work. Work was his first priority, though his only son and only daughter, whom he had left behind alongside many who are saddened by his sudden demise, have never been deprived of fatherly attention.
A life curtailed by death has many implications – both at personal and social-cultural levels. The man who always relied on ad-hoc strategies has certainly left behind some loose ends that stand to be taken care of by his inheritor(s) at BGFA. However, the fact remains, in the realm of Bangladesh art, will there be someone to carry forward the unfinished job of recognizing the new talents while paying equal attention to the established giants?
- DEPART DESK
Photographs courtesy of Bengal Foundation