Qayyum Chowdhury : Illustrating with style
An eminent painter, a graphic designer, a teacher, a master– all these epithets veritably belong to Qayyum Chowdhury. From 9th March to 4th April 2015, Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts and Kali O Kalom, a monthly magazine of arts and letters, jointly hosted Qayyum Chowdhury – Selected illustrations from Kali O Kalam, an exhibition commemorating this iconic figure, whose sudden passing away left a vacuum in the cultural life of Dhaka, the city that nourished him. The significance of 9th March is that, on this day this remarkable human being would have celebrated his 83rd birthday!
The illustrations showcased in the exhibition disbursed in two separate venues– Bengal Lounge and Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts – are a survey of his signature style during the final years in the artist's life. Published in the magazine over the years, these illustrations, much as they are based on the respective poems, stories or novels are also true expressions of Qayyum Chowdhury's vision. Collectively they represent patriotism, traditionalism distilled through the urban psyche, having accomplished a creative bridging of the realms of art and literature. Many of the illustrations contain folksy motifs, some aspects of which reflect – his own mannered way of re-forming the traditional designs – the consequence of the much celebrated deterritorialization of the rural. Human form also seems to have gone through a transformation in his hands, and the prominence of figural motifs is quite notable in many of the works.
In the poems he illustrated, Qayyum Chowdhury used pastel strokes combined with line drawings in pen or colour pencil with no more than two or three different hues and very few elements to portray the theme of a poem; whereas some of the other poems sport single lines and dots in black or blue ink creating perhaps a windblown coconut tree or his signature snail shaped clouds. One or two poems also contained the drawings of a menacing snake or crocodile. His illustrations of stories or novels boast brighter colours. These were painted with an assortment of poster, water and pastel colours. Less lines and dots are seen, and bolder, vibrant images take over. He used both primary and mixed colours to represent folk art in a modern context. Some of his illustrations are even composed with stylized writings, a few of which blend alongside his iconic leaves, birds and designs.
Other illustrations stand in stark contrast to his single line drawings. Black poster colour fills up the background interspersed with little white space where the silhouette of a person's face peers out. Many of his illustrations are a playful rivalry between black and white; when black dominates the scene is overcast with despondence, conversely when white takes over air, open space and tranquility of nature shines! Pen sketches are a vital part of a few illustrations as well. Markers or brush strokes bring out the main objects of the drawings, and the pen strokes silently detail the background and make the key elements stand out. Some of these elements are two or three dimensional figures and others are quasi-magical waves or squiggles. Qayyum Chowdhury's illustrations and paintings possess a certain lyrical charm that truly conveys his commitment to a cultural crosspollination possible while situating oneself within the axis of nationalism. With their strong presence construed through the linearity and legibility, his works easily permeated the urban imaginary, as, since the beginning of his career in the publishing industry in the 1960s, he set in motion a sequence of stylized representations of the bucolic. His illustrations show both structure and non-structure, representing the artist's search beyond the contemporary to arrive at a symbolic infusion of the timeless and the formless. People, at times, are hasty in labeling such masters as cubist or other western categories to determine their antecedents and to place them within the great trajectories of artistic tradition, but Qayyum Chowdhury was true to his own saying – he once remarked that, 'I do not feel my work can really be approximated with folk motif in the real sense of the term.' This was in an interview with Shawon Akand in 1999. One must conclude he was devoted simply to discovering his hopes and dreams through making art in a formal language distinctively his own with clear references to bucolic life.
Qayyum Chowdhury’s contributions to Kali o Kalam.
PHOTO COURTESY: BENGAL FOUNDATION