Syed Jahangir on Novera
SYED JAHANGIR was a contemporary and a friend of artists Hamidur Rahman and Novera Ahmed. This interview is an outcome of a conversation on Novera Ahmad that took place at his home.
Shakhawat Tipu: How did you come to know Novera Ahmed?
Syed Jahangir: I met Novera through Hamidur Rahman, who was my friend. I joined the Art College as he was graduating from second year to the third. Then he went to Slade School of Art in London for further studies. Hamidur returned to his homeland after finishing his studies in 1956. We used to meet regularly. He lived in the old part of Dhaka. Their passion for food was legendary. Which made his home a popular haunt for friends. On one ocassion I came across a bare-chested man dressed in dhuti with another saffron one thrown over his shoulders, with long locks of curly, oiled hair. Hamidur introduced him as S M Sultan, an artist. Sultan expressed his wish to come to my studio to see my works. This ensued a close frindship between Hamidur and I. In a few days, he bagged his commission for the Shaheed Minar.
Tipu: In which year?
Jahangir: That was 1956 circa. Mr Jabbar was the chief engineer of the Public Works Department. It was an undertaking of PWD. Hence, Hamidur Rahman was responsible for carrying out the official paper works with relevant government bodies. Hamidur Rahman was working on murals. Novera was his friend. They met in London. On returning, they jointly began working on the Shaheed Minar project. Aminul Islam and I used to often visit them. So would Qayyum Chowdhury. As they embarked on building the structure, I remember, they first built the platform and then the steps with clay. The pillars that were given form with small wooden stumps determined the template for the preliminary design.
Tipu: Who was the main initiator, Novera or Hamidur?
Jahangir: It was Novera. Because she was a sculptor. It was easy for her to conceive the dimension, the material. But of course, with the help of Hamid. Hamid was eqally adept at the techniques, the contents. Though it was a combined effort, Hamid was involved with the construction, however, Novera came up with the actual design. We made the onlookers as well as discussants. The actual work began much later after receiving the prerequisite permission. They initially planned to place stained glass between the pillars, the way it is seen in churches. They also thought of creating a white platform. When the sun would pass from behind the stained glasses, they would leave their reflection upon the raised platform. But in reality, in daylight the colours stopped short of projecting onto the ground. As a result they relinquished that plan. After the revocation, they built the iron structure. This is the original story.
Tipu: How was the abandoned structure like?
Jahangir: They built a basement. There were steps leading down to it. There were a number of rooms. The walls were decked in murals. There were also a few relief works. Hamid and Novera consorted in creating these. Hamidur had learnt the craft of mural from abroad. They no longer exist. The Pakistani army vandalized these. When the work on the Minar was resumed in later years, the basement had not been built. Only the base and the pillars remain.
Tipu: Does the geometric form the Minar retains bear any similarity with that of the original design?
Jahangir: I would say the form was the same. Subsequently, Mustafa Monwar added the sun made in red fabric. The reason being, during the nightly events, the sun on the national flag would be symbolically irradiated with the help of a light from behind. It is hard to say, if they would have approved of this if alive.
Tipu: How do you view Novera's art?
Jahangir: Novera was a creative artist. Moore-ian influences can be significantly traced in her works. Henry Moore bored holes into his sculptures, guiding the sight from one end to the other, furnished three-dimensionality by breaking down the fundamental convention of sculpture. The hole opened up to the space outside. What Novera did with this technique is important. There was a gentleman who traded in jute, most likely by the name of M R Khan, she built a sculpture inside the compound of his house. I saw it back then. A man riding a bullock. In many of her other works, one can detect a distinctiveness despite an apparent resemblance with Henry Moore's style.
Tipu: Where can we locate Novara's originality?
Jahangir: The singularity of Novera's work is irrefutable. The figures that appear in her works are rooted in the culture of Bangladesh. Mother with a child, a woman chafing paddy, these figures are quintessentially local. It is not that she was working with Western themes, they spring from this very soil. Yet, her style is Western and modern. That particular period saw very little of such modern works. Even in comparison to current slew of sculptures, her works remain more compact, thoughtful, provocative and modern.
Tipu: I saw a catalogue from the 50s. There were some paintings with these forms. Generally, the forms of paintings are assimilated in sculptures. Then the question is, why did Novera's sculpture become so significant?
Jahangir: I have not seen all of Novera's works. But if we look into her history, Novera had been Hamidur Rahman's partner. Let me regale an incident from 1954, I was the first artist in Pakistan to acquire a fellowship to America. The fellowship offered by Ford Foundation went by the name of Leader Specialist Exchange Brand. It was a three month programme. I was visiting many a gallery. I exhibited in Philadelphia, as well as in Washington DC. During my exhibition in Philadelphia I ran into Hamidur Rahman on the street. I asked to know how he happened to be there. He replied it was a scholarship that brought him to Philadelphia. The scholarship was based on a higher education programme on murals. Hamid asked me where I lived. I mentioned a hotel nearby. Hamid proposed that I moved in with him in his single-room rental. I spent the next month in that room with Hamid. As I was leaving he divulged that he had left Novera in a rented house in Baily Road, bought her a car, hired a chauffeur, and a helping hand. Asked me to look out for her. So, I did pay her a visit. Novera was quite startled to find me at her doorstep. She could not have imagined I would go to see her. She asked me to wait as she went away to change. She was working and was in a disheveled state. She did not want to show herself like that. Later, I found out she was working prolifically. In spite of being a woman she was capable of hard work. There were large pieces of sculpture inside the room. They were exhibited at a latter stage. They were remarkable. In 1960 I went back to West Pakistan. Because paintings did not sale here. And I was a professional artist. I used to run my family by selling works of art. West Pakistan was the capital. It housed the embassies, which provided me with a clientele. To be able to grab the ready market there would not go amiss. My girl friend wanted to visit Novera who had just arrived there. She informed me that Novera was also a dancer. And that Novera wanted to survey the floors of the house she had rented. I came to know then that Hamidur Rahman had assigned Muhammad Ali to look after her. Muhammad ali, most likely was then the sub-editor of Asia Weekly. Muhammad Ali soon whisked Novera off to Lahore. To come back to the story, Novera was inspecting the floor by rubbing her feet over it to find out if it was level. Whether it was conducive for dancing. At that time Faiz Ahmed Faiz was the Secretary of the Art Council. He organized an art exhibition by Novera. Which I have not seen. Because I had already left for Rawal Pindi.
Tipu: Can we tagline Novera a modern sculptor of East Bengal?
Jahangir: Of course we can. First modern sculptor. And I believe there have not been any sculptors to date comparable to her. Most of the works by contemporary sculptors are derivative, or imitative all together. In their forms, art, artist, contents, object all collapses.
Tipu: What you call modern, is it in terms of subject, object or both?
Jahangir: Modern in both these realms. As a whole, which includes form, material and concept, all point to the 'modern'. I find similarity with Novera's forms in that of the local terracotta dolls, lodged in the traditions of the folk stream.
Tipu: Could we see any sign of nationalism?
Jahangir: The materials she used following in the footsteps of folk tradition, we might say evinced nationalist tendencies. I remember from my childhood days the dolls I saw, earthen boats affixed with wheels at the bottom, painted in red and white, which could be pulled with a string attached to it; there were clay horses mounted by human figures, though two legged- these were made by the caste of pals (potters). She played with forms like these in her own sculptures, now kept in the museum. What is discernible in these sculptures could be identified as formal/linguistic allegiance to Henry Moore.
Tipu: What made Novera leave Bangladesh?
Jahangir: This can happen with any artist in question. She was with Hamidur Rahman for a long time. Muhammad Ali accorded her wide publicity. He being an educated journalist, launched her on an international level. Novera preferred Muhammad Ali over Hamidur Rahman. Then she left Muhammad Ali to travel to India to learn dancing. From there she moved to Paris. It is not likely that one would take these successive events into account. This is one's private life.
Tipu: Why did a kind of myth build up around Novera?
Jahangir: It is a recent development without precursors. There was no hullabaloo. And a dirth of writings. Government of Bangladesh wanted to honour her with the Ekushe Padak while she was in Paris, which she refused. It is no trivial matter that one would reject a national accolade. I believe, it was since then that people began slowly to take notice, and dialogues brew up around her. Following which a book on Novera saw the light of day.
Tipu: Was it of any consequence to not have her in Bangladesh?
Jahangir: Perhaps, if Novera remained here she might have contributed a lot more to our cultural capital, With a greater number of iconic sculptures. On the other hand, she might have been more of a passive agent, confined to the run-of-the-mill. Again, the works she carried out during her self-exile adduces that her artistic spirit was always at play.
Tipu: Has there been any significant development in the domain of sculptures, post-Novera?
Jahangir: I would not say there has been. The one notable that was executed was based on the Liberation War, situated on the campus of the University of Dhaka, that too of a realistic form. Its sentimental value far out-weighs that of its sculptural valence.
* Artist Syed Jahangir was born on January 2nd, 1935 in Shatkhira (in the Northern part of Bangladesh). An alumnus of Dhaka Art College, he participated in 35 solo national-international exhibitions. He clinched a number of national-international awards in recognition of his achievements in painting. Over a span of over five decades of his career he produced a repertory of over 9,000 art works.