Zainul Abidin (1914–1976)
Zainul Abidin (1914–1976) has been bestowed the illustrious title of Shilpacharya or literally the “National Master of Art”. He initiated the development of modern art in Bangladesh when he moved from Calcutta to Dhaka in 1948 after partition and formed the first art school, which achieved the highest echelon in teaching and is now the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University. Zainul Abedin has been a brilliant painter, an effective teacher and a fierce political activist. His pen and ink sketches of the 1943 famine in Bengal (that killed at lease 3 million people, due in large because of British mismanagement, food diversion and hoarding) shocked the World and showed the horrors of starvation and human suffering. This led to early shaping of his work into a realism style of painting. Zainul Abidin’s The Rebel Cow (1951) marks a high point of this style and activism, as through this painting he was portraying the sentiments of Bengalis in East Pakistan and a call for preservation of their language and culture, and ultimately freedom.
In 1951, Abidin went to study at the Slade School of Art in London, and visited galleries and museums in Europe, only to return back to his homeland where he found inspiration in the folk arts of Bengal. Abidin’s later works transcends the political into humanism that is timeless and cross cultural. He was fascinated by the strong and rebellious Santhal women of rural Bangladesh bordering India. He used them as muse and painted them profusely. In the mid 50’s to late 60’s, Abidin took a strong political stance in support of the Bengali language movement against its suppression and later for maintaining rights and culture of the Bengali people. In 1969, Abidin painted a colossal 65 feet long scroll painting titled Nobanno to celebrate the mass movement that eventually led to their independence. In 1970, following the devastating cyclone in which hundreds of thousands of people died, Abidin created another masterpiece titled Monpura, a 30 feet long scroll painting as a tribute to the people who lost their lives.
Zainul Abidin, along with a handful of like-minded teachers started a movement to preserve Bengali heritage and refocus modern and contemporary art on the roots of their culture, and to discourage copying of Western techniques and styles that inspired the new breed of artists. Abidin also recognized the importance and outreach of folk art and worked towards promoting and preserving it as an important part of the art milieu.
In summary, Zainul Abidin’s greatest contribution is perhaps in having the vision and foresight to develop and implement an arts program that has produced numerous artists of repute; from early pioneers like Quamrul, Sultan, Rashid and Kibria to the current cannon of globally recognized artists such as Monir, Shahabuddin, Kabir, Iqbal and Lipi to name a few.