I climbed up to the table in excitement, jumping up and down that caused plates and glasses to fall on the floor. I started crying, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” But nobody heard the news except me. The plates smashed on the floor. What happened? Everyone rushed to the dining table, including our neighbors. I was not that good at studies and my father beat me up every now and then. So, nobody believed me and were rather asking if I had gone crazy.
I, too, started suspecting what I had heard. Some of them said, “We haven’t heard your name. We were listening, too.” Actually, nobody paid any attention. I was shocked. Only mother protested, saying, “He is not crazy. Something must have happened.” Next morning we saw Hannan Bhai running toward our home, having got off the rickshaw. He confirmed that I had won the gold medal. Everyone was so happy! SO was I!
Alauddin: What was the painting about?
Ahmed: Boat. The Buriganga river. But I never saw it again, not even when I went to receive the medal from Ayub Khan.
From then on, after classes at the Art College, I would closely observe the way artists were working on their canvases, artists such as Alvi (Abul Barak Alvi), a second year student then; Khaled Bhai (Syed Abdullah Khalid), sculptor of Aparajeyo Bangla, and many others. So, when I finally enrolled in the Art College, I was already far ahead of my peers in terms of technical knowledge. I could surprise my fellow students with my painting. Even my teachers were also surprised. I was passionate about my painting because I dreamed of becoming a Zaynul Abedin. I memorized every stroke of his painting.
Alauddin: Why did you take such a strong liking to Zaynul Abedin’s strokes?
Ahmed: Because of his rebellious, or its speed perhaps—the reason lies deeper than I could ever understand. I was equally drawn to his boats and pulling carts. So, I kept painting and dreaming that I’d meet him one day.
Alauddin: When did you meet him? Which year?
Ahmed: I went through a revolutionary period of our history. A lot of protests culminated in the Mass Uprising of 1969. Then came the Liberation War in 1971. I joined the war. We were given guerrilla training, but when we went to the frontline we saw a stark battlefield where people were dying every day. It seemed cinematic to me. If I hadn’t joined the war I would not have turned out like this; I would not have been able to draw those bold strokes and capture the velocity in my painting.
Alauddin: Speed is a perennial theme in your painting. It appears so boldly in your work.
Ahmed: I saw so many dead bodies during the war. I got used to seeing them every day. I ran across the battlefield. One day I was ambushed. But I was lucky and survived. Thousands of lives were lost in the war. Perhaps I am still alive to tell their tales through my painting.
So, getting back to the point, after the Liberation War, I was still cherishing my dream that Zaynul Abedin would call me someday. There was a program on BTV about the war, hosted by Belal Beg. I appeared in the program as a freedom fighter. He introduced me as a platoon commander which I really was. Zaynul Abedin watched the program and broke into tears. He sent someone for me right the next day. I was just waiting for this day.
Iqbal Bhai, the younger brother of famous children’s author Ekhlasuddin Ahmed, spotted me near the Art College next morning. He greeted me, saying, “Are you that famous Shahabuddin? Come, get on the rickshaw.”
“Where will I go?”
“Segun Bagicha, Zaynul Abedin wants to meet you.”
When I met him finally, I became emotional and touched his feet to show my respect. He broke into tears and called his wife to meet me. In an instant he realized how much I respected him! He was my guru. I learned the use of space in painting from him. He could simplify a painting so masterfully!
Alauddin: Yes, yes.
Ahmed: Simple, yet rich and contemplative. How could you make your expression better than his? He would teach me: Leave some space here. My hands would tremble in fear. But his teaching blessed my career.
Alauddin: You have seen works by the Bangladeshi artists. But who are your favorite artists outside Bangladesh?
SA: I like works by the impressionists. I was influenced by them. Particularly, I was influenced by Édouard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne. Among the classics, there were Francisco Goya, Eugène Delacroix, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Francis Bacon is one of the contemporaries whose painting has influenced me to change my palette so I could develop a particular style. The angst in his painting touches me.
RA: What about Pablo Picasso?
SA: Picasso’s Blue Period attracts me more than anything else. I like him but I was not influenced by him. I was involved with abstract painting from 1977-78. It seemed too easy to me. I couldn’t develop a taste for it.
RA: Among the living Bangladeshi artists and the ones who have already passed?
SA: After Zaynul Abedin, I like Quamrul Hasan’s works. Such a brilliant artist!
RA: His folk motifs?
SA: They are not folk in their nature—they are oriental motifs. His works of oxen—the later works of his career. But he was too influenced by Picasso, though he had an impeccable painting skill. I like the pre-Picasso period of his career. His colors of plantain trees are too beautiful. Then we have Sultan Bhai. His approach was so brilliant! He was innocent. Among the contemporaries, I like the works of Aminul Islam.