Perhaps I am still alive to tell their tales through my painting

Perhaps I am still alive to tell their tales through my painting

Shahabuddin Ahmed is an internationally acclaimed Bangladeshi painter. In his semi-concrete paintings, the bold strokes create artistic vigor and a strong impression of velocity ingrained in the collective spirit of rural Bangladesh. He has exhibited his works in many countries across the world. In 1992, he was one of Fifty Master Painters of Contemporary Arts, an award given at the Olympiad of Arts, Barcelona. He was also awarded the Chevalier De L’ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Fine Arts and Humanities) by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Communication of France in 2014. In this interview, poet and translator Razu Alauddin engages him in a conversation about his long journey as an artist.
Self Potrait 2, Year: 1993, Oil on Canvas, 46X38 cm. Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
Razu Alauddin: Who was your drawing teacher?

Shahabuddin Ahmed: No one in particular.

Alauddin: Looking at your paintings, it seems that you had some training in drawing …

Ahmed: Let me explain this. When I was a child, my mother had found out that there were classes for children in the Art College on Fridays and Sundays, starting from 8:00am to11:00am. She took me there, to the Art College, which is now called Institute of Fine Arts under Dhaka University. She enrolled me in a course for children at Shamsunnahar Arts Building (Now Zaynul Arts Building). The admission fee was three takas, but this was a lot back then. I am talking about 1967. The rickshaw fair was only two paisa; so you get the idea. She didn’t inform my father about it. On the first day, when I entered the Institute, I saw two or three cars in the parking lot. Only the rich owned cars back then. I noticed that children were speaking in Urdu. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I clung on to my mother, feeling uncomfortable. I was wearing a half pant. Embarrassed, I said I wouldn’t go there. It seemed I wouldn’t be able to draw anything at all! But my mother made me go there. There was a house made of corrugated tin that looked like an antique of variegated colors. There was nobody inside except a lungi-clad man, the peon, who was sorting out some papers. I felt relieved seeing him—a man wearing lungi in such a place! Somebody said to us, “Please come in. You too, dear. Take this paper and pencil. Show us some drawing.”
Still life 1979 ,Water color 38X58 cm. Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
While I was drawing, they were talking to my mother who had already filled up the admission form. I looked over my shoulder. There were ten to fifteen children, and I was the only Bengali among them. I thought to myself, “Wow, such a big piece of paper!” There were many papers in all sorts of colors. They gave me a color box, too. I started drawing. I felt energetic.

Someone said, “Draw once again.” I drew once again. The man inspired me and gave me another piece of paper—a large one. I drew on such a big piece of paper for the first time in my life. “You are very good at drawing. One day you’ll be a good artist. See, all these boys and girls , they cannot draw even one picture properly over the whole week, whereas you’ve already drawn two pieces.” He introduced me to everyone. He was speaking in Bengali.

I started taking lessons there and was too excited to concentrate on my studies at school. After classes at the art school, I hung around and saw older students drawing, sitting somewhere in the open. This was the beginning of my interest in painting. One day the headmaster from the school rebuked me for my poor performance in school exams.
Janala 1984, oil on Canvas, 130X160 cm Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
Alauddin: So, on one hand you performed poorly in school exams, but on the other, you were doing well in painting classes. Interesting!

Ahmed: Yes. The headmaster once came to our house and informed my father about it. My father gave me a beating. But one day Hannan Bhai, the peon in the Art College, mentioned a date and said to me, “Shahabuddin, tell your parents to turn on the radio on this day. We’ve sent your paintings to Karachi.”

Alauddin: When did it happen?

Ahmed: Perhaps it was toward the end of 1968. I enquired to know further. He replied, “You tell them that we’ve sent two of your paintings for a national competition. The president will award the winner a gold medal on World Children’s Day.” Seven children were awarded in various categories, including painting and sports. I didn’t relay this to anyone in my family. What was the point? I thought. There was no way I was going to win. But I memorized the date. I pricked my ears when the radio was turned on that day. I found myself praying to Allah! Sarkar Kabir Uddin was reading the news. It was dinnertime but I couldn’t eat anything; I was restless. Kabir Uddin read some political news. Everyone left the dining table but I remained. Suddenly the news presenter announced: “Today is World Children’s Day. For his outstanding performance in painting, Shahabuddin Ahmed from East Pakistan has won the gold medal.”
Shikari 1984, Oil on Canvas, 162X132 cm.Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
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.
Toureaue II(Bull fight), 2006 Oil on Canvas, 130X162 cm. Image Courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation
Translated by Mir Arif