Politics and society are inseparably connected

Politics and society are inseparably connected

Rafiqun Nabi is a prominent Bangladeshi painter and cartoonist. Currently a professor of Drawing & Painting at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, he has contributed immensely in taking art closer to the public. He is a formidable painter. In his painting, he transforms the mundane into a colorful realm of its own. He is most widely known for his series cartoon, Tokai, a street urchin in rags who satirically ridicules the system, highlighting the contradictions that we put up with every day on the city streets. In this riveting interview with poet and translator Razu Alauddin, he talks about many aspects of art and politics.
Razu Alauddin: Do you think that too much involvement with politics might make an artist compromise his/her art?

Rafiqun Nabi: Well, it depends.

Alauddin: The question remains if too much politics in art or literature falls short of artistic standard.

Nabi: It can happen. Francisco Goya produced romantic painting. He used all the romantic techniques of the time in them. Again, when he depicted political issues of his time, his works never fell short of artistic standards. The same hand produced both. Politics didn’t eclipse his artistic self. Zaynul Abedin’s sketches on the Bengal Famine were once evaluated politically, but now we have realized that they meet artistic standards to their fullest. All the elements of art—providing ample space, drawing in black ink, arranging composition—are there in his sketches, with impeccable mastery of applying them deftly. Looking at them, you can also realize what the true expressions of the famine-stricken people were. The illustrative aspect is also there, but again all of this is achieved by his artistic mediation. Quamrul Hasan was also a politically conscious artist like Zaynul Abedin.
Fallen vase – Still life, Oil on canvas, 150X140 cm-2002 Images courtesy DBF
Alauddin: You’ve also followed in their footsteps. So have Shahabuddin Ahmed and Murtaza Bashir.

Nabi: Yes. Talking about Quamrul Bhai, he developed a distinct skill, which separated him from the others. That is why when you see a painting by Quamrul Bhai, you immediately recognize that this is his work.
Rooster, Oil on Canvas, 92X77 cm- 2006 Images courtesy DBF
Alauddin: So distinct!

Nabi: He also cherished romanticism. His works are very powerful. His genius in drawing or painting can only be compared to Zaynul Abedin or for that matter, to any Western artist of great prominence. As far as politics was concerned, he believed in the need for a different medium, a different language when talking about politics or contemporary issues in art. He realized that this should be done through cartoons and posters, because there you can express yourself more directly and produce immediate, slogan-like effects. But he didn’t apply it to his painting. Perhaps there were some hidden elements of politics in his paintings, but in them he solely focused on achieving the artistic standard. Francisco Goya and Zaynul Abedin saw politics from the same angle.

Alauddin: If we look into your works …

Nabi: Perhaps you’ll find the same in my cartoons. My approach to politics in cartoons has a lot in common with Quamrul’s. I was in school in the 1950s. In the 1960s, I enrolled in what was then known as Art College. Ayub Khan, a military dictator, rose to power. He started terrorizing the citizens of East Pakistan. Our cultural identity was also under attack. Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and poems were banned from government media. Since the Language Movement, we had been fighting for our identity that culminated in the Liberation War of 1971. In the 1960s, I learned how politics works in time, space and in a country. It was a decade of my political realization. I learned how to bring out a rally and the kinds of posters that should go with it. I learned how to draw a poster with caricatures of political personalities. Newspapers didn’t publish them. I had basically produced those cartoons as part of my exercise.
Ronobi Tokai, Drawing 42X28 cm- 1983 Images courtesy DBF
Alauddin: You were still a student back then.

Nabi: I was. I concentrated on sticking up posters and made them look as cartoon-like as possible. We couldn’t just say that our political demands should be met. We had to portray our demands in an interesting way before the public, so they could also understand and support our cause. This was the beginning of my journey as a cartoonist.

Alauddin: If I am not mistaken, you started drawing cartoons for Abdul Gani Hajari’s Kalo Pyanchar Diary. There you published your drawings for the first time.

Nabi: Only drawings. He asked to me to send something, and so I did. It was during this period that I did some gag cartoons. They were humorous, not political. Back in those days in erstwhile East Pakistan, it was a suicidal decision for a newspaper to publish cartoons reflecting political issues. Morning News, the only government-sponsored English daily in East Pakistan, published political cartoons. I knew their only cartoonist, Aziz. Zaynul Abedin had introduced me to him. But they only published Aziz’s cartoons on political tension between India and Pakistan. They didn’t publish cartoons highlighting the socio-cultural issues of East Pakistan. Since he was from West Pakistan, he supported Ayub Khan’s regime. But I didn’t do so. I was rather inspired by Quamrul Hasan who in one of his posters referred directly to Ayub Khan with this caption: Kill this butcher.

Alauddin: This poster was very effective during the Liberation War.

Nabi: Yes, it made us aware of the restive political situation. One of the most important aspects of our country is that people from the lowest rungs of our society also keep an eye on politics. They know what’s happening around them. Like them, we, the artists, are also aware about our political reality. But we don’t bring them to the fore in our paintings. For example, I did an exhibition titled Tokai (street urchins). They were not cartoons. They were just tokais from real life. There was no dialogue, only the drawings. But you can also find politics there. There you can see: A wide city street, a barricade by police and some forsaken sandals. Politics is not entirely visible. But you can ask: Why this barricade? Why the sandals? What happened to the owners of these sandals? These were inspired by politics.

Alauddin: Expressed through symbolism …

Nabi: One does not have to be too direct about it. If we think politically, we can see that politics and society are inseparably connected. They depend on each other. This is what I think. But being too direct about it might strip it of fun or the intended effect.

Alauddin: You started your famous series Tokai for Bichitra in 1987, right?

Nabi: No, in 1977-78.

Alauddin: You depicted the socio-political issues of Bangladesh through this series.

Nabi: Yes, from socio-political angles. I didn’t have to rack my brain for this. Some of Tokai’s expressions came instantly to me because that’s how abruptly they speak in real life. I just became his mouthpiece. I also became a tokai. Our people understood it directly. And this character was widely accepted.

Alauddin: In your internationally-acclaimed book, Shilpikatha, you have elaborately discussed works by many of our prominent artists. You have shed light on their techniques. It dawned on me that you haven’t made an elaborate discussion about SM Sultan’s painting techniques.

Nabi: When it comes to evaluating Sultan’s work, technique is not the most important aspect to me because he worked directly with paintbrush and color. He didn’t burden himself with thoughts of giving texture here or emphasizing something else there. The perspective of his paintings was his own creation. There was no usual perspective in his painting. People could also relate to his paintings easily. We— artists, connoisseurs—try to understand his painting theoretically. But if you go to Narail and learn about the public’s impression of Sultan, you’ll understand that the techniques we are talking about are useless to them. They care about Sultan’s lifestyle as well as his work. His saint-like personality, his attire, his work have altogether made him an icon to the people in his own area. Sultan was a brilliant artist. I think he was most fortunate in that he was loved and celebrated by his own people.
Ronobi Tokai, Drawing, 42X28 cm- 1983 Images courtesy DBF
Alauddin: You went to Mexico for the exhibition of your Tokai series. What was your impression of Mexico? How did they receive your work?

Nabi: Wonderful experience. Earlier, I saw some small reproductions of Mexican master painters. After going to Mexico, I saw their murals and frescos on the old palace walls. I was fortunate to see the original works by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Frida Kahlo. It amazes me that Mexico, a poor country standing between the North and the South Americas, has excelled in painting. The Aztecs, who are still there, earn their living through various sporting competitions. We have a lot of similarities with their culture and lifestyle. I think the Mexicans as a nation have gone through a lot, and this struggle as a nation has produced so many talented artists.

Alauddin: Do you feel nostalgic about your exhibition in Mexico?

Nabi: I am not sure why they chose me to go to Mexico. Workers’ Party Bangladesh created a selection committee of eminent citizens and chose me. Mexico set up a court against child labor. But my series Tokai did not reflect issues relating to child labor. In fact, my tokai doesn’t do anything. He roams about in the streets and he gets to eat only when he is given any food by some generous passer-by. He has no job. I was really surprised to see that they prepared a mock court room in a big auditorium.

Alauddin: Was that in Mexico City?

Nabi: Yes. Police cordoned off the entire premises. Such a serious state of affairs! There was only one exhibition—my series Tokai. People from other countries showcased photos, files and records on child labor. I was also one of the seven judges of that court.
Translated by Mir Arif