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.