Updated: Mar 14, 2022
by Sushrita Acharjee.
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Apart from the camera—pencil, brush, colour and canvas too proved to be lethal weapons to offer resistance against the West Pakistani oppressors through the medium of visual images. While photography posited brutal facticity by bringing to global exposure images of tremendous violence inflicted on the peoples of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), paintings, by incorporating colours and imagination, heightened the emotional credibility of the images of brutality and trauma. However, as in the photographs, in paintings too the images of not only suffering but also of glory appear recurrently. Bangladeshi painters, namely Zainul Abedin, Shahabuddin Ahmed, Quamrul Hassan, Aminul Islam, Biren Shome, Quayyum Chaudhury and the like made major contribution to the corpus of Liberation War paintings. Collectively, 17 Bangladeshi artists exhibited a total of 66 paintings on the subject of the ongoing Liberation War in September 1971 at Birla Academy, Kolkata.[i] The exhibition, titled Paintings and Drawings of Bangladeshi Artists, was enormously significant in broadcasting the military cruelties, death and destruction caused by the West Pakistani authority in Bangladesh at a time of rigorous curfew and censorship. Artists such as Quamrul Hassan, Mustafa Manowar, Debdas Chakraborty, Nitun Kundu, Pranesh Mandal and Biren Shome exhibited their paintings created using watercolour, oil colour, pen and pencil, ink, mixed medium and the like. These paintings, though varied in styles—abstract, semi-abstract and realistic, served the purpose of giving image to the atrocities of the West Pakistani Army. Later in 2014, artist Biren Shome collected and published the prints of these paintings by 17 artists in his book, Bangladesher Swadhinata Sangrame Shilpisamaj (The Contribution of Fine Artists to Bangladesh Liberation War).
During the 1947 Partition, among the many artists who moved to the Islamic state of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Zainul Abedin (1914–1976) was already famous in undivided Bengal for his artistry. Abedin’s series on the appalling Bengal famine of 1943 brought him accolade and established him as a folk artist. He was one of the pioneers among Bangladeshi artists who coalesced art movements and national movements in East Pakistan. He stressed the importance of reverting to the folk traditions at the grassroots level so as to exalt the indigenous, native Bengali culture amid an authoritarian regime. The simplistic forms, rustic earthy colour palette and ornamental lines of folk art that he used for his famine series remain at the core of his paintings on the Liberation War. Since the Language Movement of 1952–1971, he led the artistic endeavours of resisting the oppressors, inciting young artists to create posters, banners, sculptures and the like. During the military curfew, he often joined the common people in barricading the city against the West Pakistani force; moreover, he opened his house to many dissenting artists and intellectuals for shelter during the fateful night of 25 March.[ii] The War gave him further fuel to practice figurative art form, to focus on indigenism and to portray on canvas the people being oppressed and uprooted as well as the people emerging victorious. Abedin’s painting titled Muktijudhdho (Liberation War) uses the jagged, dark lines of his famine series. Using an earthy palette of brown and grey, he paints the clustered figures of the Liberation warriors holding rifles and moving forward.
Another painting by Abedin, titled Civil War, exhibits a more vibrant palette. The theme is much the same, displaying three Liberation warriors or muktijodhdha holding rifles and the flag of independent Bangladesh but this painting is more figurative than his earlier paintings, using lines and abstraction. The warm, earthy colours of murky brown, red and green are closely associated with both the indigenous folk art and more directly to the Liberation War, as they match the flag of Bangladesh with its rising red sun in the middle of the green backdrop.
The Bangladeshi artist who mastered the form of figurative art in oil paint was, however, Shahabuddin Ahmed (1950–). Ahmed, who was a platoon commander during the War, experienced the harrowing reality of it from vicinity; his artistic sensibility was, thus, produced by the Liberation War. Despite fighting in the war, Ahmed is a pacifist and insists that although his paintings are often full of virile, aggressive human figures in motion and ready to charge, these never glorify the violence of war but rather showcase the distressed, desperate, dispossessed human beings, the victims of war, defiant in the face of misery. His paintings prove that the War is both a source of pride and traumatic memories for him.[iii] His paintings such as Freedom Fighter, Platoon and Bangladesh bear testimony to this defiance. These paintings display his mastery over figurative art form where some parts of a human figure are so distinguished that the muscles and sinew seem to be visible to the onlooker while other parts completely lose form and structure; lines blur and amid dynamic play of colours, a sturdy fist is visible or a muscular pair of thighs can be discerned.
Ahmed’s painting Bangladesh, for instance, blurs the human figures to focus on the dark green flag of independent Bangladesh with a vibrant, fiery red circle in the middle of it—symbolic of the rising sun on the Bengali soil.
The green–red–brown palette recurs in his painting Platoon as well, which shows the Liberation warriors charging ahead. His anatomical sensibility is perfected much in terms of the Western school of figurative art. His choice of colour palette and use of light and shade too reflect the influence of the Western masters. However, undoubtedly, Ahmed’s brilliance lies in utilizing his Parisian training to depict images that are embedded in national history.
French art critic Gerard Xuriguers justifiably remarks about Ahmed’s oeuvre:
Shahabuddin, before settling in Paris, experienced a threatened identity in Bangladesh that he vigorously liberated in 1971. This period of his life, both dramatic and full of hope, has undoubtedly affected his artistic path and forged his character. However, he did not turn into a militant painter, but simply a painter, a painter that always cared more for painting than for the subject of his painting.[iv]
His painting of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, bowing his head in a gesture of perhaps humility and salutation before the people of Bangladesh and the thousands of martyrs who laid down their lives for the land, directs to Ahmed’s pride in his land but also his desire for peace and an end to wars. The white, predominantly blank canvas captures the barrenness that comes at the end of any war-like situation.
Another Bangladeshi artist who went back to Bengali folk tradition to protest through art was Quamrul Hassan (1921–1988). He was enormously influenced by both Zainul Abedin and Jamini Roy in his stylistic approach while his subjects traversed the grassroots people of Bangladesh and their lived realities. He insisted on being recognized as a ‘Patua’, a folk artist. His political paintings are motivated by his admiration for the simplistic, rural Bengali life and the subsequent destruction of it by the West Pakistani military regime. His paintings Bangladesh Before Genocide and Bangladesh After Genocide display the dichotomy between the two different historical moments. The former shows three Bangladeshi women, painted much in the same way he painted one of his masterpieces Teen Kanya (Three Women), whereas, the latter shows three skeletons in the place of those women.
The following painting by Hassan also displays the harrowing, grotesque reality of Bangladesh during 1971 and the appalling aftermath of the War.
This painting seems to combine his characteristic folk style with Picasso-esque cubism. The use of murky red–black colours, images of skulls, dismembered limbs, huddled bodies pulling at each other create an effect of art–horror. That the figures in the painting cannot even be recognized as humans depict what war reduces human beings to. Abedin and Hassan’s legacy was carried forward by Qayyum Chowdhury who also focused on the contribution of the common people of Bangladesh to the Liberation War.
Apart from these, Debdas Chakraborty’s Humanity Crucified, Mustafa Monwar’s Woman and Beast, Rafiqun Nabi’s Bijoy and Aminul Islam’s Victim are some of the striking paintings that emerged from Bangladesh in the wake of the Liberation War.
The corpus of Liberation War paintings, thus, brings the onlookers before a painful, absurd, horrific moment in contemporary South Asian history and succeeds in drawing a cathartic response to the death, decay, dispossession and subsequent liberation that the Bengali peoples experienced in the year of 1971.
[i] Biren Shome, ‘Swadhinata Sangram e Chitrashilpi Samaj’, Arts-BD News 24, (30 March 2015) (available at: https://arts.bdnews24.com/index.php/nggallery/thumbnails?p=6487; last accessed on 8 April 2021). [ii] Biren Shome, ‘Swadhinata Sangram e Chitrashilpi Samaj’, Arts-BD News 24, (30 March 2015) (available at: https://arts.bdnews24.com/index.php/nggallery/thumbnails?p=6487; last accessed on 8 April 2021). [iii] Poonam Goel, ‘Making Peace Via Art’, Unboxed Writers (17 February 2017) (available at: http://unboxedwriters.com/making-peace-via-art/#.YG3-sh8zbDd; last accessed on 8 April 2021). [iv] Poonam Goel, ‘Making Peace Via Art’, Unboxed Writers (17 February 2017) (available at: http://unboxedwriters.com/making-peace-via-art/#.YG3-sh8zbDd; last accessed on 8 April 2021).