SHILPACHARAYA Zainul Abedin
The significance of Zainul Abedin in Bangladesh lies not just in the value of his art but also in his pioneer role in the development of modern art in this country . He is also important for his human qualities. A sensitive artist of enormous power , Zainul Abedin had never considered art to be anything outside the domain of ordinary life. He did not believe in the theory of art for art’s sake nor did he support the philosophy of propaganda art. Art must be completely integrated into life. To him , art was only an expression of life and its purpose is to make human society rich and beautiful. The establishment of beauty in society must be preceded by the complete eradication of' ugliness of all varieties-economic, social, as well as visual. Throughout the four decades of his artistic career, Zainul Abedin had made relentless efforts in the development of that total environment which makes possible the unrestrained pursuit of significant aesthetic arts. His art has always served the common people, from whom he himself had come ,by faithfully depicting their land, their life, their continuing and almost unending struggles , their hopes and their aspirations. The rural proletariat and the nature of Bangladesh have been his most favourite subjects.
Zainul Abedin was born in 1914 in a lower middle class muslim family of Mymensingh in Bangladesh. He was raised in the most idyllic and romantic floodplains of the majestic Brahmaputra River. Nature's grandeur was the only affluence he had known in his childhood and for many years beyond. Nature worked in the development of his artistic temperament, 'The river', he had said many a time , “has been my greatest teacher'. He had shown his talents quite early during his school days in Mymensingh. But Zainul Abedin was not satisfied until he could go to far away Calcutta to embark on a long and arduous career of an art student. He attended the Government School of Arts in Calcutta between 1933 and 1938.
Deeply impressed by nature in his childhood and trained to paint in the European academic realistic manner as a young art student. Zainul Abedin turned to paint into a fine painter of the rural landscape. Even within the framework of academic limitations , Zainul Abedin had made many memorable sketches and water colours of the Santhal Parganas in Biher and the landscape in Mymensingh. When in 1938 he was awarded Governor's Gold Medal of the Academy of Fine Arts in the All India Art Exhibition, it was for a group of water colour paintings he had done on the river Bramaputra in an Impreeionistic manner.
For a few more years Zainul Abedin remained the romantic interpreter of the natural environment, Zainul Abedin was a non-political individual, a mere artist of nature. But the Bengal Famine' of 1943. a case of terrible human exploitation and degradation, transformed the peace loving romantic young landscape painter from East Bengal into a rebel and an agitating protestor for the rest of his life. Soon after the Famine had broken out, Zainul Abedin went to his home in Mymensingh. The ghastly scenes almost paralyzed him and he returned to Calcutta. But the destitute came with him. In Calcutta in 1943, humanity was at its most ignominious condition competing with dogs in their hunt for a meal out of the garbage tins on pavements. Zainul Abedin. then 29. was severely shocked but he tried to control his emotions and began to sketch the nightmarish scenes.
A young art teacher of small earnings, it had become very difficult for him to procure quality art materials which was then scarce and dear. So he made drawings in black ink with dry brush on the cheapest kind of paper, usually wrapping paper, slightly tinted with yellow or pink. He also used a few grey packaging boards. But the art he created with these cheap materials Turned out to be invaluable. He recorded the tragic scenes with a documentary objectivity and an artistic power The like of which was unknown in the Subcontinent. After viewing Zainul's Famine Sketches, Mrs, Sarojini Naidu, 'the Nightingale of India' had said. 'They are more eloquent in their poignant appeal than the most eloquent and impassioned words'. A very distinguished Bengali art critic of the time. Mr. O.C. Ganguly, had written in 1944, about these drawings thus: 'In the daring bravado of his pitiless strokes there is a spontaneity, sincerity, and an uncompromising realism which is rare among modern artists of Bengal. He has. indeed, opened a new page in modem painting by his distinguished contributions. As Truthful records of the history of Bengal in 1943. Abedin's drawings are invaluable documents. As a worshipper of beauty in the terrible phases of human life— Ie beau dans I' horrible —this artist has raised pictorial art to dizzy heights from the low level of silly sentimentalism. hitherto current in Bengal'. The Famine Sketches of Zainul Abedin are significant not only as a social commentary, but also because of their artistic excellence. To the objective assessment of Ganguly one can add Sir Eric Newton's Comments of 1952 : 'They are brilliant drawings...Here one can seethe combination, which one had thought almost impossible, of Orient and Occident'.
With his Famine Sketches, Zainul Abedin became the first important Bengali artist of social realism and an artist of the down-trodden. It is a remarkable coincidence that another contemporary Bengali Muslim. Kazi Nazrul Islam, had emerged as the voice of the exploited people, two decades earlier, with his famous poem, 'The Rebel'. The two Bengali Muslims had many things in common although in many other ways they were quite different personalities. Both Nazrul and Zainul came from very ordinary rural families, both failed to complete their general school education, both spent part of their early life in the East Bengal district of Mymensingh and both died in the same hospital in Dacca in the same year, in 1976. and after death they were both buried within the same grounds. Nazrul Islam was a rebel politically and poetically. He raised his voice against the British Raj and had also broken through the powerful Tagore School of poetry. Zainul Abedin, too had deliberately stayed away from the Indian Neo-Classical painting, then much in vogue, whose beginnings were made by yet another Tagore, Rabindranath's nephew, Abanindranath. Zainul's intial preference for Western realistic art over the cool and highly stylized Neo-Classicism or over Jamini Roy's Bengal School, probably made possible the creation of The powerful and realistic Famine Sketches.
Like the Rebel Poet. Zainul Abedin had also worked for the cause of humanism and socialism. It was no: without some commitment that Zainul participated with his Famine Sketches in an Art Exhibition organized on the 1943 Famine- The issue of 21st January. 1945, of the Communist Party paper The People's War of Calcutta carried a story on Zainul, introducing him as a 'young Bengali Muslim' along with his photograph and three of his Famine Sketches, The paper wrote : •Zainul is a member of the Anti-Fascist Writers and Artists Association of Bengal, the organization of all Bengal's artists and writers who believe that their foremost duty is to serve their people in the crisis lacing them today- And there is no doubt that he will always be one of the foremost of them'. The paper's assessment of Abedin has proved absolutely correct.
Zainul Abedin had always loved freedom and his heart went for those who struggled for liberation and justice. In 1970, at the age of 56, he went to the Middle East at the invitation of the Arab League and moved with the Al Fatah Guerrillas to the battle fronts. There he sketched the life of the freedom fighters and exhibited his works in several Arab countries to encourage the young defenders of their homeland. Soon after his return. Zainul Abedin’s own country was severely battered by an unprecedented cyclonic storm and tidal wave which took more than three hundred thousand lives in coastal Bangladesh. Terribly disturbed. Zainul Abedin rushed to the area with a relief team to share the sufferings of the affected people. Later, h« also recorded the impact of the event in a 30 feet scroll, significant both as a document and as a piece of art, done In black ink over wax outlines. The scroll depicts dead bodies all heaped together. 'We Bengalis unite only in death', he had said sadly of this picture. At one end of the scroll, there is the picture of a strongly built man, still alive and sitting with his head down, symbolizing a possible resurrection of the people.
Before the wound of the 1970 cyclone was healed, begun the War of Liberation of Bangladesh. Like millions of Bengalis, Zainul Abedin was a helpless captive at home. hiding from place to place but always holding his great Famine Sketches close to his bosom,
The War of Liberation year took heavy tolls on Abedin's psyche but Liberation brought new energy and he set himself to the task of development of the arts, this time particularly the folk arts. Immediately after Liberation, Zainul Abedin was invited by the Government to design the pages of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which he did with great earnestness with the assistance of other artists. However, his enthusiasm was fleetly marred by the crisis of Bangladesh in the following years. Much worried, his health started breaking down, although, the tall, well built and handsome Zainul Abedin had so far maintained excellent health. Realizing that his days were getting numbered, he rushed with his life-long plan to set up a Folk Art Museum to preserve the rich but dying folk arts of Bangladesh for posterity. He had also wanted to establish a gallery of his own works. The Government of Bangladesh obliged him by releasing necessary funds. Working hard. Inspite of his broken health, Zainul Abedin completed the foundation of both institutions before his death on May 28ih, 1976. He died of lungs cancer which the doctors had identified only six months earlier. The Government had arranged for the best treatment of the greatest artist of the country but life came to an end for Zainul Abedin at 62. Zainul Abedin created art to the very end. His last work was a brush sketch of two faces done In the hospital, only days before his death.
The Folk Art Museum was set up at Sonargaon, for historical reasons. Located less than 20 miles southeast of Dacca. Sonargaon was the capital of medieval Bengal and the area was also the centre of weaving of the famous Muslin fabric. The region is Still producing some fine crafts and handlooms. And It was only natural that Zainul Abedin chose to establish his Gallery by the bank of his favourite Brahmaputra River in Mymensingh. his home district, whose nature had curved Abedin's artistic temperament and whose District Board had offered him the most essential financial Support
during his art student days in Calcutta. His poor mother had sold her only gold necklace to send her son to study an m the far away strange city while his father, a small police officer of limited means and a large family, could only support his son with an allowance often rupees a month. It was Indeed a paltry sum even in the early thirties. The Mymensingh District Board finally came to his assistance. At the strong recommendation of his Principal, artist Mukul De. the young student was awarded a fifteen rupees a month scholarship by the Board. This made the hard journey of five years of art education somewhat comforting.
Zainul Abedin, who, had left school without even taking the Matriculation Examination, was awarded an Honorary D. Lill. degree by the University of Delhi in India in 1974. He was also a Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at two universities. Peshawar (1 965) in Pakistan and Dacca (1973) in Bangladesh and was appointed a National Professor of Bangladesh, in 1974. Always a people's artist and a people's man, Zainul Abedin was also held in the highest esteem by statesmen and intellectuals, both at home and abroad. His artistic genius and his great human qualities brought him many awards and honours from various governments and the people. He had also visited many important countries on Slate invitations.
The role of Zainul Abedin in the development of the fine arts in Bangladesh, however, has been best expressed by the title of Shilpacharya—WB Great Master of the Arts— which his admiring people bestowed upon him.