Homage to an art movement icon

Takir Hossain
Thursday, January 4th, 2018


December 29 marked the 103rd birth anniversary of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), the leading figure in the history of modern art movement in Bangladesh. A well-known figure for his leadership qualities in organising artists and art movements, Abedin took the initiative to found the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts (now Faculty of Fine Arts) in 1948 on Dhaka University campus, of which he was the founding principal. This institute trained and nurtured an entire generation of artists whose works reflected the changing times. Qamrul Hassan, Safiuddin Ahmed, Shafiqul Amin, Anwarul Haq were contemporaries of Zainul Abedin. This was the generation that depicted the changing social reality in their art.


Born in Mymensingh, Abedin grew up in the serene landscape by the river Brahmaputra – the river being a source of inspiration to the artist from an early childhood. In 1933, the artist enrolled at Calcutta Government Art School. Later he joined the faculty of the same institute after his graduation. He was an influential member of the Calcutta Group of progressive artists. A series of watercolours that Abedin did as his tribute to the Brahmaputra river earned him the Governor’s Gold Medal in an all-India exhibition in 1938.


“Famine Sketches”, a series of paintings Abedin made in 1943, addressed the dearth of food created by the British Raj. Bengal was affected the most by the famine. That series earned Abedin international acclaim. Drawn in Chinese ink and brush on cheap packing paper, the series is a compilation of haunting images of intolerable cruelty and the utter helplessness of the masses dying of hunger.


The sketches brought the artist all-India fame, but more than that they assisted him find his rhythm in a realistic mode that fore grounded human pain, anguish, struggle and remonstration. The “Rebel Crow” marks a high point of that style. This meticulous brand of realism that united social inquiry and protest with higher aesthetics was to prove useful to him in diverse moments of history such as 1969 and 1971 when Zainul executed a few of his ground-breaking works.


Abedin paintings throughout the fifties and sixties reflected his preference for realism, his aesthetic discipline and his fondness for folk forms. But after a couple of years, the iconic figure went back to nature, to rural life, and the daily struggles of man. Needless to say, he is well-known for his landscapes, which mainly delve into scenic and panoramic beauty of rural Bengal. The works were mainly watercolours. He was involved in the Liberation War movement. He was in the forefront of the cultural movement to re-establish the Bengali identity.

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