Farewell Anwar bhai, what else can I say?

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In the end Anwar bhai had become a guest in the city that he grew up in. His dead body was found in a hotel room where he was staying as a visitor from France where he was permanently parked. He had left Bangladesh more than 20 years back to live in Paris with his wife and kids. I have never met them and know little about his life there. But he always hankered for Dhaka the city, even the current sordid and pathetic city choked by fumes and traffic jams and sleaze.

He was always a regular visitor often spending months and sometimes even longer doing assignments. We met a few times since then but the warmth of the memories both shared when we were very close was not enough to bridge the gap created by many unmet years. Now I have met him for the final time, reading his death notice on the FB copied as a news item.  He died suddenly and not much else we know about it. Not that it matters anymore.

A genius in a complex world

That Anwar Hossain was the leading photographer of the country was never in doubt in his heydays. A supremely gifted artists, he was not just a still photographer but a movie cameraman as well, trained in India. His works on several movies were remarkable and he won a national award for his work on Surya Dighal Bari. It was while filming this movie that he met his first wife, Dolly Anwar bhabi.  Her tragic end by suicide also perhaps indicates the complexity of his relationship and I am no one to judge the contours of all that. But one supposes he had his share of sadness in his personal life.

He was senior to me by a few years but we ended up being buddies and spent a lot of time together including at his home in Jhikatola. Another common friend was Ishrat Firdausi Chunnu, the 1971 historian, and the three made a trio that had a terrible nice person and two not so nice beings in it.  In the early 80s, in the pre-internet and pre-traffic jam world, one could drop into homes without planning and waste a few hours without undue worry that build life-long friendships.

Anwar bhai’s project with which I got involved was his coffee table book “profiles of Bangladesh” for which I edited and translated several articles. Of course it was very well received and introduced him to many more admirers. He was planning more of such kind of projects but professional work always was plunging him down. He had to navigate his economic life through the choppy waters of his artistic life.

He was not an organizer or a promoter of photography as a sector like the arch-pioneer Shahidul Alam who has literally developed the “low-end crafts world” perception into a high-end and legitimate profession.  Anwar bhai was an artist and not an entrepreneur who could take on a challenge beyond his lenses. That was his forte and that’s what he did best.

Ershad’s dog and his camera

I was working for UNICEF in 1986 when we commissioned him to do a promo picture of the-then CEO of Bangladesh HM Ershad. He would be giving a few drops of polio medicine to a child for the immunization campaign. Ershad agreed and off we went.

Ershad was informal and Anwar bhai quickly began to work like a professional but as he was setting things up, the minions around him were making noises and quite frankly dismissive of the “cameraman”.  I remember there was a poodle type dog on the varenda which was curiously walking about.

Soon Ershad came forward, the mother and the child, on loan from an office employee’s family, was presented, Ershad posed with the empty bottle and pics were done. Then Ershad left for office or wherever and the poodle began to bark like mad at us till we left the premises. Nice, polite dog. But it was a great pic and was used by many and seen by millions.

To Paris

Anwar bhai met his second wife while doing an assignment for the French embassy I hear. I am not familiar with the details but he left for France and later became a dad. He was away for long. I met him again in 2012 at an event, where he was taking pictures. We talked and promised to meet but he was a visitor with plenty of time on his hand and I was trying to survive in Bangladesh after a fiv- year hiatus. We met once or twice but that’s all.

Home in the slum

It was on FB that we reconnected again and became regular companions again. His longing to be back in Dhaka was obvious and he made many remarks on that.  But what he wanted most was recognition as the photographer he was.  He once sent a message. “Please organize a retrospective of my work. One that shows all my work. “And then he added “Please, Please, please” many many times. Nothing could sound more desperate or hopeless either.

In the end, he had been left with a home, but without an address to call his own. His family lived in Paris but he said, ‘they are very young and very French. My wife has a life of her own. “But he had left Dhaka, his home and so he had no home here either.

One day while discussing a short bio I had written for him, I had used the word “low income household“ instead of “slum” for “bosti”.  He was offended. “I come from a slum.  That is where my roots lie. You must use “slum”.

No matter where he came from, he did arrive here and achieved much. His address was not where he lived, nor where he died. It was in the click of the shutter that produced the works of a master.

Farewell. I promised not to be sad or make another sad with this obituary. His image is greater than the shadows that follow us all.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Issue 22
  • Farewell Anwar bhai, what else can I say?

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