Zainul Abedin by Abul Hasnat


Pioneering artist Zainul Abedin began the Institute of Art in Dhaka with just two small rooms, eighteen students, and a Herculean effort. Immediately after the Partition of 1947, the newly-formed Pakistan was openly sceptical towards modern art in a tradition-based society. Despite religious and cultural pressures, political and environmental turmoil, this revolutionary initiative eventually evolved into the single and most important art institution in this country, shaping generations of aspiring artists and teachers. While a number of students quit the school early on, Abedin was determined to make it a place of excellence and maintained close friendships with the intellectuals of the new-found nation state. Arninul Islam, one of its very first students, reminisces: “Initially, Zainul stayed with his in-laws in Abdul Hadi Lane in Old Dhaka. Every afternoon, the maestro would walk to a small restaurant opposite the Radio Pakistan office to chat with artists, musicians and poets. Farrukh Ahmed, Sikandar Abu Zafar, Syed Ali Ahsan, Abbasuddin, Jasimuddin and others knew him from Kolkata. Once their session broke off, Zainul would often cross the railway, walk over to the university intersection, and sit on a culvert. I was a student at the Dhaka college at the time, but I would try to meet him twice and sometimes three times a week to ask about art and his art school. My classmate at the college Alauddin Al Azad, already a promising writer, would accompany me. Other friends like Hasan Hafizur Rahman and Abdullah Al Muti Sharfuddin would join in too. Forward-thinking students and teachers from Dhaka University (DU) would gather around as well. Munir Chowdhury, Ataul Karlin, and Syed Anwarul Karim were still students then and loved to sit around chatting with Zainul. University teachers Sarder Fazlul Karim, Ajit Kumar Guha, and Amio Babu did not hang back, but always exchanged pleasantries. Almost all of them were Marxist intellectuals who were familiar with Zainul’s work on the 1943 famine. In February 1948 I was in charge of organising the first ever art exhibition held in the dining hall of Fazlul Haq Hall. This served as a formal introduction between Zainul and the progressive block at DU and showcased his unique work on the famine.” The artist’s.unyielding spirit not only earned him unquestioned support from these and other progressive thinkers, but they also shared his genuine resolve to build a future for Bangladeshi art.

Abedin’s adolescence was spent in rural East Bengal and its sights and sounds greatly influenced his creative sensibilities. In a time and context when conservative Muslim households discouraged painting and even decorating the house with art, becoming a career artist was a near impossible undertaking. Abedin’s father, a low-income policeman, could not afford to support him through art school, so relentless hardship awaited him in Kolkata. At first he stayed in a small, cramped room in Bandel Road near Baliganj and had to do commercial work during his free time to scrape by. He later moved into a house In Circus Row thanks to the little extra money he made. During summer vacations, at every opportunity, he would escape to the Santal Pargana, a hilly district in Bihar and the home of the Santal ethnic minority. The simplicity of their lifestyle deeply affected Abedin, and his Dumka Forest (1934) and Santal Girl at Dumka (1941) are clear examples. Many works from this period are testaments to his youthful emotionality and romantic homage to the beauty of nature. Quamrul Hassan would often reminisce on the endless days he spent at Abedin’s place. Other progressive and leftist thinkers, such as Golam Kuddus, Gopal Haldar, Monikuntola Sen, Bijon Bhottacharja, Shambhu Mitra, and Sukanta Bhatyacharja also dropped in, eventually making Number 14, Circus Row a ‘poster-hub’, where sketches were made to reflect the miseries of those affected by famine. Between 1944 and 1945 Abcdin and Hassan made countless posters on the famine. These were the days when Abedin would explain the day’s agenda, go off to school, and return to take stock of the work completed. His easy-going and unpretentious personality naturally cultivated the respect and appreciation of teachers and peers alike. Never arrogant, even as a popular and influential teacher, Abedin remained a profoundly humble man, who generously demonstrated his techniques and creative finesse with those who cared to listen. In 1938 the annual exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata, hosted in the National Museum, was the largest show in India. Abedin managed to draw the wider attention of art enthusiasts and after winning the Governor’s Gold Medal he not only gained high praise from his peers, but the professional momentum continued to impact his work in later years. It was a time of questioning and introspection in Bengal. Never before had art posited so many new ideas about form, content and technique, Two critical divisions dominated the art scene: one mostly nurtured by Western academic traditions and another helmed by Abanindranath Tagore. Mukul Chandra Dey, the principal of the Calcutta Art School and a cherished disciple of Rabindranath Tagore, received training in intaglio print in Europe and America. After returning in’] 928, he infused new energy into the institution. He enforced stricter rules and spearheaded reforms in the existing curriculum, which faced some hostility. Yet, thanks largely to his open-rnindedness and willingness to allow his students to express their own thoughts the School produced a number of successful artists. Mukul and several other teachers like Rarnendranath Chakraborty, Basantakumar Ganguly, and Prahlad Karmakar were highly appreciative of Zainul Abedin. Their constant support and faith in him were instrumental in his growth as an artist and through their guidance he began to express himself with real vigour. So confident was Mukul of Abedin’s brilliance that he appointed him as an instructor in 1938, well before his final results were published in 1939. It was clear early on that Abedin sought to create his own language, a method by which he could remain close to his national and ethnic roots. Nandalal Bose, Asitkumar Haldar, Khitindro Majumdar, Eshwari Prashad, Sunayani Debi, and Gaganendranath Tagore, among many others, gained momentum as the vanguards of a stylised Bcngali stream. In the 1930s various artists and thinkers started forming groups in order to ‘make something new’. The Young Artist Union, Art Rebel Centre and Kolkata Group all aimed to break free from the yesteryears. Bold reformists, they lambasted both the conservative European style and the highly stylised Bengali technique as effectively dated. Impressionism, Cubism and other radical European movements motivated these young artists and thinkers in search of direction. The Kolkata Group, established in 1943, truly rocked the foundation of the 10caJ art scene with ‘realist’ insights and promises, As Abedin gained prominence he extricated himself from the internal conflicts of both schools of thought, creating an alternative that was somewhat removed from the usual romanticism. Largely due to his exposure to the harshness of rural living, his conspicuous lines reflected his own kind of image making.


In keeping with the belief that art is never removed from its social context, on 10 April] 936 the AU-India Progoti Shangha was born, with the aim of representing the misfortune, hopes and dreams of the people through art. The organisation’s multifaceted work reverberated throughout India’s creative community. Faced with the grim reality of Soviet socialism, new questions began to emerge. Making art to embody the predicament of humankind moved cultural activists, artists, and collaborators alike in Bengal and consequently across India. The principals of the foundation were starkly reflected in the expositions of activist-artists. By the] 940s a new intervention was triggered by leftist activists within the socio-cultural scene of Kolkata. Anti-fascist movements began extolling the struggle of the masses and the dignity of the everyman. A good number of Abedin’s friends and peers were leftist radicals, so it was only natural that his own sensibilities aligned with their common cause. However, despite friendship and sympathies, his observations on society were humanist, and not radical. With the advent of World War II, came severe food shortages and any notions of idyUic rural India were inevitably tarnished. Millions migrated to the cities in search of food and work. Countless women became sex-workers. Contrarily, fierce nationalists urged the country to dream of its independence. Aggressive fascist movements and opposing liberal anti-war humanist philosophies all contributed to a reconfiguring of art and culture in the subcontinent. A number of Bengali intellectuals were explicitly in favour of humanism and fervently against war. The literature, art and drama of the time are clearl y representati ve of these perspectives. For Zainu I Abed in this churn i ng dynamic was impossible to ignore. When famine broke out in 1943, his empathy cried out in desperation and drove him to stand squarely beside his countrymen. At twenty-nine years of age, he had all but abandoned his love affair with nature and became a true harbinger of social change. His art boldly portrayed the paradoxical conditions of its time. And while many others also contributed significantly through their art, there is something profoundly incomparable about Abedin’s work and commitment.

In December 1944, the All-India Student Federation had its eighth national convention in Kolkata’s Mohammad Ali Park. Dhurjotiproshad Mukhopadhdhay presided, while Sarojini Naidu, who had recently been released fr0111 jail, was the chief guest. Decisions made at this event included building a relief centre and the publication of a ‘Bengal Painters Testimony’. Prominent Bengali poet Bishnu Dey (1909-1982) produced an article entitled ‘Visions of Bengal’ and reproductions of artworks by twenty-eight painters and sculptors were published, with an introduction by Naidu. Other artists such as Asit Kumar Haldar, Ramkinkar Baij, Sudhir Ranjan Khastgir, Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, Gopal Ghosh, Indra Dugar, Nitin Majumdcr, Atul Bose, Quamrul Hassan, Muralidhar Tali, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Subho Tagore, Safiuddin Ahmed, and Jamini Roy also showcased their work in solidarity. That same year the Anti-Fascist Writers and Artists Association established its headquarters at 46 Dharmatala Street in Kolkata. A single incident had incited the already exuberant art and culture scene. Sou men Chandra, a promising short-story teller, was killed during a procession by a rival group and the protests against his death resulted in the formation of the association on 28 March 1942. Though primarily leftist, the organisation soon included radical minded intellectuals, writers, artists and activists. Each Wednesday discussions were held on a variety of topics ranging from literature, economics, history, linguistics and music. Such activities greatly inspired redefinitions of individual and collective purpose and freedoms. Many creative minds resigned fro 111. making art for art’s sake and stood beside the distressed and famine­affected. The leftists opened soup kitchens for the needy. The Communist Party’s Janajuddha regularly published works on the famine by members of the Kolkata Group and the hungry and oppressed became their central theme.


Abedin’s relocation after Partition had not been easy. Homeless and jobless, the artist quickly threw himself into the project of establishing an art school in Dhaka. Other artists such as Safiuddin Ahmed, Anwarul Haque, and Shafiqul Amin, were also trying to settle into their new home. Despite his friendships with a number of left-leaning artists, Abedin initially kept Llp his romantic painting style, but the shocking famine affected his work like nothing else could. The rural poor thronged to the city in search of food. The proximate cause of the famine was a reduction in supply, and with an increase in demand and food storage by some opportunistic businessmen the crisis reached a tipping point. It has been argued that near-sighted authorities were one of the major causes of the disaster. 

 Abedin was staying in Mymensingh at the time and was devastated at the moral and material damage he witnessed. Kolkata looked nothing like its former self. Hundreds of thousands of people began begging for mere morsels, and even rice and water. In sheer desperation, millions lay dying on the streets. Skeletal figures scampered for food in dustbins alongside dogs and crows. On 17 September 1943, thirty-five intellectuals published a statement in many of the major newspapers urging people to help. The historic value of their plea cannot be overstated:

Help us feed the hungry. Save the dying. Who else can rescue the men and women of Bengal, but its own people? The generous are donatingfood, clothing and money, while many organisations and ordinary people are working tirelessly to lend a hand to the misfortunate. The Kolkata People Protection Society and Women Self-Protection Society have been serving the people for over a year and a half Making sure people get rice in the (control’ stores, distributing coal in different neighbourhoods, feeding the hungry for free or a nominal price, giving to the children, working to prevent cholera, running a number of canteens in different parts of the city – they are in charge of many such charitable acts, Their sincere efforts and unreq uited help has ensured that ten thousand men, women and children irrespective of their caste, creed and race are getting food from thirty-five food distribution centres.

Bangladesh National Museum Collection

And yet the demand is insatiable. Attempts so far are insignificant compared to the existing need. Therefore, the organisers are trying to open more help centres across the city, as well as attempting to set up makeshift hospitals to care for the sick.

For all this and more, money is essentiaL. The generosity of Indians and Kolkata residents knows no bounds; we implore all the kind-hearted men and women of Kolkata to help with whatever they can. Donate to the hungry, save your compatriots from poverty and death.

Why did this famine occur? This a question historians and economists alike have naturally pondered, including Nobel laureate Arnartya Sen. The sheer magnitude of desperation and indignity crushed Zainul Abedin. His simple sketches contain the cries of humanity. When they were first published in the Communist Party newspapers Bengali  consciousness rose to the occasion, Artists Somnath Hore from Chittagong and Chittaprosad Bhattacharya from in and around Medinipur sent in their works on the hungry and dying. These artists stood as witnesses to the moral stagnation of the time. Every day the desolate streets of Kolkata filled with foreign soldiers, while people continued to die of starvation. U nofficial statistics and newspaper reports estimate that fifteen lakh people (1.5 million) died in Bengal during the 1943 famine. The government issued report by the Famine Investigation Committee, headed by John Wood and published in 1945, claimed there was no real shortage and plenty of rice available, but that food was being stockpiled and hoarded on the prediction of war. Ela Sen’s book entitled Darkening days, being a narrative of famine-stricken Bengal (Susil Gupta publisher, Kolkata, 1944) contains twelve of Abedin’s famous sketches which earned the ire of the British government and simultaneously became a reader-favourite. Prominent art-critic Shobhon Shorn (Nirontor, 4th issue, 1995) argued: “One doesn’t observe much protest in Zainul Abedin’s work. There isn’t a raised finger, a sharp accusation against the system which manufactured this monstrosity. Rather, his figures are almost defeatist, facing death nary a complaint or query. His sketches force one to think. Standing in front of them, one wonders why 15lakh people accepted this fate without question. One cannot help wonder exactly why this country and its people endured such a tragedy without holding anyone accountable. And then we come face to face with ourselves and realise that the existing social system must undergo a massive change. What appears compliant is in fact provoking resistance. These sketches are not only testimony to his time; they are the tools with which this extraordinary twenty-nine year old artist fulfilled his duty to his society.” Indeed, jf we take the famine series in its entirety, the imagery is unequivocally ‘Zainulesque’ in its empathetic intensity and social commitment.

Art critic Ashok Bhattacharya in his book entitled KaLchetonar ShiLpi (2003) wrote: ” … Artists began to speak for the marginalised and the neglected and became one with them. They wanted a change in the class-based system of society. An epoch shifted and the transition in poetry and prose, drama and music, and art too, was not far behind. The harrowing days of the famine propelled many famous artists to work irrespective of their politics and philosophy …. From that era defining moment to the end of their Jives they remained one with the predicament of the poor and the unfortunate – turning their sorrows and joys, struggles and demands for change into their own. Needless to say, they arc artists of a different kind; one that has sometimes run parallel to the mainstream or merged into it.”

Commenting on these famine sketches, Sarojini Naidu once described them as “more eloquent in their poignant appeal than the most eloquent words.” And to this day, Zainul Abedin’s emotionally charged works speak volumes about avoidable human tragedy and its epic proportions.

[Abul Hasnat is the editor of Kali O Kalam]

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