Syed Azizul Haque
With his lifelong devotion to art, Safiuddin Ahmed has greatly enriched the tradition of drawing and oil painting in our country, besides making pioneering contribution to graphic art. His works display a wide experimental range, reaching out from academic pursuits to embrace some contemporary trends in European art. The result has been a series of exquisite works in all these media.
As a student in Kolkata Government Art School from 1936 to 1942, he studied Fine Art, and came under the tutelage of some of the renowned artists who taught there. Among them were Mukul Dey, Basanta Kumar Ganguly, Atul Bose, Manindrabhusan Gupta, Ramendranath Chakrabarty, Prahlad Karmakar, Wrishen Mitra and Abdul Moin who played an active role in shaping his artistic sensibility, his work ethics and his principled stand on art. Abdul Moin, who was the first Muslim teacher of the School, inspired him the most to become an artist. From Ganguly and Bose he learned the basic techniques of oil painting and drawing. Bose, it may be mentioned here, was also an outstanding portrait artist.
During 1945-47 Safiuddin received two important prizes in oil painting as a recognition of his command over the medium. The two prizes were the President’s Gold Medal given by the Academy of Fine Art in Kolkata for the painting Parabat (Dove) (1945) and the Dwarbhanga Maharaja’s Gold Medal given by Patna Fine Art Council for The hut in sunlight (1947).
Safiuddin also showed his talent in cross-media techniques, which involved applying the defining characteristics of one medium into another. Thus, he successfully applied the characteristics of graphic art and oil painting in his drawings. The fine lines of etching, the dynamic angular lines of engraving and the poetic lines of dry point converge in his drawings. At the same time, his drawings incorporate the grainy texture of aquatint and the smoothness created by layered application of oil. Again, his oil paintings often include the dynamic lines of his graphic works or the grainy texture of aquatint, to create a feeling of diversity and depth. Similarly, he has tried to convey to his oil paintings the distinctive qualities of engraving. Quite often, his prints and drawings have happily embraced the rich texture of his oil paintings.
An important aspect of his art is the focus he places on his subject or theme whether in sharp details, or in suggestive, hazy outlines. The thematic prominence which is a part of his artistic plan, reflects his appreciation of folk art where the subject is always centralized. His art is thus realistic, drawing its inspiration for local art.
Safiuddin’s drawing represents the essence of his art. Through a prolonged involvement with every aspect of his drawing, he turned each of his drawing into a complete work of art. The excellence of his drawing proves that the real strength and creative potential of an artist lie in drawing. In Kolkata Art School, Safiuddin used the blackboard to learn the techniques of free hand drawing. He continually added to what he had learnt the same technique in Fishing net which inaugurated a new, more mature and surer phase of his oil painting. After 1975, he continued to paint in oil and experiment in form, colour and texture. He minimized colour and opted for harmonization. He used a spatula for creating textured surfaces.
A 1989 work, The sun, trees and women explores the profound relationship between nature and man, which becomes long lasting under the influence of the sun. The sun is the source of life in this planet, and trees are one of the first life forms to emerge, while human beings continue the flow of life. Safiuddin’s use of colour reflects the paintings philosophical underpinning. As colours are minimized and seamlessly harmonized, a delicate balance emerges which holds the sun, the trees and women together. Different layers of colour – from blue at the base to bluish green and other green, black and red towards the middle and top — combine in a dance to celebrate life. The burst of colour gives to the formal arrangement of the painting an enchanting quality.
Woman, a painting Safiuddin executed in 1996, arises out of the painful memory of the torture and rape of women by the Pakistan army in 1971. The figure of a single woman poignantly represents the tales of all the abused women of 1971. The blackened eye and the mute gaze evoke an unremitting sense of sadness. The sombre mood of the painting has been heightened by the use of white around the woman’s face, and the unfeeling brightness of other colours – suggesting the usual uncaring business of life. Safiuddin however, has given more prominence to black to bring home his point. He uses white to reinforce black, thus imparting a poignant sadness to the composition. The painting, done on a flat surface lacks a perspective. Safiuddin’s brush strokes are refined, applied vertically from the top in keeping with the composition of the figure.
In 2005 Safiuddin drew his last two oil paintings –The figures and The rhythm of line and form 3. In these two works, the figure returns in a somewhat idealized form. Rhythm of line and form 3 is a simple composition using just one figure. But the painting is remarkable for its rhythmic, dancing figure which imparts to the canvas an unusual dynamism and balance. Safiuddin did not use brush strokes in this painting, instead he evened out colours and created a harmonized surface. Dark and light blue balance each other, without spilling into the other’s territory. The light blue shade evokes a profound sense of beauty. The formal composition of the painting creates a tension between red and black, ultimately resolved in an appreciation of beauty. Blue however, predominates. An arching black line at the top of the composition, and another in the middle going down to the base, and which runs parallel to or away from the figure, create a delicate balance. The figure is that of a woman, one of whose eyes has not been painted. But this doesn’t create any disharmony in the composition. Safiuddin has painted the woman’s dress in pale yellow and used white to bring her into focus. The exceptionally resonant piece of art represents Safiuddin’s greatness as a painter.
Syed Azizul Huq (b.1959 Pirojpur, Bangladesh) receives his MPhil and PHD from University of Dhaka. He is a former teacher of Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka and a faculty member of Department of Bengali, University of Dhaka.