Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin at the crossroads of mankind

In 1943, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin drew a series of sketches on the man-made famine that had spread throughout Bengal, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Done in Chinese ink and brush on cheap packing paper, the series, famously known as Famine Sketches, were haunting images of cruelty and depravity of the merchants of death, and the utter helplessness of the victims.

The sketches brought Zainul all-India fame, but more than that — they helped him find his rhythm in a realistic mode that fore grounded human suffering, struggle and protest. The Rebel Cow‘ (watercolour, 1951) marks the pinnacle of that style. This particular brand of realism that combined social inquiry and protest with higher aesthetics was to prove useful to him for depicting different moments of history, such as 1969 and 1971, when Zainul executed a few of his masterpieces.

Zainul Abedin visited Palestinian camps in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan in 1970 and made 60 to 70 paintings of the refugees there.  Shilpacharya’s youngest son, engineer Mainul Abedin, has recently found several of those sketches from the pioneering master’s sketchbook. He has donated an ‘8.5 x 4.5 inch’ sketch to Coronafine Group of the Faculty of Fine Art (FFA), University of Dhaka (DU).

“A few days back, I found those sketches while looking into the old sketchbook of my father,” said Mainul Abedin. “I instantly thought of donating one of the sketches to the Coronafine Group of FFA, DU, so that the auctioned money can be spent for the human beings in need right now.”

Professor Nisar Hossain, Dean of FFA, DU, who along with Mainul Abedin and all the teachers of the faculty, founded the benevolent group involved in a tremendous effort of providing PPE to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and different medical colleges and hospitals all across Bangladesh. The auction for the sketch will take place soon. “We are asking for BDT 8 lakhs for the sketch. This money will be spent for the Coronavirus affected people through the Coronafine Group of FFA, DU,” said Nisar Hossain.

An artist of exceptional talent and international repute, Zainul Abedin played a pioneering role in the modern art movement in Bangladesh that began, by all accounts, with the setting up of the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts (now FFA, DU) in 1948 in Dhaka, of which he was the founding principal. He was well known for his leadership. It was through the efforts of Zainul Abedin and a few of his colleagues that a tradition of Modern Art took shape in Bangladesh just within a decade. For his artistic and visionary qualities the title of ‘Shilpacharya’ was bestowed upon him.

Zainul’s idea of modernism was not confined to merely abstracted, non-representational styles, but to a deeper understanding of the term ‘modernity’ itself in which social progress and individual dynamism are two leading components. His predilections for speed, movement and an interactive space are evident in the paintings of late sixties and seventies. The 30-feet scroll painting titled Manpura 70, done by the master, was to commemorate the hundreds of thousands who died in the devastating cyclone of 1970. His works centralise the power of men and women who labour and struggle against odds, and realise their potential.

Originally Published in The Daily Star

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