Six decades of contemporary art in Bangladesh / Chapter 1 of all 6 chapters


Takir Hossain

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin

The movement of modern art started in Dhaka with the establishment of the Dacca Art School (now Dhaka) in 1948 with Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin as its founding principal. The chronicle of the contemporary art in Bangladesh commences at the time of partition of the sub-continent in 1947, when Zainul Abedin and some of his contemporaries such as Khaja Shafique Ahmed, Quamrul Hassan, Shafiqul Amin, Habibur Rahman, Habibullah Bahar, Safiuddin Ahmed, Anwarul Haq, Syed Ali Ahsan--- all came forward to establish this institution. All of these started with a few rooms in the Dhaka National Medical College Hospital building located at Johnson Road in Old Dhaka. In 1952, the facility moved to a building at Segunbagicha in the city. In 1956, the institution finally moved to its own building in Shahbagh (in the University of Dhaka neighbourhood) and it was designed by the famed architect Mazharul Islam. Around 1963, the institution was turned into a government college and was renamed East Pakistan College of Arts and Crafts. After the Liberation War, the institution became Bangladesh Government College of Arts and Crafts in 1972. In 1983, the academy was merged with University of Dhaka and became the Institute of Fine Arts. In 2008, the institute was renamed the Faculty of Fine Arts as part  of the University of Dhaka. 

  • Zainul Abedin at work
    [Courtesy: Amanul Huq],_Zainul

Modern art in Bangladesh is believed to have had its beginning with Zainul Abedin. Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) spent his childhood in remote area of Mymensingh and he took inspiration from lush greenery, riverine beauty of the Brahmaputra and its rustic surroundings. He exercised mastery over a wide range of subjects. He held opinions on topics such as the environment, patriotism and non-communalism. His canvas was a perfect reflection of the Bengali way of life. With his touch of artistry these objects came to life in varied manifestations of ecstasy, hilarity, joy, adoration, anguish, liveliness, conscience and courage.

Zainul went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to study art in Calcutta Government Art School in 1933. During the period, he was famous for his superb watercolour technique and sharp line drawings. His “Famine Sketch” recalls the famine days of 1943. The heart-rendering series earned Abedin international acclaim. During that time, Zainul carefully depicted the sufferings of the people through his sketches. Drawn in Chinese ink and brush on cheap packing paper, the artworks hold haunting images of utter helplessness the masses felt while dying from hunger. These sketches still haunt us and take us back to the days when crows, dogs and men shared food in the dustbins. He always portrayed our critical times on canvas. Abedin’s paintings during the 1950s and 1960s were products of his preference for realism, and folk forms. But after a couple of years, the iconic figure went back to nature, to rural life, and the daily struggles of man. As media, oil, water, pen, ink, pencil and pastel are used in his works. 

  • 'Famine 1943', sketch by Zainul Abedin,_Zainul

Abedin’s other contemporaries, Quamrul Hassan, Safiuddin Ahmed, SM Sultan and Mohammad Kibria’s name came to the prominence for their immense contributions to establishing the modern art movement in the country. All of them had created individual languages through their artistic articulations and their mode of expressions are diverse including folk, figurative, semi-figurative, semi-abstract, pure abstract, abstract-expressionism and more.  

Among them, Quamrul Hassan (1921-1988) was recognised for recuperating our folk and traditional elements through his art. Hassan was a powerful artist working in almost all media like oil, gouache, watercolours, pastel, etching, woodcut, linocut, pen and pencil. His works delineated the rural Bengal and its people. He portrayed figures, natural objects, trees, snakes, owls, jackals, birds, fish, animals as well as landscape where we can see his passion about portraying rustic scenic beauty and its untainted beauty. His paintings are recognised for their bold, flowing brushstrokes and brilliant colours. He mingles romanticism with realism, focusing on strong curved lines, contours, and contrasted use of colour. Pastoral women and their dilemma is a recurrent theme in his works. He mingles romanticism with realism, focusing on strong curved lines, contours, and contrasted use of colour. Rural women and their dilemmas is another topic Hassan has repeatedly produced. His handling of women highlight the relationship between them, most of his paintings of women are of a group of women, hardly ever a solo painting can be found.

  • Quamrul Hassan
    Winter, 1955. In front of Bordhoman House Ustad Alauddin Khan with (from left) artist Quamrul Hassan, Ustad Khadem Hossain Khan, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, Sardar, Joinuddin and others in the music conference held in Dhaka.

Safiuddin Ahmed (1922-2012) is particularly known for his woodcut engraving. He was an urban artist who divided his life in two cities — Kolkata (India)  and Dhaka (Bangladesh). Though he lived in the city, he shied away from the city’s chaotic life. City life was not attractive to him at all. That is why his work has mainly focused on rural panorama, pastoral life, landscapes, floods and other natural calamities as well as Santal life. Liberation War and Language Movement are also recurring themes in his work. Black is the predominant shade in his both mediums--- prints and paintings and the artist experimented with layers of this particular colour. Safiuddin Ahmed graduated from the Government School of Art, Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1942. In his student life, the artist learned many meticulous techniques and styles in printmaking – wood engraving, etching and dry point in particular. Evidently, printmaking is one of the most arduous mediums, which gave him a taste of tranquility, patience and devotion to his work. He always felt that his student life was the main phase of his artistic growth, when he got the company of legendary painters in West Bengal (Pacchim Bangla) in India. However, the artist migrated to Dhaka, after the partition of British-India in 1947. Then he joined the newly founded Dacca Art College (presently the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka).

  • Fishing
    Safiuddin Ahmed
    Brush and Ink, 1950

SM Sultan (1923-1994)  delved deep into rural life, especially fishermen, peasants, labourers and their simple lives. His works articulate the lives of the working class. His paintings mainly focus on disadvantaged communities, but also highlight their power of unity and the struggle for power. His paintings visually narrate stories of rural households, where men and women are seen immersed in chores and farmers toiling in the fields. His figures are muscular and powerful, denoting a sense of prosperity - a vision the artist had for rural Bengal. Sultan drew male figures influenced by the European Renaissance tradition, while his women - buxom and curvaceous - belong to the old Indian tradition. His drawings, such as his self-portrait, are characterised by their economy and compactness. The lines are powerful and fully developed. His early paintings were influenced by the Impressionists. In his oils he employed Van Gogh’s impasto technique. His watercolors, predominantly landscapes, are bright and lively.

  • SM Sultan

Mohammad Kibria (1929-2011), a significant name in enriching modernism in Bangladeshi Art. He is considered an iconic figure in contemporary art, as he introduced modern paintings where compositions, colours and forms are major features. He meticulously blended the essential elements of  his paintings. His paintings can be explained in many ways where one can find the touch of mysticism; some can get the taste of harmony, melancholy or despair. His mode of expression (in paintings) had been changed a number of times, but the painter successfully established his personal trademark through all his creations. His style is unquestionably unique, individualised and expressive. Kibria was known for his compositions and he worked in several mediums, applying different techniques. His printmaking was very delicate, prolonged and technique based. Emotions, yearnings, contemplation and liberty were aptly addressed through his etchings and lithographs. He used minimization in his printmaking. Due to the influence of his Japanese guru Hideo Hagiwara (in printmaking), Kibria’s etchings and lithographs reflect elements of Japanese subtlety and technique.

  • Mohammad Kibria

Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan, Safiuddin Ahmed, SM Sultan and Mohammad Kibria are artists who are identified as the first generation of modern artists of Bangladesh. The next generation were basically direct students of Abedin, Hassan, Ahmed and Kibria at the Dhaka Art School (now the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka).   

It is mentionable that the first batch initiated of the Dhaka Art School in 1948 with some students. The groups were very committed and most of them involved in left leaning parties. They portrayed nature, urban life and surrounding atmosphere. During the time, Dhaka was a tranquil city and it had lots of greenery places. Abedin especially stressed on drawing and he successfully understood them about this genre of art and its various significant aspects. The students also portrayed political chaos, economic crises, city life, rural life, still life and other subjects. Some of them were greatly influenced by internationally acclaimed impressionist painters. In 1950s, it was hardly being found students to study in Art College. The founding members roved door to door for searching students. Fortunately, they got a bunch of students and started second batch. In a similar pattern, they started third batch. Among the students of first, second and third batches, Aminul Islam, Murtaja Baseer, Qayyum Chowdhury,  Abdur Razzaque, Debdas Chakraborty, Rashid Chowdhury, Mobinul Azim, Nurul Islam and Syed Jahangir have excelled them as reputed painters. Most of them are treated as experimental painters. They continuously dwelt on space, form and composition. Though the movement of the sixties was heavily influenced by few internationally prominent Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline and Adolph Gottlieb, it paved the way towards liberalisation. Thus the present accomplishments of Bangladesh's art owes to the liberalization. However, these artists of the three batches have their specialties that differ one from another:

Aminul Islam (1931-2011) grew primarily as a non-figurative painter in the early 1960s and started to experiment with different mediums and art forms. Besides painting, Islam was also inclined towards drawing. In the course of his career, he developed several styles, particularly in his drawings and sketches. His figure-based works from the mid-1960s are remarkable. Gradually, the painter became increasingly aware of the different qualities of lines produced by pen, pencil, brush, bamboo, discarded brush and other objects. The powerful drawings reveal his mastery over lines and superb composition skills. He also did murals in different parts of the country.  

Murtaja Baseer (1932 –2020) was a politically and socially conscious painter. In his student life, he involved in left leaning politics. He was sent to jail several times in the '50s for his political ideology. From the very beginning of his career, the artist was greatly influenced by the paintings of Byzantine and Early-Renaissance period. He had received high praise for true depiction of Bengali woman--her pathos, inner agony, magnificence and uniqueness. He zoomed the portrait of the women of ultra modern society where artificiality and vulgarity cautiously focused in his paintings. He was known as a resourceful genius. Throughout his illustrious career, Baseer gradually transformed his working style into abstract realism. 

  • Murtaja Baseer

Qayyum Chowdhury (1932 – 2014) is possibly well known for his book cover design. His works delve deep into folk, pastoral life and traditions; the recurring motifs are birds, greenery, flowers, fish, rural women carrying pitchers, peasants, freedom fighters, lush foliage and bulls. His realistic and semi-realistic works on the Bangladeshi countryside were marked by his lucid and personal technique. His excessive use of space provides grace to all his work that belongs to this sensuous grade. Tactile, sharp and stirring colours give that depth and shape to his drawings and paintings. The colours he generally used -- green, red, yellow and azure -- flow and merge with passion.

Abdur Razzaque (1932–2005), during a long and chequered life, gradually transformed himself into an abstract expressionist painter. His works were form and colour-oriented and nature was a recurring leitmotif in his works. His watercolours give us a serene and tranquil feeling which was one of the hallmarks of his works. He always enjoyed creating new forms and shapes that represented unfamiliar and unconventional facets. 

Debdas Chakraborty (1933–2008) was not immersed in painting only, but printmaking and drawing were also among his favourite mediums of expression. Most of his works were form and colour-oriented. Nature and people were also the favourite topics of the artist. Debdas portrayed nature and its mysterious phases through his personal notion, experience and thought process. It can be easily said that his paintings have been recorded with his inner feelings and intense observation of his living place, life and reminiscence. Devdas used sweeping strokes, which brought an animated hallmark to his works. His strokes and forms are simultaneously natural and create a language which is alien to us. His colour is both bright and mellow and appears rich and smooth. His soul was always on the look out for space where the green, azure, red, crimson, off-white and yellow are filled with great joy and ecstasy. He loved russet hues and cobalt blue. Remarkable forms and various suggestive objects create a unique language in his paintings. Many of his paintings are composition and form based - forms in varied sized-rectangular, vertical, horizontal, half-curved and full curved. The artist brought many symbols into his paintings. Space division in his compositions is dramatic; with big spaces kept flat while smaller areas have several tiny patterns. It is obvious that the artist has spent a considerable time to create the illusion of space.

Rashid Chowdhury (1932-1985) was the pioneer of tapestry in the country and definitely the finest artist of this particular genre to date. He successfully introduced tapestry in various forms. His works are unparalleled in their subjects and style. Blending of our tradition with modern western art is the main characteristics of his works. The artist established his uniqueness - particularly in terms of design and colour composition. The thickness of colours, geometric compositions and aestheticism distinguish his works. 

Nurul Islam’s (1933-2010) accomplishments included volumes of drawings, sketches, and paintings. He was greatly influenced by Jamini Roy and Quamrul Hassan. Islam was known for his unique portrayal of curvaceous women. Unusual contour lines, soothing texture as well as cubism forms are other key facets of his works. His lines are more evocative and sensual. His works are distinctive because of a pure aesthetic balance. Most of his works plunged deep into the inner essence of folk elements. His semi-realistic and semi-abstract works of rural areas, and the transparent technique, boosts his use of the background. His excessive use of space provides grace to all his work that belongs to this sensuous grade.

Mubinul Azim’s (1934 –1975) lines signify the modern mode of expressions. His paintings feature varied structures, ovals and encircled forms. It is believed that Azim constructs a form or composition and then he deconstructs it, only to recreate it. Well-drawn shapes, sharply outlined, and meticulously created textures make most of his images memorable. His images also ardently capture fragmented visions inspired by expressionism. His works also highlight a combination of contemporary abstract shapes and multi-coloured forms. The artist has used forms and lines derived from his whimsical visions.

Syed Jahangir (1935-2018) not only portrayed beautiful Bangladesh, but some of his works also depicted social and environmental issues like river erosion, hard up labourers, untold hardships of peasants, fishermen and more. Jahangir also focuses on seasonal changes, tranquil landscapes, ponds, mustard and green paddy fields in autumn, rainy days and blue skies. In his paintings, he had used gold and cobalt blue, yellow, ultramarine, golden yellow and green. The subjects of his works are in a sombre mood and their characteristics are consistently highlighted. At times, his figures look lively and compel us into reflecting on their experiences. 

In 1950s and 1960s were very significant times for the painters of our country. In mid 50s, a number of painters went abroad to take higher education on their preferred fields. Besides their acquiring education, they got chance to visit many European museums and earned knowledge about modern art. After completion their studies, they came back and started to practice art with novel and refreshing themes and styles. The painters included Hamidur Rahman, Aminul Islam, Murtaja Baseer, Rashid Chowdhury, Abdur Razzaque and others. During the time, these groups of painters were greatly influenced by abstract expressionism, lyrical abstraction, pure abstraction and non-figuration. This time, artists concentrated on textures, forms, tones, especially they concentrated more on technical aspects. 

In the same time, one group started to work with emotions and the other worked with intelligence. Gradually, forms and compositions were the predominant aspects in the group of painters. Forms and symbols carried many distinct languages, which were closely connected to political turmoil, instability, economic crises and social discrimination.
After mid 60s, a number of painters focused on nationalism in their works.

… To Chapter 2

About the Writer
Takir Hossain is an art critic and cultural curator. He has been writing on contemporary Bangladeshi art and culture for a long time. His keen interests are on art and literature. As an art critic, his criticisms have been incorporated in many reputed artists’ books, brochures, national and international art journals as well as many other varied forms of creative publication. On many occasions, the critic has presented keynote papers for national and international seminars. He has also graced the position of a jury member in a number of art competitions and carnivals. In his vibrant career he has covered several international exhibitions held in different countries across Europe and Asia.
The writer can be reached at