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KARACHI, Jan 6: Prof Iftikhar Dadi gave an interesting presentation on the renowned artist Zainul Abedin at T2F on Saturday evening.

Prof Dadi told the rather inquisitive audience that his talk was extracted from his own book titled ‘Modernism and the art of Muslim South Asia’ and began by providing the basic information on Zainul Abedin. He said the artist was born in Kishoreganj in 1914. From 1933 to 1938 he learned art at a government school in Calcutta and till 1947 taught there. The artist had already acquired fame before partition of the subcontinent and first attracted attention for his Bengal famine artworks in 1943, which were pen and brush sketches in which he had shown small, isolated groups affected by the famine.

Prof Dadi said that before independence, the atmosphere in West Bengal was quite radical and anti-colonial mobilization had begun. After 1947, the artist came to Pakistan and in 1949, became the founder and principal of an art institute in Dhaka, which was considered the best art institute in the early years of Pakistan. He then became a senior bureaucrat working for the government of Pakistan which gave him the opportunity to travel abroad and learn about art, resulting in artworks that were labeled Bengali modernist paintings. The artist also visited the Soviet Union (keeping things in the Cold War context), he said.

Prof Dadi said Zainul Abedin went back to using realist language in his works and therefore had a puzzling career because of shuttling between modernist and realist styles. The professor showed picture from an exhibition in 1970 where the artist exhibited a large scroll depicting life in Bangladesh and touching on the cyclone too that had hit East Pakistan at the time. The artist’s pithy comments, such as ‘we Bengalis unite only in death’ accompanied the artworks.

Prof Dadi said Zainul Abedin took part in the 1971 peasant rally of Maulana Bhashani and after the formation of Bangladesh helped establish institutes in Bangladesh. “Creating institutes was his abiding concern,” the professor commented. Prof Dadi said Zainul Abedin’s works had both realist motifs and modernist thrust. He again referred to the realist Bengal famine drawings where the artist had made isolated groups suggesting that famine did not only hurt the body but it also destroyed society.

The famine sketches were first published in a book ‘Darkening Days’ published by the communists and banned by the British.

Prof Dadi informed the attendees that Zainul Abedin immersed himself in Bengali folk tradition. He argued that the Shantiniketan-based artists resorted to primitivism and painted the Santhal tribe, a source of inspiration for many artists because it symbolized freedom movement which in a way was an oblique critique of colonialism. Zainul Abedin drew Santhal maidens as well.

Prof Dadi said the Bengal renaissance of the late 19th century was based in Calcutta. This in a way had an unequal relation with the underdeveloped East Bengal. East Pakistan did not have high (west) Bengali culture which posed the question to the artist, ‘what is the culture of East Pakistan’ and East Pakistan could not embrace the Calcutta-based culture since it was associated with Hindus. The professor one more time referred to Zainul Abedin’s return from Europe in 1951 when he employed curves and geometrics in his work and mapped the folk tradition of Bengal. The choice of his subjects was to do with the rural and tribal as could be seen in his piece ‘The Struggle’ (1959) where energy was bursting out of the artwork. The unequal relationship with West Pakistan (the issue of the Urdu language, for example) could be sensed and the rural and folk in his work represented the regional side rather than the Pakistani national space. So on the one hand there was the underdeveloped, marginalized East Pakistan and on the other hand he was a government employee, which brought into focus the paradoxes he was faced with.

The presentation prompted a lively question-answer session.