ABOUT a year ago, when the world-renowned painter Shahabuddin Ahmed was approached to hold an exhibition of his latest paintings in Kolkata, he was at a loss as to what the title of the exhibition should be. After much consideration and consultation with friends, the Paris-based artist of Bangladeshi origin settled on “Shanti”, or peace.
The exhibition, which was inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee on December 12 and will continue until January 16 at the Ganges Art Gallery, could not have been more appropriately titled, particularly in the context of the Paris attacks of November 13. “The naming of the exhibition has turned out to be apt, though the reason I chose the name a year ago was mainly because I wanted to keep it simple. There is so much disturbance everywhere… in Bangladesh, in Paris. The attack in Paris was a blow to the very symbol of human rights, which was France’s gift to the rest of the world,” Shahabuddin Ahmed told Frontline .
The 30 paintings on display show that even at 65, Shahabuddin Ahmed has lost none of the powers of his technique nor the creativity that has brought him international fame and innumerable awards and accolades, the latest being the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Art and Literature), which the French government conferred upon him in 2014.
Like all his paintings, the latest ones depict the power, pain, joy, strain, indomitable spirit and the exhilaration of freedom of movement. The paintings capture not just bodies in motion but also the human spirit that strains to liberate itself against its confines. “My concern is with human beings, their struggles, their pain and their victory,” he said. In the violence of the movements expressed by Shahabuddin Ahmed’s bold and immediately identifiable brushstrokes, the ultimate quest is for peace and emancipation of the body and the spirit.
There are other themes, too, such as the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971, still life, portraits of historical figures who inspire him, including Mahatma Gandhi, “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Rabindranath Tagore. “People like Mahatma Gandhi and Bangabandhu never wanted bloodshed. They wanted peace and they had to die for it. As for Rabindranath, I do not know where we would be without him. These three figures are the epitome of ‘Shanti’,” Shahabuddin Ahmed said.
The Bangladesh War of Liberation forms an essential part of his psyche and is a key component of his art. He played an active part in that war as a platoon commander while still a second-year arts student in Dhaka. “The victory that we achieved in the war is something I keep within me all the time. If I feel hurt or upset at any time, this part of my history reignites my spirit,” he said. “I do not know of any other painter in the world who has fought in a war like I have, and I feel fortunate to have had that experience. It is a source of power for me. The force of my painting perhaps comes from this.”
He was an outstanding student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dhaka and quickly established a reputation as one of the most promising artists of the country. One of his major influences at that time was the legendary Bangladeshi painter Zainul Abedin. In 1974, at the insistence of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (then the Prime Minister), he went to Paris with a scholarship to study at Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, that country’s National School of Fine Arts. It was there that he was influenced by the British painter Francis Bacon.
“By 1977 in Paris I was wondering: What am I doing here? This is not my world. Then I came across an exhibition of Francis Bacon and felt a similarity with my vision [in his paintings]. It was what I was looking for, and so I decided to continue,” Shahabuddin Ahmed said.
In Bacon he saw the marriage of beauty and sophistication with violence and tension. This fortuitous discovery pointed him to a new direction. “Unlike Bacon’s, my paintings are not about violence, but I understood what he did. I started learning that technique, and it was my dream to have an exhibition where he had his exhibition. And I succeeded,” he said.
He recalled that at that time, some of the people around him in Paris would mockingly refer to him as “Small Bacon”, but that soon changed as his own style began to emerge. To Shahabuddin Ahmed, originality and identity are of paramount importance in art. “Real artists are very few, and they are the ones who save art. In painting, just to get an original line is an extremely difficult thing. To develop a single original line can even take a lifetime. Art must have that element that singles you out and puts your own stamp upon a creation, otherwise it is useless,” he said.
Like all great artists, he discovered the power of simplicity quite early on. “I thought of Satyajit Ray’s films, masterpieces like Pather Panchali , Charulata , Jalsaghar. They are all so simple. What is the point in complicating things? And I started looking into my own world and life —the farmer, the war into which I jumped with all my fervour, the cow, the manure, everything that was part of my life. I started drawing these,” he said.
A unique aspect of Shahabuddin Ahmed’s art is the way he often revisits the same themes; but each time the theme is dealt with in a different way and so there is no feeling of repetitiveness. The artist feels that his source of inspiration, which he carries in his heart and mind, is inexhaustible in its scope. “There are so many artists who paint movement. So what distinguishes them from me? It is what I have seen and experienced in the mud and dust of my land. When I get tired there (in Paris), I come back here to re-energise myself. To me Bangladesh and Kolkata are one and the same,” he said.
Even if his work and output show no indication of it, the painter does feel that age is slowing him down a bit. “My intellectual development in art is based on constant work. Now it is difficult for me to paint at a stretch as my eyes hurt. Every day I feel a little diminished and weaker. There is so much to do, when will I do it?”
He feels that a great creation or a masterpiece comes from the ability of an artist to immerse himself in the process of creation. However short that duration may be, it is at that time that great art is born. “I believe Picasso could do that more than anybody else. He could hold that inspiration for the longest time, and so he could accomplish so much. For most, that inspiration comes once in a while and for just a fleeting moment. That is why you will see in most painters there is perhaps only one painting which is truly great,” Shahabuddin Ahmed said.
But this “spark”, he feels, is something that an artist has to strive for. “You keep at it until it happens. It is the same in every field—literature, even politics. There has to be one’s own philosophy to sustain one’s art or work.”
Shahabuddin Ahmed has come a long way from his penniless days in Paris, when, he admits, he would sometimes even have to steal a little paint and oil to keep on painting. Today, his paintings are exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world. At the Olympiad of Arts in Barcelona in 1992, he was hailed as one of “50 Master Painters of Contemporary Art”. Yet, for all his success he remains a down-to-earth man, full of anecdotes that he loves to share and a sparkling sense of humour that plays down his enormous achievements. With his long unkempt hair and charmingly idiosyncratic manner, in many ways he is still the rebellious free spirit that he was in his youth when he picked up a gun to fight for his country’s independence and inspired his comrades-in-arms with his paintings.