Safiuddin Ahmed's achievements in printmaking were truly inspiring, and it is small wonder that he should be regarded as its most significant practitioner in Bangladesh. And yet it is true that his reputation for printmaking has in some ways kept his triumphs in other mediums quite in the shadows. His oil painting skills have sometimes, if not always, escaped the attention of most critics who have generally focused on his printmaking. The truth is that even as a young student, his talents were also in evidence in his oil work.
The artist was inclined to use thick layers of colour on hardboard and canvas, with broad brushstrokes and smooth textures. It is worth mentioning that by far the largest segment of Ahmed's work is in oil paint and his dedication to the medium certainly paid off. Although he experimented with oil in his early days, no work has been located from that period. We have come by a set of paintings that date back to 1944–45, when he was busy teaching at the Calcutta Art School. All of these were done during his trips to Dumka, in evident spontaneity.
The paintings depict rural settings, and some give the impression of watercolours or sketches. Each took him less than an hour and a half to complete in a 12 by 9-inch format. His teacher Ramen Chakravarty had brought over a small box of hardboard from London, which he found easy to carry and could be used every time he came across a scene he thought he could paint. On Chakravarty's advice, Ahmed had a similar box made for himself and carried it all the way to Dumka. Of those early works, twenty have survived, though all of them cannot be said to be in good condition and some were left incomplete. While small, they certainly capture the natural expanse. Small brushstrokes and deep, earthy colours characterise these simple and appealing works. In Mayurakkhi (1944), Huts in the Sun (1944), and Vibrant Spirit of Dumka (1944), we see a river bank and a busy Santal household. The sky is barely visible through the trees and the viewer's gaze is led far into a distant haze. The works entitled Path to Dumka 1, 2, and 3 (1945), feature majestic trees and a sunlit path, despite the obvious shade. The vitality of the locals, with their bullock carts, compliments the natural beauty and lends an idyllic, somewhat detached, quality to the picture.
By contrast, Sal Forest in Dumka (1945) is observed up close. The magnitude of the trees has increased and the sky takes up a good portion of the visual field. The scene is lively, in an almost metaphysical meeting of man and nature. In Dumka 1 and 2 (1945), there is a sense of simplicity that draws the viewer's attention and reveals the artist's compelling fascination with this region. The foreground is again dominated by trees in an open field and the sky is wide open, adding intensity to the scenery. We see cattle, the Santal, and a water body, immersed in the palpable timelessness of rural life.
With the Dumka Series drawing to a close, we see a shift in the artist's attention. Among his few portraits is the one of his pupil Hamidur Rahman and a commissioned piece, Portrait of Dilip Dasgupta (1946), a contemporary of 'Shilpacharya’ Zainul Abedin (1914–1976) at the Calcutta Art School. In the 1940s, the artists gathered on weekends at the homes of either Dilip Dasgupta or Anil Bhattacharya. Ahmed made a point of attending those meetings (addas) to fervently exchange his ideas. Still Life with Lilies (1947) was done in the artist's home in Kolkata's Park Circus. This simple, charming, European-style composition did not quite align with the objective reality of the setting; something Ahmed appears to have done deliberately.
The scene in On the Banks of the Mayurakkhi (1948) is similar to the one the artist produced in drypoint in 1945. This oil was done from memory in his studio. Indeed, he was not even in Kolkata at the time. Here he uses lighter colours, rather than the thick coat of paint he typically worked with, remaining conscious of his perspective. His earlier images of the Mayurakkhi tend to suggest the shallow parts of the river. Here we notice its depth and intensity through the blue, and the intimate meditation of the women.
Once Ahmed moved to Bangladesh or ‘East Pakistan’ as it was then in 1947, the beauty of East Bengal and its people became his focus. He quickly sought out new themes and motifs, and filled his canvases with the liveliness of Dhaka, such as in, Paddy Bazaar (1952), Sherbet Stall-1 (1954), Chicken Coop (1954), and Carpenter (1956). In Threshing Paddy (1952), he depicts energetic peasants working the golden paddy fields. This is a result of the artist's cumulative experience observing the process of de-husking rice in various regions of Bengal, such as in Dumka, the suburbs of Kolkata, and Rajshahi. The picture was designed directly on the canvas, and the brushstrokes are prominent. The artist is clearly emphasising the intensity of the peasants' labour and their physical strength. In Angling (1954), we see a fisherman standing in a boat, trying to catch fish with a rod, or borshi as it is known in Bengali. The depth of the water and the man's precarious, but effective, positioning stands out in this essentially hopeful image.
During his stay in Britain, Ahmed studied nudes and still life as part of his course work. Here we see a richer, more varied colour palette that continues throughout his later work. In Nude-2 (1957), the model is set against a turquoise cloth, offset by a pink background. The artist has depicted a flat, blank face, without eyes, nose or mouth. No outlines delineate the image from the backdrop and the woman's two hands are shown in different poses. Her body leans slightly to the left, with some of its weight resting on her left hand. The models apparent awkwardness seems to belie the intimacy of the situation. In Bookshop in Paris (1960), we see a busy row of bookstalls along the river in the French capital. While our main focus is on the books, the artist has also taken care to add small reproductions of artworks and houses in the distance. In this clearly European ambience one seems to get a sense of the young artist's simultaneous attraction to and dislocation in the West.
On his return home, Safiuddin Ahmed neglected his oil painting for a good while. Indeed, his next significant piece, Fishing Net (1975), came fifteen years later. An important result of the artist's London years was the disappearance of figures from his works. Instead, he used a combination of familiar and mysterious motifs and symbols. His vibrant Jackfruit Tree (1980), was reproduced in a calendar prepared by the Bangladesh Tobacco Company in June of that year. Dominating the scene is a fruit-laden tree in high summer. His bold sun, colourful layering of shapes and lavish foliage indicate a new found abstraction. His next work, Tree (1984), draws on the influences of European Symbolist art, while Black Fish (1984) clearly marks the artist's new aesthetic, with his distinctive ingenuity for spontaneous colour combinations and intuitive forms. In Still Life-3 (1987), a deep blue makes the bottles in the foreground prominent and although the scene is indoors, the sun appears in the upper right section of the painting; breaking the artist's own barriers to expression. He used a similar approach in Sherbet Stall-2 (1988), where the dynamism of his imagery seems to challenge the immobility of the stilllife method. Again the sun is conspicuously present in an interior setting.
In 1988 Bangladesh suffered devastating floods and millions of people were made homeless. The artist was once again confined to his residence and this unforgettable experience inspired various works, such as Flood-1 (1988), The Sun, the Tree and a Woman (1989), and Floods-2 (1994). The overwhelming waters, sheer helplessness of the people, and the omnipresent gloom are evident in the powerfully draining verticality of these compositions. Nature and humanity are interchangeable here and the sun appears to oversee their relationship. The artist seems to be indicating the inevitability of this primordial bond.
Woman (1996) is a haunting portrayal of the repression exercised on Bengali women by the Pakistan army during 1971. This solitary woman represents the trauma of an entire generation of Bangladeshi women who endured the Liberation War. The anger and terror in her eyes are unmistakable. In Memories of 1971 (1996), we see an old man mourning the loss of his family and countrymen. His only companion, a bird, also appears dead in his cage. The use of yellow poignantly spotlights the loneliness in the man's face. The courage to forge ahead is brilliantly illustrated in Life (1996), in which Ahmed uses the analogy of men hauling a boat to capture the sheer emotional stamina required to course through life, with all its complexities and compulsions. We feel a pronounced sense of movement here, made all the more intense by the signature presence of the sun in the right-hand corner of the picture. This painting is a fine example of balanced composition
Indeed, throughout his career Ahmed used metaphor to great effect, both aesthetically and semantically. His Blue Water (2000), depicts a series of perpendica forms set in a predominate blue, which informs much of the artist's semi-abstract works. The weight and inherent power of what looks like nets or cloth suspended above the water-line is achieved in the thick layering of colours and black contouring. Perhaps 11 are caught in a silent net. The sheer texture compliments the sombre quality of his message. Melody of Nature-1 (2000) also provides an interesting juxtaposition of line and colour that recalls the intermingling of musical notes. And Blind Girl and Dead Bird (2000) forms an intricate, shadowy narrative, with two protagonists, respectively symbolising social injustice and individual free will.
In Fish and Net-3 (2002), we notice a change in artistic perspective and a different approach to colour. At the top of the picture there is a net from which fish hang. They are caught, but there has been a struggle to pull them out of the water. Yellow is used for the net as well as the fish, and rather than going for brilliance where light is concerned, the artist has deliberately created a haze, in line with the ambiguity of the situation. In the lower part of the picture, a light blue reveals water droplets the viewer cannot miss. This time a faded sun emphasises the pathos of the situation. In Sound of Blue (2002), we again see the tree motif, but here its branches are almost bare. The feeling of loss and the promise of renewal are perfectly symmetrical.
Always concerned with the movement of life, Safiuddin Ahmed's final works have a mural quality to them, such as in Fish (2004), Two Faces (2005), and Rhythm of Lines-3 (2005). With its particularly harmonious interplay of colours, this latter work is the epitome of his characteristically simple yet memorable composition and symbolism. The dancer's posture and the subtle melody invoked, give this work that sheer vitality that is testimony to this artist's lifelong dedication to art.
Courtesy by Syed Azizul Haque an Art Historian and Professor of department of Bangla in Dhaka University