Celebrating the birth centenary of Shilpaguru Safiuddin Ahmed

The 100th birth anniversary of an artist is a significant event for the entire art world of the country. It carries immense importance not just for the art world but for the entire cultural milieu of the country. Especially if the artist in question is one of the most important members of the country’s pioneering artists, if he is the father of the modern printmaking of the country, if he is a devout artist, if he is a person to be followed by all, if he is, he has been given the status of “shilpaguru” by everyone. This person at hand is none other than the artist Safiuddin Ahmed (1922-2012). This year marks his centenary. He lived to be ninety years old. After being admitted to the Calcutta Art School in 1936, he spent the rest of his life devoting himself to the pursuit of art, excluding the last four years of his illness. The paintings we get from him as a result of more than seventy years of hard work are one of the best cultural assets of the entire nation. These assets are preserved in Safiuddin Shilpalay. This is also where an important exhibition is being organized on the occasion of Safiuddin Ahmed’s 100th birth anniversary surrounding his creations. Visitors will see his creations as well as important elements of his life preserved in the Safiuddin Memorial. Among them is his photography-art about the floods of Dhaka in 1954-55.

Not only is he among one of the pioneering artists in the entire field of fine arts, he is the only one who has shown the pinnacle of success in the most number of mediums. His excellence was not bound in etching, aquatint, wood engraving and copper engraving within the sphere of printmaking but also spread to oil painting and drawing. He has also painted through the mediums of watercolors, dry points, mural paintings and lithography, but did not continue the practice of these four mediums till the end. However, the mediums he did continue to work in, he was devoted himself with immense diligence. His devotion is what made his experimentation work with different mediums successful. The ideologies of teaching that he saw in his teachers of Calcutta Art School helped him develop such a strong personality. Nevertheless, even before that, family education was an important exemplary model for him. He grew up in a completely civic environment. His permanent abode was in the aristocratic region of Calcutta. In the family circle, he got an elevated cultural environment. It was not just that cultural events were organized by his family but also that the family members themselves were involved in any cultural practices. Under such environmental influences his being became refined and pure; he developed civic wisdom, honesty, improved taste and discipline.

He was aware of where his strengths were and where his weaknesses were. He had no inclination to exaggerate his role or position. Extraordinarily he was humble. What a colorful life! – But I did not see the slightest ego. He is always averse to propaganda; and secrecy was the real feature of his nature. Never chased after money or fame. He made art the object of constant meditation. Involved in each of his works of art are deep thoughts, plans, passions, affections, love and a strong intention to excel.

Seeing all this reminds me of a saying by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. Bibhutibhushan wrote in his diary Trinankur, “The success of life is not in earning money, not in fame, not in the applause of people, not in suffering – that success is only in deep understanding of life, in the joy of realizing the mysteries of the world.” Similarly, Safiuddin Ahmed did not seek his life’s success in terms of money, fame, prestige, popularity or enjoyment, but he sought it in art, in deeply appreciating the mysteries of art.

That is why the constant effort to transcend oneself became the essence of his artistic journey. Tasteful, music-loving, literary-loving, science-minded, open-minded, this artist has never cherished the glory of any aristocracy. Rather, he had a strong sense of principle, a worship of honesty, which helped to build his strong personality.

In the depth of Safiuddin Ahmed’s artistry there lay a hint of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is an innate feature of a great artist. That’s why he never thought that he had painted something good. As a result of always working with such incompleteness, he did not have to be bound in any one circle. As a result, he has achieved a pinnacle of achievement through the three mediums of line drawing, print and oil painting. The great thought of his personal life has undoubtedly always enlivened and enriched his sense of art. He has always strived to achieve spiritual advancement along with advancement in art rather than materialistic advancements. That is why he has always tried to promise the change of his works with changing trends of the era. Always trying to add something new to the field of the art. He, essentially, wanted to master the demand of variability of the age through experimentation. The soft-spoken, gentle-natured artist always had a deep sense of calmness in his mind, which also gave the texture of his paintings a sense of extraordinary serenity.

According to the rules of Calcutta Art School, he used to go with his classmates for outdoor practice in the city of Kolkata or the surrounding countryside along with the suburbs. He used to go out of Calcutta every year on puja holidays with his friends in the interest of developing the beauty of nature in his works. Thus, he went to many areas of Bihar like Madhupur, Deoghar, JCD, Giridih, Chaibasa, Jhajha etc… None of the artists of Undivided Bengal have painted so many paintings like him on the basis of Dumkar and its lifestyle. He also developed a keen sense of nature in Dumka.

The level of advancement that Mukul Dey, Ramen Chakraborty and other artists made in the thirties of the twentieth century attracted Safiuddin Ahmed. He too followed in the footsteps of the teachers with deep devotion and took the art of printmaking towards glory. As a result, his name has inevitably been added to the list of leading artists of modern printmaking all over India.

The natural environment of Dumka, its shalban, the “mayurakshi” river, the life of indigenous Santal woman awakened his sense of art and enriched the texture of his paintings. In 1947, Safiuddin Ahmed, a 25-year-old man, was recognized as a promising artist at the all-India level through winning four awards in the 1945-47 episode.

Partition brought a profound change in his life. He had to build a new settlement in Dhaka after being evicted from his permanent residence in his native Calcutta. This incident brought a change in the style of his work. Within 1954-1955 when the whole country, including Dhaka, was inundated by floods for two consecutive years, he came face to face with a new kind of experience. During his stay in Calcutta he was not acquainted with such floods. He watched the fish play in the clear water with the fear of security being disrupted at every moment. Above the flood waters he saw the rhythmic form and sound of the falling rain. As a result, floods, fish, nets, boats and water diversity had inevitably become the subject of his later paintings. Besides, the natural differences between the two Bengals became clear to him. There was grayness in nature there, while here he saw the scattering of bluish green. As a result of long-term concentration, he was able to bring the desired effect by mixing blue and green in his painting.

In 1956, Safiuddin Ahmed visited London and, besides gaining higher education with distinction in etching and engraving, he also visited various museums in Europe with advanced art. At school in London, his teacher, Melvin Evans, was a friend of Stanley Hatter, the father of modern printmaking. The education in London, the appreciation of the teachers and the experience of visiting various museums and galleries in Europe created in his mind the confidence that it would accelerate and enrich his later creations. It was not just techniques that changed but the subject of artwork changed as well.

During the war of liberation in 1971, from the blockaded and terrified life at his home in Swamibagh, Dhaka, he witnessed with his own eyes the horror of death created by the Pakistani army. It was these sightings that became the motif in his later paintings, creating the deepest connotations of metaphor.

From the very beginning of his life, Safiuddin Ahmed did not allow any lack of honesty or sincerity in painting. He discovered a deep connection between drawing and the great joy of his own mind. It is through great practice that he realizes the enormity of nature; in his paintings comes the skill of composition; a sense of advanced perspective. Going to Dumka, he had realized the soul of nature. As a result, in the small scale of his artwork, he was able to uphold the broad horizon of nature. This subject of showcasing huge scenarios through much smaller artworks became an unique feature of his work.

Safiuddin Ahmed developed a kind of weakness towards black color from his student days. Black is considered to him as the king of color. As a result, many times during his student life, he went to Sealdah Railway Station in Kolkata in the midst of nightfall to practice the color of black. He gained experience with the richness of this color while working with wood engraving. In London he also tried to learn the technique of mastering black color from his teachers. In this context, he uses a variety of blacks through etching – aquatint. For three years in the nineties, he continued to engage in a series of sketches, in which he found satisfaction in his varied use of black. In these paintings we see his accomplishment in using the color black.

However, although there is a great deal of stylistic experimentation in his work, it is not just technically rich, it is equally rich in variety and creativity of subject matter. The presence of a subject matter can be found in all his work whether it is clear or obscure. The splendor of this thematic element lies in his pictorial design. In subject-acquisition he wanted to touch the soul of the country. Just like how in the Kolkata episode he showcased the slum life of the metropolis, the cosmos of different parts of Bihar, the nature of Dumka and Santal-life, in the Dhaka episode he upheld the floods, fishing nets, fishes, boats and storm filled nature. Besides this in the Dhaka episode many working class people became the subject of his work: serbet vendors, peanut vendors, fruit vendors, cloth vendors, other laborers of the Dhaka metropolitan area, along with Bangladesh’s farmers, fishermen, boatmen, carpenter, potter, etc.. His artwork also held the struggling political-cultural way of life of this country through events like the Bayanna language movement and the liberation war of 1971.

In his artwork, he has always wanted to portray the sufferings of the entire nation together with the nature of the country through his passion. However, this patriotism does not make him sloganeering, instead it created appeal in the deepest essence of life. Because, he has always tried to make an outstanding combination of rich style with content. The essence of his art is to try to successfully combine the issues of the East and the techniques of the West. We pay our deepest respects to this saint-artist on the occasion of his birth centenary. We firmly believe that it is only possible to pay due respect to him through pursuing his lifestyle and creative qualities.

Art historian and Art critic Professor Syed Azizul haque, Chairman, Bangla Department, University of Dhaka
Translated by: Nusaiba Anika Ahmed
Edited by: Naziah Anika Ahmed