As a result of Safiuddin Ahmed’s success in almost all aspects of printmaking, he is naturally more widely known as a printmaker. But this identity hides another bright side of his talent. That is to say, the fact that he has worked tirelessly, even in oil paintings, has not always been important to the negotiators. But if we notice, we will see that he has been continuously engaged in the practice of this medium since his student life and is also very prone to experimentation in this field like printmaking.
In this medium, his tendency is to work with a thick coating of color. He used both hard board and canvas for oil painting. He painted with a brush stroke as well as with a smooth coating of paint. At the same time, he resorted to the Imasto method (thick coating of paint) with the help of a spatula. He did not follow the process of painting with joso on canvas. Rather, he has created the land of painting with oil paint. He has also spent a long time in oil painting in almost every field. This opportunity naturally lies in the work of this medium. In this way, he seems to have found the harmony of his own nature with the oil painting. It is to be noted that he has edited the largest number of images through this medium. His observational, pious qualities have helped him to reach the pinnacle of success in this too.
Although he has been practicing the oil medium since his student days, we do not find any evidence of that time. We get a bunch of oil paintings from his early days which were painted in 1944-1945, when he was doing a teaching course at Calcutta Art School. Another important piece of information in this context is that he drew all the pictures of it during the Dumka trip, instantly i.e. as an outdoor study. He drew them in close proximity to nature, using landscapes as a subject, much like doing watercolors or sketches. It took one to one and a half hours. As a result, he called them oil sketches. All painted on hardboard, all small in size: 12 inches in length and 9 inches in width. There is a history of drawing such images. That is, his teacher Ramendranath Chakraborty brought a small box from London. Notch it so that the hard board can be kept. As easy as it is to move the box, it is also possible to draw a picture by placing a board on the container in a convenient place. The box could hold a 12-inch-by-9-inch hard board. On the advice of that teacher, Safiuddin Ahmed made such a box and took it to Dumka and drew these oil paintings. Twenty of these images are still in his possession, though not all are in good condition, some are unfinished too.
Although painted on small sized boards, these paintings convey the vastness of nature. The work has been done with a small brush. It has brush strokes, a thick coating of paint. The type of work is such that the paint has been applied at once, completely confirmed. There is no opportunity to apply paint again and again or there is no opportunity for refining, purifying or rubbing. Although the paintings were created in such a short time, its artistic excellence or beauty was not disturbed. A few images are individually negotiable.
Notable among the paintings painted in 1944 are: ‘Mayurakshi’, ‘Suryaloke Kutir’, ‘Dumkar Karmachanchal Jiban’ and ‘Dumkar Path-1’. The image titled ‘ Mayurakshi ‘ depicts the form of the emaciated Mayurakshi in September-October. The compositional technique of the scene captured in this figure is admirable. The brush strokes feature a small portion of the riverbank in the background, and the rest of the rest of the river with a view of the river. The shepherd with the herd of cows is crossing on foot due to the weak current; River water across the foreground of the image. Crossing the middle of the image, the current bends and goes fairly straight away. A peace feeling is felt by the viewer to see the vastness of the river.
The ‘Surjoloke Kutir’ depicts an intimate scene of the Santals ’domestic life. The relaxed monastery of the chickens reared by the Santal men and women in their homes has enlivened the reality of that life. The sky is visible through the gaps between houses and trees. Some parts of the board have been left in the background of the painting. The brown color of those parts has mixed with other colors of the leaves of the tree to create new connotations. ‘Surjoloke Kutir’ is undoubtedly a successful creation in this Dumka series of sketchy oil paintings.
In the film titled ‘Dumkar Karmachal Jeevan’, the sense of perspective is well developed along with the creative skills. In the foreground of the picture, the view goes away through the gap of two large trees where there are two more trees in the middle and the activity of the Santal people. Further away are the mountains and the sky in the background behind it. Foreground trees are arranged in two cut-off edges. This is where the artist’s sense of perspective is clear. The farther the vision goes, the smaller the size of the trees, the people and the mountains. Thus the sky spreads over half of the surface. As a result, the vastness of nature has blossomed through it. The sky has been brought out through the gaps in the trunks, stalks and leaves of the trees. In this painting, too, the artist has left some part of the board and sometimes the field has created a combination of the colors of the leaves of the tree.
In the picture titled ‘Dumkar Path-1’, the path has been made the main one. Large rows of trees on either side of the path. As the path became the main one, no form of full-grown tree was painted in the picture. The cut off edge method cuts off the top and sides of the tree. As a result, the sky is also covered. Although the tree branches on both sides cover the path, the path and the tree floor are illuminated by the influence of the sun. From this image of human movement along the path from far and wide, an intense feeling of mobility has emerged. The reality of this human foot-walk in the picture has deepened that feeling. Cars could be seen rarely on this paved road in Dumkar. Originally bullock carts were used. But it is also missing in this picture. It’s like, the walking picture fits with the indigenous Santal lifestyle.
Notable among the paintings of the Dumka episode painted in 1945 are: ‘Dumkar Path-2’, ‘Dumkar Path-3’, ‘Shalban Dumka’, ‘Dumka-1’ and ‘Dumka-2’. These drawings are also drawn on boards of the same size and in an instantaneous sketching method. There are two large trees in the foreground of the painting titled ‘Dumkar Path-2’. The path scene is clear in the middle of it. In the picture, the path comes from the left side, turns and goes down the slope and then turns right again. The path is sweet but high and wide. This painting also depicts the movement of people along the way, so the artist’s passion for the noise of life can be understood. In this painting too, the sense of the artist’s perspective is extraordinary. The same cut-off age method has been resorted to. In this way, the upper sky is covered, but sometimes it comes out through the gaps in the leaves. This figure also follows the custom of giving up parts of the board. Another feature of this collection is: the presence of light and air throughout the image makes it lively and spirited. Another painting called ‘Dumka’ was painted by the artist with Aquatint medium in 1945 based on almost the same scene.
In ‘Dumkar Path-3’, the willow trees seem to cover the entire picture. Through it, a methopath has gone some distance and turned out to be parallel. Lots of people are walking along the road, bullock carts are moving. This picture is only about forests, roads and people. The image has the use of strokes, there is a thick coating of color. Where the color is light brown, the artist has actually left the board, meaning no color has been applied. This technique of drawing has been followed here as in other pictures. However, lack of time has forced the artist to adopt this strategy. In this painting also the artist has taken shelter of the cut off age method. As a result, the predominance of trees, including foliage, throughout the entire surface; As a result, the sky is covered. However, sometimes the artist uses white color in the gaps of the leaves to bring out the sky. The long salsari on the small figure has brought the connotation of greatness.
The artist’s composition technique is different in the painting ‘Shalban Dumka’. Here the cosmos is seen more closely. That is through close shots. As a result, as the size of the tree has increased, so has its number. And as the line of sight went down further from the top, only the foliage of the tree was cut off and only the trunk was visible. The length of the tree is much more predominant in this figure. The perspective of this length is the main point of this picture. On the other hand, the sky is much more visible due to the scarcity of leaves. The sky has been used in this way because of the conscious plan to prioritize the trees. The sky is bigger than the ground in the picture. The intimate scenes of the daily life of Santal men and women arranged in this background of the cosmos have made the image more vivid. Here is a picture of the combined work of men and women with paddy and straw. The reality of that life has also come to light from the difference in the clothes they wear. In this vertical-shaped image, a deep connotation of the vastness of the natural world is revealed.
There is a noticeable simplicity in the composition technique of the film titled ‘Dumka-1’. The consciousness that has blossomed from the perspective is also admirable in this picture. In the foreground of the image is a vast open wilderness with two full-grown trees, a distant hill in the middle, and a expansive sky in the background. The expanse of the sky covers most of the space under the image, which is indicative of the vastness of nature. The beauty of a kind of emptiness has been revealed in this simplicity of creation. In that vast emptiness of nature, the presence of a herd of cows and buffaloes in the open wilderness and the presence of a shepherd with a head-like umbrella on the back of these animals made the vibration of life feel perceptible. This figure shows the use of strokes. The technique of leaving the board and bringing out the brown color has also been used in this figure.
In the image of ‘Dumka-2’, a large pond is covered behind a willow tree. Santal men and women walk along the banks of the water body. It is like an eternal movie of daily life. In the distance, dense forests cover most of the sky. A small part of the sky is visible through the gaps in the trees. Trees and forests have been made the main characters in this painting. The artist has made the Santal life, which is inseparable from this forest, impeccable in every image of the Dumka-series. The simplicity and beauty of tribal life seems to be inseparable with this wild beauty.
After this oil-painted Dumka-series, we find in the artist’s Calcutta biography up to 1947 a portrait of Dilip Dasgupta (1946) and an inanimate image of Lily Flower (1947). Besides, the painting titled ‘Mayurakkhi Tire Nari’ was painted in 1948, but its subject matter can be discussed only in this episode.
Safiuddin Ahmed did not draw a portrait. Another portrait was found of his student Hamidur Rahman. Besides, it is known that another portrait was painted as a commission work, but its details have been obscured. Dilip Dasgupta was a classmate of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin (1914-76) at the Calcutta Art School. In the forties of the twentieth century in Calcutta, artist Dilip Dasgupta or artist Anil Bhattacharya’s house used to have regular hangouts on weekends, in which Safiuddin Ahmed also used to take part. In one such conversation, the image was instantly drawn on a small canvas. Emphasis has been laid on deepening the personality of the artist by focusing on the face. The simple expression of the artist is beautifully expressed in this stroke-rich portrait.
The life-painting titled ‘Lily Flower’ has been painted as a personal exercise at the artist’s own home in Park Circus, Kolkata. The artist did not imitate the real while drawing it by decorating it with flowers at home. The artist has tried to transcend reality, especially in the use of color; Attempts to make noticeable adjustments in color scheme. For example, the artist has adjusted the dense blue cloth placed in the background with the intention of enhancing the color of the flower well. The artist has also made quite creative arrangements in the open range in the painting in order to facilitate the movement of light and air in the image. Although the flowers are arranged in such a way that there is no extra ranges on the surface. However, a nice harmony has been created between the formal space and the negative space in this figure. The image has a dense color coating. Being free from the statutory pressure of school class-practice, the artist has got the opportunity to implement his own plan in this picture.
The artist has another image of the scene in the painting ‘Moyurakkhir Tire Dui Nari’ through Dry Point (1945). He painted this oil painting while sitting in his studio. Then the artist’s position is far from the actual scene. He is not even in Calcutta. His new life was in Dhaka in a new environment in the new country created as a result of partition. On the other hand, the time interval from when he saw that scene is also three years. He drew this picture based on outdoor sketches, dry-point-pictures and memories. Its feature is that the artist did not use contour here. Man and the various parts of the human body have been separated from nature through different colors or by combining colors. Another feature of this is that the artist is accustomed to give a thick color coating in his oil paintings, but this painting is given a thin color coating. The composition technique of this image is also important. In the foreground of the image are the gray-green grass cover on the shore of the Mayurakkhi, the figure of two seated women with pitchers in the middle, and in the background the river, the other bank of the river, the hills and the sky. The figures of the two women are placed on the right side of the picture. By placing two jugs on the left side, a kind of balance has been created with the figure. The artist is also aware of the perspective. The smallness of the appearance of the people who have descended into the river has made clear the idea of perspective. Mayurakkhi’s water painted in various mediums by the artist is mostly weak. But the water flow in this figure is relatively deep. In the use of color, the artist has shown a real-extra independent attitude. As a result, the blue of the mountains has merged with the blue of the river; On the other hand, there is brown color in the chars and crossings and grayness in the sky. The artist has also tried to bring various tonal effects in the green color of the grass. The naked form of the merciless black body of the Santal woman is as indicative of the reality of that life as the decoration of the Palash flower in the bun seems to reflect the wild beauty.
This is the end of the Kolkata episode of Safiuddin Ahmed’s oil painting series. After moving to Dhaka in 1947, the nature and way of life of East Bengal became the new subject of his paintings. Engaged as a teacher at the newly-established Art Institute in Dhaka, he drew a portrait of Hamidur Rahman, a first batch student of the institute, in 1949. Before moving to London in 1956, we noticed the novelty of his style in exploring subjects. This new collection of his paintings is echoed in the cosmos and activities of Dhaka city and its surroundings; For example: ‘Gopibagh’ (1951), ‘Buriganga-1’ and ‘Buriganga-2’ (1951), ‘Munshiganj’ (1951), ‘Dhaner Hat’ (1952), ‘Buriganga-3’ (1952), ‘Dhan ‘Marano’ (1952), ‘Sharbatar Dokan-1’ (1954), ‘Murgir khacha’ (1954), ‘Masha Dhara-1’ (1954), ‘Kathmistri’ (1956), ‘Suryamukhi’ (1956) etc.
The artist drew the portrait of Hamidur Rahman while sitting at the institute and in a meeting. This talented student (later known as one of the designers of the Central Shaheed Minar) left his studies unfinished here and later moved to London and became known as a renowned sculptor. Painted on a small canvas, the painting is rich in strokes and the artist uses light and shadow to reveal the personality of this young student.
Most of the paintings painted in the 1951-52 period have been destroyed. Only the two pictures ‘Buriganga-3’ (1952) and ‘Dhan Marano’ (1952) are intact. In the picture of ‘Buriganga-3’, there is a narrow stream of Winter River. The two-sided char, where the farmer has grown paddy become the main subject in this picture. The char on both banks is particularly bright in golden paddy. Rows of boats tied to bamboo on both sides of the river. The artist painted this scene of the river near Munshiganj on canvas paper. This image is full of consciousness from an extraordinary perspective. In the foreground of most of the landscape, there are chars filled with golden crops, rivers and boats, horizontal outlines of forest lands adjoining many remote localities in the lowlands of the Midlands, and a wide sky in the background. Not all of the char is a crop field, but there is also a cropless exposed part of it. In this painting, the artist has used several white lines to draw bamboo in the pastures, crop fields or rivers. These white lines have been rubbed out with the hard part of the back of the brush. These enhance the beauty of the image. Moreover, the use of color in this picture is also auspicious. An intimate form of East Bengal has blossomed in this painting, which was immediately drawn in a short time while sitting on the river bank.
The image of ‘Dhan Marano’ is not immediately drawn while sitting on the spot. The artist has seen the threshing rice in Dumka, a village near Kolkata or in Rajshahi. Based on those scene-based sketches, the painting was painted on canvas while sitting in the studio much later. Dense coating of color has been used in this figure. The strokes of the brush are also quite strong. The tendency of the artist to work in heavy colors is also noticeable in this painting. The artist has tried to bring tremendous speed in all the three forms that are here. The artist wants to embody the movement of the strong body of the working farmer. A kind of balance has been created in the formation technique by setting up three forms. If the shape on the left side was not there, that side of the picture would be empty. Since the issue of threshing rice was predominant in this picture, the aspect of nature was not important. The artist has shown success in painting the golden color of ripe paddy and straw. Light has been thrown at the feet of the paddy-threshing figure. Small brushes have been used for this purpose. In this painting, the artist has also observed the reality of our rural life. As a result, the scene of eating chicken rice has been added naturally. The image is accomplished by resorting to a simple compositional technique, avoiding thoroughness.
The image of ‘Sharbat Shop-1’ is a familiar subject of Dhaka city. The shop-car has been made clear by the wheels on the bottom, the drink bottles of different colors on the top, the colorful cloths tied with ropes on top of it, the water jugs on the right side, etc. A thick coating has also been used in this painting. The spatula was not used. However the use of strokes is notable. In this formless painting, the beautiful play of various colors has been shown. The image of the sun used on the left is also significant. A regular trend of using the imagery of the sun can be noticed in the artist’s later paintings. Through this, the artist seems to have symbolized the issue of keeping the light of hope and dream burning.
The image of ‘chicken cage’ also has a thick color coating. This picture of Thantaribazar has been sketched and the picture has been drawn on the board while sitting at home. There are chicken boxes on both sides of the cage. In fact, the artist’s composition technique has become the main figure in this painting. By dividing the precise range of the image into various shapes, a balance and harmony has been created through the use of light and shadow. Not too many or retro colors were used by the artist, but the shapes were distinguished by the use of different outlines and shades.
The composition technique of the image ‘Mach Dhara-1’ is very simple. A man is standing in a boat with a fishing rod on his head. Although his standing posture focused on fishing, the artist did not resort meticulousness in depicting figures, including holding a fishing rod. On the contrary, in this painting, the artist has emphasized on the reality arising out of the position of the boat on the water. In this painting, the artist has seriously embodied the pressure in the water which is for the size and weight of the boat and the vibrations and waves created in the water. It is through such lines that the infusion of water has blossomed. At the same time, the use of color has become significant in this picture. Different colors of the same water have been used. This has been done with the intention of breaking the blue color of the water. On the other hand, the effect of folk art is also noticeable in the construction of shapes. Thus, it has been identified as a significant and unique image of the artist.
This influence of folk art has also given uniqueness to the artist’s ‘Kathmistri’ painting. This is not because the folk-followers are dependent on folk life as a subject like the previous picture. In this painting too, the artist has adopted the features of folk art in the construction of figures. Another feature is that by breaking the lifeless character of folk art, the artist has made this image alive and vibrant with the activities of life. He has used locomotives in his portrayal of life. In the fifties of the last century, the artist went to the Langalbandh fair and saw a wooden horse. He later planned to paint with this element of folk art. He drew a picture of the maker of that wooden horse as the main subject so that a new interpretation of folk art with the connection of life could be made. Another feature of this figure is that there is a lot of line work. Most of it is again a straight line. This straightness of the line has given a huge impetus to the image. The artist did not try to bring color variation in the image. As a result, the color of the wood has merged with the complexion of the figure. This image is featured as a new addition to Safiuddin Ahmed’s oil paintings.
The inanimate picture of the ‘sunflower’ flower contains exactly five sunflowers arranged in a clay pot and a few of its fallen leaves. The painting which is painted in his house, an attempt has been made to paint the flowers, leaves and pots in the right color in it. The feature of the image is to protect the material quality properly. That is why the artist had a careful vision not only to preserve the freshness of the color. The flowers are arranged in such a way that they fit inside the canvas. Imitation is not the only genre in inanimate practice; sometimes the artist creatively implements his own plan. In the case of Safiuddin Ahmed we see both methods to be followed.
Art historian and Art critic Professor Syed Azizul Huq, Chairman, Bangla Department, University of Dhaka
Translated by: Noshin Shamma and Priyanka Chowdhury
Edited by: Priyanka Chowdhury