SENSE OF LIFE
Safiuddin Ahmed was born in the city of Calcutta (1922) and lived there till the age of twenty-five. He spent the rest of his life in the city of Dhaka after he came here in the year 1947. That is, since birth he lived the life of an inner citizen. As a result the manifestation of civic wisdom is very clear in his manners, accent, and dress up and above all in his creation.
Safiuddin Ahmed’s father was in government service, sub-registrar. His grandfather was a physician; He was so popular that the street next to his house on Nandan Road in the Bhabanipur area of Kolkata was named after him: 'Bechu Doctor Lane'. His uncles were also educated - a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor. They used to hold singing sessions at home. His father used to play Ektara-Dotara. His only sister also sang. Safiuddin Ahmed himself had a teacher to teach him to play the sitar. It is clear from these information that he grew up in an advanced cultural and well educated environment. Such a family atmosphere and his own musicality gave a musical connotation to his art, just the same his parents’ clean lifestyle not only influenced his personal life but it also affected his art and painting. This plays a role in the formation of his neat and pure artistry.
Having lost his father at the age of six, Safiuddin Ahmed faced a deep emptiness, which led him into a life with many difficult struggles. While studying in grade IX at Padmapukur High School in Calcutta, he was admitted to Calcutta Government Art School, first in Draftsmanship, then in Fine Art. In the years 1938-1942 he graduated from Calcutta Government Art School, completing a six-year equivalent course and from 1944-1946 he successfully completed a two-year teaching course and was appointed to the school in 1948. In the six-year course he was a student of fine arts; in the teaching course he chose printmaking as the medium of instruction.
He always remembered the important contribution of the teachers of this school in shaping his artistry with gratitude. These teachers, among others, were: Mukul Dey (1895-1991), Basant Kumar Ganguly (1893-197), Atul Basu (1896-197), Manindrabhushan Gupta (1896-197), Ramendranath Chakraborty (1902-1955), Prahlad Karmakar, Rishen Mitra (1910-1939).These teachers had played a significant role in his devotional and ethical mindset. In his words: "Teachers have built our foundation." He had gotten his strong inspiration to become an artist from Abdul Moin, the first Muslim teacher of that school. He had increased his fascination and interest in Indian art. It was through him that Safiuddin became attracted to fine line. It was through him that Safiuddin became attracted to the fine line. The drypoint portrait of Mukul Dey's uncle, Abanindranath Tagore, seemed like a poem to Safiuddin Ahmed. Mukul De promoted the medium of wood engraving to the status of creative art. All this attracted Safiuddin Ahmed towards the medium of printmaking. Even though Rishen Mitra himself did not draw much, he taught his students with great compassion. He used to say, even when he saw paper being torn while rubbing the brush, keep rubbing. He taught how to make petals appear delicate when painting flowers. From Manindrabhushan Gupta he first learned to do water colour. Prahlad Karmakar gave him the opportunity to work in his studio. Ramendranath Chakraborty also gave him this opportunity. This teacher's great inspiration was also at the root of him becoming a novice in the hard work of printing. From him the young artist learned to do wood engraving and etching. After completing his regular course in art school, he was admitted to the teaching course, but due to famine (1943) his studies relating to taking the job as a teacher at the school were interrupted. But it was Ramendranath Chakraborty's keen interest that re-admitted him to the course (1944), which turned the corner in his life. Basant Kumar Ganguly was extraordinarily skilled in drawing. His personality was also remarkable and his character very interesting. He played the piano; had also done acting; he even dressed smart. All this had charmed Safiuddin Ahmed. He acquired some basic knowledge of oil painting from Atul Basu. Atul Basu's skill in drawing portraits was unmatched. The teachers loved him dearly; at the heart of this gravitation towards him was his unquenchable interest in learning.
Another person has played an important role in the development of Safiuddin Ahmed’s advanced character and as an devout artist. Although she was not his direct teacher, she was more than a teacher. - She is the famous artist of India, Jamini Roy (1989-1982). He developed a close relationship with Jamini Roy. She was particularly affectionate towards Safiuddin Ahmed.
While studying at Calcutta Art School, he had to submit sketches regularly by practicing the outer world and nature as per the rules of the school. For outdoor practice, he would go with his peers to Calcutta city’s Sealdah railway station in Alipore, or the surrounding countryside, including the suburbs. But his appetite for nature-philosophy was not satisfied with these practices. He used to go out of Calcutta every year for puja holidays with his friends in order to gain close association with nature and to cultivate the beauty of nature in his paintings. In this annual journey he went to areas in Bihar such as Madhupur, Deoghar, JCD, Giridih, Chaibasa, Jhajha among others. Besides these, he went to his aunt’s place in Bankura (1942) in fear of the Japanese bombing of Calcutta due to the Second World War, and later went to Rabindranath's Santiniketan (1945). There are several works done by him in the mediums watercolor, calligraphy, drypoint and wood-engraving which captures the the natural environment of these regions.
Artists including Mukul Dey and Ramen Chatterjee elevated Indian printmaking to the level of advanced art in the thirties of the twentieth century, this had peaked Safiuddin Ahmed’s interest. He also followed in the footsteps of his teachers with higher education in this field and brought the Indian print to the advanced glory of the art industry. As a result, his name was inevitably added to the list of leading artists of modern printmaking in all of India, noting that in his teaching course his curriculum included wood-engraving, mural painting and lithography. He mastered the etching medium from Ramen Chakraborty personally, using his machine in his studio. He did not feel much interest in the medium of lithography. He had done as much as was needed for the course in this medium. Although he got first class in the teaching course and joined the art school as a lithography teacher. This was because at the time only this teaching position was vacant.
During his student life, he developed a close relationship with the leftist student organization of Undivided Bengal. Safiuddin Ahmed was one of the four editors of the album titled 'Bengal Testimony' which was released in 1944 at the initiative of the All India Students Federation. These relationships play a significant role in shaping his sense of art.
Although he drew pictures of the cosmos outside Calcutta in the period 1937-42, he developed a keen sense of nature in Dumka, Saotal Pargana. During the puja holidays of 1942, 1944 and 1945, he went there and drew many pictures. No other artist in the whole of undivided Bengal has painted as many pictures of Dumkar's cosmos and life as him. The natural environment and the human and animal world bring deep prosperity to his art. Going there and being in close association with nature, he sometimes drew pictures at the spot while at other times he made many sketches and returned to Calcutta and created prints of various mediums based on it. At this time, apart from oil paint, he worked mainly through drypoint and wood-engraving. The natural environment of Dumka, its Shalban, the Mayurakshi River, the body of the indigenous Sewatal woman, as well as their overall life, awakened his sense of art and enriched the texture of his image. This is also recognized in the fact that he received four awards in the period 1945-1946. These include: 'Academy President's Gold Medal' (1945) awarded by the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta given for the oil painting 'Parabat' (1945), the first prize in the Western style black and white category for the wood engraved work "Siautal Meye" (1947) given at the International Contemporary Art Exhibition (1948) organized by The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society in New Delhi, at the Inter-Asian Art Exhibition (1948) organized by the same organization in New Delhi, the first prize in black and white (etching and drawing) for the aquatint painting 'Parabat' (1945) and the award for oil painting titled 'Suryaloke Kutir' (1944) Dwarbhanga Maharaja's Medal '(1948). The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society honored Safiuddin Ahmed with their membership after receiving the award twice in Delhi.
During the period of 1947-48, Safiuddin Ahmed's participation in several international art exhibitions was profoundly significant. These exhibitions include: Exposition International des Art Modern in Paris, Muse des Modern (UNESCO) (1947), Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art in London (1947), Art of India and Pakistan in London from 2400 BC to 1947: 1944. ) And the Bengal Drawing and Painting Exhibition held in Singapore in 1947 (1900-48). Atul Basu, the then principal of Calcutta Government Art School, wrote in the catalog of the last exhibition: "Among the young artists, Safiuddin Ahmed has already made a name in India and abroad." So it is understandable that when Safiuddin Ahmed, twenty-five years old, came to Dhaka from Calcutta after the end of his permanent residence as a result of partition in 1947, he was a recognized artist with huge potential at the all-India level.
At the age of twenty-five, that is, in the Calcutta period, at the root of such success and recognition was the deep inspiration of his positive thinking and sense of art. Apart from the practice of watercolor, oil painting and line drawing, the works of print painting which he used in the Calcutta period were: wood-engraving, drypoint, aquatint, lithography etc. Sadly none of his work in lithography is present in his collection. He also made a mural through Egg Tempra while studying in the teaching course, no pictures of which are in his collection either.
Safiuddin Ahmed was involved in various sports during the Calcutta period. Annual sports competitions were held at Calcutta Art School. Moreover, then the game was based on the neighborhood. He won prizes in low-speed bicycle racing at the Art School. In the art school’s neighborhood sports he took part in pole vaults and won prizes in the high jump; He used to play volleyball at Chakraberia Club. Besides, being a member of the Padmapukur Swimming Club, he used to swim there every Sunday.
The partition of 1947 brought a profound change in his life. He had to build a new settlement in Dhaka after being uprooted from his motherland Calcutta. It is difficult to gauge how much stress he suffered when he had to adapt to this completely unfamiliar environment. But we do know the change this incident generated on the course of his work. In August 1948, he became a drawing teacher at Dhaka Collegiate School. After coming to Dhaka from Calcutta, he first moved to the house of his friend Mohaimen (businessman) in Kaltabazar and after staying there for about six months, rented a house in Tikatuli. He got a house in Dhaka's Swamibagh in exchange for a house in Calcutta and moved there in 1947. He played a pioneering role as a close associate of Zainul Abedin in the establishment of the fine arts education institution in Dhaka. He was then appointed as the head of the printing department at the Dhaka Government Institute of Fine Arts, established in 1948.
Not only did he become active in the movement to build the art institute, he also involved himself in this new non-communal consciousness-based cultural activity. He became an entrepreneur through the establishment of Dhaka Art and participated in exhibitions held in Dhaka, Chittagong and Comilla between 1951 and 1954 in the process of expanding the fine arts in social life. During this period, three exhibitions were held in Chittagong (1951), Comilla (1952) and Dhaka (1954) as part of the cultural conference; two exhibitions in Dhaka (1951 and 1952) organized by Dhaka Art Group, the first annual exhibition of Dhaka Art Institute (1953) and all in Dhaka the all Pakistan Art Exhibition (1954). Through these exhibitions, his oil paintings and prints had attracted the attention of the audience and were also deeply appreciated by the critics. Apart from visiting Mymensingh, Tangail and Munshiganj on the occasion of the annual picnic of the Art Institute held since 1949, he also got acquainted with the different natural features of Bangladesh and its distinctive colors by traveling on the Barisal-Khulna waterway once by steamer.
At this time two important events happened in his personal life. He married Anjuman Ara, daughter of an educated aristocratic family in Rajshahi (1952) and two years later he lost his mother (1954). After losing his father at just six years of age, he faced a new void after the loss of his mother under whose guardian responsibility and generous companionship he had been brought up.
During all these came the flood. In 1954 and 1955, the whole country, even Dhaka, was flooded for two consecutive years. Safiuddin Ahmed's house in Swamibagh was also flooded. The position of the water from the floor of his house was only four inches below. During his stay in Calcutta he was not acquainted with such floods. This was a new experience; arrangements for coming and going by boat, the constant risk of security being disrupted at any moment, seeing fish play in clear water, the dense vibration of the grasshopper on the water. He saw a rhythmic form of rain falling on the flood waters and heard the lyrical melody of the water. He knew how to swim; he also knew the technique of boating. He rented a boat and floated in the thick water for hours; He saw the form of flooded Bengal and the boundless spread of water. As a result, floods, fish, nets, boats and the diversity of water had inevitably become the subject of his later paintings. In this he found the soul of Bengal.
In 1956, Safiuddin Ahmed went to London for higher studies. After two years (1957-58) at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, he received a diploma with distinction in etching and engraving. Even after getting his diploma, he took higher studies in that school for one more year (1959). And during this time he visited various museums with advanced art in different countries of Europe. As a student at the Calcutta Art School, the interest he had developed in learning was equally intact, even after ten years of teaching, meaning even while he was a student in London.
That's why he spent all his time learning while in London. In his own words: ‘I didn't waste a single moment in London. I have tried to use every moment for my knowledge or learning.' Teacher Safiuddin went there and became a complete student. There were regular classes, but he did not even spend his holidays on laziness or entertainment. On Saturdays besides going grocery shopping in the morning he spent the whole afternoon and the whole of Sundays going to any museum or gallery and practicing all day long. By choosing a work of any one artist, he tried to understand the qualities inherent in the picture by examining it well. He did not waste any of the time he got in class. The success he had achieved in this way had also received recognition from his teachers. The teachers there usually did not open their mouth; they are indifferent about the good and the bad. But they had praised Safiuddin Ahmed. As a result of such intensive study he had completed a three year course in just two years. The desire to know or learn something, to go deeper and master it, had not only brought good results for Safiuddin Ahmed, but had also helped all his successful art creations.
Melvin Evans was Safiuddin Ahmed's teacher at a school in London. He was a friend of Stanley Hatter, the father of modern printmaking. Although Hatter was a British citizen, he worked in Paris. During Safiuddin Ahmed's stay in London, Hatter had held an exhibition; Safiuddin had the opportunity to meet him face to face at this exhibition and also through reconciliation of Evans. Safiuddin Ahmed was influenced by this world famous Anthevar.
He went to study in London at his own expense - this information is also significant. This higher education in London, the results, the appreciation of the teachers and the experience gained through visiting various museums and galleries in Europe created a deeper self-confidence in his mind. He said: “I have benefited from going to Britain. I got to know them and myself better. I have an idea about my own strength. I have come to know how much ability I have, how much knowledge I have. Education in London has given me a lot of self-confidence and faith in me. I was able to realize my own strength and comfort. - That's the big deal. Confidence was there before. But that was confirmed by going to Britain”.
Recognition of four awards at the all-India level in the Calcutta episode or participation in several important international exhibitions outside India could not bring him the confidence and faith that studying in Britain, earning a diploma with distinction, etc. had brought him. As a result, a new momentum, a new zeal, as well as a profound change was established in his creation.
It is to be recalled that while studying at Calcutta Art School, British academic style was followed. Although he adopted this Victorian style in school, he followed the Impressionist style in the field of his art. Then education in Britain helped him to delve deeper into the art of printing. He already had idea of the etching-taquintant medium in the Calcutta-episode; it has become richer, more mature and fuller as a result of going to London. But Taratrakshan (Copper-Engraving) he mastered in a whole new way there and in this case too he showed success. Outside of the fine craftsmanship of the technique, the change that is noticeable in his art was: the departure of the figure. From then on, his paintings became sometimes abstract, sometimes semi-abstract. The semi-abstract paintings have undoubtedly played a significant role in the development and nurture of this genre in the wake of the awakening of abstract expressionist style of painting in the history of painting in Bangladesh in the twentieth century. He was awarded the "President's Medal" (1963) by the Government of Pakistan for his contribution to Charukala in this period.
During the war of liberation in 1971, he lived an imprisoned life in his own home in Swamibagh, Dhaka. The whole country, including Dhaka, became a place of terror due to the endless oppression and killings of the Pakistani army. He had to deal with various horrific situations. Unknowingly, he suddenly fell into a state of extreme helplessness during the curfew. When the curfew was imposed, he opened the window blinds of the besieged house and saw a search of the house next door by the Pakistani forces. Witnessing this vain form of death with his own eyes had made this a motif in his later paintings has created a profound connotation of metaphor.
Safiuddin Ahmed's art gained new impetus in the new situation in independent Bangladesh. The figure that had departed from his picture, though somewhat obscure, began to peek into his art again. After retiring from teaching in 1989, the number of his art works increased rapidly. Although he was employed as a overtime and part-time teacher at the Institute of Fine Arts after his retirement, his career continued uninterrupted at this stage. Through all the means of drawing, imprint, oil painting, etc., he unleashed his genius in this episode and became a novice in the pursuit of excellence of each and achieved success.
He was awarded the Ekushey Padak (1978) in independent Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Charushilpi Sangsad Sammanna (1984), the Swadhinata Diwas Puraskar (1996), the Dhaka University Alumni Association Sammanna (1996), Shilpakala Academy awarded 'Bangladesh Charukala 50th Anniversary Award' (1998), 'Khasij Padak' (2000), etc. for contributing to Charukala . He was also nominated a Fellow of the Bangla Academy (1985).
His heart’s desire was to draw till the last day of his life. But his wish could not be fulfilled as he had been bedridden since November 2006 due to an accident. The sadness of not being able to take pictures made him suffer the most. This sadness became more intense in his mind because when he felt that he was fully mature, he had a certain self-confidence in drawing, a kind of certainty in everything including the use of color-line-tone, he became bedridden. One more piece of information is relevant here. After living in a small house in Swamibagh for a long time (1948-2007), when everything was set for him to move to his spacious flat in Dhanmondi, thinking that there his work would be benefitted and had made a lot of plans, he got into the accident. As a result, his last seven years of bedridden life were plagued by multidimensional grief. It was with this dissatisfaction and regret that he passed away in May 2012.
Courtesy by Syed Azizul Haque an Art Historian and Professor of department of Bangla in Dhaka University