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May 30, 2003

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The Trove of Art

A major publication on art takes the art lovers of Bangladesh by surprise

Mustafa Zaman

A book that traces the artistic growth in Bangladesh so far seemed an impossible proposition. But the Society for Promotion of Bangladesh Art (SPBA), an organisation bent on bringing about a change in the field of art promotion, has made that happen; they published a book, a heavy one at that, which is a trove of Bangladesh art.

The Charging Bull, 1966, Zainul Abedin

The book titled “Bangladesh Art: Collection of Contemporary Paintings,” is the first major publication of this organisation. In this country, it is one of its kind, no one ever attempted to produce a book of such magnitude before, not even Shilpakala Aceademy. The fact that SPBA dreamed of a project like this and made it a reality has certainly sent a pleasant vive through Dhaka's art-loving citizens.
On May 19, the book was launched in a ceremony held at the grand ballroom of Hotel Sonargoan. The afternoon saw a mixed crowd.


Artists, gallery owners, art students, journalists, ministers, embassy bigwigs and Dhaka elite were present to witness the inauguration of this trove of art. The idea that dawned on the few aspiring art promoters came to its full fruition through relentless effort of many other people and artists involved in the project. The Norwegian Embassy played a decisive role. They along with Grameen Phone and The Khairul Kabir Foundation made sure with their financial back up that the project saw a successful end. The Norwegian Embassy provided the major portion of the fund and Grameen phone not only helped to fill out the shortfall but also invested time and energy in making this publication a reality.The book, print-wise, is an accomplishment. Though the quality of print in few pages could have been a little better. Other than this, most of the pallets seem to do justice to the real works. And the choice of works of Quamrul Hassan, Monirul Islam, Mominul Reja and most of the younger generation artists is judicious. The book holds 328 pages and 293 colour reproductions of art pieces between its hard covers. The dust jacket is designed by Qayyum Chowdhury, and is a demonstration of what can be done with minimum effort. It is a fitting design for a book of this nature.
A showcase of the artworks of sixty-eight artists belonging to a whole spectrum that stretches from the post partition East Bengal to the present generation of independent Bangladesh, the book took 18 months to materialise. An advisory committee headed by Prof. Mohammad Kibria was trusted with the responsibility of selecting the artists and artworks. One eminent artist who does not figure in the list of artists is Murtaja Baseer. Elthem B. Kabir, the chairman of the society, says that this aging pioneer of the art movement of the 1960s simply did not respond to their request for permission. The letter that they sent to the artist asking his consent did not see a reply. “Without the artist's consent we cannot include him in the volume,” says Kabir.

Women at the Concentration Camp, 1973, Hamidur Rahman.

The text is written by Syed Manzurl Islam. Though it seems inappropriately short compared to the ambitious size of the book, the writer attempts to sum up the artistic identinty of all the artists. The short historical account at the opening charts the developments in art of Bangladesh throughout the last fifty-six years. And the rest of the text consists of brief profiles of each artist.

Islam's text charts the important phases and the defining moments in the lives of artists in most of the occasions. It is annoying when he fails to take note that artist like Monirul Islam broke in to the Dhaka art scene as late as in the 90s. His comments on and discernment of the works and style of many artists, too, occasionally flounder.
Commenting on Abdur Razzak he wrote, “Razzak follows a constructivist style”, and in the case of Qayyum Chowdhury's manner, Islam maintains, “Qayyum Chodhury explored the traditional folk art.” Although few lines later the word “reworking” seem to want salvage the narrative from sinking into a total misreading of a style.

In Search of a self Portrait-II, 1982, Aminul Islam

Other than these occasional stutters suffered in the region of summation of artistic vocabulary, most of the pieces that accompany the pictorial section of each artist are brilliantly written, often touching up on a chronological growth of the respective artists.
The writer is at his best when he refers to Monirul Islam's work as “kaleidoscopic field of vision”.
This book is a volume that provides an overview of the artistic practices of Bangladesh. SPBA had aimed to project a Bangladesh in its creative best, and this they have accomplished with flying colours. And by doing so it has put a stirring to an otherwise somnolent art scene of this country where there always was an acute shortage of books on art. SPBA with its effort has paved the way that, we hope, will be followed by many other organisations.



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