An artist who broke traditions and opened new horizons
It was in February, 1970 that I came to know Mr. Monir ul Islam for the first time. I remember the month and the year so well because they coincided with the beginning of an important chapter of my own life -- I had just moved with my family to Spain to join the Madrid office of Price Waterhouse (now PriceWaterhouse Coopers), an international firm of auditors and consultants.
A friend of mine, the late Mr. Humayun Kabir -- who later went on to become one of Bangladesh's most successful diplomats -- was at that time working as the First Secretary of the Pakistan embassy in Madrid. Humayun helped me with all sorts of settling in problems like buying a house, finding a good English-medium school for my children, etc. for which I shall always be grateful to him.
In those days, there were hardly any Bengali-speaking people in Madrid. Having lived abroad for so many years, I was worried that I was going lose to my native language, Bengali. This was the reason why I was anxious to meet with other native Bengalis. As usual, Humayun was most kind. One evening, at a dinner party at his Madrid flat, he introduced me to a young mild-mannered lanky-looking student called Monir, who had arrived in October 1969 from Dhaka on a scholarship given by the Spanish government.
I am not absolutely sure but I believe there was another student called Dr. Ali (sorry, I do not remember his full name) at that dinner, who was doing some research work in nuclear science. A few days later both Monir and Ali came to my house to share a meal with my family. This was the beginning of a warm friendship which has lasted for more than thirty-five years despite the usual vicissitudes of life.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. That mild-mannered lanky-looking young man has turned out to be one of Bangladesh's top artists. In the process he has also earned international recognition.
Monir was born on August 17, 1943, in Islampur, a small village near Jamalpur. His family moved to Kishoreganj when he was a little baby. He went to school at Kishoreganj and Chandpur. Monir remembers his childhood and adolescence with affection although his father was always busy with his work as an officer at the local heath department and his mother equally busy looking after her nine children (Monir is the fourth).
According to Monir, he was not a good student at school. But everybody at Kishoreganj, including the headmaster of his school, Mr. Jagodish Roy, knew that he had an artistic mind and a bent for drawing. He drew portraits, houses, landscapes, clouds, rivers, boats, multi-coloured sails of river boats, signboards, flags, rickshaws --anything and everything that caught his attention and imagination.
"Rivers Narashundha and Meghna on whose shores I grew up, their shore lines and the nature reflecting the relations between the river, the earth, and the sky have always inspired me and continue to do so," Monir declares.
Of all these early attempts, he remembers one in particular, a signboard for a local laundry featuring a famous movie actress carrying laundry, which he painted when he was only fifteen. He also designed the school wall-magazine.
In the pursuit of his artistic talent, Mr. Jagodish Roy, the school headmaster must have exercised a great influence on Monir, because even today after so many years, he speaks of him with great respect and affection. Actually the artist considers his school headmaster as his first mentor, who encouraged him never to give up his passion for art and to study art at the Institute of Fine Arts in Dhaka which was founded by the artist Zainul Abedin and some of his colleagues in 1948.
But there was a slight technical hitch -- one had to pass the matriculation examination before one could seek admission into the Institute of Fine Arts and Monir was having difficulty in passing that exam. His father, who was worried about his son's future suggested that since Monir was not good at exams, he should perhaps try to become an electrician which would at least guarantee bread and butter for him.
Luckily, Monir passed the matriculation exam at the third attempt. In 1961, at the age of eighteen, Monir moved to Dhaka for formal training to become a professional painter. This marked the turning point in his life. The world lost a mediocre electrician but won a brilliant artist.
At the Art Institute, Monir simply blossomed. Finally he had found his place in the world where he could develop his natural aptitudes. He never looked back. He went from success to success. He worked incessantly producing innumerable watercolour studies. Even at that early stage of professional career when he was learning, he started selling his paintings to eager buyers, many of whom, Monir recalls, were foreigners. (That Monir is a workaholic, I can vouch for that. I have never known any artist who works so hard. )
In 1966, Monir graduated from The Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka with flying colours and joined the Department of Drawing and Painting as a teacher. He earned recognition as an excellent landscape painter in water colour. In October 1969, Monir won a scholarship from the government of Spain and came to Madrid to study at the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts (Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando)
Monir was not supposed to stay in Madrid for more than a year. Back at home, the political situation was getting worse day by day. Every Bangladeshi was worried about the safety of his family members, particularly if they were young. Fearing for his life, Monir's family asked him to prolong his stay in Madrid. Luckily, the Spanish government renewed his scholarship.
The liberation war broke out in 1971. Monir, like all Bangladeshis, was distraught. He used his artistic talent to denounce the acts of aggression perpetrated against the Bangladeshis. In Madrid, he had learnt the art of etching . So he produced a series of twelve large images under the title of Homage to Bangladesh which was shown in an exhibition in Madrid. In this, he followed the example of Goya, the great Spanish painter, who brilliantly reproduced the suffering of his people in etchings during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain approximately two hundred years ago.
This also meant a departure from painting to graphic art. Monir confesses that he did not have much knowledge of etching as a method of artistic expression. True, he had dabbled into it a few times in Dhaka, but had not taken great interest in this method. Monir's roommate at the university hostel was an etcher from the Philippines called Virgilio Aviadio, who introduced him to etching in a professional manner. It was like a calling. All of a sudden Monir realised that he had finally found his vocation.
At that time, there was an art studio called Grupo-15, where artists of international stature and fame like Antonio Saura and Antoni Tapies used to come to work. Monir joined his roommate Virgilio in visiting this studio and in helping these great artists to roll out prints of their works. This apparently humble work helped Monir to study their techniques at close range. Very soon he developed his own technique which has come to be known as the "free-bite" technique. It is based on "apparently casual agglomeration of robust lines, imaginative shapes, sensuous colours, and expansive space which end up in a lyrical interplay of abstract and figurative art."
Through the use of extraordinary combinations of colour and suggestive images, he created a world, "a kaleidoscopic field of vision" which was somewhere in between fantasy and reality.
In developing this style, he was much influenced by two contemporary artists, Mustafa Munwar from Bangladesh and Antonio Lorenzo from Spain. "In some of my abstract works, figures lie in hiding. They are never grotesque and they do not take up prominent positions. They blend with nature, so that the focus is not on the figure, but on some aspect of nature, or on the relations between the world of man and that of nature. Nature still remains a very important part of my work."
Monir's etchings using this technique have become so successful in Spain and abroad that that today in the Spanish art world, this technique has come to be known as "La Escuela de Monir."
His scholarship came to an end in 1972. Monir remembers that life was tough in those days. He had to move out of the university hostel and find cheap accommodation in one of Madrid's slums. "It was a rat-infested house with a garden but no bathroom or running water. I lived in that house for a number of years," Monir recalls.
Although he lived under miserable housing conditions and ate poorly, he worked relentlessly, producing oil paintings, etchings (graphic art on copper plates), watercolour paintings, sketches, participating in group exhibitions in Japan, USA, Hungary, Korea, France, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, Morocco, Egypt, and Spain.
Besides participating in many workshops, he also organised individual exhibitions in Holland, Kuwait, Canada, USA, Bangladesh, etc. He was also invited to serve as a member of the jury at various international exhibitions. During this period he produced a series of rare city images, The City, in which rats figured prominently.
In 1977, he won a prize at the 12th International Graphic Biennale held in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, which caught the attention of art galleries in Spain. Life, all of a sudden, started looking brighter. In 1993, he won the highly-coveted Accesit Prize in Spain. In 1997, he won the National Award of Spain (Calcografia Nacional), which definitely established him as a great artist. In 1999, Monir was awarded the Ekushey Padak, Bangladesh's national award. He had become a maestro.
During this period, he worked hard not only to establish himself as a distinguished artist in Spain and Bangladesh, but also to forge cultural and business relations between the two countries. He led an active social life, visited Bangladesh as often as possible, and played host to Bangladeshi artists, politicians, government officers, and businessmen, who visited Spain. He also gave help and guidance to Spanish artists and businessmen visiting Bangladesh.
Over the years, when Bangladesh did not have an embassy in Madrid, he came to be known as Bangladesh's unofficial Permanent Representative to Spain. By the early eighties, the number of illegal immigrants to Spain from Bangladesh had increased significantly and since Bangladesh did not have an embassy in Spain, their situation was getting desperate.
It was through Monir's personal intervention that in 1985, a Spanish industrialist called Don Alvaro Sarmiento was appointed as the first honorary consul for Bangladesh in Spain, who, over the years has proven to be a good friend of the Bangladeshi community in Spain.
Chakladar Mahboob-ul Alam is a columnist of The Daily Star.
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