August 17 would have been eminent artist, poet, litterateur, Language Movement veteran and versatile genius Murtaja Baseer's 89th birthday. The art maestro passed away today at 9:10 am, while undergoing treatment at the ICU unit of Evercare Hospital in Dhaka. His elder daughter, Munira Baseer, confirmed the news to The Daily Star. The artist was admitted to the hospital due to severe respiratory problems and reduction of oxygen consumption rate, along with other old age-related ailments. Doctors confirmed that he was positive for COVID-19.
Murtaja Baseer has been given oxygen artificially for several years due to respiratory problems since 2013, and had a heart failure due to increasing fluid in his lungs last year. Followed by his Namaz-e-Janaza, he was buried at Banani Graveyard yesterday. He left behind three children -- Munirah Baseer, Munijah Baseer and Mehraj Baseer.
The President, Prime Minister, State Minister for Cultural Affairs and various artists and art connoisseurs have expressed their shock at his demise. "We lost a true legend, a pioneer and a versatile genius of Bangladesh. He had a strong personality, uncompromising to his creation of arts. Yet, he was a very soft hearted man," said eminent artist Monirul Islam.
"I am deeply saddened at the demise of one of the pioneering artists of Bangladesh. Murtaja Baseer, whom I personally regard as the Rembrandt of the East, was very close to me," said art connoisseur and CEO of HSBC, Bangladesh, Mahbubur Rahman.
Murtaja Baseer's six-decade career, starting from 1954, occupies a unique place in the modern art history of Bangladesh, but what makes this prolific artist stand out is his continuous attempt to learn, grow and evolve.
"I don't paint all the time. But when I do, I can't stop myself until my spontaneous impulses are satisfied. When I am not at work, I contemplate. The moods of my paintings are diverse as I go through a myriad of feelings and experiences," Murtaja Baseer had said in a previous interview with The Daily Star.
As a socially conscious artist, Baseer's paintings are much more than what they appear to be. He would often try to capture the struggles of the people around him. His love for realism is unmistakable—portraying detailed and unadorned forms of life—even when he delves into the abstract form. He has taken both styles and created his own to respond to the modernist's trend of abstraction. He later transformed his styles into abstract realism.
Darkness prevailed in our society during Ayub Khan's tenure. It was a period marked by socio-political turmoil, and crimes such as rape and drug abuse were frequent newspaper headlines. In reaction to these, he created the series Wings of Butterfly.
He also created another series, titled The Wall in 1969. It portrays the ambience of suffocation that engulfed us all. During the War of Liberation, he, along with his wife Amina Baseer and their two daughters, went to Paris. When he watched the plight of the freedom fighters and common people on television, he was driven by a deep sense of patriotism and created the famous Epitaph for the Martyrs series.
An interesting aspect of Baseer's work is his self-portraits. He drew himself at least once, if not more, every year. He once said to one of our correspondents, "You know what I had learnt from my life? No one is your true friend. Your inner self is the only entity you can truly rely on and trust your deepest secrets with. When I feel lonely, I stand in front of the mirror and ask who I am."
Born in 1932, Murtaja Baseer would regard himself as 'an artist by chance.' The youngest son to the eminent scholar Dr Muhammed Shahidullah and Marguba Khatun, Baseer in his childhood would often be found engrossed in the pictures and illustrated figures in his father's library, which was full of valuable Bengali and English books and journals.
In 1947, when he was in class nine, he became an active member of the student wing (Chhatra Federation) of the Communist Party. Baseer believes that his lifelong dedication to important social causes and affinity for paintings stemmed from his adherence to the communist ideology.
Baseer was greatly inspired by Picasso, who remains his lifelong idol. During his stay in Florence, he sought comfort and inspiration in the works of the pre-Renaissance painters, including Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio, Simone Martini and Fra Angelico.
He would say that he didn't know whether he would live on as an artist in the public minds, but he was confident that he would be remembered as a writer, who penned a few novels, short stories and poems. He has five poetry books—Trosorenu, Tomakei Shudhu, Esho Phirey Anusua, Tatka Rokter Khino Rakha, and Sada Elegy—to his credit.
In 1964, Murtaja Baseer wrote the screenplay for the film version of Humayun Kabir's novel Nodi O Nari. He was the film's art director and also the main assistant to the director. He was also an art director for the Urdu film Kaise Kahoon in 1965. He had published a collection of short stories called Kanch-er Pakhir Gaan in 1969. He wrote two more novels—Mitar Shangey Char Shandha and Amitakkhar.
A history enthusiast, researcher and numismatist, Baseer has studied and interpreted coins of the Bengal Sultan period with the scholarly commitment of a historian. An avid autograph collector, he has always loved archiving stamps and match boxes.
Murtaja Baseer is acclaimed for his meticulous style and unique choice of themes in his novels. In 1954, he wrote a novel titled 'Ultramarine', based on the contemporary life in Kolkata and the social issues of the time. His collection of selected works, Murtaja Baseer: Murto O Bimurto will remain as a treasure trove for Bangladeshi Art. He joined Dacca Art College (now the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka) as a student in 1949. Baseer stayed in Paris till June 1973. While in Paris, he studied mosaic and etching at Beaux Arts in Paris. In 1973, he returned to Bangladesh and joined Chittagong University as an assistant professor. He retired from teaching in 1998. The art maestro received numerous accolades, including the country's highest civilian awards – Ekushey Padak and Shadhinata Puroshkar.