Artworks at DU library: Masterpieces left to decay | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 02, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:30 PM, March 02, 2021

Artworks at DU library: Masterpieces left to decay

Four important examples of the country's modern art -- a sculpture by Novera Ahmed and three murals by Hamidur Rahman -- have been decaying on the walls of Dhaka University Central Library.

Spider nets and dirt have engulfed and termites have eaten up parts of these artworks with cracks developing and colours fading in places due to negligence of authorities and lack of maintenance.

During a recent visit, it was found that a new room has been built in front of Novera's sculpture. A wall has been constructed dividing Hamidur Rahman's mural titled "Fisherman's Village" and the room housing it.

A hanging corridor linked to the west wall, where another mural called "Borak Duldul" is painted, is currently used as a makeshift storeroom, filled with abandoned materials.

What was once the reception centre, which hosts the mural "Boat Composition", has also been turned into a storeroom.

Researchers and historians say these works have historical and cultural significance and steps must be taken for their conservation.

The library itself is a major artistic feat in its own right.

Starting its journey as the public library in the '50s, it was named Dhaka University Central Library after the establishment of the Central Public Liberty at Shahbagh in the '80s.

The DU library building was designed by Muzharul Islam, a pioneer of modern architecture in Bangladesh, said Prof Abu Sayeed M Ahmed, former president of Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB).

Some of Dhaka's landmark structures like Shahidullah Hall, SM Hall, Burdwan House and Ahsan Manjil were constructed following colonial style. All these buildings were built much above the ground having main gates, he added.

But the DU library and also the fine arts building, both designed by Muzharul Islam, have no such main gates and they are close to the ground. Openness is the key feature of both the buildings, constructed and designed keeping in mind the country's climate, according to Prof Sayeed.

"Nowadays, we see artworks on the walls of modern buildings. This trend began in this country with this library," he said.

In the library, ramps were used between ground floor and first floor; it was rare in the sub-continent but could be found in Europe back then, he added.

The Dhaka University authorities later constructed a new building connected to the library and the original structure was thus changed. Subsequently, multiple repairs also distorted the main design.

"Now the sculpture of Novera Ahmed has been kept in an environment which does not suit it. No sunshine comes through due to the construction of a new room in front of it," said Prof Lala Rukh Selim of the Department of Sculpture of Fine Arts Institute in Dhaka University.

Several cracks have developed on different parts of Novera's sculpture -- two can easily be noticed on the white elephant and seven on the white horse.

A wall has been constructed dividing the room on the first floor that houses "Fishermen's village". The mural was also got spotted with white paints when the library authorities painted the adjoining wall and roof.

The mural "Boat Composition" is surrounded by electric wires and circuit boxes. Several Cracks have developed on the surface and a portion of it has been discoloured because of unwanted paints.

The murals portray riverine life and fishermen's community of Bangladesh.

Another work of Hamidur Rahman, "Borak Duldul" is on the western part of the library building. A modern depiction of Islamic myth, it spans around 1,700 square feet area.

Of the four, this one is the worst affected. Around three feet area of the upper portion of the mural has decayed. Some portion of the work has been eaten by termites.

"In all the four artworks, we notice features of both folk and primitive art," said Dipti Rani Datta, assistant professor of the Department of Oriental Art of Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University.

All these works carry the consciousness and style of the early era of modern art practices in Bangladesh, she added.

On the sculpture of Novera, she said, "Collective consciousness is a major feature of Novera's work. But it's not political -- it's about family."

Notably, Novera had jointly worked with Hamidur Rahman on the original design of the Central Shaheed Minar in Dhaka.

Novera (1939–2015) is said to be the first modern sculptor in Bangladesh while Hamidur (1928 –1988) was the first artist in the country to study mural painting. They both went abroad to learn modern art.

Their works had opened up new academic horizons among the teachers and students of fine arts and continue to be studied by historians, cultural researchers and up-and-coming artists.

Necessary steps should be taken immediately to preserve the sculpture and murals at the DU library, said Nasimul Khabir, assistant professor of Department of Sculpture of Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University.

Prof Lala Rukh Selim said conservation of the artworks must be done following proper procedures to avoid distortion and deviation.

"An expert team can be formed to supervise and conduct the task," she opined, adding that necessary measures should be taken so that the murals and the sculpture can become visible for all.

[Tarun Sarkar is a freelance researcher and journalist who writes for The Daily Star]

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