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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 133 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

December 12 , 2003

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of History

Mustafa Zaman

Memorials are signs in the shape of architectural structures or sculptures. They rekindle our spirit that we once invested in actions, actions that made history and later translated into deferential forms or structures.
In Bangladesh the Shahid Minar that was erected to commemorate the martyrs of Language Movement set off the culture of building monuments. Later, after the seminal victory in 1971, structures dedicated to the history of independence were built. Though years have elapsed since the completion of these national monuments they aptly define our cultural and historical heritage.
But there is another hidden element behind these glorious structures. There are many untold stories of the artists who turned their visions into such tangible forms. The architects behind the main monuments that depict our struggle for freedom give a rare insight into the thoughts behind their creation, their moments of frustration and elation during envisioning or planning these remarkable labours of love.

Savar Smritishowdha

Syed Mainul Hossain, the architect of the National Monument, used to work as consultant in a firm in 1978 when an open competition for the design for the national monument at Savar was announced. “There were two competitions all together. The juries were not satisfied with the submissions first time around. So, there was a second competition and it was on this occasion that my design was given the first prize,” remembers Hossain.

Hossain was not satisfied with his first attempt. “I had this idea of two columns being compressed to meet at the top to evoke a feeling of upward thrust,” says Hossain.

It was the second time that his effort found proper expression. He was a man engrossed in the daily grind of his office duties. Yet he found time to build his dream project in a small-scale. “I built a 64/1 model, and used to keep looking at it while lying in bed to get the feel of the real structure seen from its base,” recalls Hossain. He later built a larger prefabricated model that he submitted for the competition.

His friend, Badrul Haider, a working architect, remembers how Mainul Hossain came to his place with all the separated components of his model in his hands on the submission day. “When he assembled them on a table I was sure that this was the winning entry, ours were nowhere near his,” recalls Badrul.

Seven pointed L-shaped concrete structures with variable heights and widths are sequentially placed to look like a huge 153 feet high pointed triangle that seems splayed out at the base from the front. Built in the middle of a spread of an 84-acre area, designed by the architect and a freedom fighter Abdur Rashid, it includes everything from the original mass grave and the early bhittiprastar (foundation stone) to helipads, a parking lot, a stretch of wall for mural and areas of gardens. It is lined with a buffer zone to separate the marked zone from the rest of Savar.

From its entrance to the monument, one has to walk a straight passage divided into four plazas. The plan for the area was finalised right after independence, though it was during the early years of the autocratic regime of Ershad that the project was hurriedly completed compromising durability and the original plan.

The main structure that Hossain designed in 1978 won the first prize. It was completed within three months. By the end of 1982 the structure stood tall, though cracks were visible in many of the structures.

Hossain remembers how he felt climbing up the 150 ft high bamboo scaffolding, “It was an experience to see the Savar in its entirety from that height, I was lured to go up and scan the horizon,” Hossain says recalling his days as a consultant who periodically visited the sight.

The architect, who was later decorated with Ekushey Padak and IAB honour, had to witness his design being materialised so hastily that it was born with faults. “The cracks that run through the structures are the result of lack of experience on the part of the builder and the span of time it was given,” contends Hossain who was for cutting down of costs by sticking to the idea of building thinner structures.

Seven harmonious structures correspond to 52, the year of the Language Movement, the dates of freedom and independence days, respectively 16 and 26. “When the two digits are added of each of the figure, you get the number 7. This spurred me to go for seven structures,” reveals Hossain, an architect who has given this nation one of its original structures.

Aparajeyo Bangla

“There are monuments recognised and built by the government, and there are monuments that are build by the people, mine is of the second kind,” argues Syed Abdullah Khalid, the sculptor who built the first national monument. The idea of sculpture as a monument was not new in Bangladesh. Hamidur Rahman and Novera Ahmed set the precedent by building a structured sculpture in memory of the martyrs of the Language Movement.

Aparajeyo Bangla is the reflection of the student movements that helped shape a political culture of dissent that culminated into movements and lastly resulted in the freedom struggle. “This sculpture is a reflection of our collective consciousness and political milieu that it gave birth to, the general students had a strong bearing on that,” says the artist who was a young teacher at the Department of Fine Arts at the Chittagong University in 1973 when the project was launched.

The Dhaka University Students' Union, DCSU and the authority joined hands to give the spirit of liberation a physical and symbolic shape.

“The model for the work was built within three months starting from January of 1973,” Khalid remembers. The then Vice Chancellor of the university came to see and “was taken by its expressive quality”. When he came to know that it would cost Taka 50 thousand to build, he gave the go ahead. Though later DUCSU had to play a role in providing the fund. The sculpture now stands at 17 and half feet in concrete structure, including the height of the base.

Work started amidst opposition from the so-called pro-Islamic fronts. “Making of the sculpture was another movement all together, I had to campaign for it. DCSU and the pro-liberation forces had to fight for it,” remembers Khalid. Yet on the day of the murder of Bangabandhu on 15 August 1975, work came to a halt.

Khalid recalls how resuming its construction was another war. Disappointed and demoralised, the artist left for England where he was to receive a diploma in metal casting. This was in 1977, at the end of this year he was informed that the work of the sculpture would restart.

In December, he was in Dhaka to give impetus to the signature campaign of the general students. By then Anwar Jahan's sculpture, which was awaiting the work of curing after casting was done, was uprooted one night. “
That same pro-Islamic element made attempts to break the unfinished Aparajeyo Bangla,” recalls the artist who thinks that the monuments are expressions of a collective mind. “They are the structures where mind and matter come together,” he adds.

At the end of December, 1978, the work resumed. It took another whole year to finish. It was inaugurated in a DUCSU-organised ceremony on 16 December 1979 by 12 freedom fighters who came in wheel chairs to unveil a structure that now upholds both the history of independence and its making.

The Rayerbazar Badhabhumi Smritishoudha

Built by two friends Farid Uddin Ahmed and Md. Jami Al Shafi, the Rayerbazar Memorial is a belated homage to the intellectual martyrs. It was completed in 1999 and was opened on 14 December on that year. Alongside the sporadic killing that took place, at the last moment of the war, when there was only two days left to the surrender of the Pakistan force, the collaborators, the deshi quislings gave the wholesale killing by the army a final and freaky touch. They implemented their master plan to wipe out the intellectuals who had the courage to stand against them while not leaving the country.

The two young architects were faced with the problem of bringing into view the solemnity befitting the martyred intellectuals. It was in 1993 that the competition was held, and the two fresh graduates from the Department of Architecture, BUET bagged the first prize.

“Couple of days before the submission, when our main model was complete, and we were giving it the additional touches, two little kids of our landlord came in and spontaneously uttered, 'Bhaiya this model does not look good, it makes you sad',” remembers Shafi. For he and his partner the response of these children was a reassurance of the mournful feeling the small-scale structure emanated.

Shafi also remembers how frustrating it was to see their project being put off for years. Out of 22 participants, their model was declared first by the jury, yet it was not until 1996 that the foundation stone was put up. “We were not sure then that this project would be implemented, as we had seen many other ventures stalled to the point of not being built,” says Shafi recalling how unsure he felt back than.

At present, the project that altered their standing among the peers are in utter neglect. Maintained by the Public Works Department (PWD), it bears no sign of being looked after. The granite pillar, one of its main components, is already losing its stones. As a monument, its unique feature lies in the uneven construction of a curved wall with a big squire punch on it that replaces the traditional idea of a symmetrical obelisk.

“During its construction relatives of the martyrs used to visit the site, some used to recite the Koran, some came to pass time in silence,” recalls Shafi. Ahmed says that they all loved what they saw. “It is a strong existence, and it is out of reach,” says Ahmed. Flanked by a body of water, the curved break wall gives the feeling of incompleteness. “Both soft and hard materials converge to make the smritishowdha complete,” Shafi reflects. A water body, especially made bricks, grass, the plaza or the podium in layman terms, and carefully planted trees, of which the most significant of them is the banyan tree included at one side of the foreground, are the elements that come together here at Rayerbazar. The banyan stands as a reminder of the old banyan that was the last post of Dhaka, past that the low lands began. The original one still stands many yards away. Though unattended, it is the tree up to which the martyrs were brought in blindfolded by car and then from that point on were led to the low land to face their terrible fate.

The Shadhinata Stambha

One of the recent cases of dithering with a project that has to do with the history of independence is the installation at the Suhrwardy Uddyan. It was a huge project that was taken up by the Awami league government back in 1997. It had its share of the usual flak from the opposition, as they saw it as a partisan venture.

The Urbana, run by young architects like Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury and Marina Tabassum, with other colleagues working with them at the time, were the ones who envisaged a glass tower that won over the then head of the government. The tall glass tower proposed by the firm Urbana was hinged around an equally large expenditure. Sixty-seven crore Taks was the proposed amount for the glass tower alone, and the another hefty 82 crore was estimated for the underground museum and the plaza upon which the main tower would stand. “There is no national archive or museum to preserve the history of independence. We elaborately planned this underground museum to fill out that gap,” reflects Kashef who thinks the National Museum does not have adequate space or exhibits dedicated to the war of independence.

The design of the plaza is a rectangle upon which the Shikha Chirantan, the 7 feet high triangular installation in commemoration of the 7 March address of Banga-bandhu, a long, continuous wall along the left side, a shallow round pool at the middle with a hole that slowly sucks away the water and lastly at the end the huge glass tower is placed.

The controversy that surrounds the monument in best part was concerned with the felling of trees. Although as a city park, the Uddyan was never designed according to standard norms. It was a huge open field in the 60s, and later in the eighties became home to unplanned vegetation and sporadic clustered areas of trees.

Kashef and his colleagues proposed a gradual transformation of this park, which is one of last few outposts of greenery in this city. They also had a plan to produce in the middle of the park an elliptical clearing. On the fringe of the clearing a sunken amphitheatre designed.

Out of forty-four firms participating Kashef and Marina's was the winning design. At present, rumours abound regarding its fate. Some are buying that the present government is planning to include sculpture of the late president Zia. “This is all hearsay. It is our design and we did not try to put our signature in it, we fashioned it in way a national monument ought to be,” contends Kashef.

The project now is left to deteriorate in its incomplete state. Work came to a halt on the night of the last parliament election. “We planned a living tower. The look of it changes during the day and at night it is lit from within it and is the major source of light in this huge area. Any change to that idea would undermine the significance of the project,” believes Kashef.

The Mujib Nagar Sritishowdha

The plan for Mujib Nagar Smritishowdha at Mherpur was formulated right after independence. But the real work began as late as the early eighties. It was in 1984 that the designs were called from architects and artists. Diagram Architects, run by three young architects-- Saiful Haque, Jalal Ahmed and Khaled Noman, won the first prize for their unusual design structured in grid pattern.

Though the sprawled-out design of the three architects made an impression in the minds of the juries, which resulted in their winning of the first prize, the then autocrat H.M. Ershad arbitrarily ordered government architects to come up with a design that was later built.

The multiple sun-dials that now exist is the one built by the Department of Archtecture, Ministry of Work. The architects were Shah Alam, Md. Tanweer, Tanweer Karim and A.S.M. Ismail.

“Winning a competition then gave us a moral boost, but it was frustrating to see that a prize-winning structure was side-stepped to make way for another design” says Haque, who now runs his own firm at Dhanmondi.

The concept of the original design sprang from a photograph, where Nazrul Islam, the then acting President of the newly declared country, and other prominent leaders and the attending crowd that included the villagers that came from near and far. “We kept the scale human, as our idea was to express the sense of fraternity that was the essence of 17 April, 1997, when the interim government was formed at Mujib Nagar,” Haque informs. The original design was an installation that took into account the existing environ. Its build was an expression that puts the idea of vertical monuments on its head.

Photo by Zahedul I Khan, Syed Zakir Hossain
and Diagram Architects


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