Murtaja Baseer, one of the most distinguished painters of our country, has made an immense contribution to the enrichment of our art. Baseer is the son of Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, an outstanding scholar and linguist. The artist recalls his relationship with his father, his father's reaction to Baseer's decision of pursuing art and more.
Yesterday (July 13) marked the 44th death anniversary of Shahidullah.
“People think that Dr. Shahidullah was against my decision to become, but that is not right. He disagreed but never stood in the way. My father said in explanation: 'When I was living in Paris, I witnessed the life of a painter haunted by poverty and meted out inhuman treatment by his fellow countrymen. The life of an artist is never easy. So, I do not want you to embrace this troubled fate. First, you should complete your education and then go for art. In fact, I would rather you go to Aligarh,” says Baseer.
Says the artist, “Initially my objective was not to become a painter. I was closely engaged to a political party and I tried to go by the party's rules. The Communist Party ordered me to work towards a political organisation. I got admitted to art school. When I was a student of class nine, I became a member of the Student Federation. Then I did many portraits of Marx, Engles, Lenin, Stalin and other renowned leftists. When my father saw that I wished to be admitted to art school, he asked me to go to Shantiniketan. But I did not agree with him. Then one day he gave me money for admission and called me to his library. There was a mahogany cabinet where he kept valuable books. There were two books, which had colourful photographs of the Louvre Museum. That cabinet was always locked. I liked those two books, especially the nude paintings in them. I was taken aback when my father handed over the books which were priceless aesthetically.
“My father sent me to Italy in 1956 for higher education in art. On my return home in 1959, I prepared for a solo exhibition in Karachi. My father was in the Urdu Development Board then. He invited the then Education Minister Habibur Rahman to inaugurate my exhibition and wrote on the invitation card, “Introducing my son, Murtaja Baseer – Artist”. American Friends of the Middle East arranged the exhibition.
“In Florence, Italy, I was included in an exhibition of nine painters from East Pakistan in 1957. A review was published in the Pakistan Observer, where I was referred to as 'Murtaja Rashid'. My father immediately wrote a letter to the editor of Pakistan Observer pointing out that my name had been spelt wrong. In the letter, he appreciated my works and wrote out my correct name. Afterwards, I changed my name to 'Murtaja Baseer'. My father was very displeased with me. When he wrote to me, he addressed me as A.K.M. Bashirullah alias Murtaja Baseer. He hardly used Murtaja Baseer. Fortunately, he always treated me as an artist.
“When my father visited our ancestral home in Chobbish Pargana (West Bengal), I requested him to buy some tubes of colours which he bought for me. In 1961, I was living in Lahore and requested him to send some canvases for me. He was kind enough to send those canvases to me as well. Often he asked me to come back to Dhaka and settle down.
“At the end of 1961, I came back to Dhaka and did a solo exhibition, organised by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. On that occasion, Bangla Academy organised a seminar on'Modern Man and Modern Art'. The chief orator was A.K. Brohi and my father attended the programme. During a conversation Brohi asked my father to comment on me as a modern painter. My father confessed, 'My son is as complicated as modern art is to me.'
“That night my father came to my room and said, 'Art should be a thing of beauty as I had seen in the galleries of Paris. Why do your works look bizarre? However, I have to admit that one of your paintings called Dead Lizard really fascinated me.' I explained to my father that this 'dead lizard' represented our decadent society. 'You and I both are meta-physical.' My father agreed with my opinion.
“My father was hospitalised in 1968, when I was making a mural for the State Bank of Pakistan. My mother had died and I became detached from life and unable to immerse myself in my work. Every day I went to the hospital to look after my father. He wanted to know about my work. When my father heard that I could not concentrate on my work as I was affected by my mother's sudden death, he told me to forget that chapter of my life and carry on with my work.
“One day, Dr. Enamul Haque came to the hospital and my father introduced me to him. Dr. Enamul Haque told him, 'I know him very well.' My father laughed and said, 'Yes, my son has now become a famous man.'
“I had drawn lots of portraits of my father, of which he was completely unaware. When my father was admitted to the hospital we had no idea that he would be dying within two weeks. Before leaving for the hospital, he suddenly put on an “achkan” and a fez cap and asked me to do his portrait.
Portraits are supposed to be forbidden in our religion. He said, “There is nothing forbidden in this regard in our Holy book. If the painting puts you in a foul mood or places any wicked impression on your mind, then it is certainly wrong. Such paintings are not even aesthetic in any way.' When my deeply religious father made this statement, portraits were not encouraged in the Muslim world and no faces were seen on a postal stamp. Now that trend has changed.”