Tale of a butterfly man: A conversation with Murtaza Bashir
A butterfly's origin is in its caterpillar beginnings. Soldiering through sunlight and rain for a certain period, suddenly it comes out of its cocoon as a colourful winged creature. And we come to love the once ugly entity in its new form. Like the painful transformation of a butterfly, the artist too undergoes a similar ordeal to produce a masterpiece.
For the eminent artist-writer Murtaza Bashir, who celebrates his 86th birthday today, creating a painting is like giving birth to a child. His 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," says Murtaza Bashir.
As a socially conscious artist, Bashir's paintings are much more than what they appear to be. He often tries 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 decides to delve 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, I created the series 'Wings of Butterfly.'
"I also created another series titled 'The Wall' in 1969. It portrays the ambience of suffocation that engulfed us all. During the War of Liberation, I, along with my wife and our two daughters, fled to Paris. When I watched the plight of the freedom fighters and common people on television, I was driven by a deep sense of guilt. Then I created the 'Epitaph for the Martyrs' series as my homage to the freedom fighters. The idea of the series struck me when I came across a small stone on the streets of Paris.
"In the pre-historic times, when a warrior died, a stone would be kept beside his head. The stone symbolised the soul. Inspired by the idea, I started the 37-painting series in Paris and completed it in Chittagong. I also created 'Eruption' and 'Radiant' denouncing the autocratic rule of Ershad," he says.
An interesting aspect of Bashir's work is his self-portraits. He draws himself at least once, if not more, every year. "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."
The answer lies in his drawing of his own self.
"In fact, every time I finish a self-portrait, the man on the canvas seems somewhat unknown to me. I feel like there is still so much to explore and express. I love to chronicle my life, in sickness and distress, in happiness and laughter. When I had my cataract operation, and one of my eyes were shut with bandages, I was in pain. But I drew myself nonetheless."
Born in 1932, Murtaza Bashir regards himself as "an artist by chance." The youngest son to the eminent scholar Dr Muhammed Shahidullah and Marguba Khatun, Bashir 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. Bashir believes that his lifelong dedication to important social causes and affinity for paintings stemmed from his adherence to the communist ideology.
Bashir was greatly inspired by Picasso, who remains his idol to this day. 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.
Bashir says he doesn't know whether he will live on as an artist in the public minds, but he is confident that he will 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, (he also translated it in English as Fresh Blood Faint Line) and Sada Elegy—to his credit.
The Ekushey Padak winner says, "The governmental awards are now conferred on people with known allegiance to certain political platforms. I am yet to receive the Shadhinata Padak. I have told my children not to accept any posthumous award after my death."
In 1964, Murtaza Bashir 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, Bashir 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.
Commenting on his reaching the 86-year mark, the octogenarian artist, currently suffering from diabetes and other old-age complications, says, "This year I am going to celebrate my 86th birthday," darkly adding, "My father died after three days celebrating his 86th birthday. The earth is small and our life is short, but it's what we do with it that matters in the end."
Zahangir Alom is a member of the Arts & Entertainment department at The Daily Star.