Ferdousi Priyabhashini: An artist and a social activist
I know of Ferdousi Priyabhashini, but I did not know her. We met a few times in Dhaka either at a seminar or a conference, or at the residence of late National Professor Kabir Chowdhury. She used to come to Professor Chowdhury's residence either to attend the Executive Committee meeting of the Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for Resisting the Killers and Collaborators of 1971) or to wish him on the occasion of his birthday. I remember exchanging pleasantries with her. I told her how I appreciated her work—both as an artist and as a social activist. And she surprised me by mentioning that in the 1980s, she used to enjoy my column Kori-Korcha in the literary section of the Daily Sangbad. Our exchanges did not go beyond that and thus, I cannot claim that I knew Ferdousi Priyabhashini.
But all through the years, I was an avid admirer of Ferdousi Apa's artwork. I think I first saw some of her sculptures at the house of a friend, who collected a few of her works. Next, I had the good fortune of attending one of her exhibitions, which, as far as I remember, took place at Bengal Foundation. In the ensuing months, I found that Ferdousi Apa's artwork had become a keenly sought-after item in the elite homes of Dhaka. I am no art connoisseur, yet whenever I saw any sculpture created by Ferdousi Apa, I could not turn away. When I contemplate on this, I realise that Ferdousi Apa's artwork impressed me for three reasons.
First, her choice of ingredients was unique. I could never comprehend how simple things from nature and waste materials all around us could be used so artfully and skilfully and turned into such impressive artwork. She used old tree branches, dead twigs, tree trunks, simple bamboo, fallen leaves, and discarded clothes to make beautiful sculptures. Once, she told me how she used to look for parts of tree trunks, hour after hour, that had been washed onto the beaches by tides. "Making art out of waste" was the innovative key to Ferdousi Apa's artwork.
Second, Ferdousi Apa's artwork is humane and human-centric. Our country, its land and people, our Liberation War and victory, and the lives of common people are the inspiration as well as the centre of Ferdousi Apa's sculptures. As a result, the landscape of Bangladesh, our freedom fighters, and the struggles of our common people, have again and again become the subject of Ferdousi Apa's artwork. All her work reflects her love for her country and her people. Of course, this is expected of a freedom fighter. It also depicts her social awareness and commitment.
Third, her forms are simple, closer to life. As a result, no one should face any significant problems in appreciating her work and understanding its basic messages. She did not make her sculptures unnecessarily abstract, beyond the comprehension of common people. Simplicity is her trademark and looking at her artwork, it has always dawned on me that simple was not only beautiful, but it was powerful as well. She has also shown us how, with minimum costs, we can decorate our homes beautifully and elegantly.
We all know that artists have a social responsibility. Most of the artists exercise that responsibility through their artwork. Ferdousi Priyabhashini was no exception. But she went beyond her artwork to carry on her social responsibility as an artist. The Muktijuddho or the Liberation War of Bangladesh was too personal for her and she made the dearest sacrifices for it. Naturally, she could never forgive the people who committed genocide, rape and murder during the nine months of our Liberation War. Ferdousi Apa hated the people who opposed the birth of Bangladesh, who could not accept the new country and were against all its basic principles.
So, when the Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee was formed through a civic initiative under the leadership of the Shaheed Jononi (mother of a martyr) late Jahanara Imam to try the war criminals, Ferdousi Apa was at its centre. She worked around the clock with other eminent citizens of the country in establishing a People's Court to try them. She was relentless in mobilising evidence against the killers and collaborators and helped build cases against them. Because of the efforts by personalities like Ferdousi Priyabhashini, in due course, the killers and collaborators of 1971 were brought to justice. In my view, this is one of the greatest contributions that Ferdousi Apa made to our country and our nation.
As a social activist, Ferdousi Priyabhashini was at the forefront of any liberal movement and people's struggle, and any attempt to establish the basic values with which Bangladesh was created. We have seen her many times at the front row of processions, raising slogans; at the centre of debates and discussion on people's rights, making strong arguments; and by the side of common men and women when calamities struck them. She was all for women's rights, gender equality and women's empowerment. Her love for the Bangla language, culture and heritage was evident in the way she used to dress and speak, and how she named her daughters—Rajeshori Priyaranjini, Rotneshori Priyadorshini, and Fuleshori Priyanondini.
Ferdousi Apa passed away on March 6, 2018. In 2010, she was decorated with the Shadhinata Padak (the Independence Award)—the highest civilian award of Bangladesh. Because of her sacrifice and contributions to the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the Government of Bangladesh in 2016 bestowed the title of Muktijoddha (freedom fighter) on her.
However, awards and recognitions cannot truly reflect the sacrifices that Ferdousi Priyabhashini has made for her country, nor can they fully capture the contributions that she has made in the art, culture and social activism of Bangladesh.
Selim Jahan is former Director, Human Development Report Office, United Nations Development Programme, New York.