A pioneer of modern photography in Bangladesh, Anwar Hossain showed forthcoming generations what constituted modern composition. He could have been a great architect; instead he took photography as a true profession ushering in a new era in the visual world. As a successful cinematographer, he created a unique visual language. The use of natural light in his contemporary approach to composition both in the case of photography and cinematography has been a remarkable lesson for new generations of photographers.
Eminent artist Mustafa Monwar in the prologue of the book A Ballad of Bangladesh by Anwar Hossain, wrote, “The voyage of an artist through his own land never ends, however long his wanderings be. The land has bounds, but the artist's capacity to seek and behold is boundless. That's why I say that Anwar's voyage through Bangladesh is never to end. The pictures of this ballad are not of the kind an eye may see through the view-finder of a camera. These are the images conjured up in the kaleidoscope of an artist's consciousness. These are not the snap-shots of our common place world lit by the everyday sun. They are reflections of the images engraved in his soul by many flashes of empathy, borne through many seasons, nurtured in anguish and ecstasy.”
When Hossain made his entry in the late-60s and mastered the course of cinematography in the 80s, he changed the history of photography and cinematography in Bangladesh forever. Empathy with the subject and a sincere approach to the medium were the twin factors that, he would believe, could only lead to artistic merit. “If you are a creator you cannot create without falling in love. Otherwise you should call yourself a businessman, not a photographer or cinematographer,” stressed Anwar Hossain in an earlier interview with The Daily Star.
So how did someone who was born in a slum called Aga Nawab Dewry of Old Dhaka become the maestro of photography and cinematography? Being the eldest in a family of twelve, he had to scavenge with other kids in the area to help out in whatever way a child could.
The legendary visual story-teller frankly shared his toiling childhood days with renowned art critic and artist Mustafa Zaman, who then wrote an exclusive cover story for the Star Weekend Magazine of The Daily Star. “It was from Haat (Bazaar) of Gani Mian that we used to collect kindling and saw-dust to sell a sack full for 8 ana (half of one Taka),” recalled Anwar who would wake up early in the morning to finish his homework for school and go scavenging in the morning. After this he would go to the bazaar and then straight to school, where other predicaments awaited. Although he was the first boy of his class in school, things were never smooth for him. He harked back to his days of hardship as easily as he recorded the dignity in humans toiling away to make things better for themselves. He added, “We did whatever was possible to contribute towards the family well-being. As a scavenger, we used to look as run-down and derelict in half-pants, without any shirt or footwear, as the tokais of today.”
Despite the hardship he grew up in Anwar took life in all its shades in his stride. He had an unconditional love for photography. He believed that the love for a subject came from within. Even though he was an architecture graduate from BUET, it was his love for the visages of the common Bangladeshi that drove him to begin his career in photography in 1967. For him, photography was the process of transferring not only the subject, but also the love he felt for it, from the camera onto the photograph.
He was a Freedom Fighter all the way, whether it was a gun or a camera he held in his hand. Deeply connected to his roots, he left for France in 1991 after the death of his first wife which had left him completely shattered.
He headed towards Pune, India in 1974, on an ICCR scholarship, to study filmmaking. He proudly proclaimed that life had changed for him after Pune where he came in touch with the greatest twentieth century filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who came as a visiting filmmaker. As Anwar was one of the outstanding students, he had been given a chance to photograph the visiting maestro during his stay at the institute. Anwar referred to the time spent at Pune as the golden era of his life.
The history of cinema in Bangladesh changed after Anwar Hossain came back from Pune to position himself behind the camera and apply an educated and discerning gaze. The imprint of his skill as well as sensibility was in high demand. His signature is still something that most of the new filmmakers crave to have in their work.
As for still photography, Anwar continued to record the real with all its bites intact. Abstraction works only when it remains eloquent, when it strongly proposes a concept, this seemed like a motto to him. The distanced look at life and the cultivated "rarefied taste" was not in his vein. For him everything harked back to the reality that they came from. His words stand for his work, “The purpose of art is not to please or to beautify, but to transmit your own soul or thoughts or conviction into the media you are working with.”
Recipient of more than 60 international awards for photography and cinematography, Anwar Hossain had filmed 15 feature films and 30 documentaries and published eight major photo books. He had been teaching for the last 40 years and some of our most prized filmmakers, including Tareque Masud, Tanveer Mokammel and Mishuk Munier, were his students at some point in time. He was the cinematographer of timeless films like “Surja Dighal Bari”, “Emiler Goenda Bahini', “Dahan”, “Lalsalu”, “Anya Jiban”, “Nadir Naam Madhumati”, “Chitra Nodir Pare”, “Shyamol Chhaya”, “Three Beauties” (producer) and “Swapnabhumi: The Promised Land”. His work is said to have ushered in a new era in Bangladeshi cinema.
Internationally renowned mime artiste Partha Pratim Majumder says of Hossain: “Bangladesh has lost one of the brightest stars in the sky of photography and cinematography.”
Eminent photographer Shahidul Alam wrote: “It was with a heavy heart that I arrived at Shaheed Minar to bid goodbye to my friend, the hugely talented photographer Anwar Hossain. The kohl on his eyes gave him a pensive look, unusual for someone who always spoke with such a vigour and energy. This was the man who introduced contemporary photography practice in Bangladesh. His works became a turning point in Bangladeshi photography and an inspiration to an entire generation of younger photographers. Bangladeshi photography has come a long way, but we forget how much we owe the early pioneers: Golam Kasem Daddy, Amanul Haque, Manzoor Alam Beg, Nowazesh Ahmed, Rashid Talukder and Anwar Hossain. The chhobiwalas (photographers) of our history gave much and got little in return. I wish the posthumous awards we give them once they are gone could have been given while they were alive. His body must have been kept in a freezer. It was only when I touched his face, and felt the coldness of the skin that I realised this man, who had once been so full of life, had left us. Goodbye, my friend. May the light be with you.”
Renowned artist Kalidas Karmakar gives some direction on how we may honour this remarkable artist: “We didn't give him due respect; he is a true Freedom Fighter of not only 1971—all through his life he had a restless creative impulse. His volume of works is immense. Now we should compile all his images and publish an exclusive comprehensive book and exhibition for reflecting our history of photography and the social changes since the birth of Bangladesh. Bangladesh National Museum can do it creating a special photography archive for him so that the younger generations can be inspired through his timeless work.”
Zahangir Alom is a member of the Arts & Entertainment department at The Daily Star.