Deft handling of bold strokes, sensitivity to colour and an immense compassion for the struggling and the suffering people combined to make Zainul Abedin the master artist, our pride and heritage, that he is.
Born 29 December 1914 at Kishoreganj in Mymensingh, Zainul Abedin had left school and found his true avocation in arts in which he attained fame and glory that his genius so deserved. He graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Government School of Art, Calcutta, winning first place. At the age of 24 his paintings were chosen by the then British Indian Government for exhibition at Burlington House in Lonbon, and later in Paris.
With the establishment of Pakistan he started his pioneering work for art education, first as the Chief Designer to the Department of Films and Publications and later as the Principal of the Art Institute which he helped set up in Dhaka in 1949. Within a few years the Institute grew to be a full-fledged Govt. College of Arts and Crafts affiliated to the Dhaka University, where Abedin was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts in 1963.
A widely travelled man, his works have been exhibited in most countries of Asia, Europe and the Americas. Permanent collections where his works are preserved include the National Museum in Brussels, the Cincinatti Museum and the San Fransisco Museum of Arts in the U.S.A.
He represented Pakistan at a UNESCO Conference in Venice (1952), went round the world under Rockefeller Foundation Travelling Fellowship (1956-57), toured the USSR as a guest of the Russian Government (1960) and visited Iran as a member of the jury for the 5th Biennial Paintings Exhibition (1966). He was Honorary Art Adviser to the Pakistan Government In 1958-59, he was decorated by the Government of Pakistan and won the highest Presidential Award for Pride of Performance. He was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. degree by the University of Delhi in 1974. He was also a Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at two universities, Peshawar (1965) and Dhaka (1973), and was appointed a National Professor of Bangladesh in 1974.
In 1938 he was awarded the much coveted Governor's Gold Medal of the Academy of Fine Arts in the All-lndia Arts Exhibition while still a student And he was the first student of the Government School of Arts to be appointed a teacher of the same school before he passed his final examination.
The Great Famine of Bengal in 1943 and the millions of starving people dying by the roadside on their trek to the cities in search of a little bit of food touched his sensitive mind very deeply. He travelled through several parts of Bengal and drew his famous series of famine sketches. When the sketches were first published in the Calcutta daily Swadhinata, Zainul Abedin became known throughout India and the world.
In his works he thought it better to synthesize the local traditions with modern international techniques and developments in art He started to speak in very strong terms in favour of a Bengali modernism in painting. In the Navanna Exhibition of 1970, Zainul Abedin's contribution was a 64-feet scroll very touchingly depicting the story of rural Bangladesh through its phases of abundance of Sonar Bangla and the accompanying happiness and peace, through gradual impoverishment under colonialism to the stage of a pitiable poverty and the outward migration of the rural poor. The scroll was especially painted for the show. He also depicted the 1970 cyclone tragedy in a 31-feet scroll, called Manpura-70.
Before the wounds of the 1970 cyclone were healed, began the War of Liberation of Bangladesh. Like millions of Bengalis, Zainul Abedin was a helpless captive at home, hiding from place to place but always holding' his great famine sketches close to his bosom.
Immediately after the liberation, Abedin was invited by the Government to design illuminations on the pages of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which he did with great earnestness with the help of other artists. The Folk Art Museum, his life- long plan to preserve the rich but dying folk arts of Bangladesh for posterity, was set up, fittingly, at Sonargaon for historical reasons.
Before his death on 28 May, 1976, he drew his last painting - Two Faces - on 9 May, the day he was admitted to hospital for treatment of cancer. The role of a Zainul Abedin in the development of the fine arts in Bangladesh, however, has been best expressed by the title of Shilpacharya -- the Great master of the Arts -- which his admiring people bestowed upon him.
Credits: Jahanara Abedin, Abdur Razzaque, Mustari Begum, Mainul Abedin
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