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Meet the Artist: Zainul Abedin

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Any writing on the Bangladeshi modern art pioneers would be incomplete without Zainul Abedin. Born in 1914 in a place called Kishoreganj, Abedin lived a simple life. As a son of a police official, he had a humble upbringing. As a high school student, he developed the knack for drawing and painting; it came naturally to him. In 1932, after completing highschool, young Abedin left for Art College in Kolkata.

In his third year, it was time to choose a specialty. Mukul Dey, his mentor, wanted him to pursue Oriental Art, but Abedin thought it was important to learn the western academic technique than to restrict himself to a style that primarily draws on Moghul paintings. Abedin wanted to capture the lives and rhythm of reality, the best way to capture that was to learn realism.

Few have shown the passion for the masses with a disarming simplicity as Zainul Abedin with his Bengal famine sketches. In the 1940s, what Abedin did was not just document the famine, but in his sketches showed its sinister face through the emaciated and skeletal figures of the people fated to die of starvation in a man-made plight. He depicted this inhuman saga with very human compassion. What he produced in a series of brush and ink drawings was to become iconic images of human suffering.

“The Chinese ink that he used to use made the brushes hard, and Zainul used to smash them with a brick to soften them,” Murtaja Baseer recalls his teacher making do with what was available. Baseer believes that the hard-brush-technique came from the manhandling of brushes. Baseer remembers Abedin’s motto for life, he said, “You build yourself to be a person so that when somebody praises you, you will smile, and if somebody criticizes you, you will smile.”

In 1946, he marries Jahanara. Jahanara Abedin recalls, “Zainul was a good man, and what others couldn’t draw using paint and ink, he could using ashes of cigarettes.”

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