How Zainul Abedin Started the Modern Art Movement in Bangladesh

If you try to see Bangladesh's visual art holistically, you will mostly see what the art community calls "oriental art." A form of art that primarily draws on Moghul paintings. 

This wasn't always so, around the time of India Pakistan partition Bangladesh saw the beginnings of modern art uniquely its own. This is where the artist Zainul Abedin comes in. This post will give you a little bit of history about him so you know how he became one of the pioneers or Bangladesh's modern art movement.

Quick sidetrack... what is modern art anyway? The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past is thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation. More recent artistic creation is often called contemporary art. Now, back to Zainul Abedin.


Abedin is born in a place called Kishoreganj (A district in central Bangladesh. It's part of Dhaka Division). As a son of a police official, he lived a simple life. It was in high school that he developed a knack for drawing and painting; it came naturally to him. 


After completing high school he went off to Government College of Art & Craft in Calcutta. In his third year, his mentor Mukul Dey (considered as a pioneer of drypoint-etching in India) wanted him to pursue "oriental art." But Abedin believed it was important to learn the western technique and not restrict himself to a style that primarily draws on Mughal paintings. He wanted to represent subject matter truthfully and the best way to capture that was to learn realism.


Few artists have shown a passion for the masses with disarming simplicity as Zainul Abedin with his Bengal famine sketches. 

This evocative drawing shows a family struck by the Bengal Famine of 1942. Painted in Chinese ink on paper in broad brush strokes.

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,

"You build yourself to be a person so that when somebody praises you, you will smile, and if somebody criticizes you, you will smile."


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."


He helped establish the Institute of Arts and Crafts (now Faculty of Fine Arts) at Dhaka University. 


Much has changed since then and much has remained the same. Faculty of Fine Arts now employs teachers like Mohammed Iqbal teaching the next generation of Bangladeshi artists with his unique exposure of Japanese art.

"Language-2," Artist: Mohammad Iqbal, Painting: oil on canvas

With events like Dhaka Art Summit, we're seeing a modern take on age-old subject matters prevalent in Bangladesh. No one has done this better than the Burmese artist Po Po, with his "VIP Project."

Po Po, VIP Project (Dhaka), 2014-2015.

Just like Abedin, Bangladeshi artists will do well to focus on subject-matters they're passionate about and make it their own. Best way to do this is to learn the traditions of the past and throw them aside in a spirit of experimentation.