The First Time I Saw Art

The first time I saw art up close and personal was when I was 12 and my mother brought home two Quamrul Hassan’s (oils) and an unframed watercolor she said he (the artist, Quamrul Hassan!!!) had just given her (“tor jeta pochondo hoi tui niye ja!” she quoted him as saying).

I remember being fascinated and very embarrassed, unable to look away from the pair of oils-- both of them of women with their large melon like breasts partially uncovered. I spent many a month studiously avoiding looking at the breasts (but possibly longing to) as they hung displayed to my world in my parents living room. It turns out that Quamrul Hassan was a family friend and a week after the first paintings were brought home, my mother took me to his home to meet him and look at more art. At his home and studio, I sampled the variety, depth and the generosity of Quamrul Hassan both the man and his art. He gave away paintings that today cost a fortune if you are able to find one that is, from boxes and other places in his studio—he told my mother she could pay whatever she wanted for the oils for example and I’ve heard similar stories from other family members.  His art was prolific and regular –oils of still life and women, watercolors of bucolic Bengal and etchings all intermixed, painted at various stages and times of his long and mostly not so profitable career. Incidentally, the third painting which I had paid no attention to at first, the one my mom got to pick up off of the artist’s studio floor, was in contrast to the pair with the women, a rich, vivid green watercolor of the Bangladesh landscape—expansive peridot colored fields of rice with a thatched roofed home in the distance—a bucolic and oft documented scene of rural Bengal he and many others have depicted in various forms. I do believe that globalization and trappings of the modern world where money is more important than love, true love for the art form don’t allow for the making of artists such as Quamrul Hassan anymore. Not in Bangladesh. Not anywhere.  He was as was his art, the quintessential and the foremost Bengali painter of the twentieth century, second only to Zainul Abedin.

Years later as an adult when I returned to Bangladesh and became for a brief period, the ubiquitous development worker, I got to see Quamrul Hassan’s watercolors and his oils, his inspiration if you will, “for real”. I found his art under a banyan tree next to the village mosque; in the middle of a yellow field of mustard flowers; in a village pond, silver grey in the afternoon sun-- brimming over with fish; and in the sensual if slight glimpse of a chocolate brown breast clinging to a wet cotton saree as a woman emerges from her daily bath.  There is a realness in his art and at the same time there is soul, for lack of a better word. It might be this very combination that caught my imagination at 12 and cemented my love in my 20s.

As I was writing this piece, I thought of Tagore—you cannot if you’ve had my childhood, think of Bengali art and depictions of Bengal without evoking Rabindranath Tagore. So I did the obvious. Igoogled Tagore and art.  One of the first quotes that popped up was this one-- “What is Art? It is the response of man's creative soul to the call of the Real.”

Enough said?