I am writing this piece with great grief now that my very favourite painter and the nearest one – Murtaja Baseer has passed away. He breathed his last on August 15. A few weeks ago, he called me and told about his intended plan on art. He wanted to do a series of calligraphy, based on different verses from the Holy Qur’an which he recited with deep earnestness. But the artist left the world before doing the series of works.
I wrote a number of times for his exhibitions’ catalogues, brochures and other different kinds of publications on various occasions. During the last few years, he had been suffering from a number of diseases as he was unable to attend any social and cultural gatherings. Yet he managed to attend a handful of occasions with his oxygen cylinder.
After his demise, I recollect how many times we passed hours at his apartment, art camps, social gatherings and venues of different exhibitions.
Murtaja Baseer is considered to be a distinct and unique personality in Bangladeshi art milieu for strong and meticulous drawings, balanced use of colours, and because he had a strong social commitment, as well as a, lucid thought process. His quest had always encouraged him to deliver new thoughts, styles and techniques, as he engaged in a constant pursuit of experimentation.
Working throughout his illustrious career, Baseer had gradually transformed his working style into abstract realism. He never drew a single line without a logical explanation. Among his contemporary artists or those in later generations, he remains at the top.
Baseer was born in 1932. He joined Dacca Art College (now the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka) as a student in 1949. During the Liberation War, he left the country for Paris with his family. Baseer stayed in Paris till June 1973. While in Paris, he studied mosaic and etching at Beaux Arts de Paris. In 1973, Baseer returned to Bangladesh and joined Chittagong University as an assistant professor. He finally retired from teaching in 1998.
Baseer was a politically and socially conscious painter. During his student life, he got involved in left leaning politics. He was sent to jail several times in the ’50s for his political ideology. Since the very beginning of his career, the artist was greatly influenced by the paintings from Byzantine and Early-Renaissance periods.
Baseer received high praise for sincere depiction of Bengali woman – her pathos, inner agony, magnificence and uniqueness. He zoomed the portraits of women in ultra-modern societies where artificiality and vulgarity are cautiously focused. Coloured hair, smokey eyes, mascara in eyes, sleeveless blouse and bra straps have been highlighted in the paintings. In 2003, he again concentrated on portraying female figures. In these works, the women look more sophisticated and refined. These women cover upper-middle class and middle classes in our society.
“The Wings” is one of his noteworthy series, articulating truth, beauty, romanticism and spirituality. The most significant part of the series is that all of the works have a deep correlation but each painting denotes its individuality. Baseer maintained continuity in his works. Subtle forms and colours create a panoramic impact in his works. In the series, the artist experimented with colours and its various facets. He also experimented with diverse forms. The artist applied colours directly, piling up thick and at times thin layers on the canvas, while attempting to create an image that is dynamic. Brushstrokes give his works a textural quality. His colours are bright and produce an imposing vision. Baseer started working on “The Wings” in July 1998. The works depicted butterfly wings. In the series, abstraction has been attained through fractional representation of the whole and by the boldness of colours.
“Epitaph for the Martyrs”, one of his significant series, was done in 1971, when Baseer fled to Paris with his family, fearing arrest for his involvement in the independence movement. The artist inspired by colours and varied alien forms enmeshed in stones which he found on a Parisian street.
Baseer did a number of calligraphies in oil, using some of the most known words and phrases from the Holy Qur’an. Calligraphy is the art of beautiful or elegant handwriting. It is a fine art of skilled penmanship. In fact, Islamic calligraphy is considered to be Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy has possibly become the most acclaimed form of Islamic art, and as such a major attraction of Arabic art, since after all the Holy Qur’an was revealed in Arabic. In the series of works, Baseer had constantly experimented with colours and its various layers. The letters look very lucid and noticeable. Most of the paintings’ grounds are dominated by white. The canvases look vibrant and give us a touch of aestheticism and exquisiteness. Baseer portrayed them with a simple and uncomplicated touch.
Art enthusiasts have also found a unique taste in his collages, where small pieces of paper were piled up with a strong synchronisation. He meticulously pasted papers using a technique where he never used ink, pen or any singular colour. He had an endeavour to articulate beauty of the medium and properly explore its technical aspects. He first did a collage in 1973 in France. Afterwards he did not get time to work in this particular medium. He again concentrated on the medium in 1990 and 1991. There was a basic reason as to why he again used the medium. In the 90s, the painter used to live in Chittagong. At that time, his stock of colours became empty, and necessary colours were not available in Chittagong. Thus, he decided to do a collage. In this period, he also planned to make a series of works to pay homage to four of his favourite painters – Sandro Botticelli, Vincent Van Gogh, Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. He wanted to do modern interpretation of their historical paintings. At first, he did a collage titled “The Birth of Venus, Homage to Botticelli”. During that time, Baseer did a series of collages, titled “No More War” where he focused on the cruelty of war. He did the series highlighting the Iraq War and the collages depict the pain and agony, depression and miserable life. At that time, the artist acutely perceived the cruelty of war which separates and destroys families and friends, while diminishing joy and happiness. The artist’s soul touched on all the devastative effects of the war. Some of his collages signify surrealistic imagery, fantasy and symbolic world.
Baseer did many drawings with pen and ink in the early 1960s. He did innumerable drawings in different phases of his life. Drawings are a manifestation of thoughts and depiction of daily life. A painter’s drawings express his or her personality and viewpoints. Baseer’s drawings show the world the way he sees it, and manifest the essence of the things he has seen. Nude, semi-nude, different other figures including curvy figures, are very much apparent. When Baseer felt distressed or troubled and his creative endeavour flourished, pen and ink assisted him to explore his visions. He recorded his observation, sentiment, frustration, longing, bliss and other experiences on paper, which became a mirror for his pensive mood. His drawings are synchronised and technically phenomenal. He wanted to proceed with a certain style that could become a personal hallmark of his works.
Many are perhaps not familiar with Baseer’s other identities as a poet, short story writer, novelist, researcher, numismatist and filmmaker. Baseer wrote novels and was acclaimed for his meticulous style and unique choice of themes. In 1954, he wrote a novel, titled “Ultramarine”. The novel was based on contemporary life in Kolkata and prevailing social issue of the time. He published a collection of short stories called “Kanch-er Pakhir Gaan” in 1969. He wrote two more novels – Mitar Shangey Char Shandha and Amitakkhar. He published a collection of selected works – Murtaja Baseer: Murto O Bimurto.
Reading Baseer’s poetry is like an emotional journey. As a poet, he was a modernist in the complete sense. His style was unquestionably unique, expressive and easily comprehensible. When reading his poems, one feels the yearnings of a lonely soul, unbound sorrow, the vacuum in a melancholic heart. Baseer’s poems are voyages into fantasy. He had a collection of selected poems titled “Fresh Blood, Faint Line”.
Baseer also worked as a screenplay writer, art director and chief assistant director for the Bangla film “Nadi O Nari” in 1964, and as an art director for the Urdu film “Kaise Kahoon” in 1965.
In 1987, he received a fellowship from British Council to carry out research on folk and traditional art of Bangladesh. In 1988, he visited several museums in Delhi, Calcutta, Banaras and 3,000 villages in nine districts of West Bengal – under the fellowship of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). His work “Mudra O Shilalipir Aloke Banglar Habshi Sultan O Tothkalin Samaj” was published in 2004. Several articles by Baseer has been published in the Journal of the Numismatic Society of India, a prestigious publication.
The writer is an art critic and cultural curator.