Dhaka Courier

Unknown Episodes: Murtaja Baseer recollects about Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah

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Murtaja Baseer is one of the most distinguished painters of our country, who has made an immense contribution to the enrichment of our art. Baseer is the son of Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, an outstanding scholar and linguist. The artist goes down memory lane and recalls his relationship with his father, his reaction to Baseer's decision of pursuing art and more.

"People think that Dr. Shahidullah was against my decision of becoming a painter, but that is not right. He disagreed but never stood in the way. My father simply tried to explain his views to me: 'When I was living in Paris, I witnessed the life of a painter haunted by poverty and pursued by inhumane treatment from his fellow countrymen. The life of an artist is never easy. You are my child. I do not want you to embrace this troubled fate. First, you should complete your BA and MA, and then you can go for art. In fact, I would rather favour you going to Aligarh,'" says Baseer.

He adds, "Initially my main objective was not to become a painter. I was closely engaged to a political party and I tried to respect the party's rules. The Communist Party ordered me to work towards a political organisation. I got admitted to art school. When I was a student of class nine, I became a member of the Student Federation. Then I did many portraits of Marx, Engles, Lenin, Stalin and other renowned leftists. When my father observed that I wished to be admitted to art school, he asked me to go to Shanti Niketan. But I did not agree with him. He didn't talk to me for two days and didn't call me to go for prayer either. Then one day he gave me money for admission and called me to his library. There was a mahogany cabinet where he kept valuable books. There were two books, which had colourful photographs of the Louvre Museum. That cabinet was always locked. I liked those two books, especially the nude paintings in them. I was taken aback when my father handed over the books. In aesthetic terms the books were priceless.

"My father sent me to Italy in 1956 for higher education in art. After returning home in 1959, I prepared myself for a solo exhibition in Karachi. My father was in the Urdu Development Board then. He invited the then Education Minister Habibur Rahman to inaugurate my exhibition and wrote on the invitation card, "Introducing my son, Murtaja Baseer -- Artist." American Friends of the Middle East arranged the exhibition. Wine was in abundance at the programme. I felt a little embarrassed at such unexpected grandeur solely on my behalf. At dusk my father chose one of the corners of the gallery to place his jaynamaaz for his Maghrib prayers. That was a contrasting sight indeed!

"In Florence, Italy, I was included in an exhibition of nine painters from East Pakistan in 1957. A review was published in the Pakistan Observer, where I was referred to as 'Murtaja Rashid'. My father immediately wrote a letter to the editor of Pakistan Observer pointing out that my name had been spelt wrong. In the letter, he appreciated my works and wrote out my correct name. Afterwards, I changed my name to 'Murtaja Baseer'. My father was much displeased with me. When he wrote to me, he addressed me as A.K.M. Bashirullah alias Murtaja Baseer. He hardly used Murtaja Baseer. Fortunately, he always treated me as an artist.

"When my father visited our ancestral home in Chobbish Pargana (West Bengal), I requested him to buy some tubes of colours, which were available in the shops on Chowrangi Lane. He bought those colours for me. In 1961, I was living in Lahore and requested him to send some canvases for me. He was kind enough to send those canvases to my address. I always informed him about my works and upcoming exhibitions. He always maintained a good communication with me. Often he asked me to come back to Dhaka and settle down.

"At the end of 1961, I came back to Dhaka and did a solo exhibition, which was organised by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. On that occasion, Bangla Academy organised a seminar on 'Modern Man and Modern Art'. The chief orator was A.K. Brohi and my father attended the programme. During a conversation Brohi asked my father to comment on me as a modern painter. My father confessed, 'My son is as complicated as modern art is to me.'

"That night my father came to my room and said, 'Art should be a thing of beauty as I had seen in the galleries of Paris. Why do your works look bizarre? However, I have to admit that one of your paintings called Dead Lizard really fascinated me.' I explained to my father that this 'dead lizard' represented our decadent society. 'You and I both are meta-physical.' My father agreed with my opinion.

"My father was hospitalised in 1968, when I was making a mural for the State Bank of Pakistan. My mother had died and I became detached from life and unable to immerse myself in my work. Every day I went to the hospital to look after my father. He wanted to know about my work. When my father heard that I could not concentrate on my work as I was affected by my mother's sudden death, he told me to forget that chapter of my life and carry on with my work.

"One day, Dr. Enamul Haque came to the hospital and my father introduced me to him. Dr. Enamul Haque told him, 'I know him very well.' My father laughed and said, 'Yes, my son has now become a famous man.'

"I had drawn lots of portraits of my father, of which he was completely unaware. When my father was admitted to the hospital we didn't think he would be dying after fifteen days. Before leaving for the hospital, he suddenly put on an achkan and a fez cap and asked me to do his portrait.

Portraits are supposed to be forbidden in our religion. I wanted to know his opinion in this regard, 'There is nothing forbidden in this regard in our holy book. If the painting puts you in a foul mood or places any wicked impression on your mind, then it is certainly wrong. Such paintings are not even aesthetic in any way.' When my deeply religious father made this statement, portraits were not encouraged in the Muslim world and no faces were seen on a postal stamp. Now that trend has changed."

The writer is an art critic and cultural curator.

  • Murtaja Baseer
  • Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah

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