Arguably the country's greatest contemporary artist, Kalidas Karmakar, who tragically passed away on 18 October following a heart attack after falling badly in the bathroom of his Eskaton flat in the capital, was a true original - an iconoclast who till the end, never stopped pushing at the boundaries of his discipline, always looking to find new forms of expression for his vision, never afraid to experiment or to go out on a limb.

It is a testament to his supreme skill as an artist, a purveyor of form and colour, that the results were often spectacular, almost always compelling. He leaves behind a body of work that is not only captivating for its sheer range and ambition, but also we must remember as we survey the individual pieces, often pioneering in the context of the society that he presented them in.

The society in question happened to be one still in a state of flux, following the birth of Bangladesh through a War of Liberation that was at once glorious and harrowing. His debut solo exhibition would be held in 1976, as he was turning 30, and his impact was instant. Raised in a family of artisans (hence the surname), art was in his blood, with several members of the family including his father known to possess a flair for drawing. Although the humble circumstances in their Faridpur home would not have allowed a proper venting.

Before he came to art, Kalidas had a strong yearning towards botany, as his family's patriarchs were chemists who relied on herbal ingredients. He was also a class topper, but paradoxically also a troublemaker growing up, going around town with his group of ruffians (as he himself said), beating people up, participating for social causes and more. He missed out on eighth and ninth grade, after which he intimidated his school teachers, notably his Sanskrit, Math and English teachers - to ensure that he passed with flying colours. All this earned him the nickname "Pagla", or the madcap.

"As a family of artisans, perhaps art was in our genes. I practiced along and so decided to enroll myself at Dhaka Art College back in the 1960s. Coincidentally the day I arrived at Dhaka was the admission test day as well. I remember Hashem Khan, then a new teacher at Art College, handing me out a white piece of paper, a pen and asking me to draw a tree in an hour. I finished in 10 minutes, which had clearly impressed him. I credit all my artistic knowledge to artists Hashem Khan and Mustafa Monwar," Kalidas once said in an interview published in Dhaka Courier.

Eventually he shifted though, and graduated in fine arts from the Govt. College of Fine Arts and Crafts in Kolkata in 1969. Later in Warsaw, he attended what was billed as a 'superior workshop' (Poland was still very much under the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War still not over) where he learned classical printmaking through a Polish government program, under professors Rafael Strent and Aleksander Kobzdej, and it struck a chord in him.

Upon returning to Dhaka, he would conduct the country's first printmaking workshop, attended by several renowned artists eager to learn the new technique. At around the same time, he was putting together what would turn out to be Bangladesh's first graphic art exhibition. Once again he had managed to pull off something novel. The exposition of graphic art received rave reviews from the late, great architect Shamsul Wares, one of the most brilliant minds of our time, with whom Kalidas got along famously.

Over two decades later, in furtherance of his love for printmaking, he would work closely with Gallery Cosmos in installing the first state-of-the-art printmaking machine in Bangladesh, through a separate unit within the gallery that would be converted to a printmaking studio, Atelier71.

Just a word on that debut though, before we move on. Or rather the story behind just one of the 121 items he put on display for it, that Kalidas himself narrated in yet another interview with Dhaka Courier, soon after he had been awarded the Shilpakala Medal. A year later he would add the Ekushey Padak, which remains the ultimate recognition this country bestows on its artists.

Returning to that story from his debut though, many of the pieces he had brought along for the exhibit were what is called metal collages. And there was one that depicted a sunflower, only through it Kalidas had placed a single, real bullet. It caused quite a stir, the starkness of the representation struck many as so deliberate that there had to be some meaning the artist intended to convey through it, rather than throw it out there for each individual to arrive at some interpretation.

No one could decipher its true meaning though, according to Kalidas, until the late, great poet Shamsur Rahman, then working for Dainik Bangla, wrote an article where he deduced that it was an artistic protest about the gruesome murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the previous year. That tells you a bit about the novelty and artistic plane on which that exhibition stood. Unfortunately though, a week's extension to his 21-day long exhibition, which had been mooted, got cancelled as a result. Kali da, as we called him, almost wore it as a badge of pride.

Kalidas was never one who could be kept down though, and in time he would take his rightful place in the history of Bangladeshi art, not merely for any technical mastery or superior skill he may have possessed (which to be sure, he did), but rather for something far more essential to his stature: through countless solo exhibitions over the years, Kalidas would consistently challenge his audiences to drop their inhibitions at the door and as they surveyed his work, to think anew of art and what it could be, its possibilities, its possible elements.

His use of living objects, elemental symbols, totemic or tantric emblems, found objects (cowries, pebbles) were unprecedented for his time, yet now by-and-large ubiquitous. In a sign of the impact and influence of his work, Kalidas motifs or their echoes, found their way into the fashion designs of the day.

Over the years, Kalidas would keep on challenging his audiences and fellow artists to expand their horizons by introducing entire genres and sub-genres for the first time in Bangladesh, from printmaking and graphic art to installation and new/mixed media. His own star meanwhile, expanded to cover a wide arc of nations, all the way from Japan in the east to the US, where he was spending most of his time in the last years of his life, close to his two daughters who are both settled there. At the time of his death, he had just arrived in Dhaka from the Philippines, where he was part of the group exhibition 'From Manila to Dhaka, Unity in Diversity: An Art Exposition' at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Gallery in Manila - which will now be remembered as the very last exhibition he took part in.

It was forty-three years after he had first announced his arrival on the scene like a comet in the night sky, after which nothing was ever quite the same again for art in Bangladesh. Barely five years had passed since Bangladesh was born through what would be described as A Legacy of Blood. And in 1976, it was still a nation racked by poverty, besieged by hunger, and as the events of the previous year had shown, still prone to violent convulsions that meant the viability of the state, was still not assured.

And out of this pit you all of a sudden had an artist emerge who clearly wasn't peddling any tragedy or looking for a sob story. Rather his work betrayed an utterly, naturally modern sensibility, that was yet anchored by the artist's own unique persona, his formative experiences. His social conditioning. Kalidas always insisted he was 'alluvial', like the soil deposited in the lands he grew up in, as the great Himalayan rivers washed into the ocean. Today, once more, he is off into the unknown. But not before securing a legacy that those who knew him will guard as their own. q

Enayetullah Khan, Editor-in-Chief, UNB/Dhaka Courier and Chairman, Gallery Cosmos

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