I DON’T remember ever entering the house by the front door. Ferdousi Priyabhashini’s house shared a wall with another favourite of mine, the much loved poet Sufia Kamal. Sufia Khala’s daughter Tulu (painter Saeeda Kamal) was also a dear friend. Often when I’d go to visit Khala and Tulu, I’d sneak through the small gate on the common wall and into Ferdousi’s driveway.
The driveway rarely had room for cars. Tree trunks of all descriptions, bits of driftwood, the bark of a tree, some non-descript stump that others would have passed by were centrestage. Ferdousi saw beauty in things, which others would discard. A shave here, a twig there, a tiny protrusion from a fallen bark and suddenly, what had once been a cluster of dead wood, became, in her hands, a living metaphor. A bird in flight, a lovers’ embrace, a dank jail cell.
On 22nd December 1971, in the first week of independent Bangladesh, Abul Hasnat Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, a senior government minister and a leading member of the Awami League, had coined the word birangana (war heroine) for the rape victims of the Pakistani army. The father of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, soon after his return to independent Bangladesh, went out of his way to honour the biranganas and acknowledge the nation’s debt to them. But even Mujib had been incapable of overturning the stigma associated with rape in a patriarchal society that lays such great store to the notions of chastity of women.
The biranganas felt the full brunt of the social stigma of rape. In her seminal book, ‘ami birangana bolchi’, writer Nilima Ibrahim recounts the 30-40 biranganas who chose to accompany their rapists to Pakistan, rather than face stigma in their own motherland. Often rejected by their families, many biranganas committed suicide. Others chose anonymity. Some died while attempting dangerous abortions.
Ferdousi, as the first birangana to come out publicly, took the enormous risk it entailed, but her courage, her dignified position and her immense warmth, not only allowed her to become one of the most revered and loved Bangladeshis, but also paved the way for other biranganas to come out of the closet. Ferdousi went on to become a vocal spokesperson for the biranganas and the nation’s forgotten conscience.
Dhanmondi did not have condominiums in those days. Most of the houses were single or double storied. The verandas were large and let in natural light. Every house had a spacious garden. The light flooding into Ferdousi’s veranda revealed a delightful mess. Her carpenters and assistants were like her sons. They worked independently but looked up to her for inspiration and guidance. As we threaded our way through the gnarled branches, she would pause to give advice and make small tweaks to her sculptures. Her jovial husband Ahsanullah Ahmed (Beer bhai to us) was a perfect match. Bangladeshi artwork didn’t fetch the high prices they command today. Even now, Bangladeshi art buyers are remarkably conservative and their collections rarely stray outside pictorial work — mostly paintings — by established names. Back then, sculpture, and at that driftwood, was certainly not considered collectable.
The Drik gallery, designed by Rafiq Azam when he was a newly graduated architect and not the superstar he is today, had just opened with the first ever showing of World Press Photo in the region, and Tulu’s painting exhibition which followed was a resounding success. Ferdousi had shown elsewhere alongside Sufia Khala and SM Sultan (the famous painter), but hadn’t sold much. Even Beer Bhai’s decent salary at Alpha Tobacco Company wasn’t sufficient to deal with Ferdousi’s extremely generous nature and their large family, let alone her unusual art practice. So Tulu suggested we use the open-air terrace for Ferdousi’s work and invite collector friends to try and ‘push sell’. The Gulshan-Dhanmondi divide wasn’t as daunting in those days, and there were enough wealthy people living in Dhanmondi to herd in. I wrote the foreword for a simple flyer we brought out, and we had limited success, but Ferdousi never let the details of material success get in her way. The fact that visitors loved her work and that her twigs could speak to people was what gave her joy.
I’ve admired Ferdousi for many things, for her creativity, her warmth, for the glint in her eyes, but it was the dignity that she gave to others, which she herself had been so brutally denied, that I felt was her greatest strength. A man had been pestering her for some time. Convinced that she was a kabiraj (a traditional healer) he begged her for secrets. He would pay well. Unable to convince him that she was simply an artist with no special knowledge about healing, she found an ingenious way to fog him off without hurting him. It reveals her understanding of human nature. ‘Ostad er mana ase’ (it was forbidden by her guru) she sombrely explained. The man remained convinced of her special powers, but that she could not disobey her guru, was something he could relate to, and he pestered her no more.
Ferdousi, Tulu and another friend Nishi, were lovers of art, but in particular they loved music. Being the sole male member of this quartet, I happily tagged along to impromptu concerts, mostly in friends’ homes. Another friend Jyotsna had a flat by the playground inside the compound of Residential Model School, and our nightly sessions often ended up under moonlight in the open field of the school playground. Nishi was the most adventurous of our group and a truly wild spirit. She would get on a bus and head off to a distant town, perhaps to Shantiniketan or Kolkata, and turn up again upon a whim. Ferdousi would trot off to Jessore to see Sultan Bhai, or some wood gathering jaunt. Tulu would find her way to some art camp, or a concert somewhere. I was the boring one! Nishi passed away a few years back. Ferdousi said goodbye just before International Women’s Day 2018.
While I miss them dearly, I salute that they lived their lives to the full. Many others missed Ferdousi too, as was evident from the large numbers at Shaheed Minar who paid their last respects. The troubled identity of biranganas, continues to be troubling. While Ferdousi had been awarded the nation’s highest honour — the Swadhinata Padak, the bugles and ceremony that usually accompanies the funeral of a respected freedom fighter, were strangely absent. Despite all that happened, they left with their head held high. For Ferdousi, it was the only way for a birangana to go. That we failed to sufficiently honour her, is for the nation to reckon with.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.
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