His bedroom itself speaks a lot about the multifarious talents of language movement veteran Murtaja Baseer, one of the most reputed painters of the country, a researcher, prolific writer and a poet.
The room, with a single bed, a chair, a painting isle and brushes and shelves-full of books on various topics, including history and literature, shows how variously he is engaged in life and his works.
‘This is the place where I like to spend most of my time,’ begins Murtaja Baseer, whose 86th anniversary of birth will be celebrated today.
Baseer had a plan to celebrate the day organising a solo show but it was not to be as the painter could not paint much in the past few months.
‘I drew only a sketch of my late wife Amina Baseer on March 30, which was her birthday. I’ve not yet been able to overcome the trauma caused by her death last year. She was the best critic of my paintings and also a major source of inspiration. After my marriage with her on May 27, 1962, I found an anchor for my bohemian life and was able to concentrate more on my goal as a painter,’ Baseer recalls fondly.
The youngest son of the eminent linguist Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, Murtaja Baseer was born on 17 August 1932 on Dhaka University campus.
Originally Abul Khayer Murtaja Bashirullah, he took the penname Murtaja Baseer at his teen when he decided to have a self-identity, not to be known as a son of Dr Shahidullah.
‘I was almost a wayward son of my scholar father. Being the son of Shahidullah, I was so arrogant that I didn’t care anybody or anything. One day, my father called me and expressed his dissatisfaction with so many complaints from neighbours and teachers. I felt so insulted that I immediately decided to change my name to have my self-identity and not to be recognised as a son of Shahidullah anymore,’ relates Murtaja Baseer, adding that his father, however, had always been supportive.
Baseer said he had no plan to be a professional painter until he was ordered to be so by leaders of Communist Party.
But, once he started the mission, he took it very seriously and struggled a lot to create his distinct style what he calls ‘abstract realism’ that presents the local realities for the global audience.
‘While living in Bogra in 1947, I became a member of the student wing of Communist Party and used to draw portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin. In 1948, communist leader Bhabani Sen came to Bogra and inspired me watching my portraits. He suggested that I should depict struggles of proletariats through artworks in such a way that they would help create a renaissance in society. I remained faithful to this ideology throughout my career as an artist, even today when I’m a practicing Muslim,’ Baseer sounded confident, adding that he always found powerful subjects in scenes with toiling men and women, both at home and abroad.
‘I agreed to get admitted to Government Art Institute [now the faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University] both because the party wanted it and I also looked for a creative life that could defy death,’ Baseer says.
But his family, particularly his father, was reluctant to let him enrol at Government Art Institute. ‘Being a son of Muhammad Shahidullah, it was a very difficult choice for me to take painting as profession which was not regarded well in the then Muslim conservative society. Besides, art had no prospect of making a living as it is today. My father did not talk to me for two days.
‘Witnessing my conviction, he gave me permission. The enlightened man also blessed and wished my success in the pursuit of art by presenting two volumes of books on Louvre Museum from his library’, Baseer says, with tinge of emotion in his voice.
He enrolled at Dhaka Government Institute of Art in 1949. The following year, Baseer was arrested by police while he was pasting a poster of his party on the wall. ‘After five months in jail, when I was released on bail, a period of bleak thought and disenchantment followed. I lost my interest in art and wished to drop off. But, my one-year senior Aminul Islam, who had always been helpful to me since I enrolled at the institute, helped me overcome the dejection,’ Baseer expresses his gratitude.
Baseer was an active participant in the language movement and used to take part in processions. He painted on walls, paper and canvas during the movement.
A witness of the brutal murders of the language martyrs on February 21, 1952, Baseer described the whole incidents of the day in his essay titled ‘Ekti Bewarish Dairir Koyekti Pata’.
‘Barqat died in front of me. I also wrote a poem on Ekushey titled “Parbe Na” which was published in the Parichoy magazine published from Kolata. My sketches were used in “21st February”, a collection of poems, short stories, songs and essays on the language movement published in February 1953,’ he recalls.
After appearing his final examination in 1954, Baseer went to Calcutta to attend art appreciation course at Ashutosh Museum.
Returning to Dhaka, his struggles to secure a distinct position in the art arena began. It became more challenging as he did not compromise with his political commitments and had not followed the popular western art trends like abstraction as many of his contemporaries did.
The artist found the idea of his distinct style while studying art in Florence, Italy sponsored by his father.
‘In Florence, for the first time I got the chance to watch paintings of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists. You have to consider our time when there was no Internet not even many books on art like these days. I became more fascinated by the works of the pre-Renaissance painters like Giotto, Cimabue, Duccio and Simone Martini and came under their influence. Their paintings had economy of colour, two dimensional surface, simple forms and limited use of light and shade. It helped me develop my style by blending the western style with use of colours that represent my motherland’ Baseer recounts.
The perfection of his single line drawing was achieved in Florence, for which he enjoys reputation. He also held a solo over there in 1958.
In the concluding remark, eminent critic Hasnat Abdul Hye in his article titled ‘Murtaja Baseer: His life and works’ published by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy writes, ‘In ultimate analysis Baseer is a product of the Renaissance, with his roots in the native soul.’
Returning to Dhaka in 1959, Baseer explored prospects of job and found them bleak. During the period of struggles he taught art at Nawabpur Government High School, went to Karachi in search of opportunity to become a freelance artist, held solos in Karachi and Lahore, worked as a teacher at Arts Council in Pakistan and also as assistant director in the film industry.
At that time Baseer did some paintings that reflected his innermost feelings of nausea, dissatisfaction and morbidity in his paintings like Girl with Lizard and Dead Lizard.
A frustrated Baseer had then come to realise that Pakistan had no ideal art market and decided to migrate to Europe.
But, all on a sudden, he changed his mind and decided to marry a schoolgirl. ‘My marriage with Amina in 1962 was the turning point in my life. It bought me back to the world of normalcy,’ said Baseer, adding that his paintings before the marriage and after the marriage were completely different.
‘Invigorated by the blessings of happy conjugal life, I reached a new height of creativity completing thirty paintings in four months. And it had had reflections in my new paintings which were exhibited in Lahore in December 1962,’ Baseer says.
An inspired Baseer challenged the followers of the abstractionists through his Wall series in 1967 through which he successfully applied his abstract realism concept by depicting the textures of Walls of Old Dhaka for addressing the realities under the dictatorship of Ayub Khan.
‘The idea of the series came while watching walls of Old Dhaka, particularly that of the Dhaka Central Jail. The fungus and textures of the walls gave me impressions of different stories representing the dark aspects of life in the 1960s. I would think as my mother during my childhood would tell me to find images of different things in the floating clouds,’ Baseer said.
He held four shows of the Wall series in Dhaka, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi in the same year.
A politically conscious artist Baseer got involved with the independence movement in March 1971. Being the co-convener of the Bangladesh Charu Karu Shilpi Sangram Parishad, Baseer organised a procession in March that was led by four girls holding the banner written Swadhitana in Bangla.
‘One day, artist Aminul Islam told me that Zainul Abedin had instructed me to go into hiding. Aminul gave me shelter at Araihazar in Narayanganj. With the help of my foreign friends, I could escape to Paris in November,’ Baseer said.
While staying in Paris, Baseer painted one of his most remarkable series titled ‘Epitaph of the Martyrs’ that symbolically represents the contributions of the unsung heroes to the war.
Baseer also took part in an international exhibition in Cagnes Sur Mer near Paris in 1972 and won an international award.
He returned to Dhaka in June 1973. Subsequently, he joined Chittagong University as an assistant professor and retired from there in 1998 as a full professor.
He came up with another major series between 1999 and 2002 with the title ‘Wings’ where he painted parts of wings of butterflies in different angles and with different forms following his distinct abstract realism style.
‘I started working on the series at a time when a significant number of youths became addicted to drugs. Through my Wings series, I used the short-lived beautiful butterflies as symbols to deliver the message that life is short and we need to celebrate it,’ Baseer goes on.
Murtaja Baseer is an artist of multifaceted talents and has used his creative energy in various fields. He published a collection of short stories titled ‘Kanch-er Pakhir Gaan’ in 1969, three books of poetry including, Trashorenu, Tumake Shudhu, Esho Phire Anushuya and translation of his own poems titled ‘Fresh Blood Fade Line’.
Based on his personal experiences in life, he wrote romantic novels titled ‘Ultramarine’ (1978), ‘Mitar Shangey Char Sandhya’ and ‘Amitakkhar’ recollecting his memories of 1950s in Kolkata where he met a Christian girl.
‘Name of the character of the novels Mita is fictitious but the stories I wrote are 99.99 per cent true and those depict my fascination for the Christian girl who used to serve food while studying at Ashutosh Museum,’ Baseer said.
Baseer wrote the script of Sadeq Khan’s Bangla film Nadi O Nari and was also its art and chief assistant director.
But, he considers his research work titled ‘Shilalipi O Banglar Habshi Sultan’ is one of his best works that will make him immortal. ‘It gives a new interpretation of the Sultans who ruled Bengal in the medieval period, the power politics of the rulers and socio-economic condition of the subjects. It was acclaimed by historians,’ Baseer claims.
And such researches had significant impacts on his artistic career. In the late 1980s, especially when he painted a series of popular characters of Bangla literature blending the art styles of Pala period and that of figurative paintings of the Byzantine time.
That research also motivated him to experiment on Islamic calligraphy later in 2002.
In 1987, Baser went to London for research on the Heritage of Art of Bengal.
On his birthday, Baseer wishes to continue his paintings and writings till his last day. ‘I pray to die after 92 so that I can live a year more than one of my idols Pablo Picaso,’ Baseer banters.
Baseer also praises talents of the contemporary artists and suggests that they should work to develop distinct styles based on tradition of the land.
Cover photo by Abdullah Apu
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Interview