Rafiqun Nabi of Tokai fame has left a sinuous trail of creativity behind him as an accomplished watercolourist and oil-acrylic painter. At 75, he is still intent on extending his artistic might to the human sagas his name has become forever attached to over the years. In his stylistic articulation of such narrations, he has always been faithful to realism.
His primary references include people or animal depicted against a natural setting. From printmaking to painting, water colour to oil or acrylic on canvas, in most of his forays there appears a tendency to capture the rural landscape or the lives of the toiling masses. When his concern veered towards urban landscape, the work took the city skyline or a Tokai (urchin) or two as its point of departure. Whatever the themes, Ra Nabi, the pen name he used to use as a cartoonist which got stuck to the collective psyche, is still able to churn out images of popular appeal.
The Ekushey Padak wining artist is still enthusiastically inclined to depict stories of social relevance. If in his cartoons, including the famous Tokai series, he came off as a witty, acerbic character who constantly grappled with the anomalies of life, in his prints and paintings he always sought to achieve tranquillity, which is usually associated with bucolic nature.
‘I’ve deliberately developed distinct languages for two different mediums. As an artist I don’t believe in any anti-art movement, nor have I ever wanted to be labelled by any particular “ism”,’ emphasised Rafiqun Nabi, a supernumerary professor of painting department of the faculty of fine arts, Dhaka University, in an interview with New Age. He further pointed out, ‘To me art is for entertainment of the viewers and I enjoy presenting my tradition and surroundings in my own style.’
‘It’s true that I heard criticism from others for my approach through which I always emphasised beauty. Whenever I tried to change my established style, I kind of became alienated from my roots, my tradition. The folks, animals, nature and all other references to the context or the land, are what gave my painting its character,’ Nabi pointed out.
‘I don’t like to depict horrors, weapons or chaos in my paintings. I have made my choice. But, as a cartoonist, I’ve been satirising the socio-economic reality since the beginning of my career in the 1960s,’ said the septuagenarian, adding that even with his cartoons he could never malign anybody, since he was intent on ‘delivering moral messages to people alluding to remedial measures.’
Born in November 28, 1943, in Chapai Nawabganj, Rafiqun Nabi grew up in Dhaka and studied at Pagoj High School in Old Dhaka. The eldest among 11 siblings, Nabi said he developed a fascination for art during his school days.
‘My father Rashidun Nabi was a police officer. He had a fascination for art. While I was a school student, he took me to an art exhibition held at Burdwan House (now Bangla Academy) in 1954. I was amazed by looking at the paintings on display at the show. I felt a stirring in me and was motivation to be an artist,’ recalled Nabi.
Young Rafiqun Nabi was thus hooked for good. ‘I used to watch cartoons and paintings from available sources and used to practice art at home. I purchased a copy of Mad (the satire magazine), which used to be published from New York, and became very much interested in cartoon. David Low’s cartoons fascinated me,’ Nabi said.
Video by: Abdullah Apu
In 1959, after matriculation, Nabi was allowed admission in the Government Art College (now, Faculty of Fine Art, Dhaka University). ‘At the art college, my formal training in art began under the tutelage of the likes of Zainul Abedin, Shafiuddin Ahmed and others, the master modernists,’ Nabi reminisced.
‘In fact, our student life in the art college was rather difficult. Sources of income were few and far between, money was in short supply when it came to buying brushes and paints. The only sources of earning some money were through commissions for illustrations,’ he recalled.
‘To generate pocket money, I used to illustrate books. Moreover, art students and artists were looked down upon in the society. Facilities for training were also scant. We didn’t have the opportunity to watch works by the master painters of the world. However, the teachers of the college including Zainul Abedin, Shafiuddin Ahmed and others had vast knowledge of the global art. So, their lectures and practical trainings were the main sources of learning,’ Nabi explained.
After his graduation, Nabi became a faculty at the painting department of the college in 1964. At the wake of the uprising of the 1960s against the Pakistan junta, young Nabi, like many other creative exponents of the time, participated in social activism promoting Bengali nationalism, challenging, thereby, the divisive politics of the Pakistani regime.
‘Many concerned artists actively took part in the movements against the Pakistani regime in the 1960s. I also started drawing cartoons and churning out thought-provoking posters and banners meant for the processions organised to protest at the dictatorship, especially during the mass uprising of 1969,’ Nabi harked back to the tumultuous political past.
Nabi saw many others aligning with the movement against the Pakistani junta. ‘I did it as an expression of my love for the people and its culture, since the Bengali population was smarting under the oppressive and discriminatory treatments meted out to them by the West Pakistani ruling elite,’ he recalled. ‘Many processions and demonstrations were organised at that time carrying cartoons, caricatures and posters made by me,’ said Nabi.
‘Newspapers in those days did not show much interest in political cartoons. There were not many cartoonists either. I along with few others used to make cartoons which were published in the little magazines and in some newspapers and news magazines,’ Nabi recalled.
Though the artists used to draw political cartoons satirising the repressive Pakistani rulers, the trend had no impact on their mainstream works. ‘Zainul Abedin’s Monpura and Nabanna were exceptions. Quamrul Hassan and Rashid Chowdhury made some allegorical paintings satirizing the regime. None other artists, including me, did such works in the mainstream art scene,’ Nabi said.
Rafiqun Nabi and his friend Shahadat Chowdhury, late editor of the weekly Bichitra, together initiated a remarkable project of publishing political rhymes lampooning the Pakistani rulers and inspiring the people in Bengali nationalism to lend momentum to the political movements in 1969. ‘Under the banner of Art College Chhatra Sangsad, we published a book titled “Unoshattare Chhora”, in which all major poets and writers, including, Shawkat Osman, Sardar Zainuddin, Sikandar Abu Zafar, Al Mahmud, Ekhlasuddin Ahmed, Akhtar Hossain, Mahmudul Haque, Nirmalendu Goon, Syed Shamsul Haque, Shafiqunnabi wrote rhymes. I also wrote one rhyme and made relevant cartoon with the others. It sold like hot cake at that time and all of the copies of the first edition were sold within a few days. But, we did not re-print it despite a huge demand,’ Nabi recalled.
Following realisation by the Bengalis that there was no other option but to fight for independence, Rafiqun Nabi too had plan to join the liberation war with his friends. He said he could not join in the battle field as he missed the trip arranged by Shahdat Chowdhury when his friends left the city for India.
‘Later, I got a message that Khaled Mosharraf wanted some sympathisers to stay in Dhaka for helping the freedom fighters’ cause by providing shelters and collecting funds, clothes and other basic necessities. Many freedom fighters stayed at my residence planning and executing guerrilla operations in Dhaka. They also used Charukala (Faculty of fine arts of Dhaka University) for their secret meetings,’ said Nabi, adding that he continued such supports in spite the fact that Pakistani army and their local aides killed many people for helping the freedom fighters.
After the independence of Bangladesh, Rafiqun Nabi was awarded the Greek Government’s scholarship for post-graduation in printmaking in Athens School of Fine Arts in 1973 and after receiving training in printmaking he came back in 1976.
‘Returning home, I concentrated more on printmaking and made cartoons in leisure times on the street urchins whose fate did not change despite a number of shifts in the political regimes since the British colonial rule. At this point, my friend Shahadat Chowdhury came to me with a proposal to regularly publish cartoon in the weekly Bichitra. I created my signature character Tokai to poke fun at the socio-economic situation in the country,’ Nabi said.
Recalling the genesis of his Tokai character, Nabi informed that he determined the model for the character during the mass uprising of 1969, and his name was Mokka. ‘To make fun, people used to ask him questions regarding politics, economics, philosophy and even films while he used to rebut with smart but witty answers to the questions. I found a similar boy at the Dhaka University area in 1976. Then I decided to draw my Tokai character for representing a conscientising character to satirise the socio-economic situation. And the cartoon series became very popular and continued till its demise in 1997,’ Nabi recalled.
When Shahadat and his team launched Shaptahik 2000, Nabi again resumed the Tokai series for the magazine at their request. But, he stopped doing it in 2010 and for that Nabi has his own rationale. ‘I lost motivation after retiring from the faculty of fine arts as a dean in 2010. I wanted to give more attention to painting, drawing and printmaking,’ he explained.
Meanwhile, the artist was further demotivated because he found that the tolerance level of people, mostly those in power, saw a sharp decline.
‘They started reacting badly and tried to impose censorship. It had not happened before, not even during the military dictatorships. Earlier, I remember some people had even called me up after seeing their caricaturised portraits in my cartoons. They generally took it as fun,’ Nabi said.
While the cartoonist Rafiqun Nabi earned public renown, the artist Rafiqun Nabi’s work progressed at equal pace. He has taken part in many solo and group exhibitions at home and abroad.
Nabi’s first major group show was held in 1964 in Dhaka in which his works were put on display alongside leading artists of the time -- Zainul Abedin, Shafiuddin Ahmed, Anwaurl Haque, Aminul Islam, Mohammad Kibria, Abdur Razzaq and others. ‘I was the youngest in the show,’ Nabi pointed out.
In 1966, Nabi took part at the Fifth Tehran (regional) Biennale, which was his first show abroad. He also participated in group exhibitions in India, Germany. Poland, Rumania, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, UK, Norway, France, Russia and several other countries.
For an artist who had over five decades of engagement with art, Rafiqun Nabi won many prestigious awards including the Ekushey Padak in 1993 and Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award in 1989. The artist won the Promoters Prize participating at the Inter Graphic-80 exhibition held in Berlin, Germany in 1980.
He is the 13 times winner of the National Book Centre prizes for Children Book Covers since 1968. For his painting on draught, Nabi won the Excellent Artist of the World prize competing with 299 artists from 80 countries of the world.
His works are in collection of the museums in Bangladesh, Jordan, Yugoslavia and Japan.
Despite his enormous success as an artist, Nabi is beset with a sense of dissatisfaction as is the case with many a famous artist. ‘A satisfied person can’t continue his or her creative pursuit. I believe I’ve still a long way to go. So, I practice art regularly and also teach at the faculty of fine arts as a supernumerary professor,’ Nabi said.
Rafiqun Nabi, who has been a teacher since 1964, with a break between 2010 and 2016, considers the students and young artists of these days as privileged and talented.
But an artist who sat many a time at the jury as a member of the selection committee of the Asian Art Biennale, Nabi observed, ‘They should pay more attention to the development of their distinct styles based on the tradition of the land instead of blindly following the western artists. I feel really shocked when I see that many young artists submit works at the Asian Art Biennale which are copies of works by foreign artists.’
He also demands more budget allocations from the government to provide more facilities to the students at the faculty of fine arts and other institutes in the country.
Ahead of his 75th anniversary of birth, slated to be celebrated on November 28, Nabi had some wisdom to share with the New Age readers. He said he had earned several good and bad experiences during his long life. ‘It is a blessing to have lived a long life in the sense that one can get a chance to experience a lot of things. Say, I’m the witness of socio-political movements in the 1960s which helped me to become an artist rooted in the tradition of the land. At the same time, a long life is also a curse as one needs to experience so much evil,’ Nabi philosophised.
‘Still, I can claim that through our struggles we have created a strong platform for the artists of today. Back in our days, art as a profession was not recognised in Bangladesh,’ Nabi concluded.
Cover photo and another photo by Abdullah Apu
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