Faculty of Fine Art at Dhaka University is celebrating its 70th founding anniversary this year continuing on its journey as one of the ace art educational institutions of the country.
On November 15, 1948, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin founded ‘Government Institute of Arts’ with only four departments which, over the years, evolved into a fully-fledged faculty affiliated to Dhaka University.
Currently there are 1,000 students studying at eight departments which have already contributed to the thriving art scene of the country catapulting many to the national or global art scene 1970s onward.
The faculty now admits students under the departments of drawing and painting, graphic design, printmaking, oriental art, ceramic, sculpture, crafts, and history of art.
Zainul Abedin, considered founding father of Bangladeshi art, was a devoted artist and organiser who invested a greater portion of his time and energy into the newly established art institution. His art, forged out of everyday life, left behind a legacy of contextual modernism. As a teacher and an artist, his practice drew inspiration from the ‘soil’.
Nisar Hossain, dean, Faculty of Fine Art, put this in context. ‘Without people art cannot survive,’ he said, adding that their journey is to get as much closer as they could to people.
Their populist stance yielded dividend. The faculty-organised events such as Zainul Mela and Mangal Shobhajatra have proved to be the most efficient means of generating additional income for the institution.
Zainul’s legacy of introducing rural traditions to the academic circuit has inspired the current practice. As a teacher and organiser he facilitated the study of pottery in the curriculum. The potter he picked from a family of traditional potters in Dhaka went on to become a teacher of the ceramic department of the institution.
Today, a major portion of the fund that the fine art faculty generates comes directly from the public. The sale of art and crafts during the popular events round the year helps to generate money which they spend on improving facilities for students.
‘We prefer to depend on people rather than on government for doing our work, so that the institute can devise its own programmes avoiding interference from outside,’ said Nisar.
The biggest fund raising event for the fine art faculty is Mangal Shobhajatra, the grand rally that the institute organises celebrating the first day on Bengali calendar, Pahela Baishakh.
Referring to the persistent influence of fundamentalism in politics, Nisar said our idea is to stave off any attempt by the fundamentalists who might assert influence if we are to give into the whims of the people in power.
About 300 students work day and night for a month on the eve of Bangla New Year producing works that are sold to the masses on Pahela Baishakh.
‘After meeting all expenses for the massive month-long activity, we save enough to invest in upgrading our facilities with our income from sale on Pahela Baishakh,’ said Nisar.
‘This is the power of the masses. We want to depend on them more as we grow,’ he added.
The next important event that helps in mobilising funds from the public is Zainul Mela, a colourful event that is organised on the founder’s birth anniversary on December 27, every year.
‘A lot of people buy works produced by students and teachers, since they are sold at an affordable price,’ said Nisar.
This year Zainul Mela will conclude the month-long anniversary programme slated to be launched on 1st December.
A special feature of this year’s anniversary programme is an international craft and design exhibition. The exhibition is an effort by Tsinghua University in China to promote crafts in the world.
About 60 universities from countries across the world including USA, Australia, France, United Kingdom and Norway are expected to participate in the exhibition to be held for ten days starting from December 8.
Besides the exhibition, discussions and seminars will also be arranged as part of the anniversary programme.
Zainul’s dream project, which is now a fully-fledged faculty, also faces a number of problems associated with pedagogy and facilities. Over the years, the number of student intake has multiplied, though the mode of learning remained the same. The curriculum has been modelled after the mid-nineteenth century British modern art institution.
Professor Nisar said international exposure was required for the modernization of fine art education in Bangladesh. In keeping with the global trends, Nisar said, interest has grown among students to study graphic design.
Even a few years ago the most popular department was drawing and painting. Additionally, the booming ceramic industry in the country is behind the growing popularity of ceramics. More and more students are now inspired to study ceramics.
Besides, there is a discernable apathy among students in pursuing study in the history of art. ‘Lack of enthusiasm about learning history of art can be attributed to the dearth of qualified teachers,’ said Nisar.
Drawing and painting department assistant professor Mohammad Iqbal pointed at a number of obstacles standing in the way of fine art education in Bangladesh.
In many developed countries students are taught the basics of fine art at primary and junior school levels, but in Bangladesh students are not even familiar with it unless they take a personal interest in its study.
He said that in Japan, China, Singapore and Korea it is mandatory for students at primary and junior levels to study fine art.
Mohammad Iqbal regretted that those who enter the faculty at the university level are also so ill-equipped that the teachers are required to start from scratch.
Classroom crisis is another major problem hampering fine art education, Iqbal said.
He pointed out that the university increased its enrolment rate over the years but facilities were not improved in keeping with the increase in number of intakes.
He suggested that an updating of the curriculum was an imperative and proposed a rethinking of the method of teaching, which many believe to be a major cause of artistic obscurantism in Bangladesh.
‘I would say we are still following old school methods,’ Iqbal pointed out.
For example, he said, many countries have introduced departments like new media art, animation and art restoration as their education system has been modernised in phases.
‘But our students cannot study these subjects despite having tremendous interest in them. We need to improve. We need to make the improvement fast,’ said Iqbal.
The 70th founding anniversary provides an opportunity to survey the successes and failures of the institution that Zainul founded decades ago. Time has come to take art education to its next level. If the institute is to play the role it once played in the 1960s, the environment of learning needs to align with the emerging new practices that today threaten to occupy the
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