SIXTY Four years after its inception controversies around the central Saheed Minar (Language Martyrs Monument) linger on. There is an ongoing debate as to what extent did Novera Ahmed (1939-2015) committed her artistic prowess to the creation of this national symbol since officially it is solely attributed to Hamidur Rahman (1928-1988).
The monument in question played a critical role in the formation of linguistic nationalism in the country. Constructed in 1957 and subsequently destroyed by the Pakistan juntas during the Liberation War in 1971 before it was finally rebuilt in its current shape in the early 1980s, this unique minar or monument first became the center of controversy when artists Aminul Islam and Syed Jahangir together reemphasised Novera Ahmed’s role in its creation. In a television programme, they concurred that the monument was jointly developed by Hamidur Rahman and Novera Ahmed. In the absence of the artists and in the backdrop of the symphony of claims and counterclaims as to their roles in making of the minar, the testimony from two of the most revered painters of the country who were their contemporaries sent trammels through the polite society.
Yet there is a section of the cognoscenti that prefers to keep their eyes glued to the mainstream narrative. Besides other sources they take their history lessons from the book titled Hamidur Rahman. A Bangla Academy publication, the volume dedicated to the late artist Hamidur Rahman was edited by playwright and critic Sayeed Ahmed, Hamidur’s elder. In it Abu Taher, a contemporary painter of Novera and Hamidur, rues over the emerging debate. In a homage to the painter who was no more, Taher writes,
‘Today the country is faced with something close to a civil war as the achievements of Bengali nationalism since the blood-bath of ‘52 are being renounced. A controversy has been launched as to who was the actual designer of the Shaheed Minar. A debate is on at the national level. A lot of chatter is in the air. We are aware that Hamid and Novera were in a relationship at that point of time. There were occasions when they worked together, exchanged views. However, the motive behind creating a debate about an established fact is beyond us.’
Taher merely succumbs to the official version of the story. But one is aware that history is written with the foreknowledge that it will be rewritten when new evidences emerge. History thus is written from the point of view of the present rather than the past. But to get the tenor of the dominant narrative one feels the need for more examples from the same book. In a similar vein Rafiqul Islam writes,
In the Autumn of 1966, after his [Hamidur Raman’s] return from England where he went for higher studies, chief engineer Jabbar and artist Zainul Abedin approached artist Hamidur Rahman to work on a design for the Shaheed Minar. On their request Hamidur Rahman submitted a model for the Shaheed Minar along with paper documents consisting of 52 sketches and plan sheets … A selection committee comprising late Greek architect [Konstantinos] Doxiadis, chief engineer Jabbar and Zainul Abedin approved of the design.
The same volume carries a letter by Hamidur Rahman addressed to the chief engineer, in which the artist writes,
I have prepared a model and documents comprising 52 plan sheets through which one would have a clear understanding of the project.’
If the official documents provide the basis for the claim that the minar was the sole creation of Hamidur Rahman, there appears in the same narration an alternative version of the story. The Architectural Report is a case in point where there is evidence of the collaboration between the two artists,
Artist Hamidur Rahman and sculptor Novera Ahmed gave direction to government architect Jean Velurer who put it down on a paper.
Two of the contributors, Abu Taher and Rafiqul Islam apparently aligned with Sayeed Ahmed. Together they echoed Ahmed’s point of view. To locate Ahmed’s contention one must take a peek at Collection of Sayeed Ahmed Writings edited by Hasnat Abdul Hye. Those who challenge this position base their argument on the fact that ‘patriarchy’ in the form of ‘family hegemony’ had been at work, since Hamidur Rahaman and Sayeed Ahmed belonged to one of Dhaka’s most influential Sardar families. The one and only educational art institution in Dhaka, both in official curriculum and in its unofficial knowledge circulation played down Novera’s role in the art scene.
The evidence in favour of Novera appeared in the Architectural Report of February 1984, in which the names of both artists are mentioned. A section of the artists’ community also testifies to this fact. Aminul Islam, Syed Jahangir finds sympathetic voice in writer Mehboob Ahmed, late journalist Sadek Khan, and architect Rabiul Husain. They were interviewed in the documentary Na-hanyate, directed by N Rashed Chowdhury.
The small book edited by Abul Hasnat of Sangbad repute, contains a collection of essays and articles written on Novera over the last two decades bring out another aspect of the story. In his entry, Mehboob Ahmed recalls the two artists engaged in making the maquette referring to the intended form in his testimony:
In the year ‘57 the artist duos became engrossed in designing Shaheed Minar. Since in the government files her name was not mentioned, the issue became embroiled in controversies … The main structure of the Shaheed Minar, the one that is a metaphor for a mother and bends at the top was created in the presence of Hamidur Rahman and Novera Ahmed, and it did not have the sharp angle it now has.
The documentary Na-hanyate draws on Ana Islam’s interpretation, the Paris-based writer who met Novera several times to interview her during her last days. Ana contends in reference to the sculptor that the main design for the minar was Nover’s creation.
The literary giant Syed Shamsul Haque who first defended Novera in his popular column serialised in the Daily Sangbad, finally had the book out in the same title, Rhidkolomer Taane. Unfortunately the writer seems to have seesawed between the two positions. At one point he declares Hamidur Rahman to be the ‘main designer’, while in the same chapter he laments the fact that ‘it would be a blunder to attribute it to one of them, they collaborated in creating the main form of the shaheed minar.’ His comments also insinuate the fact that the original design was lost in translation,
… the central Shaheed Minar … no matter how much the design deviated from our original plan, however incomplete as a form it may now appear to us in relation to Hamidur’s original design, in its current form it has become a permanent part of our national memory and experience.’
What emerges from all this is the fact that even the elegantly conceived structures that is the Central Shaheed Miner, which has been replicated in one form or another, in educational institutes across Bangladesh, is nothing if not a hybrid creation involving the two artists and the city planner and architect then working on this assignment. Though many are willing to rush to conclusions about the artists and designers who are behind the final form it assumed after it was rebuilt in 1983, there appear two concrete facts about the structure — that both Novera and Hamidur imagined it and then Jean Velurar also had whittled it into its current shape.
Abu Taher, Hamidur Rahman: The Artist Who Designed the Central Shaheed Minar, Hamidur Rahman, ed Sayeed Ahmed, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, 1997 pp 46-48.
Rafiqul Islam, The Memorial Minar of the Language Martyrs: A Beautiful Unfulfilled Dream, Hamidur Rahman, ed Sayeed Ahmed, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, 1997 p 52.
Hamidur Rahman, Important Information Regarding the Construction of the Shaheed Minar, Hamidur Rahman, ed. Sayeed Ahmed, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, 1997 pp 73- 76.
Central Shaheed Minar: Architectural Report, Hamidur Rahman, ed Sayeed Ahmed, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, pp 91-96.
Mehboob Ahmed, Novera- The Trail-Blazer, Novera Ahmed, ed Abul Hasnat, Bengal Publications Ltd, Dhaka, 2015, p 220, ISBN-978-984-33-8565-9
Syed Shamsul Haq, Hirthkolomer Tane, Nandonik publishers, Dhaka, Hamidur Rahman pp 20-21
The piece was originally published in the literary magazine, Depart, Issue 2016 and translated from Bengali by Mustafa Zaman. Sakhwat Tipu is a poet and writer.