Hashem Khan is one of the preeminent painters of the country who emerged out of the seminal years of Bengali regeneration in the 1960s. His name and fame now rests on the way he has been able to bring the colours and forms of his nation into the very fabric of his practice, creating the condition of a merger between lived experience and the emerging modern tendencies in the plastic arts. Mustafa Zaman attempts to weave some of the threads picked up from a recent interview.
Two important truths came out of the conversation with the country’s ace painter Hashem Khan. In a recent interview with New Age, the artist dismissed the abstract-real dichotomy and also contended that the emergence of any artist is invariably linked with his or her broader engagement with one’s society.
On the first claim, he added that abstraction versus realism argument made no sense, since as an artist he himself often switched between the two modes of expression— producing some paintings without any discernable traces of the immediate reality and others with obvious representation of humans and nature.
With the second truth claim, the making of Hashem Khan, argued the artist, could only be seen in the light of his years of cultural-political engagement and commitment to the idea of social progress. ‘I always see myself as a ‘muktir sainik’, or a proponent of liberation.
The artist further elaborates: In the sixties, I painted posters for all the progressive platforms, including those attached to Awami League and Chhatra Union, the student wing of the Communist Party. I painted on the themes of the six-point demand and the mass movements for the emancipation of the Bengalis during the Pakistan era.
He also pointed out that since his childhood he never envisaged art to be anything separated from life.
Sitting in his studio in Uttara, one would easily be struck by the age-defying energy and vigour Hashem Khan exuded. He will be 78 on April 16 this year. His suave and urbane parol and the cadence of story-telling made one pay attention. He began with a reference to couple of lines from a poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya — Abaak prithibi! Abaak korle tumi / Janmei dekhi khubdha swades hbhumi, Oh! My world, you have left me flabbergasted / Right after my birth I encountered a turbulent motherland.
As a boy, I first witnessed the returning victorious British army. At the age four-five it felt strange to have witnessed warplanes passing overhead making strange and loud sound. I also witnessed small fleets plying the river Dakatia on which our village was situated. Solders of African origin hurled biscuits at us. Then followed the spate of post-partition violence — the south-eastern villages with Hindu population were set on fire. I still remember the way black smokes swirled into the sky, he related.
I also witnessed families fleeing their homes by boat and then attacked again by some goons intent on looting their possessions. When these goons swooped on them, when babies were being thrown as if they were objects, it made me worried at that age. That is when I first uttered my words of opposition to a villainous act, as I was clueless as to why rest of the people just looked on impassively, he recalled.
‘Right opposite our village, on the other side of the river, was the ghat of the ghoshes, the milk product producing families of the area. My fathers and uncles had acquaintances there and they were definitely our own people we were purging. That is exactly how it felt,’ the artist recalled the horrors he was witness to in his early child hood.
These unsavoury incidents would have a lasting influence on Hashem Khan, who would spend a lion’s share of his time and energy into illustrating children’s books and ensuring the art education of children at an early age.
Painter, teacher, illustrator and writer Hashem Khan, whose contribution to the cultural arena cannot be overemphasised, stayed in the limelight for over five decades. He said, ‘I created my own language of expression by interiorising the streams of life and beauty of the village I grew up in. I feel I have subsumed through my brushing the bhatiali songs as well as Ranbindra Sangeet. I sometimes depict the songs of the lush verdant fields, at others maybe I try and capture glimpses of the last days of winter.’
Born in 1942, at village Sheikhdi of Chandpur, the artist feels everything that he experienced there stayed with him. The quaint rural setting fed the child Hashem Khan’s imagination, the psychic scars he sustained during partition kept him on the side of the progressive movements and pro-people causes.
He was the second eldest son of 14 siblings born to Mohammad Yusuf Khan and Nurennessa Begum. A sanitary inspector who wore a British colonial style hat used to be endearingly referred to as ‘saab’. He used to go out on drives to fine people who used to mix water with milk and sold tainted foods.
‘My father was a truly pious man and had always inspired us to strive for the best. My uncle Mohammad Yunus was a great personality and had inculcated in us the desire for reading,’ Hashem Khan said.
Child Hashem Khan was admitted to Munshibarir School where his primary schooling began. This is the school where he first encountered a copiously illustrated book, which sparked some sketches. ‘The book “Hashi-Khushir Chhara” was written by Jatindra Mohan Roy and it contained bicolour illustrations as was the norm at that time. They were produced through the application of woodcut print, you know the process of printmaking was very simple back then and two set of blocks were used to produce an illustration,’ he explained.
The story behind how child Hashem Khan chanced upon the book was worth listening to. ‘I saw that a classmate of mine, who belonged to a family of my nana or maternal grand-father, who was resident at our village, came to school one day with a beautiful book by Jatindra Mohan,’ he recalled.
Before classes commenced for the day, young Hashem Khan approached the boy who brought the book to the school. ‘It was a gift he received from a visiting relative who came from Kolkata. I asked him to lend it for a day as found it to be fascinating treasure trove of stories and images. But, he said no without much thought,’ recalled Hashem Khan. But as luck would have it, when classes where adjourned for the day child Hashem discovered that the precious book was lying beneath the bench where the boy was sitting.
‘I picked it up and called out his name realising that that he must have left it behind without realising it. I could not find him that day and went home with book and gloated over his luck and flipped through the book again and again. My brother who was two years older also enjoyed the illustrated book. The next day at school, a teacher accused me of stealing the book,’ Hashem Khan harked back to a crucial moment in his early life.
It ended amicably for the small boy. Hashem Khan narrated, ‘I asked the teacher to listen to my side of the story and he did. When I brought the book out of my bag and explained how I found it lying on the floor and where, he reached a simple conclusion that if Hashem stole it he would not have brought it back to school again.’
The book was the first of its kind that stirred child Hasem Khan as well as his elder brother into artistic action. They started emulating the feat of the illustrator from memory. ‘From that day on, whenever we got hold of an illustrated book, we would copy many of the illustrations. My brother, who turned out to be a bibliophile, was a great inspiration in my pursuit,’ Hashem Kahan revealed.
‘I would observe my brother drawing objects such as boats, flowers and fruits. I used to visit the puja mandaps with my sisters and I remember how during a kali puja, the devi, despite the vicious look, fascinated me and the alpanas around the podium was so exquisitely done. At the mosque, the patterns always gave me pleasure,’ he said by way of explaining how he grew up in awareness of the beauty that surrounded him.
‘Before rainy season commenced, a boat used to be built on our home premises. After the completion of the structure, paintwork would follow and the decorations were mesmerising,’ recalled Hashem Khan, tellingly bringing forth the advantages of growing up in a village.
In 1952, the family moved to Chandpur town and young Hashem Khan and his protector elder brother were admitted to Hassan Ali Jubilee High School. This is where he studied between 1952 and 56 and completed his matriculation, equivalent to SSC. The school also provided the backdrop for the young Hashem Khan to become enamoured of books and illustrations. It is in this locus that the moment arose when the boy, whose physic bore all the signs of a docile body, emerged as an agent of resistance chanting slogans in favour of his own mother tongue — Bangla.
‘The library we found at the school was a huge one and had all the classics of world literature, including important works by Kolkata moderns. The library also subscribed to all the important periodicals of the time — Prabashi, Basumati, Ranbindranath-edited Balak and even Modern Review. Editions of illustrated Swandesh, in their original leather covered versions, were also available. They gave me an opportunity to read more and also be exposed me to the illustrations of the time,’
The initiation to politics also took place when in February 1952, a hartal was called on 23rd February. ‘It was during the hartal that we heard young people chanting slogans, Rastra bhashsha Bnagla chai, we want Bangla to be a state language. Back then, there were no mikes. Only chongas were used to make slogans sound louder. The people on the street in front of the school were calling all to join in and the slogans became louder and louder. The agitating young men swarmed the main gate of the school and I was restless and could not stay glued to my seat anymore,’ he related.
The slogans were infectious. ‘I was in class seven and as a village lad when I thought that Bangla will not the medium of teaching any longer, I thought how will I continue reading and learning and the slogans simply prompted me to respond. I stood up and said aloud — I demand Bangla to be the state language. I was not myself anymore at that moment,’ he recalled the moment of awakening that seize hold of his otherwise timid body.
His slogan sent the final wakeup call through the classrooms. What happened next was unexpected.
‘As we joined the crowd out in the street and I found my elder brother, who was always watching over me to ensure that I did not come in harm’s way. But a boy among us, who was from a village next to ours, kept saying “we demand a Bangla-speaking country” was first rebuked by the leaders in procession and then was asked to part company,’ remembered Hashem Khan, who to was a bit irked by his inconsistent slogan.
‘As I displayed a clear sympathy towards him, I too was asked to leave. This was quite a shock! As I believed I led all who were at least in my class to join the procession,’ he continued and added, ‘Two of us had to step out of the procession and as we stopped at a nearby house where there was a tube well. As we drank water I popped the question once again, I asked why did you keep saying “we demand a Bangla-speaking country”? His had a ready answer, “because that is what it is all about,”’ Hashem Khan recalled.
The boy, as far as the artist could remember, was Atin and he was from a nearby school named DA School.
After matriculation in 1956, Hashem Khan felt unsure whether to get admission in Chandpur College, which was just besides his home, or try his luck in Dhaka. ‘At that time one of my brother-in-laws, who was an instructor at the teachers training college, highly appreciated my drawings and he was the first to advise me to think about getting admission in art college. I was also inspired by my elder brother, who also thought it would be good decision. He was worried about my career and was aware of my love for the arts,’ Hashem Khan said in an interview with a journalist in the occasion of his last solo exhibition in 2017 at the gallery of National Museum.
‘It was the most interesting time I spent in Dhaka’s during my study between 1956 and 62 at the newly-established Government College of Arts and Crafts (now Faculty of Fine Art, Dhaka University). Zainul Abedin, my direct teacher, found the most subtle way of building a resistance against the cultural hegemony of the West Pakistan ruling elites. In December 1958, two months after Ayub Khan imposed martial law after a coup, Zainul planned a folk mela or fair. He invited a group who made pithas, a group of artisans who displayed rural genres of paintings alongside artistes who played musical instruments such as dhols and those who staged dance performances songs during the fair,’ he recalled.
According to Zainul, artists would choose their own means of resisting the junta.
‘I was in second year when I came to know that a student and I were chosen from our class for alpanas to be painted on the premises during the fair. Nitun Kundu, then a final year student asked us to join forces to ensure a consummate application of rural alpana,’ said Hasem Khan, who testified that the fair attracted a large crowd at a time when there was fear that the martial law would clamp down on anything that would promote Bangla and Bengali indentify.
‘What Zainul taught me is that as an artist you must articulate your opposition using your own language, which is art. I would also add that he taught us how to be good humans. I remember how, after coming to sing folk songs at the fair, Abdul Latif became a fan of Zainul,’ related the artist.
Hashem Khan found himself embroiled in the thick of things in the then developing art scene and the politics of resistance against the then military junta and the dominance of the west wing over the east wing.
Hashem Khan met Rokonuzzaman Khan Dadabhai when working for Daily Ittefaq as well as Kachi-Kanchar Mela, which was established in 1956. Rokonuzzaman edited the children page — Kachi-Kanchar Ashar of Daily Ittefaq, which was owned by Tofazzal Hossain Manik Miah.
‘There I met all the stalwarts of the cultural and political arena of the time — Sirajuddin Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Patwari, Mohammad Asafuddowla, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury and even Khondakar Abu Taleb. I met young MR Akhtar Mukul. Suhrwardi usded to visit as did Bnagabandhu, Tajuddin and Ataur Rahman,’ he elaborated.
As part-time illustrator of the daily, Hashem Khan had the opportunity to broaden his view on art and politics and realised how the two were entwined through the mediation of all the people he came to know and developed a relationship with. ‘I was often summoned to render illustration for Sangbad, the daily that served the interest of the left. I met there people like Ranesh Dad Gupta, Shahidullah Kaisar and Bazlur Rahman,’ he said.
Rokonuzzaman was a wonderful man, he was responsible for paying the artists well. He used to mention the names of the contributors in each edition of Kachi-Kanchar Ashar. And I was, for many years, ‘young Hashem Khan’, according to the credit line he used to prepare. It changed after three or four years, said the artist who by then became chummy with Rafiqun Nabi, two years his junior, and Shahadat Chowdhury of Bichitra fame.
‘Nabi would be able to tell you that I used to draw cartoons back in those days. He used to tell everyone that I excelled in it,’ Hashem Khan said.
In art collage, Hashgem Khan was ‘one of the best students of the best batch’. He entered the cultural arena equipped with a certain acumen, which often manifested in his pencil and pen drawings. After he joined as a teacher in December 1963, his ambit of influence broadened, his pursuit of painting was emboldened.
He got married in the most tumultuous year of the decade of the 60s — 1969. ‘I went to join a procession during the day and went on to attend my halud at night. And couple of days later, when Sergeant Zahurul Haq was killed in custody on February 16, my scheduled bau bhaat was cancelled. Since there was no way people would be able attend the ceremony which was arranged on the art institution premises, we hand to arrange for the 13-degchi full of biriany to be carted to Gopibagh, where I was resident at that time. The food were for all the people who could come to consume the next day,’ he remembered.
The couple Hashem Khan and Parvin Hassan had two children — Kanak Khanwas born in 1970 and Santanu Khan in 1972.
As one of the modern pioneers who entered the art scene in the late 1950s, Hashem Khan’s works have been nurtured from within the developing nationalist narrative linked with the political upheavals of his time. The pogroms against the minority population in early years of Pakistan, the repressive measures by the Panjabi-speaking ruling elites against Bangla as a language, and the resistance movements of the Bengalis against economic and cultural dominance of the west wing of Pakistan — all this had a formative influence on his painting.
Hashem Khan received Independence Day Award in 2011 and Ekushe Padak in 1992 for his contribution to fine art and culture. He taught at the faculty of fine arts for 44 years and retired as professor in 2007.
Photos by Sony Ramany
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