‘Novera lived in peace, she died in peace’

Nahid Riyasad | Published at 12:00am on February 21, 2020

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Gregoire de Brouhns

In an interview with Nahid Riyasad of New Age, Gregoire de Brouhns briefly reminisces life and works of sculptor Novera Ahmed

New Age: When did you first meet Novera Ahmed? Would you please elaborate?

Gregoire de Brouhns: In 1964, I met Novera for the first time in Paris. She was staying at Alliance Françoise and we met at a nearby gallery. 

New Age: Her works gathered inspiration from artists like Henry Moore as many of her sculptures are hollowed out to create collaboration with nature and other spaces. In addition to Moore, who else has influenced her art work?

Gregoire de Brouhns: During her youth, Novera studied in England and met two prominent sculptors — Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. When she came to the then East Pakistan, her works showed influence of Moore.

But when she moved to Paris, she met a number of others artists Paul Cezanne and Henry Matisse and her works took influence from them. She made textures and materials of her sculptures of that time deliberately prominent and her works no longer show influence of Moore because her sculptures were very rough.    

New Age: In 1960s and 70s, Novera travelled some countries in South-East Asia. Around the same time, her work on anti-war movement, particularly immediate after the end of Vietnam War was lauded. Around the same time, in her sculptures, she has worked on Buddhist philosophy. How do you see her work from this particular period of her life?

Gregoire de Brouhns: These two are separate types of her works. Her works on Buddhist philosophy were made here, in Bangladesh.

Intellectuals of the Vietnam War era were highly touched by the war and protests were all over the world. Likewise, Novera did her bit by creating sculptures from shot down American planes in Laos. These works were more of a conceptual art but she had already, by then, started working on texture and material.

The first sculpture of this series was made in 1966, in Paris and in Switzerland.

New Age: What were other political dimensions in her work that you thought should be noted?

Gregoire de Brouhns: Novera was a true patriot. She dreamt of a united Bengal. She had greatly admired Subhas Chandra Bose, as a leader and as a freedom fighter.

She thought a united Bengal would have been very good and a united India would have been even better. She also believed that united India would be a very strong power for global policy making.

During the liberation war of Bangladesh, Novera supported the cause. An article was published during the war in New York Herald against the freedom fighters. She sent that article to S M Ali in Singapore. He then wrote a response to the article. Novera coordinated and ensured that the response was published. This was a small gesture on her part. 

New Age: Tell us more about her early days in Paris.

Gregoire de Brouhns: Her first exhibition in Paris was in 1973. After that, she did not work at all for a decade, from 1974-1984. During this time, she and I had extensively travelled across Europe before eventually making her last trip to India.

After returning from India, she bought a house in a suburb in Paris and started working again. At this stage of her life, she did not mingle with artists; she also maintained a distance from Indian and Bangladeshi. Her house was near the house of famous painter Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell. That area was famous among different other artists, but that was not why she chose the place; she really liked that area.    

New Age: Novera Ahmed played an important role in designing the Saheed Minar. However, the official government account does not acknowledge her contributions. How do you see this absence and erasure?

Gregoire de Brouhns: There is a big controversy about the Shahid Minar. I want to make things clear. Novera got the contract for the Shaheed Minar as a sculptor and designer. Hamidur Rahman, the painter, who she knew for a long time, was supposed to do the fresco and the stained glass in between. There was another Danish person, an architect, more engineer than architect, John DeLorean had the responsibility of the engineering part of the structure. So it was like this — the conception of Shahid Minar is from Novera. She was a sculpture and made the model.

When they started working on Shaheed Minar, Pakistani government ordered her to leave the studio within 48 hours and she left all the blueprints to Hamid. He took it from there and continued. The Shaheed Minar was never any individual’s work but a collaboration of three artists.

The reason of removing her from that project was simple, she was a young woman, it was very difficult for those generals to accept that a young, beautiful woman can do such things — independently creating art and Pakistani military authority could not accommodate such an emancipated woman.

New Age: How were her last years?

Gregoire de Brouhns: Till her last days, she was working on painting and sculptures. Since 1984, after that break of a decade, she never stopped working. Even her days in hospital and in her wheel-chair, she would ask me to arrange things, do this and that. I carried out her conceptions and that is how she worked in her last days.

Novera loved her house so much and her house was like an ideal Bangladesh. Devoid of any noise and chaos, birds are singing around and deer passing by. She was very happy and all she wanted to lead a happy life. She lived in peace and died in peace.

Her last work was a painting that had mystical elements and nature. She gradually adopted mysticism and incorporated those ideas in her work. She was a person who lived in the moment. Not in some distant future.

New Age: How was Novera’s relationship with her family? How was she as a person?

Gregoire de Brouhns: I did not have any direct relation with her family. I only met one of her cousins once. During the 1960s, when our relationship was in the initial stage, she would talk about her family, not often though. However, after her accident in 1974, she never said anything about her family, ever.

Her sister lives in Florida, USA. In a span of twenty years, she talked to her over phone three times. Novera was not a very keen writer either, so she never wrote to anyone. Even if I wrote to her, she would not respond to that letter.

As a person, Novera had two passions in her life, me being the third passion, the first one is obviously sculptures. The second one is dancing. When she was six years old, she won a gold medal in Dance in the 1940 in a state programme. During that programme, her ghunghur fell down and she tied that up with her dance moves in such a deliberate and flawless manner that astonished the judges.         

New Age: There is a controversy on the birth date of Novera Ahmed. In some accounts, it is 1930 and in other documents, it is 1939. Do you have an understanding of the controversy?

Gregoire de Brouhns: She was born in 1930. However, her passport says her date of birth is 1939. S M Ali was the person behind that. He thought people would not accept such a young woman doing adult’s work and he made her understand to tinker with her birth date.

Novera was like Mozart or Michelangelo, a prodigy, who sees in forms and shapes that an average person could not understand. To make her acceptable in the artists’ world, predominantly a males’ space back then, she changed her date of birth.

New Age: As her domestic partner, how do you remember her?

Gregoire de Brouhns: I made a museum consisting of her works and I think that is self-explanatory how I see her as a person and my partner.  Musee Novera Ahmed is situated at La Roche-Guyon, Paris, France.

A number of people have shown interest in her works and some of them even offered large sums for all her works, but I had plans for a museum. After her death, I received all her works, assembled them and established the museum.