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Mushfique Wadud searches out the stories behind the most significant sculptures of Bangladesh, the majority of which are monuments to the struggle and spirit of independence, and learns why each and every one is indispensable to our heritage and identity
photo by Prito Reza
On October 18, the chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), Fazlul Haq Amini, on behalf of the Islami Ain Bastobayon Committee threatened to pull down every single statue around the country declaring that the establishment of statues were against the principles of Islam.
The statement came in the backdrop of the government decision to pull down five baul statues, from the city’s airport area on October 15, by officials of the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) and civil aviation authority after protests from a radical Islamic organisation called the Khatame Nobuyat (anti-Ahmaddiya movement), whose members tried to pull down the statue only a day or two earlier.
For over a month, different rights’ group, cultural organisations, progressive students’ organisations of the Dhaka University and other educational institutions, cultural personalities led impassioned protests against the government for pulling down the sculpture. The movement, however, appears to have died down for the time being.
Meanwhile, the military-backed interim government who, over the last 20 months have taken various radical steps to reform political parties and age-old institutions once again failed to respond to the threats posed by fundamentalists – something that the government has been consistent at from the beginning be it responding to their protests against the Prothom Alo cartoon, their criticism of the women development policy, and even their threat to destroy the Shikha Anirban, a symbolic monument to the contribution of the armed forces in the war of liberation.
Many of sculptures that have been built around the country represent the great struggles of our history as a nation, most notably the war of independence. As academics and cultural activists point out, sculpting is an art form which is different from idol worship, something the religious bigots have associated it with. Also, in a secular society, there must be equal respect for all religions, beliefs and forms of art, they say.
‘Sculpture is a three-dimensional art form that can be touched by anyone. Even a blind person can touch it and visualise it,’ points out Lala Rukh Selim, associate professor at the sculpture department in Dhaka University who has been teaching sculpture for thirteen years.
Sculpture teachers, art critics and historians inform that sculpture practices started in East Pakistan in the 1950’s. Novera Ahmed deserves credit for starting and popularising sculpture in Bangladesh.
Moinuddin Khaled, art critic and professor at City College says that in the 1950’s Novera Ahmed used to arrange many sculpture exhibitions in different areas. From then onwards people were attracted to sculpture.
Enamul Huq Enam, associate professor of the Sculpture Department, Dhaka University says artist Zainul Abedin tried hard to establish a sculpture department in Dhaka University.
‘Zainul Abedin took the initiative to establish the sculpture department and Novera Ahmed and fellow sculptor Abdur Razzaque played a very important role in helping him accomplish it,’ he says. ‘It was mainly because of Abdur Razzaque’s sincere efforts that the sculpture department was established in Dhaka University.’
But it was after the liberation war that sculpture practice in the true sense started in Bangladesh to commerate the contribution of different forces in our war of liberation, according to Khaled.
‘Many important sculptures were built in the 1970’s.’
Cows with Two Figures
Novera Ahmed’s sculpture ‘Cows with Two Figures’ is considered the best modern work of sculpture in Bangladesh. It was built in the late 1950’s. ‘If you talk about modern sculptures, you have to consider Novera’s sculpture. I do not see any modern sculpture except Novera’s,’ says SM Kaiser, associate professor at the Fine Arts Institute in Dhaka University.
Moinuddin Khaled describes Novera Ahmed as someone dedicated to sculpture as an art form. ‘Her work reflects this dedication. We can see the agricultural Bangladesh in Novera’s “Cows with Two Figures”,’ he says. ‘Farmers working in agricultural land are seen on this sculpture which is a common scene in rural Bangladesh’, he adds.
Lala Rukh Selim says Novera’s ‘Cows with Two Figures’ is aesthetically and technically a very good work. ‘In the 1950’s she tried hard to attract people towards figurative outdoor sculptures. In 1958 she built an outdoor sculpture titled “Cows with Two Figures” which is now located in front of the National Museum,’ she says.
Another associate professor of Sculpture Department in Dhaka University Enamul Huq Enam informs that this sculpture had for a long time been in FR Khan’s house, situated near Khamar Bari at Farmgate. Then it was transferred to the Dhaka Museum.
Abdur Razzaque’s ‘Jagroto Chowrongi’ is considered one of the best sculptures in Bangladesh both in form and theme by art critics and the masses. Located in Joydevpur, Gazipur, and built in 1973, it is the first post-liberation war sculpture. It depicts a freedom fighter in rural clothing with a grenade in his right hand and a rifle in his left hand.
Enamul Huq Enam says that freedom fighter Aminur Ahmed Chowdhury gave every possible support to build ‘Jagroto Chowrongi’. When Chowdhury went to Russia to undergo an operation, he saw many beautiful sculptures there and decided to establish a sculpture in Bangladesh. The artist himself died on October 23, 2005.
Lala Rukh Selim also appreciates this sculpture as significant. ‘It is probably the first post-liberation war sculpture. It is a huge work with a monumental quality. And the sculpture has enough free space around it to enrich its aesthetic beauty,’ she says. ‘I believe sculpture should be at a good place where there is enough free space so that people can enjoy its aesthetic beauty’, she adds.
Enam, who was a student of Razzaque’s, says his mentor knew the sculptural language well. ‘Art lovers can judge Abdur Razzaque’s sense of proportion by looking at “Jagroto Chowrongi”,’ he says. ‘Visitors can recognise the sculpture’s expression from a very long way away. If you go close, it may seem to him that something is missing. That is when a critic’s eye may notice the disproportion of the body. Razzaque sir told me that it was because of the civil engineers’ lack of skill. They made its leg proportionally small to make it a strong figure so that natural calamity cannot destroy it.’
Shontrash Birodhi Raju Sharokh Bhaskarjya
Located in Dhaka University campus, Shaymol Chowdhury’s Raju sculpture is one of best sculptures in Bangladesh. It is dedicated to a student who was killed while protesting against campus violence. The student was Moin Hossain Raju. The sculpture is called ‘Shontrash Birodhi Raju Sharokh Bhaskarjya’ (Raju Memorial Sculpture Against Terrorism). It was built in the late 1990’s.
‘In my opinion, the Raju sculpture is the most attractive and one of the best sculptures in our country,’ says poet, art critic and architect Rabiul Husain. ‘It represents the power of the student’s movement against oppression. It is also a place of cultural communion.’
‘This sculpture is very significant as it is a symbol of student’s protest against terror’, says SM Kaiser, associate professor at Fine Art Institute in Dhaka University.
Translatable as ‘Unbeatable Bengal’, Syed Abdullah Khalid’s ‘Oporajeyo Bangla’ is perhaps the most famous sculpture in Bangladesh built on the theme of Independence in 1971. It is located in front of Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Dhaka University. Although work on the sculpture started in 1973, it took a long time to wrap up. The work was disrupted several times due to financial, political and other problems.
The two male figures represent a villager and a city dweller respectively and the woman standing with a first aid box. ‘It is a symbol of national ideology. It tells us that the unity of the people of Bangladesh is very high,’ Selim says.
‘“Oporajeyo Bangla” is a symbol of strong mentality,’ says Rabiul Husain. ‘The sculpture tells us that people from every group joined the liberation war. They are desperate to free their motherland from all kinds of oppression.’
‘“Oporajeyo Bangla” is also significant for its good placement,’ says Lala Rukh Selim.
‘Shabash Bangladesh’ (Bravo Bangladesh) is one of the most renowned sculptures in Bangladesh. It is located at Rajshahi University premises. It is another sculpture tribute to those killed in the war of liberation. Nitun Kundu is its creator. The sculpture is interpreted as an inspiration for the youth of Bangladesh to never stop fighting against injustice and building a better nation. The sculpture, which shows two male figures in motion, portrays the virility of youth and their unquenchable thirst for freedom. ‘“Shabash Bangladesh” is one of the best sculptures in our country,’ says Rabiul Husain. ‘Movement is its main characteristic. When we see it, it seems that something is coming out of the wall. In my opinion, the sense of motion came through for the first time in this sculpture, out of all liberation war themed sculptures,’ he adds.
Heavily swayed by the futurist movement, it is also a sombre reminder of the great war of liberation in which hundreds and thousands of Bengalis took up arms to fight occupation and injustice.
Professor Ahmed Kamal, chair of the History Department, Dhaka University, says ‘Though it is a very attractive sculpture, the theme is more important than its attractiveness. Its theme is the spirit of the liberation war.’
Sultanul Islam’s ‘Duronnto’, located in front of Shishu Academy, is a symbol of children’s innocence. It was built in 1986 and inaugurated on June 20, 1987. It had to be broken and rebuilt twice. At Abdur Razzaque’s request, sculptor Enamul Huq Enam replicated it in wax and then in bronze, to his loss.
‘I had a budget of only Taka 30,000 for transferring it to bronze. I had to spend Taka 20,000 from my own pocket,’ says Enamul Huq Enam. It is a realistic work but Sultanul Islam built it without any model.
‘“Duronnto” is a good sculpture of children at play. It represents the innocence of children and the liberation of the mind,’ says Rabiul Husain.
Translated as ‘Self-earned Independence’, ‘Shoparjito Shadhinota’ was built in the early 1990’s in front of the Teachers-Students Centre (TSC), Dhaka University by famous sculptor Shamim Shikdar. At the time of inaugurating the sculpture, a section of people threatened to destroy it. Students crowded around the sculpture from the very early morning. Nothing happened and the sculpture is still standing with pride. This sculpture expresses the representation of all sections of people. It represents the masses’ movement in the liberation war for Bangladesh. ‘The sculpture is very important to our life as it reminds us of our liberation war,’ says Rabiul Husain.
Built by sculptor Hamiduzzaman Khan, this sculpture is located at the Jahangirnagar University campus. It depicts a freedom fighter with a hand missing yet ready to fight against the Pakistani forces. He carries a rifle with his one hand. It is a symbol of the freedom fighters’ courage and how important the liberation war was to everyone.
‘I wanted to show that our freedom fighters fought against the Pakistani forces even when they had nothing to fight with,’ says Hamiduzzaman Khan, who is the chairman of Dhaka University’s sculpture department.
‘“Songsoptok” is a man who is wounded but wants to face his enemies. In a word it is excellent,’ says Rabiul Husain.
Another well-structured sculpture is ‘Shampan’. Located in Chittagong and built by Nitun Kundu, it is important mainly because of the innovative architectural design that Kundu developed with his innovative powers. An important feature of the sculpture is its reference to ancient cultures. It is abstract in nature with curves and sharpness in its vast form.
Located in Chittagong, ‘Bhaskarjya Bagan’ (Sculpture Garden) was built by Alak Roy. It was built in late 1990’s. ‘“Bhaskarjya Bagan” is a sculpture that symbolises the relation between man and nature. There are many figures like men and trees on this sculpture, many archetypal motives that represents ancient time,’ says Moinuddin Khaled.
Alak Roy was initially a painter, says Enam. ‘But in sculpture, he has his own style,’ he adds. ‘Roy uses his individual quality. Though Roy follows western sculptors, we find an Indian flavour in his works as well.’
A faction of people has been protesting against sculptures using the argument that sculptures are prohibited by Islamic law. But where is the line drawn?
‘Sculptures are the best art form to motivate masses towards a particular ideology both in the present and the future. They also help people be reminded of a particular event,’ says Rabiul Husain.
This rejection to sculptures for Islamic law in Bangladesh is unjustified according to Husain, as sculptures exist in many Muslim countries. ‘There is a statue of Nasir Uddin Hozza in a Muslim country,’ he says. ‘But people do not worship the sculpture.’
Moinuddin Khaled, however, is of the opinion that a section of people intentionally try to relate sculptures with idol worship. ‘As many are religious, some people try to misguide the masses saying that sculptures are related with idolatry which is prohibited according to Islam,’ he says. ‘In fact they are intentionally doing this to take advantage. But people do not worship the sculptures.’
However, amongst ordinary citizens, there has been some concern about the location of the debated baul sculpture which stood very close to the permanent Hajj camp. Some art critics and sculptors also question the quality of the work.
‘We have to be careful so that no one can build sculptures which are not up to the mark in public places,’ Khaled continues. ‘There should be a committee for building sculptures. In this committee, sculptors, architects, city planners, artist, historian and art critics should be included and they would decide where to build sculptures.’
Lala Rukh Selim agrees. ‘I believe sculpture should be at a good place where there is enough free space so that people can enjoy its artistic beauty. The main purpose to build sculptures in the city is to help people enjoy their aesthetic beauty which helps make their minds tranquil.’
‘In Bangladesh the history of sculpture dates back to the Pakistani period. At that time there was no protest against sculpture. Why protest now?’ Khaled asks.
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