Acclaimed artist and Professor Jamal Uddin Ahmed, with his light and shade, evokes the inner pains and joys of life. One of the leading artists in the field of figurativism in Bangladesh, he also captures the indefatigable force of life in his paintings. Born in 1955, the artist received the Ekushey Padak in 2019 for his special contribution to the fine arts. Lyricist and Bangla Tribune Editor Zulfiqar Russell engaged Ahmed in a conversation about his own art as well as the current art scene in Bangladesh. Excerpts:
Zulfiqar Russell: Many of us often tend to think that artists are endowed with a gift. Let’s begin with what’s your take on that?
Jamal Ahmed: God gives us gifts but if you do not nurture them, they will not grow to be anything significant. Let's say, you sing well and your vocal sounds pleasant, but you cannot become a good singer if you do not practise.
ZR: Singers have to have a classical base, and so do artists.
JA: Where does the song come from? The song does not only come from the vocal cords, it comes from within. Likewise, art does not arise out of the hands, it arises from within. So, one is implemented by the cords and the other by hand. Now if something comes just from the hand, we call it craftsmanship. A craftsman makes tables and chairs with precise finishing. What he creates can be a good table or a comfortable chair. But it is not art.
ZR: But is there any craft without art?
JA: Let’s say, I give you a line. But there needs to be a light around it. There needs to be something artistic about it. Just a lit lamp is not necessarily artistic. Likewise, only a line is not enough. There should be some rhythm to it.
ZR: So you mean to say art comes from one’s soul. Then where does an art institute come in?
JA: Many of us worked together at the Faculty of Fine Arts; teachers also guided us there. The institute had indeed taught me a lot. But must say that I had learned more from hangouts than the classrooms. I used to have conversations with Mohammad Kibria, our Kibria sir. He spoke while I listened. Referring to students who were using photographs as reference, once he told me that even the bad drawing would be considered a good one if you drew it by going outdoors. Drawing based on a reference photo is not a good one as it contains zero emotion, he said. It may be called perfect but not spirited.
ZR: Would you care to tell us a bit more about your other teachers from whom you learned a great deal?
JA: When I was in third year, I was not sure about what to draw. One of my teachers was Shaheed Kabir. He was very young back then. Hearing about my problem he said, “What do you mean? There are so many things in front of your eyes! Draw what you see.” He helped me a lot to understand how to pick my subjects. For example, there was a tube-well, made of brass, and it was broken. The water was dripping—the bricks below the faucet shined while water dripped onto it. I might never have drawn it. I would rather draw some beautiful trees, rivers. My teacher said, draw it, and I drew. That turned out to be an excellent painting. The brass faucet sparkles and there is also a moss-covered wall.
I learned emotions from Kibria sir. Another teacher was Kazi Gias sir. He used to teach us the use of watercolour. One layer over another. We used to watch him draw, standing beside him.
ZR: Which teacher did influence you the most?
JA: I followed Shahabuddin Ahmed when I was young. He was not my teacher, yet he influenced me the most. He is a powerful artist. Being a teacher is not the same as being a good artist. There are many good teachers who can't draw well. When I went to Japan on a scholarship, I figured a technique combining Shahabuddin’s style with some Japanese form and then giving it a twist of my own.
For example, those who use watercolour opt for much thinner colour and more wash. But it is difficult to work with oil-colour with such wash. Turpentine and linseed oil were hard to find. At that time, I first saw acrylic colour in 1985. To my surprise, I found it required only water. It was I who first brought this colour to Bangladesh. Although acrylic is very popular now, no one in Bangladesh knew about it back in those days. After it was discovered in 1943 as a wall-colour, some artists started painting with it in 1955. Slowly the artists got used to it.
ZR: There are some motifs that recur throughout your artworks, such as horses. There are pigeons also. Any particular reason?
JA: Truth be told, sources of satisfaction differ from time to time. Horse does not go with our culture. But it has a certain beauty, a dynamic force. Shahabuddin bhai uses the notion of “a dynamic force” very often.
ZR: So, you are quite inspired by Shahabuddin?
JA: Yes, Shahabuddin bhai did a lot of horse-paintings. Indian artist Sunil also did such paintings. Sunil’s horses glorify beauty. But what Shahabuddin bhai and I have sought to do is all about depiction of inner power. You will see our horses running, which signifies a motion. That’s what I always wanted to imply, but I don’t know how much I succeeded in attaining that.
ZR: Now a few things about our art scene. Do you think artworks in Bangladesh are costly?
JA: Yes, I think it’s costly here. The middle class wants to buy artworks. So I think there should be more prints. You can find many prints by Shahabuddin. He also has some artworks which cost relatively lower. If prices are low, many people can buy. Usually paintings are not for everyone but I want them to be for everyone. But you see, not everyone can afford it.
ZR: Why do you think rich people buy art most?
JA: It’s simple, the rich have money. After buying an artwork, if someone tells them it’s a great painting, they will certainly buy another one. I have experienced such event. Once, the wife of a gentleman wanted to buy a painting but the husband was not much willing. However, he bought one and put it up on his wall. He was highly praised by the guests for that painting. Later, he himself wanted to buy one more painting. Everybody wants to be admired. If somebody tells you that your shirt is very nice, you will be pleased too.
Another point is nobody wants their wall to be vacant. Stunning buildings are constructed nowadays. Nobody will furnish their walls with just some calendars. You are buying nice cars, nice dresses; so why should the walls remain empty? People sometimes fail to buy the right painting for their houses. It takes time to shape an insight for artworks. Eventually they start buying works by good artists. Nobody will go for a painting by Quamrul Hassan at the very beginning. I remember that back in 1987, you wouldn’t be considered a rich man if you didn’t own a cellphone, a Pajero and an artwork by Shahabuddin. There was a time when people cherished such mindset. People start loving paintings gradually by showing them off.
ZR: Do you think it is possible to make a living as an artist?
JA: Yes, of course.
ZR: So, there is a bright future for artists?
JA: Of course, there is. Tastes of people are evolving. I remember having given one of my artworks to a friend’s daughter, as a gift. It was her marriage ceremony. I came to know that she took that painting to the USA. Later, one day she called me and said, “Uncle, I received many gifts. But I could not bring those with me, except your painting.”
Another story I remember happened 25 to 30 years ago. An acquaintance of mine came to my house. He was the owner of a garment factory. A Spanish gentleman was with him. The Spanish person told me, “I know you; I have seen your paintings. Can you give me one?” Then I showed him some of my works. He asked for the prices of two artworks and I told him these would cost 15 thousand takas apiece. He paid me instantly. My acquaintance who brought the Spanish gentleman along expressed his surprise, telling me he wouldn’t pay me even 2 takas for those! I answered, these were not for you; these were for the Spanish man who understood their worth.
About 6 to 7 months later, My Bangladeshi acquaintance called me. At a dinner party in Spain, he said, he was stunned to see how that Spanish gentleman showcased my paintings in splendid framing. Everybody in that party praised my artworks a lot. After returning to Dhaka, he immediately called me and said, “Jamal, I need two of your paintings.” I retorted, “But you said you wouldn’t even pay me 2 takas.” He replied instantly, “Don’t be silly! I need two!”
When he saw the praise my artworks garnered abroad and how that upheld the image of my country, he wanted to buy my paintings.
ZR: How the artists of our country are coping with recent Covid-19 pandemic?
JA: Those who draw well donated many paintings. I also donated 15 paintings to the Artists Association. Those are small in size. Price will be around 20-30 thousand takas each. 8 or 9 of them were sold. I did not take any money. The amount was deposited to a fund to help artists who lost their jobs or could not earn due to the pandemic. Many others donated their artworks to help those who were facing financial hurdles.
ZR: Has any initiative been taken by the government?
JA: Yes, the government also gave financial support to the artists. The Shilpakala Academy also helped many artists.