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OP-ED: Remembering the remarkable life of Madhab Banik

  • Published at 01:07 am March 19th, 2021
Madhab painting
A painting by Madhab, paralyzed from the neck down COURTESY

He dedicated his life to overcoming disability, and inspired many others along the way

On March 17 this year, I joined with all Bangladeshis to honour the memory of the Father of the Nation. There is also another reason I celebrate the day. My late very special friend, Madhab Banik, who passed away more than 20 years ago, had a very severe disability as a result of an accident when he was a teenager,  paralyzing him from the neck down. 

At the time of his death in late 1999, he worked as a counsellor at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP) at Savar. Madhab used to say that as a result of his accident, his life had changed and been enriched, so he celebrated the anniversary of his accident, not his birthday. Madhab regarded Bangabandhu as a hero, so it is a wonderful coincidence that Madhab shared this date with his hero.

There are many reasons to remember Madhab and the contribution he made to CRP and to people with disabilities as a whole in Bangladesh. He inspired many with and without disabilities who came into his life.

Madhab was part of CRP from its early days and I first met him more than 40 years ago. Valerie Taylor, the founder of CRP, had encouraged Madhab to try painting and when I met him, he had already produced a number of greeting cards. Madhab will be remembered by many for the beautiful paintings which captured his childhood memories of life near the rivers in Munshiganj where his father was an artisan of brass, bronze, and copper utensils and artifacts.

Madhab had been a good athlete before his accident -- a fall from a mango tree at the age of 15 -- but looking back, he often told me that his life had been enriched because of his accident, and that is why he celebrated the anniversary of his accident, March 17, and not of his birthday. He used to say that he had met so many wonderful people who had become his friends, found a job where he could help and inspire others and found the gift of painting. 

I look around the walls of my apartment and see the different types of scenes which Madhab painted. He covered a wide “canvas” of life, from the traditional colourful country sailing boats and palm trees to more thoughtful abstract black and white creations. 

In late 1990, I lost my temper with Madhab and just before I left Bangladesh for a three-week holiday, I said to him: “What happened to you? I have arranged an exhibition place for you but you are not getting any paintings ready. You have become so lazy … I will have to cancel the venue on my return.” 

Unknown to me, he took leave from his job as counsellor at CRP and painted every day. He was stung into action and strongly encouraged by his colleague and soulmate, Mohua Paul. That was the basis for the exhibition in 1991.

As some of the readers may know, Madhab had no sensation below his shoulders. When painting, he would lie face down on his bed, could move his head normally, and, with his shoulder muscles, was able to swing his right arm back and forth with a paint brush fixed in a splint in his hand. I wondered if, while sitting in his wheelchair, he could use my computer at my NGO office at Zigatola to draw. 

Some people told me that I was crazy to try it for Madhab. “He will be so disappointed,” they said. Now, Madhab painted with his right hand/arm, but using the desktop computer, we found that he could handle the mouse more effectively with his left palm on the table attached to his wheelchair, and so he began. He made a few amazing drawings which proved everyone wrong. One Friday, I went to CRP -- it was still at Farmgate -- and said to Madhab: “I have no vehicle this week, let’s postpone the computer date.” 

“No,” he replied, “I am ready and I have some ideas; if you have no problem, let’s walk there.” And we did, even though Farmgate to Zigatola is quite a long walk with a wheelchair. Madhab’s enthusiasm was huge, both for himself and for others.

However, as many people know, Madhab was much more than a sensitive painter. He was, as I know, at the centre of most of CRP’s activities in those days, and his wise counsel and advice were sought by many. 

He was hardworking and sincere, and over the years, won great respect from colleagues within and outside CRP. He inspired others -- as a counsellor, he could convince others, who had less serious disabilities than him, that they could achieve things in their lives. Through his life and his work, he showed that people with severe disabilities can be as productive as anyone, and in his case, he was passionately committed to assisting those people struggling to rebuild their lives after an accident or illness.

And there is another aspect of Madhab’s life to consider. As a result of his accident, he had not been able to complete his formal education. I believe blind persons have been able to use “writers” of their own to help them complete exams. Madhab could not write easily himself with his hand splint so he applied for a writer. With the help of CRP, he approached the chairman of the Dhaka Board of Education in 1987, and Madhab was granted permission to sit his SSC (Secondary School Certificate) with the help of a “writer.” Another hurdle overcome, another battle won!

Madhab’s paintings in my flat and the many photos which exist of him in action, and his many wise words which still echo in my head and the heads of others, have continued to inspire many. CRP gradually recovered from his passing but missed his searching eyes which used to check, in minute detail, the work of others.

And so, along with many others, I thought of Madhab on March 17, this year, as we also remembered Madhab’s great hero, Bangabandhu.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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