Zainul Abedin: The man and his Art
It is true that the landscape of Bengal is apparently, monotonously flat, showing little variation from place to place. But there are slight differences that a sharp eye would detect between the Brahmaputra basin and the hilly region of Chittagong which
ainul Abedin was born in a village in Mymensingh in Bangladesh in 1918, and remained throughout his life a country boy, delighting in the sights and sounds of his childhood, which included the great Brahmaputra river, torrential and magnificent, with numerous twists and bends, its banks shaded by the green foliage of trees screening the hamlets in which his countrymen lived. He never forgot them nor the emotions they awakened in him, and it was in them that he discovered the basis of his art. His frequent returns to the scenes of his childhood helped keep the memory fresh, so that the experiences of his adult life never threatened it with extinction. The landscapes, rather rivers capes, he drew represent recollection, of his own childhood.
It is true that the landscape of Bengal is apparently, monotonously flat, showing little variation from place to place. But there are slight differences that a sharp eye would detect between the Brahmaputra basin and the hilly region of Chittagong which did not escape Zainul Abedin's observation and it is these that he turned to account us his painting. His vision was keen and penetrating to an extraordinary degree; he was familiar with the minutest details of the configuration of the countryside and the contours of whatever objects he saw, and when he drew his watercolors, he was able to depict them with astonishing truthfulness. The combination of line and colour and light brush strokes characterises the paintings bring compellingly to mind the curves and bends of Bengal's rivers and their basins.
I think Zainul Abedin bears a striking similarity from this point of view with the 'English landscape painter Turner who like him drew freely upon the memory his childhood in his art. Ruskin remarks that: Turner attached himself with the faith fullest child love to everything that bears an image of the place he was born in.
Of course the two artists do not follow the same technique but they approach their task in the same spirit. Zainul Abedin uses the symbolism of line to convey the calm and serenity of nature in Bangal, Turner seeks to embalm in colour the significance of particular moments in the process of nature in England. Although Turner belonged to a time when modern industry had not totally polluted the face of nature, yet smoke from the chimneys of steamers playing on rivers and urban refuse and garbage had already begun to change English rural landscape, so that it lacked the serenity reflected from Abedin's canvases. One can say that where Turner tried to call attention to what was happening to nature in his country because of the advance of industrialism, what the Bengali artist offers is an idealisation of his background, an idealisation, based as I have said before, on his personal experience in his childhood, an idealisation of the peace and calm he associates with Bengalâ€™s villages and the emotion they embodied. Idealisation can be said to have two meanings, it can either mean an attempt to recall something from the past associated with joyous moment in our lives or it can signify an attempt to portray a scene as one would like it to be. Now Zainul Abedin did not believe in idealisation of the second kind; he repudiated no aspect of reality.
Conrad Flower distinguishes between two kinds of artIstic emotion, one inspired by material objects and other which springs from the heart. The first kind focuses on the outward appearance of things and the second kind has to do with the reactions that outward appearances create in our minds. Great art is born when the two meet and coalesce; it is art which represents form as accurately as it reflects its reaction on the mind. I believe that Zainul Abedin was able to achieve this synthesis in his painting. But the personal reactions which his paintings reflect did not stem from any particular political, religious or philosophical idealism; they were the reactions spontaneous and free, of a creative mind as it apprehends reality.
Western art critics speak of something called situational conjunction in landscape painting. This refers to the manner in which, while trying to portray a particular scene, the artist aims at the balanced juxtaposition of views in the foreground and back so as to suggest their relative distances. But in a riverine country characterised by flat planes it is difficult to achieve the sort of juxtaposition spoken of above. What landscape painters in our society do is to place the river on a plane in the foreground with one or two river craft shown on it and on a second, slightly higher plane a hazy line indicative of clusters of villages and on a still higher, third plane the sky and the clouds. This technique is carefully followed by apprentices and seasoned artists, a fact which emphasises the difference between Eastern and Western conceptions of landscape painting.
European artists paint now-a-days three kinds of landscape; natural, industrial and technical. But by landscape in our country we still mean vast open spaces crisscrossed by rivers and canals and shady villages dotted here and there. This uniformity may well breed monotony in art, but Abedin was able to avoid this danger by his bold brushstrokes. It is not that he added anything new to the landscape he painted, but his choice of detail enabled him to suggest variety when someone else might have observed nothing but monotony. He drew scenes in which men are shown at work with ploughs and animals, or employing buffaloes to break up clods on fields, or boatmen towing their boats along the banks of rivers. His purpose was to suggest speed and movement in scenes which otherwise might appear static.
Early in his career during his apprenticeship, Abedin had chosen landscape painting for his field and he stuck to it in his mature period where the extraordinary swiftness of his brushstrokes pive his art an altogether new quality. He had to overcome the limitations imposed by nature in his country which is characterised by flat surfaces evident all around, flatness further accentuated in the rainy season by floods. Neither Western artists nor artists in China and Japan who have their own rules of landscape painting have anything analogous to contend with. The fact that his landscapes communicate a sense of variety in spite of the limitations he faced is a measure of Abedin's achievement as an artist.
Abedin received his academic training in art in the Calcutta Art School. This training was necessary but it did not shackle him. His was a free spirit which went repeatedly for inspiration to the countryside not only to its trees and open spaces but to the men and women who peopled it. No great artist remains confined within the bounds of an academic education, if, he knows what he must learn about the world and nature; it is by his own efforts that he transcends the inadequacies of a purely academic education. He relies on self-training without which he cannot attain to true self-expression.
The determining factor in this process is the amplitude of the artist's sympathies. Abedin's sympathies were with the people he knew, with the social and family environment in which he spent his childhood. He used to say of Greek sculpture that while he had boundless admiration for the perfection of beauty in Greek statuary he did not feel attracted by them. â€œWhat I want to paintâ€ he would remark, â€œare the figures of bent old men puffing at hookahs or boatmen leaning forward as they tow their vessels along.â€
There is an aspect of Japanese landscape painting which throws further light on Zainul Abedin's art. Japanese artists are noted for a technique called San Sui, which actually means mountain and water or a combination of both.
The work is believed to have been derived from China. And in both China and in Japan mountains and streams are invariably included in any depiction of nature. If they painted a scene where there is a mountain but no stream, they Suggested movement by portraying the fall of rain or the course of winds. If landscape in Chinese and Japanese art means pictures of mountains and Stearns, landscape in our country implies rivers and boats and a line of villages. This was a truth from which Abedin never departed.