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"It Is My Mother's Face"
Sayeed Ahmed

Hamidur Rahman, a pioneer painter of this country, had gone to Europe in 1951 to study painting at Beaux Arts in Paris. During his five year stay in Europe, while coming under the influence of various Western thoughts, media and personalities including painter Victor Pasmore, art authorities Basil Gray and J. Archer, he was able to realise deeply the wealth of his own culture.

Sitting in a small flat in Cranleigh House a few hundred yards from Euston tube station in 1956, Hamidur Rahman, Novera Ahmed the sculptress and I were debating whether they should go back home or utilise the opportunities already available in London. Hamidur Rahman was my elder brother.

Both the artists had finished their academic life and were now ready to embark in a competitive world. The picture of the then East Pakistan was not a very happy one. Not many exhibitions were being held, nor many commissions available. Painter Zainul Abedin was struggling hard to lead the art movement in Dhaka. Not many Asian painters were working in London at the time. The racial colour bias was not so pronounced then, therefore Hamidur Rahman who had qualified from the Central School of Arts in London, and Novera Ahmed from Camberwell School of Arts, London, could have stayed back comfortably.

As the discussion went from aesthetic problems to economic problems, the voice of Hamidur Rahman became sharper. I could see in his eyes a grim determination to face an unknown future in his home-town. He was so convinced that he simply must go back.

Europe was not suffocating nor dull, but the challenge felt by his youthful spirit led him to decide to return and immerse himself in the struggles of his country.

In the background of the 1952 Language Movement, no Bengalce could have remained unconcerned, least of all a fiery artist like Hamidur Rahman. He packed his small suitcase and boarded the plane for Dhaka.

He did not choose to stay in Karachi where a lot of money was available for Europe-trained artists- His deep feelings, his roots, his convictions threw him into the difficult art world of East Pakistan.

Novena Ahmed followed suit to remain in his company for a long time.

In the spring of 1957, Chief Minister of East Pakistan Ataur Rahman Khan requested Chief Engineer Jabbar and Zainul Abedin to ask Hamidur Rahman to prepare a plan for a Shaheed Minar. The idea charged Hamidur Rahman with tremendous esthusiasm. He found an outlet to express his commitment to Bengali nationalism. This was a complex demand. Never before had there been an agitation of such intensity as the Language Movement-, nor was there any important example of a martyrs' monument in this tract of land. Therefore the artist Hamidur Rahman had to search for a new expression to convey the aspirations of the people. He presented a model of the Shaheed Minar along with 52 drawings and sketches, out of a hundred more he had worked out. There were other competitors who submitted their designs, but the Selection Committee composed of the internationally­ acclaimed Greek artist Doxiades, Zainul Abedin and Jabbar chose the design evolved by Hamidur Rahman.

Hamidur Rahman started work in November 1957. He realised in a month's time that in order to complete the monument before February, 1958, he must devote all his time to his work and be near the construction site. He therefore asked that two small tin huts be built next to the site, one to live in and the other to work in. He left his cosy Islampur house to live in this workshop so that he could breathe the atmosphere of the Shaheed Minar.

A pyramid, or a vertical column like Cleopatra's Needle or an obelisk, or a Qutb Minar are the well-known forms of various styles of monuments. Hamidur Rahman designed a greatly different minar from the other, well-known structures.

He went ahead untiringly and completed the first phase of the foundation, the raised platform and three columns oil time. He wasgrappling with two basic forms of horizontal and vertical to bring out the beautiful theme of revolt and peace, of love and grief, tears and solace. It can be seen that the vertical lines provide manifestation of the inner strength of a nation's conviction. The four columns reflect the tension of horizontal and vertical lines at different heights. The central column shifts away from the stated geometric shape, where the bowed head of the symbolic mother, bestowing protection and blessings on her children, leans forward at an angle.

Hamidur Rahman's design provided for stained glass to be used in the columns on which a pattern of hundreds of eyes were to be incorporated through which the sunlight would glow. The floor was to be of marble, so as to show up, or reflect, the moving shadows of the columns as the sun crossed the sky, thus creating a mobile drama of geometric lines and colour from the stained glass. He had thought of inclusion of blood-stained footsteps of the Shaheeds and outsize foot­prints in black of the aggressor, on the marble. He had kept provision for a clock tower and a well-stocked research library. In the basement gallery of the Minar, he had designed 1,500 sq. ft. of fresco depicting the scenes of the Language Movement, which was in fact one of his masterpieces. Hamidur Rahman had learnt the technique of frescoes at London and Florence.

In this mural Hamidur Rahman portrays human figures brutally flattened and stretched into geometric forms, and unarmed marchers pushed back to the wall. Their last-ditch attempt to stand up for their rights transforms faces, arms, elbows and shoulders into sharp weapons. The single eye on a triangular-face stares out and dismembered legs and feet continue their stance of unyielding challenge. Hamidur Rahman used earth colours from the folk paleette - - blue, yellow and earth red in pastel shades, deploying lime and egg yolk in the tradition of fresco work. Unfortunately this beautiful work was erased by vandals. And the fact becomes downright tragic if we remember that this happened in 1972, in the month of February, when there was a general euphoria in the air as the first Ekushey celebrations in the free Bangladesh were being planned. One of the disciples of Shilpacharja Zainul Abedin, Iqbal Ahmed. who is a noted leather craftsman himself was going to the Shilpacharja's house in the morning of 10 February along the Shaheed Minar road when he decided to drop in and see the progress of work at the Minar complex. The whole structure was being rebuilt and the area refurbished. He found some worntken of the public works department at work in the room where the mural was. They were hacking at the mural and levelling up the wall. Iqbal rushed to Zainul Abedin, who in tum sent him to fetch Hamidur Rahman from his house. When Hamidur Rahman came, the Shilpacharja sent him to the Government Secretariat to find out what was going on. There, in the labyrinth of the Secretariat, Hamidur Rahman found not one person who could tell him who had decided to deface the mural, who gave order and most importantly, why it was being done. Frustrated, Hamidur Rahman came back to report to Zainul Abedin. Evidently, someone was responsible for this vandalism, but to this day, no one knows who. A single canvas is extant in my private collection of the same mural design, though this is in oil.

Novera Ahmed collaborated with Hamidur Rahman in the field of desgning the fountain and embellishing the landscape with sculptures and design of plants and foliage. Both Hamidur Rahman and Novera Ahmed had spent time in Florence and Novera had studied sculpture under Dr. Vogel in London and the famous Italian Venturino Venturi in Florence. She was especially fascinated by the great tradition of fountain sculptures abounding in Italian cities, such as the Fontana Trevi in Rome and Piazza Vecchio in Florence and garden designing as in Bobli Gardens and Villa Borghese. Mughals had practised fountain art in India, but only in well laid gardens, as part of the designs of these gardens. In Europe however, fountains had been a part of the aesthetic layout of cities. When Novera came back to Dhaka, she became the first practitioner of fountain art in: the then East Pakistan. Obviously,;she wanted to include a fountain as part of the structural design of the Shaheed Minar.

As an avant garde artist she wanted to add a new dimension to the landscape of Shaheed Minar using the flow of water as a complement to the gracefull moving shadows on the marble platform. Her sculptures were also to enhance the passion and pain of the martyrs through figurative works. She was the first sculptor who pointed out the importance of placing sculpture in the open air. Unfortunately, these aspects remain unfulfilled to a great extent even now.

In late 1958, following the imposition of martial law by General Ayub Khan, the Shaheed Minar plan was shelved and those conneced with it had to undergo various tortures and harassment. I received a telegram in Karachi, where I was working at the time. Hamidur Rahman intimated that he was arriving on his way to the United States. I had anticipated this and therefore was mentally ready to accord whatever protection possible for his safety. Internationally-acclaimed artist Sadeqain and I went to receive Hamidur Rahman at the airport. He came out of the plane, completely shaken.

We talked of many things, except the painful subject of the Shaheed Minar. He said he was to fly out at the earliest, which meant the next day. He had got an assignment in Philadelphia University Art Centre, through the good offices of his friends in Dhaka. Things were unbearable for him. No one was allowed to work on the Shaheed Minar anymore. I could realise the frightful situation in Dhaka. The next day we saw him off at the airport. With tearful eyes he said, though his assignment was a long one, he would be back at the first opportunity to continue his work with the Shaheed Minar. His words came true. He cut short his scary without hesitation as soon as he got word that the situation was somewhat congenial and hurried back to Dhaka.

While in Philadelphia, he executed a mural in the Library Hall, depicting the Language Movement. It may be of interest for researchers that a substantial documentation of the Shaheed Minar basement mural is available in the archives of the Art Department of Philadelphia University, which does not exist in Bangladesh.

In 1972, designs were called for to rebuild the Shaheed Minar (which was destroyed on the night of March 27, 1971 by the Pakistan Army). A competition was held and many people submitted their designs from amongst which Hamidur Rahman's layout was selected once again.

I remember in 1973, sitting in my Circuit House flat, Shilpacharja Zainul Abedin narrated an interesting episode about the selection. He said that during several hours of deliberations the Committee kept on considering various changes. He was so exasperated, that he raised voice and in a firm manner said that the nation had owned and cherished Hamidur Rahman's design of the Shaheed Minar for many long years. Abedin told the Committee : "This is the face of my mother, I adore it. To some it may be a plain.or a simple face, but it is my mother's face. I would not barter it for a hundred other beautiful faces." The result was that Hamidur Rahman's original design won the day. This much-loved symbol is replicated all over the country and has even crossed the border.

In due course of time the five columns of the monument were reconstructed, though he had to go through much red tape and bureaucratic obstructions in fulfilling just a part of his total plan. The worst was that on December 7, 1973 when M.S. Jaffar, an associate of Hamidur Rahman submitted the contract form for final approval of the Works Secretary, alas, no contract was signed, no contract could be signed! A horrible thing happened, the file got misplaced !.

Hamidur Rahman never got a farthing anymore.

I was further shocked when as recently as 1984, when a Finance Minister in the regime of H.M. Ershad coming out of cabinet meeting told me that the government had decided to improve the Shaheed Minar. I posed a question as to whether it would be Hamidur Rahman's design. The minister smiled and said, "Not exactly. It will be somewhat similar, but not after the original." I don't know of any other country where designs are changed at will, without the artist's permission, particularly when the artist was alive and available


Again in 1986, the Works Minister in Ershad's cabinet invited Hamidur Rahman to talk about the implementation of the plan of the Shaheed Minar. They visited the Shaheed Minar and Hamidur Rahman told the minister that he can spend as much as six months of his time if need be to execute his plan. The artist had envisaged a reading area in his original design, now he wanted to build a library for children behind the Minar along the boundary wall, where a basement and an upper floor would contain the library and reading rooms. A lot of discussion took place but nothing concrete materialized. Once again, the government had attempted an eye wash.

Hamidur Rahman or Novera cannot implement their designs now.

Hamidur Rahman passed away in 1989.

And Novera Ahmed had simply left, with no forwarding address. No one knows where she lives now, or what she is doing. A pity such a gifted artist has vanished from amongst us.

Had Hamidur Rahman been alive today, he would have ben happy to see that his humble offering has provided the central meeting point where people's songs and dramas are acted and where intellectuals and politicians go to place wreaths of homage to the departed souls of the martyrs.