Patriot with a paintbrush

MUMBAI:Quite like Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, Bangladesh-born Shahabuddin Ahmed also fought a war before returning to his passion – painting.

“Nine months after I joined the (Liberation) war, we got Bangladesh and I came back to art. It’s impossible to forget those memories. But I’m lucky I can give out a message through art. My works are optimistic. Like Gandhi philosophies, which we more than ever need right now,” says the artist over the phone from Paris, about Shanti his exhibition at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery to be unveiled on June 7.

This travelling exhibition that features about 40 of his mammoth paintings, was inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee last year at Kolkata’s Ganges Art Gallery, which represents Ahmed and is responsible for his earlier four – and now fifth – India sojourn involving art.

Ahmed, a resident of France for the past 42 years, is more than the laurels bestowed upon him for art’s sake – the Swadhinta Padak (highest civilian honour in Bangladesh) in 2000 and Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts & Literature) by the French government in 2014. The Olympiad of the Arts, Barcelona, named him one of the 50 master painters of contemporary arts in 1992.

It’s his role in the pages of Bangladesh’s war-torn history that makes him quite the headturner. The son of a politically-charged family, Ahmed immersed himself in painting much to his father’s annoyance. But fate had other plans for him in the increasingly-restive pre-war years. A close camaraderie with the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made him trade his brushes for weapons of war to became platoon commander in the Mukti Juddho (Liberation War of 1971), at age 21.

ine months later, Ahmed hoisted the Bangladeshi flag at the Dhaka radio station before the Pakistan Military surrendered and the war ended. He returned to art on bagging a scholarship at École des Beaux-Arts. Three decades later, on his 50th birthday in September 2000, Ahmed was garlanded by 2,000 artists and locals at a Dhaka auditorium – an indication of how loved he is by his countrymen.

A combination of this enduring love for art and memories of war transfers onto canvas as human figures, Herculean in poise and proportion, over-stretching themselves, using every muscle and vein, in raw determination to overcome strive, pain and suffering, traits witnessed during his military past that fuel his art. These baroque-ish figures are a subtle reference to British-Irish painter Francis Bacon, whose works woke Ahmed from a lengthy artist’s block during the onset of his student years in Paris post-war. Also, interspersed among these stormy works are dramatically-calm portraits of his role models – Gandhi and Rahman. “We need peace more than ever now,” says the artist.

Though he insists his works don’t speak of the dead, sometimes they do. Like the Arreter le genocide painting that has mangled bodies in a heap, bloodied in parts, a reflection of his angst about the gory murders by the Pakistani army’s Operation Searchlight – the systematic elimination of Bengali academics, intelligentsia and Hindus in Bangladesh in 1971. “It’s my way of telling them (the martyed) that you had courage and gave your blood for a good cause. That I’m a coward, but I won’t forget you.”

Ahmed sees India as a big brother to Bangladesh. “India has been a good influence and good friend. But Bangladesh has a spirit of change visible in its 22, 23-year-old artists who surprise me with their work. Give us 25 years and then judge us.”