We are updating the site, so you may face error, sorry for the inconvenience. Stay tuned, we will be up soon

Article by: Nazrul Islam 28 March, 2015

Zainul Abedin and the City

Download PDF

The nation is celebrating the birth centenary of Zainul Abedin, the pioneer of modern art in Bangladesh. He was born on 29 December in 1914 and died on 28 May 1976 at 62. The year long programme began with an inaugural ceremony in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was the Chief Guest. She also opened an exhibition of 100 works of the artist from the National Museum collection.

Zainul Abedin is better known in Bangladesh as the Shilpacharya, the Great Master of Fine Arts, for his outstanding quality as an artist and his contribution to the development of modern art in this country.

Abedin was born in Kishoregonj, in present day Bangladesh, which was the eastern part of the then British province of Bengal. Abedin had completed his high school education in Mymenshing but he did not sit for the final examination, instead went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and got himself admitted into the Art School there in 1932. He received his diploma in painting and drawing in 1938, and because of his brilliant performance in the final examination he was appointed a teacher at the school. He taught there until 1947. After the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in August, he decided to migrate to Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), his own native province. Abedin took a challenging initiative of founding an art school in Dhaka along the Kolkata model. Several other artist friends and colleagues of Abedin from Kolkata joined him in that noble venture. They were successful in convincing the government in establishing the Government Institute of Arts, the first of its kind in the province. The year was 1948. Zainul Abedin was appointed the first permanent Principal of the Institute and served it until his voluntary retirement in 1967, when he was only 55. In less than two decades Abedin’s charismatic leadership made possible the blossoming of the diploma offering institute into a full-fledged college of Arts and Crafts.

Modern art became a strong cultural movement in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). The college was subsequently made part of the University of Dhaka, finally to be elevated to a Faculty status with eight independent Departments. The faculty now offers undergraduate and post graduate programmes, including Ph.D programme, in Fine Arts.

Not only Dhaka University, several public and private universities in the country now have fine arts departments. Hundreds of artists today work professionally. Grand national and international exhibitions are held on a regular basis. Fine arts is a vigorous activity in Bangladesh. People in general and artists in particular credit Zainul Abedin as the pioneer of this art movement. But Zainul Abedin had already become a familiar name as an artist of exceptional genius back in 1943 with his great drawings of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Before that however he was recognized as a brilliant artist of nature particularly of riverscapes and rural landscapes, initially of serene natural beauty, but later in his life also of the furies of climate hazards like cyclones and tidal surges in the coastal areas. During the fifties and sixties, Abedin also concentrated on village women, both in their work and their leisure, and on men, generally at work, be these as farmers, or fishermen, boatmen or cartpullers. Zainul Abedin has been identified as an artist of rural natural landscapes, and of the common people, both men and women. He was hardly ever described as an urban artist or artist of cityscapes. Indeed, none of his great works can be shown as representing the urban scene or situation, although he lived almost all of his adult life in cities, in fact in big cities like Kolkata and Dhaka and even almost a year in London. He also visited many great cities like Cairo, Tokyo, Mexico and New York just to name a few. Most of his life of course was spent in Dhaka.

Abedin did not overlook the urban scene, totally. In fact one can discern his interest in the city and life in the city from the 1930s till the late ‘60s. Although he has depicted the city and life in the city on many occasions, we cannot say that any of such works have achieved remarkable standard, unless of course we consider his 1943 Famine sketches as city images.
We have a record of Abedin’s artistic works since almost the beginning of his art student days in Kolkata. the two sketches of 1933 depicting the railway bridge over the Brahamaputra at Sambhuganj, Mymensing and that of the railway yard, can be noted as urban fringe images. These are both very delightful drawings in pen and ink.

Mymensing, Urban Fringe, Pen & Ink, 1933




The earliest city study was probably the pen and ink and wash drawing (15.5×19.5 cm) of a tea stall in Kolkata. The date is attributed to 1943. A large oil painting (57.5cm×75 cm) based on this study was completed in the same year, possibly before his famine sketches.

Calcutta (Kolkata),The Tea Stall, Ink and Wash, 1943

Abedin rose to sub-continental recognition and fame with his great series of powerful drawings on the Bengal Famine of 1943. Nearly 30 such drawings are in known custody now, mostly in the National Museum and his family collection. These may truly be regarded as world art. The drawings (and some lithographs and paintings) depict the great tragedy which killed millions of Bengalis in the rural areas, but their symbolic presence in the pavements of metropolitan Calcutta as the unfortunate villagers ended up there in their search for food.

Calcutta (Kolkata), Bengal Famine, Ink and Brush, 1943

The drawings focused in close range the famine stricken people, in groups, in families, in couples, mother-children, siblings, and also as single persons. That these people were in Calcutta is evident only in indications, they were found sitting or walking on the pavements of the city, against images of grand Corinthian columns, or concrete or steel dustbins or of the doors and windows of brick and mortar buildings. These people were never part of the city but they just wanted to live, some could, many could not, they just perished. The city was a cruel reality.

Abedin had moved from Calcutta to Dhaka the capital of the newly created province of East Pakistan after partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Abedin settled down in Dhaka first with his in-laws in old Dhaka, later in his own small house in Shantinagar in new Dhaka. He lived there until his death in 1976. Abedin did a number of beautiful impressionist oil painting of his residence, indoor and external, with a small courtyard, flowers in the vase by the window. There is also a charming study of a young city girl sitting on a cane chair reading a book, quite typical scene in the ’40s and ‘50s. There is a beautiful oil painting of a one-storied house, with trees around within the compound. There is a charming pen and ink and water colour painting of a mosque in old Dhaka done in the 1960s.
Dhaka, Girl Reading, Oil, 1948

In any case, Abedin did not depict the city or life in the city in Bengal (either Calcutta or Dhaka or other towns), on too many occasions. However, he had sketched city scenes and street life quite extensively during his visits abroad, such as in London (in 1951-52), Tokyo (1956), New York (1957) and Cairo (1970). The pen and ink and water colour sketch of Cairo TV station done in 1970 is notable. There are at least two studies on New York. A water colour on paper is an impressive impressionistic work on the city’s skyscrapers.

There is a beautiful sketch on London on a rainy day, showing two elderly ladies with their umbrellas protecting them from the rain. His sketches on Tokyo are journalistic and evocative. The pen and ink and wash work on Cairo is in Abedin’s natural rapid technique. Surprisingly, Abedin seems to have remained unattached by the life and form in Dhaka, his long time residence. We have come across only one sketch of a fleet of cycle rickshaws waiting for passengers. The sketch is dated 1968. It is a very casual work.
London, Rainy Day, Pen and Ink, 1951
New York City, Manhattan, Water Colour, 1957

Cairo, TV Station, Ink and Water Colour, 1970
Dhaka, Rickshaws in waiting, Pen and Ink, 1968


In short we can conclude that Zainul Abedin, the pioneer of modern art in Bangladesh was rightly recognized as the artist of the nature and the common people of rural Bangladesh, but he was not totally forgetful of the city and life in the city. ▄
Japan, Cityscape, Water Colour, 1956




Zainul Abedin with Nazrul Islam at Abedin residence, 1974



Share this Article:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • StumbleUpon
  • Delicious
  • Google Reader

About Author: Nazrul Islam

Professor Nazrul Islam, M.A. (Geography, Dhaka University,1962-2004), President, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh and Chairman , Centre for Urban Studies(CUS).

+880 1713002886 cus@dhaka.net
+880 2 8120047 [ Download CV ]