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Born in Mymensingh (East Bengal) Zainul Abedin migrated to Calcutta with the singular purpose of joining the School of Art and had to wage a long struggle to get into it. He passed out in 1938, but had become a teacher of Art in the School while still a student. It was during this period (1933-1938) that he drew memorable landscapes of Dumka, Bihar and Mymensingh. Right from this period one can discern the artist’s insistence on deeply sympathetic and dignified portrayal of fellow human beings and animals—something that brings to mind the works of Premchand, the great Urdu-Hindi litterateur.

From 1944, when he exhibited his work on the famine, he came to be known in the wider art circles, but somehow had a neglected status in comparison to his more famous contemporaries like Abanindranath, Jamini Roy and Nandlal Bose. In 1946 he married Jahanara Begum, from Dacca, where he migrated with her after the tragic events of the Partition of India in 1947. He was instantly recognised as a major artistic presence of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and was entrusted, in 1948, with the responsibility of establishing the Government Institute of Arts in Dacca, the first art school of the province, and was made the First Principal-designate of the Institute. He closely supervised the growth of that Institute at all stages of its existence.

Though respected for his work in Pakistan he was critical of the political and cultural marginalisation of East Pakistan by the dominant forces of West Pakistan, and stood for the resurgence of a Bengali identity. He organized the 'Nabanna' Exhibition in 1970, a year before the terrible manslaughter that preceded the formation of Bangladesh. In this exhibition he displayed a 65 foot long scroll narrating the face of poverty, deprivation and opulence of rural Bengal. During the phase of non cooperation movement against the Pakistan regime, the Nabanna exhibition became a symbol of artists' protest, their demand for freedom and their belief in the social purpose of cultural creation.

Zainul Abedin continued working throughout his life on the themes of his concern. His portrayals of the poor peasantry of Bengal and the tribal people of the region are suffused with a kind of warmth and love that is rare to find in an artistic milieu which is defined more by clever statements and fake conservationism than any real concern. A 30 ft long scroll, done in black ink over wax outlines, depicts the impact of the cyclones of 1970. Another work depicts the plight of Palestinian refugees, a cause that was very dear to his heart. He designed the pages of the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Barely a year before his death due to cancer, he founded the Folk Art Museum at Sonargaon, near Dhaka and Zainul Abedin Sangrahashala, a gallery of his own works in Mymensingh. He is buried in the campus of Dhaka University, along with another great contemporary, the Rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Images by the artist

Zainul Abedin

Zainul Abedin's work represents the best that Bengal has produced in this century by way of artistic realism. He was one of the important witnesses of the history of the subcontinent. His sketches (brush drawings in black ink on paper) of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 will always define our visual memory of that disaster and will influence our perception of famine. Along with artist Somnath Hore and photographer Sunil Janah he created visuals that put to shame other intellectual and artistic responses to the man-made Bengal Famine.

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