One Tuesday last February I spent the evening watching Sahabuddin Ahmed paint in his makeshift roof-top workshop at Ganges Art Gallery. Even for a philistine like me, it’s quite a delight to watch the painter at his work. It’s amazing, the transformation of an empty canvas into a crucible of art. And, Sahabuddin is a just sheer joy to watch, his bright pink T-shirt (the same that I had seen him in a few days ago) with an off-white cloth belt tied around his waist (on the ends of which he wiped his hands) and his trademark unkempt silver mop of hair only adding to the visual treat.
Having reached late, I quietly settle on a moulded plastic chair, trying not to disturb him when he asks, “Disha paichho? (did you get the directions right?). I nod, which he does not notice. I utter a feeble “aggye hyan” which he acknowledges with a smile. He offers us (I am accompanied by a common friend) Darjeeling tea — without milk and sugar — that he’s been drinking since morning and some sand-fried dry peas, which give my cavity-ridden teeth a challenge that is immediately declined. I take them out from my mouth and put them into the ash-tray brimming with cigarette butts.
With two more days left for the exhibition to begin at the Art Gallery, the rooftop workshop, or so it’s supposed to be — a cluttered space with a shed made of tiles and plastic sheet— is chock-a-block with paintings, framed and unframed canvases. “There are 58 of them,” Sahabuddin says as he paints under the light of a solitary white lamp dangling right above his canvas stand. This is the sixth time that the Paris-based painter is holding an exhibition in the city. His work was also exhibited in Delhi in March this year.
“This is gram Bangla!,” he says as he finishes with the final touches. I see a house and a few people, mostly women, with some holding babies, in front of it. The sky is grey and almost swallowing the little people in its vastness. I ask him about a little black spot in the sky. “Oh, that’s dirt… I’ll fix it.” He gets up and applies a stroke of grey on it.
I sit motionless and watch with the amazement of a child. He takes out another unfinished work. “This is a scene from the refugee camp of 1971,” he says. There are women huddled together in a kind of hush-hush grey around them. The woods around are dark, deep. There are a couple of paintings on bull-fighting, a sport he had once seen in Spain and loathed with all his heart. I particularly liked his portrait of Gandhi— a much-diminished figure against the vast, empty and grey canvas. Needless to mention this was one of the first paintings to be sold out.
“Many artists say it is not okay to be nationalistic in art. What do you have to say?,” I ask. He pauses to think and says: “They claim so. I cannot help being a nationalistic and don’t want to either.” After all, he had fought the Bangladesh’s Liberation War against Pakistan. Even after almost four decades in France, Bangladesh is the most dominating influence in his works. Gram Bangla with its rural colour is one of Sahabuddin’s most recurring themes, apart from scenes of Mukti Juddho (Liberation War of Bangladesh).
Sahabuddin went to Paris soon after Bangladesh was born in 1971 on an art scholarship. By the time his course was over, the nation was thrown into turmoil after Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s assassination, making his return impossible for several years. Paris gave him refuge, an open canvas full of possibilities and went on to become his home. In 1992, he was in the list of Fifty Master Painters of Contemporary Arts, an award he bagged at the Olympiad of Arts, Barcelona.
“But as an artist, I am an outsider everywhere,” he says. “When I exhibit my work here (Indian sub-continent) people can immediately understand that I do not belong here. And in Paris, my work is seen as someone’s who’s a stark outsider.” He does not tell me if that bothers him.
I get to meet Sahabuddin again during the fag end of his exhibition at the Ganges Art Gallery. A steady stream of visitors greets him at the workshop. There are collage artists, filmmakers and art students. “No, well I did see one I think,” he tries to pacify, in a rather uncouth manner, a Bangladeshi documentary filmmaker who’s mildly annoyed that he hasn’t seen any of her films. He laughs when someone comments on his red shirt— “it’s the same one in which I had seen you when I last met”. He declines an offer of an adda from a friend: “Not today. For a good adda, there has to be booze. And I cannot have any because of a bad cough.”
The students, who we are told had waited over two hours at the gate, take his autograph and photograph, and when they ask him if he had any message for budding talents, he gives a vacant “well, ami ki bolbo?” (what do I say) look. Our common friend comes to his rescue: “He is unwell. Why don’t we talk when he’s feeling better?”