Send us a picture, Anwar bhai

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

Anwar Hossain. Photo: CollectedHis large eyes emanated raw emotion. There was a sense of pent-up passion in his being. There seemed to be so much he had to say, yet he remained taciturn to the outside world. And that is how he left, slipping away silently into the realm of the unknown.

Anwar Hossain was a photographer extraordinaire. He elevated photography to rare artistic heights. What he could not say in words, he expressed through his lens. His images, largely a play of light and shade in black and white, spoke of anguish, of struggle, of courage, of beauty, determination, strength, joy, sorrow and more. He gave uncommon portrayal to the commonplace. If a picture speaks a thousand words, Anwar Hossain’s camera spoke volumes.

The films he made, ‘Surjo Dighal Bari’ being one of his finest, were examples of cinematography at its finest. The books of his photography depicted an intensity of observation and an acute observation of life all around. But this is not about his work, not about Anwar Hossain as the photographer or cinematographer. This about the man we knew and admired.

How can you describe a man? Perhaps a few snippets of his life, insignificant incidents which will never feature in books on the man or films on his life, will throw a little light on this sensitive soul, a man of the land with an inner refinement belied by his down-to-earth exterior. Down-to-earth he certainly was, urbane and ingenuous at the same time.

Having lived in France for much of his life, the Dhaka boy within him never took the back seat. He very easily slipped into the French persona, but his Armanitola roots brought him back to his homeland time and again. This is where he was born and this is where he died.

Anwar bhai was a passionate perfectionist. It was a pleasure working with him, but a pain too. Until the shot was exactly right, unless the caption to his photograph precisely captured the picture, he would persist and prevail upon his associates until he was fully satisfied. He was careless about money, about his life, about anything pragmatic or practical, but when it came to his work, he was professional to the hilt. No compromise where art was concerned.

The refinement in him was oddly juxtaposed with his careless demeanour. He was warm and loving, but had a streak of intolerance within him that could pop out at any unexpected moment, much to the chagrin of those around him. Once during an election quite some time ago, he was involved in a UNDP project, making some short films on election awareness. The Dhanmondi playing field was chosen as the filming site. The set comprised polling booths, queues of voters, policemen and so on. Anwar was ready to roll, intent on the camera. Then one of the assistant directors called out to him, “Boss, ready?” He glanced up, frowned and turned back to his lens. A technician on the set came up and said, “Is everything set, boss?” The frown intensified. “Anything wrong, boss?” asked another. That did it! He exploded, “What do you mean by ‘boss’!? What sort of language is this, ‘boss’, boss’ boss’!!?? I can’t work with such people!” He strode away, leaving the rest of the people on the set flabbergasted, shocked and confused. He may have been a Dhaka-born boy, but that finesse of manners and etiquette was always at the fore. No wonder he was so much at home in France!

But then again, he could be blunt too, to the point of rudeness. He was visiting media friends in the office of a news magazine a few years ago. He had just had lunch and all he wanted was a cup of tea, no milk, no sugar. It would be an understatement to say the boy who made tea at the office was not an expert in brewing the beverage. He was given strict and precise instructions how to make Anwar bhai’s tea. The others were used to his rancid concoctions, but surely Anwar bhai deserved the good cup of steaming tea. The boy took his time, trying his best to make the tea. Anwar bhai grew fidgety. “How long does it take to get a cup of tea here?” he finally burst out. Fortunately, the boy came in carrying the carefully make cup of tea and handed it to the guest. Anwar bhai took one sip of the tea and spat it back straight into the cup, muttering a French expletive, which the others luckily could not comprehend. “Is that tea or cat’s pee!?” he spluttered. No one in that office ever offered him a cup of tea after that... it was either coffee or water, certainly never that offending beverage ever again!

Dolly Anwar, the actress or rare talent, was the love of his life. They had a fiery relationship, their marriage inevitably ending in divorce. But they never stopped loving each other. He would send her red roses off and on and was shattered when one day she took her own life. He could never reconcile himself to her suicide.

In France he married a French woman, Mariam. Simple and loving, she patiently cared for this tempestuous temperamental man. They had two sons together. But later in his life, Anwar returned to Bangladesh and spent more and more time in the homeland. She visited too with the boys, but their home was France. He cared for her and loved his sons, always meeting them and tending to their needs to the best of his ability. Perhaps the conventional bindings of marriage were not for him.

Given his talent, hard work, creativity and rare skills, Anwar Hossain should have ‘made it big’. But he had a naive streak, coupled with a deep sense of dignity, which too many people took advantage of and cheated him of his due. He did a lot of work for a lot of big businesses and people, but was often paid far less than was agreed upon. Their attitude was, he just took a couple of picture or made a short film, why should he be paid so much? What a shame. He would be hurt, mortified, angry, but was too proud to insist on his due payment.

He was an architect, having graduated from BUET in Dhaka, and structures always drew him. It didn’t have to be an elaborate edifice to appeal to him. There was a structure that no longer stands today that always deeply appealed to him. Passing Banani and going towards the airport, perhaps just after the naval headquarters, there were two very simple and stark red brick structures on either side of the road, known as Dhaka Gate. He felt this was a most appropriate gateway to Dhaka, the plain brick work reflecting the original red bricks of Dhaka buildings, the terracotta hue offering a warm welcome to the entrants to the city. He could never understand why the city authorities removed such an aesthetic entrance.

And we will never understand why Anwar bhai left us so suddenly, so silently. We can only hope, wherever he is, he finds the beauty and love he hankered for so much, but didn’t find, in this world. Send us a picture, Anwar bhai.

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