Murtaja Baseer in his living room on 17 August 2019
Murtaja Baseer in his living room on 17 August 2019Khaled Sarker

Murtaja Baseer, probably the most colourful character among the band of brilliant artists who emerged in Bangladesh in the 50’s, and the last among them, has passed away. His death marked the end of the star-studded era of the beginning of visual arts in the country.

Being associated with artist Murtaja Baseer for more than 20 years is a memorable experience for me, thanks to my teaching career at Chittagong University’s fine arts department. When I joined as a teacher there, I was the youngest teacher among four other colleagues who were stars in the field. I knew Rashid Chowdhury and Devdas Chakraborty and was a bit acquainted with Zia Haider of dramatics. But I did not know Murtaja Baseer. Yet it was with him that I forged a friendship.

Since his retirement from the university in 1997 and his moving to Dhaka in a few years, our communication was somewhat truncated but it was never severed. Today, I’m remembering Baseer bhai who roamed freely in different areas of visual and creative arts, and now his death has drawn the final curtain between us.

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Murtaja Baseer was a character who could imprint a permanent spot in the memory, crossing the boundaries of all kinds of likes and dislikes. He was not a person whom age or illness could exhaust. I met him last around 6 or 7 months ago. The 87-year-old Murtaja Baseer, who could not move without an oxygen cylinder, spoke about creating 20 canvases and organising an exhibition. He was such an exceptional person.

It must be admitted that he had taught us to appreciate the effervescent brilliance of apparently lifeless static Gothic sculptures, Byzantine mosaic or pre-Renaissance paintings of Italy

I have seen Murtaja Baseer as a brash, sometimes unpredictable, self-conscious and sometimes self-centred man. Again, the same person appeared as active and vibrant at home. Though we disagreed more often than not on different subjects, the memory of the person so full of contradictions cannot be forgotten. Sometimes, we remained aloof from each other over disagreement on some subject. Sometimes, the friendship was so close that we passed the whole day together.

While walking on city streets, he took active interest in everything, the hallmark of a born artist.

After we got acquainted, I was drawn to his sketching skills. I was really awe-struck by his skill in sketching a person sitting in front. But that sketch never ended as a mere reflection of reality, rather it was enriched with a creative spirit of flowing lines. We could learn like a student from his works, how the relation between things could be drawn in geometrical shapes on a two-dimensional canvas.

It must be admitted that he had taught us to appreciate the effervescent brilliance of apparently lifeless static Gothic sculptures, Byzantine mosaic or pre-Renaissance paintings of Italy.

I was conversant with the stories he has written. Later, I got to know his novels and poetry, his screenplay for movies, and his work as an assistant director and set designer. A few years later, his research on coins and currency earned him fame in the subcontinent. He served sentence in jail as an active member of the Communist Party. Probably, there is no one in Bangladesh who could be bracketed with his name in fine arts.

Murtaja Baseer as a person just the opposite of all this. You would find very few narcissistic people like him. No one would get a chance to speak if he was present in a gathering. He spoke profusely about himself, but in such an interesting and humorous way.

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Though he actively participated in politics at one stage of his life, since the 70’s the Baseer bhai we knew did not have any clear political allegiance. Instead, we saw his researcher-like enthusiasm, vast knowledge and awareness of the history of this region. At the same time, he had a profound interest in folk arts and craft of Bengal. Remembering his ‘Epitaph for the Martyrs’ series, it was said that those epitaphs were more of a result of his search for a personal art form than remembering the martyrs. Again, when he returned to art of figure and form anew, we see him not satisfied with presenting the human forms as usual. Instead, he showed interest in creating a path to make the forms meaningful based on his observations of folk arts of Bengal.

In the context of Bangladesh’s art, Murtaja Baseer is an indelible and unforgettable name. He was one of the main artists who, after partition in 1947, imbibed the faltering art scene of the region with confidence and content. As he roamed in different branches of visual arts, he enriched two other mediums of art too – literature and film – with his creativity.

Murtaja Baseer always wanted to show solidity and virility in his paintings. That’s why he was more comfortable with oil painting. Murtaja Baseer has created a few noteworthy murals. His ‘Shaheed Brikkha’ created with terracotta on a wall of the Shaheed Minar at Rajshahi University in 1974 is an exquisite example of murals in Bangladesh. Baseer bhai has engraved his uniqueness in his thought and action by using such a local traditional material as terracotta.

In spite of contradictions, Baseer bhai was a man of his time. Characteristically, he was a loner, a reclusive person, sometimes self-centred too. His stories, novels and poems are basically biographical. His paintings are more successful in turning individual consciousness into universal. His thoughts on painting are far wider and intensive than his other creative works.

Murtaja Baseer is a unique personality in the field of visual arts in Bangladesh and memorable for his vivacious colourful life. His death has created a gaping vacuum in our lives and the creative world.

* Abul Mansur is an artist and art critic. This article, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza