Celebrated Bangladeshi artist Shahabuddin Ahmed, a 1971 Bangladeshi war commander, is in New Delhi as a resident-artist at Rashtrapati Bhawan, where he will also exhibit select works in a solo show titled Shanti, presented by Ganges Art Gallery. The 67-year-old artist, settled in Paris for over four decades, talks about his art and whether themes of war, peace and immigration influence his work.
How did the artist residency at the Rashtrapati Bhawan happen? How do you view this period here as an artist?
I have been exhibiting with the Ganges Art Gallery in Kolkata for the last 22 years. In December 2015, I held a solo show with them which the President had inaugurated. After seeing my work, he was keen that this should be made a travelling exhibition and people all over India should be able to see these works. The artist residency at Rashtrapati Bhavan is on his invitation and I believe I am the first foreign artist to be so invited. Here I am showing select twelve works from my 2015 show SHANTI. It is an honour to be the state guest of India. I want to utilise my time here not only enjoying the Rashtrapati Bhavan museum, which houses such cherished artefacts from all over the world, but also visiting some historical places like the Raj Ghat, Gandhi Smriti, Teen Murti, Nehru Memorial, National Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art and Crafts Museum during this visit.
Tell us about your show Shanti and what inspired the canvases. What materials do you enjoy working with?
Shanti is my way of showing that despite the unrest and chaos all around us, there is also hope and optimism in the world. I have participated in the 1971 war of Bangladeshi Liberation along with the founding father of Bangaldesh Mujirbur Rahman and this period of my life has guided my path, but contrary to what many believe, I don’t paint war and war is in no way my creed. I enjoy working in oil on canvas.
Does your role as a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s Liberation War influence your art? What are the key themes that inspire you as an artist?
As I said, I am inspired by the freedom fighters of our time like ‘banglabandhu’ Mujibur Rahman and Gandhiji. So I like to paint their portraits but as symbols of peace and harmony. What I want to depict is the human suffering that is common to all us, but if we are defiant, if we push our limits, we can achieve any goal. I don’t choose death as a subject, because deep down, the nature of my interest is rather optimistic. And in the cracked attires of my characters, that some consider to be the reflection of the “freedom fighter” or the athlete, is nothing more than the manifestation of the state of one’s suffering. I revisit the same themes of hope and struggle again and again because I believe unless one goes through lot of sacrifices and struggle, one can’t achieve one’s destination.
As a citizen of the world, a Bangladeshi living in Paris, what is your view on migrants and the immigration policy that is being debated in the US and elsewhere? What makes you feel positive about the world today?
My view is that these are hard times but there is always hope. The Indian subcontinent thrives on peace and brotherhood and non-violence is our way of life. That is what makes me feel positive.
Are you familiar with India’s art scene? Any artists whose works you follow or would like to know more about?
There are many artists whose work I like. But I really admire Sunil Das and Jogen Chowdhury’s work.