Paint the Town

By Sadiqur Rahman

Mangal Shobhajatra, the colorful Bengali New Year parade that passes through Shahbag in Dhaka on Pohela Boishakh never fails to spread joy and mirth in the hearts of its thousands of participants. A carnival with floats and crafty masks upholds the folklore of Bangladesh. People celebrate the secular spirit of the occasion and bask in the festivities of the day. But the one-day festival which takes at least 20 days of preparation leaves visible marks on the city, most prominently on the external wall of the Dhaka Charukala, the Faculty of Fine Arts under the University of Dhaka.

Rest of the days in a year, the FFA teachers, students, and alumni feel that the painted wall as an elegant component that defines the unique architectural aesthetics of the FFA.
To celebrate the first day of Bangla year – Pohela Boishakh, FFA teachers and students give the external wall and the façade of Shilpacharjya Zainul Abedin School inside the FFA compound a makeover with new paintings depicting folk narratives on contemporary society.

With soothing bright colors and dark borderlines, they draw village women doing household work, farmers in the field, herders playing flutes, palanquin bearers, zamindar in their courtrooms, dancers as well as elephants, peacocks, butterflies, birds, tigers, crocodiles, snakes, local trees with flowers and many other motifs they can source from the traditional pottery art, earthen dolls called Tepa Putul and stitch handloom called Nakshikantha.

This year, the 21st batch graduate students of FFA are in charge of organizing Mangal Shobhajatra and Dhaka Charukala wall painting for the New Bangla Year 1426.
Shiekh Faizur, a Drawing and Painting department student of the 21st batch of Charukola tells Ice Today that the external wall of FFA seems like a large canvas for him and his fellow batchmates to depict traditional art forms of the country.

‘Onlookers patiently wait until the painters give the final touch on the wall. This means that people take great interest in the style of wall painting,’ he says.

Faizur’s batchmate Urmi Roy, a printmaking student of the same institution, has loved the Dhaka Charukala wall paintings since when she was a child.

‘The motifs of people, animals, and trees are simple to understand. Each painting has distinguishable narratives that can attract urban people,’ Urmi says, adding that she feels proud to be a part of such a public artwork.

A public art launched in the prehistoric era
Kamal Uddin, a lecturer of the FFA Department of Drawing and Painting, tells Ice Today that wall painting, as one of the styles of mural painting, is indeed public art that people can feel free to draw or enjoy in an open exhibition.

Kamal cites cave art as the oldest form of wall painting.

The ancestors of homo sapiens, known as Neanderthals, used to paint walls and ceilings of caves with the images of animals as a way to ensure they would hunt them down. According to historians, the idea of cave art was ritualistic as the cave people back in the Paleolithic, around 35,000 years ago or more used to think that if they could draw the image of the animal, they already have won it and would be able to hunt it easily. The cave art was also an attempt to keep a record of animal species seen before, preserving the knowledge of them for when they returned from hunting.

‘The images were drawn mostly with earthen colors and stone powder while animal’s fat was applied as the binder’, says Kamal.

He also refers to archeologists who have found another form of wall painting inside the tombs and burial places for the Pharaohs, the Egyptian monarchs. From 3000BC to 30CE, when the civilization of ancient Egypt ruled the lower Nile Valley, painters were appointed to paint the walls and ceilings of the burial places in the belief that the deceased would be able to take all of the images of their life with them.

Sometimes guarded by Sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a lion, the Pharaohs were depicted with all of their slaves around them, so that the slaves could serve and take care of them in the afterlife.

In between 2 BC and 480 CE, Buddhist monks developed rock-cut cave paintings at the Ajanta caves in Maharastra state while Jain religious preachers painted at the Sittanavasal caves in Tamil Nadu of India.

During the end of the Early Renaissance in the 14th century, wall painting got institutional recognition, Kamal says.

In between 1477 and 1450, Pope Sixtus IV had rebuilt the Papal Chapel in Vatican City, named it Sistine Chapel and commissioned a group of artists namely Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli to decorate the prayer hall’s wall with fresco cycles depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses.

Legendary Italian painter Michelangelo, as was commissioned by Pope Julius, later added a number of wall paintings to Sistine Chapel. One of his works The Last Judgment–painted on the altar wall of the chapel between 1534 and 1541– is recognized as one of the supreme masterpieces of mural painting.

In the Indian subcontinent, modern wall painting originated on the buildings at Shantiniketan or the Viswa Bharati University what was founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in West Bengal. According to Kalpathi Ganpathi Subramanyan, a Padma Vibhushan award-winning Indian painter, a Scottish town planner and environmentalist Patrick Geddes paid a visit to Shantiniketan in 1922 at the invitation of Tagore. Geddes suggested Nandalal Bose, a faculty member of the Fine Arts department of the university, to cover the bare walls of the building with murals.

Among the building murals in Santiniketan, Bose’s Birth of the prophet Chaitanya (1933) and his student Benode Behari Mukherjee’s Medieval Saints (1947) was two masterpieces of the Indian modern mural painting.

Bose and Mukherjee used two distinguished styles of buon fresco technique which refers to mural painting on wet plaster.

Festive wall painting in Dhaka Charukala
According to Dhaka Charukala alumni, the first Mangal Shobhajatra–initially called Ananda Shobhajatra–was brought out in 1989 from the Bangladesh College of Arts and Crafts [now FFA] to rally people against the then autocratic regime.

Kamal says that fine arts pre-degree course students of session 1986-87 initiated the procession. Ataktagin Tusher, Faridul Quader, Shakhawat Hossain, Kamrul Ahsan Khan, Moniruzzaman Shipu, Farukuzzaman Helal, Shahid Ahmed Mithu, Kalam Azad, Hanif Talukder, Halimul Khokon, Anita Islam, Tuhin, Mili Suku and Nazimuddin, among other students initiated the parade of wellbeing while Nisar Hossain, Shishir Bhattacharjee, Mohammad Yunus, and Aziz Sarafi, among other fine arts teachers, supported their initiatives.

Although there is no written history on the Dhaka Charukala wall painting, former students of the institution have told Ice Today that first in 1993, the then students of the Institute of Fine Arts [now FFA] painted the external wall of the institution as part of a Bangla New Year celebration.

‘The teachers and students who initiated the Mangal Shobhajatra also led the initial wall painting’, Kamal says.

Kamal Uddin
Lecturer, Department of Drawing and Painting
The Faculty of Fine Arts, The University of Dhaka

Kamal adds that drawing and painting faculty members Mostafizul Haque, Sheikh Afzal Hosain, Abdus Sattar, Shahid Kazi, Sumon Wahed and he lead students to paint the FFA external wall prior to the Pahela Boishakh while the chairman of the department Shishir Bhattacharjee and the dean of FFA Nisar Hossain coordinate the task.

Pop art never extinct
Since the formal inauguration for the preparation for the Mangal Shobhajatra with one month in hand, FFA teachers design layouts for the wall painting. Commonly, the two dimension motifs are collected from the art styles of Kalighat paintings, Madhubani painting, and the very local rickshaw painting, or from the traditional pottery and Kantha stitch art, or paintings by Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan and Jamini Roy, among others.
‘The traditional art which we can be termed as people’s art or folk art evolves through the generations of local painters. People’s art plays a crucial role in establishing a strong ethnic stamp of the nation. The FFA fellows try to make popular the folk art among the urban audience,’ Kamal says.

Although the narrative of each wall painting seems to be an adaptation of ancient Bangla folk literature, they actually depict the contemporary social and political scenario of the country.

As mass culture avoids expensive or rare materials, Dhaka Charukala wall painters apply the available pigments like zinc oxide, acramine color, and plastic paints while using liquid gum as a binder.

‘Following the folk art style, red, yellow and blue dominate the colors of Dhaka Charukala wall painting while mixtures of these basic colors seldom are used’, Kamal says, adding that the organizers do not arrange expensive ingredients to give the artworks longevity as the wall painting is done only for a year.

The short-term plan for wall painting relates to the very real lesson of Bengali folklore that suggests to people that they should not cry for the past and neither save for the future, but rather live in the present. Dipti Datta, lecturer of the Department of Oriental Art under FFA, says, ‘Although the wall painting remains for at least one year, it has an annual facelift as a welcoming gesture to new things. As Rabindranath Tagore writes Batsarer Abarjana Dur Hoye Jak Jak Jak and Jak Puratan Smriti Jak Bhule Jaoa Geeti in his Esho He Boishak song, which is composed on a Bengali folk tune and has now become a signature tune of Pohela Boishakh, FFA teachers and students draw new paintings on the wall to welcome the Bengali New Year’.

Dipti Datta
Lecturer, Department of Oriental Art
The Faculty of Fine Arts, The University of Dhaka

Adding aesthetic value
Dipti continues that the ancient Shahbag area was a cultural hub for the elites. Before the establishment of Dhaka University, affluent people like the nawabs and zamindars from inside and outside Dhaka frequented the area during many cultural occasions.
‘After the establishment of Dhaka University, a variety of cultural and political activities were opened up for common folk. Therefore, the area is suitable for hosting large scale public gatherings like the Bengali New Year celebration. Furthermore, the horizontal landscape of the university, especially the spacious exterior of the Dhaka Charukala designed by legendary architect Mazharul Islam offers some relief to the urbanites who are tired with the chaotic, vertical structures of the city’.

Dipti observes that there are three types of people living in the city– the elites, the middle-class and the urban poor who migrated to the city for a better livelihood. She says that mural painting on the Dhaka Charukala walls attracts all three categories of people.
‘The elites find heritage value in the artwork while urban poor having rural knowledge feel nostalgic attachment and the middle-class people, specifically the FFA teachers and students who transform the rural narratives into the folk contents for urban wall painting, act as a bridge linking elites and urban poor during such a cultural occasion. This way, the traditional wall painting of Dhaka Charukala becomes universal’ Dipti says.

Following the Dhaka Charukala wall painting, many educational institutions, private house owners and the city corporation authorities facilitate external wall painting to check haphazard pasting of posters.

As part of a beautification campaign in Dhaka, the Dhaka North City Corporation on March 17 initiated mural painting on roadside walls on the Mayor Annisul Huq Road in the capital’s Tejgaon area.

To celebrate the 99th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 180 students of fine art faculties of different universities along with 700 students of different city schools drew the murals depicting Bangabandhu, national memorials, nature, rural life, developed road communications of Dhaka, cleanliness campaigners and more.
In March last year, the Dhaka South City Corporation took a similar step to decorate the containers of waste with mural paintings as part of its Green Dhaka campaign.
‘Suitable or well-designed wall painting also adds aesthetic value to the façade of a building structure,’ thinks Bayezid Shohag, an exterior and interior designer who works for a Dhaka-based creative firm Rupokar.

He says that his clients like land developers and private house owners ask for terracotta and tile murals for their home’s external wall.

‘The art enthusiastic clients think that a beautiful mural will not only keep the external wall free from posters but also represent the taste of the property owner,’ Shohag says.