The life & work of artist Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash

Finding His True Calling

It was in a class privately tutored by his school’s head teacher, where Shahjahan Ahmed first discovered his knack for drawing. When the teacher had assigned the seniors to draw a diagram from their science book that showed how light travels, everyone found it difficult. Except for him, and it wasn’t even his homework! The human figure in the diagram got his curiosity, and he was quickly able to sketch it out. Everyone came forward, including his teacher, and was pleasantly surprised at his work. He considers this encouragement to be the beginning for him.

People were soon beginning to notice his skills. Only six years had passed since that science diagram, when Shahjahan Ahmed was already prepared to exhibit 36 pieces of his artworks at his first solo exhibition. In a city as small as his hometown Islampur, Jamalpur, exhibitions were perhaps not a familiar concept at the time. Yet, all of his paintings got sold. “I’d framed all the paintings myself,” he fondly recalls.

Exhibitions these days are publicized through posters and such, but advertisements for his ones were quite a lot more unique. In terms of recreation there weren’t many options back then; only one cinema hall in his area. Interestingly enough, people found out about this young artist’s first solo exhibition through a single slide that played before the movies at that theater, which had all the necessary details written – that, and announcements over speakers in his community!

By the sixth grade Shahjahan Ahmed was already considering going to Art College – and art was all he did all day. However unwilling he may have been to study the rest of the subjects, he accomplished First Division results from Arts & Humanities in his Secondary School Certificate (SSC). Amidst many people’s encouragement and adoration, including his teachers and almost everyone in the locality, he mentions the biggest contributions to be that of his maternal uncle’s, who had brought him up ever since his mother’s death.

As with any artist, Shahjahan Ahmed has his fair share of struggles. His friends always delighted in keeping him company while he painted, and on one such day during his school years, he was put to jail on account of a simple misunderstanding. A pond by the local police station in Islampur had water as clear as crystal, and the wonderful reflection of a coconut tree on it had caught the artist’s eye. As he sat down to sketch it out, the crowd around him got the police’s attention, and they took him in with claims that he was mapping out the station planning for an attack later. They mistook him for members of some political party, and put him in a holding cell for seven hours, until his school’s head teacher, the college’s principal, and some local political leaders had to come together to finally be able to bail him out late in the night. For the next forty days he had to be present at the station every morning as proof that he had not fled town. 

On the brighter side, more people had now found out about him and his sketches!

His next obstacle was being rejected during the oral interview of the admission test at the Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka. He began studying in Rajshahi instead, only to return to Charukola just nine months later, in spite of the year he had lost. He began living with a senior acquaintance from Islampur who saw his drawings and mentioned that he needed to not only draw people but also nature. Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash was never again seen without his sketchbook, drawing everything he could see around him!

Bangabandhu and Bikash

Shahjahan Ahmed achieved First Class results in his Masters of Fine Arts from the Drawing and Painting Department of Dhaka University’s Faculty of Fine Art. By this time he had already gained popularity for portraiture, especially light painting.

Bangabandhu was always this artist’s favorite subject. His interest had come about from garnering immense admiration for Bangabandhu when he was growing up, mostly from his family. It was also because of the political time they were in, and because Jamalpur was the birthplace of Liberation War hero Khaled Mosharraf, Bir Uttom. For a while there, Shahjahan was involved in student politics as well.  All things put together, love and respect for the late Father of the Nation was strong and widely prevalent in Islampur at the time. 

“I think Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman makes for a great subject to sketch, because of his bold personality and how he always had that contemplative look on his face,” comments Shahjahan Ahmed.  He has done almost 800 portraits of Bangabandhu by now, always successfully bringing to life the visionary leader’s curious eyes and indomitable spirit through his focus on details. When asked about his method, Shahjahan says he draws from research on photos and videos, and from his own strong belief in all that Bangabandhu has taught. Shahjahan Ahmed forever remains inspired from sacrifices made by the architect of our independence.

In 2012, Shahjahan Ahmed did a solo exhibition at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy (BSA) featuring over 40 artworks both on paper and canvas highlighting the life and work of Bangabandhu, where he had invited our Honorable Prime Minister through a letter. She responded by showing interest in not only inaugurating the exhibition but also arranging it a second time inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs later. He has also received the Bangabandhu Sorno Podok twice from these exhibitions. “These have been some of the biggest recognitions of my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a lot of good opportunities to paint Bangabandhu. A large portrait of him I did some twenty years ago still remains placed beside his grave in Tungipara. It’s not about who drew them – what I rather like is the fact that these paintings are coming of use everywhere,” humbly adds the artist. Another of his paintings in fact hangs in the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s official residence in Dhaka. 

This year, he plans to complete a 100ft scroll painting on his own. 

Only two famous painters have done scroll paintings in Bangladesh – Zainul Abedin and S. M. Sultan – and the biggest one was 68ft. Scroll paintings as huge as 100ft have only been done by groups of artists. “And it is fitting that on the 100th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation, the one because of whom we have our freedom to do anything we want today, that the scroll painting be of him. Because the most number of portraits of Bangabandhu have been done by me, I have found the strength to take this bold decision,” Shahjahan Ahmed comments.  

He prepared his canvas on the 7th of March – which was custom made all the way in Kashmir – and started work on the 17th, and hopes to finish the painting by the 15th of August. Similar to the route Bangabandhu had taken after his release from being jailed in Pakistan in 1972, Shahjahan Ahmed will exhibit his 100ft scroll painting first in London, followed by Delhi, and finally Bangladesh.

An Artist for All

Shahjahan Ahmed recalls his third grade science diagram when asked about how he got into sketching portraits of people, and mentions that he’s always had this soft spot. Another particular portrait that has made him famous besides the ones of Bangabandhu was his sketch of Salam, a name very well known in the list of the martyrs of our Language Movement.

The picture of his that is currently used everywhere was sketched by Shahjahan Ahmed, at an art camp organized by a group of portraiture artists back in 2000. The late hero’s younger siblings were brought in to describe how he looked, and to verify that Shahjahan’s sketch indeed looked the most real out of all the others who had attempted to draw him as well. The original sketch has been kept for preservation at the National Museum. “I consider this to be one of my most memorable and important works worth mentioning. While I haven’t seen the rebellion of 1952, or been able to participate in the 1971 Liberation War because of my age, I did sketch this image right – and that makes me feel like I am giving back something to my country,” Shahjahan Ahmed gets emotional.

Following this incident, a man from New York approached Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash and requested the artist to sketch his mother from description, as he had never seen her and had no photos. He studied the man’s picture, and that of his maternal aunt’s, and upon completion their family members verified that he had done a great job. Ironically enough, Shahjahan Ahmed has failed multiple times at trying to paint his own mother, who he lost at only one and a half years old, and has no pictures of.

Shahjahan Ahmed’s biggest inspiration in the world of art is Bangladesh’s famous painter, Zainul Abedin. He also mentions being a fan of the works of artist Sheikh Afzal, and the “Master of Water Color” Alakesh Ghosh. 

But can you make an artist? To that Shahjahan Ahmed replies, “No institution can make an artist. It is a sense that comes about itself. But what we can do is create an atmosphere through which the journey of becoming an artist itself will lead the path for a person. And an artist must observe! The more you see, the more you feel, and the more you can express through your art.”

Shahjahan Ahmed was the one who initiated the trend of live sketching at the Ekushey Boi Mela. This was right after he had completed his Bachelors in Fine Arts, and had just gotten married. “I used to believe I could make anyone look beautiful through my paintings, and my earning from it was 100 taka for every 15 minutes. I’d bring home my daily earnings and my wife would go buy fish for dinner from Hatirpool with that money – it was a unique experience; a different kind of satisfaction to be supporting a family on my own. While I may be living better now, nothing tastes as good as the hilsas from those simpler days!” he smiles in nostalgia, and says that such real experiences are also important to become an artist.

Shahjahan, the Professor

When asked about aspiring artists, Shahjahan Ahmed talks about how different things used to be. “When we were students, besides studying and making something of ourselves, we felt we also had some social responsibilities. We felt liable for what happened around us, and always thought there were more that could be done for society,” he says. But the arrival of cell phones and the internet has made the current generation more self-centered according to him.

“We were dreamers. These days kids have forgotten to dream!” he adds woefully.

Additionally, while in the context of Bangladesh it is perhaps not yet a common scene that an artist solely survives livelihood on his art, that too with respect, Shahjahan Ahmed does not give up hope just yet. “A lot more areas where art can be practiced have been created. No one should shy away from taking the chance to be an artist” is his advice.

He can comment on this with pride because of his students. Another identity of Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash is as a Professor, and the Chairman of Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Development Alternative (UODA).  In 2003, UODA started the trend of annually painting on Manik Mia Avenue, in memory of the lives lost during March 25th, 1971. It is the longest painting on any road, painted by the students and teachers of not only the Faculty of Fine Arts of UODA but also that of other institutions as well. Many of Bangladesh’s renowned artists join too, and through this initiative, UODA has collected over four hundred pieces of artwork by them representing the night of the heinous massacre.

“As institutions, we may never know if a person will become an artist or a poet for sure, but the least we can do is try and make him a good person; a cultured and ideal member of the society,” Shahjahan Ahmed Bikash beams with optimism.