By Martin Bradley
Two years ago I had the great pleasure of being invited to stay in Dhaka, Bangladesh for three weeks, to work on a book about Bangladesh’s premiere female artist Farida Zaman. Since the publication of that book the government of Bangladesh has decorated Farida with one of Bangladesh’s highest honours (the Ekushey Padak), while the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy has also conferred the Sultan Swarna Padak (2020) on her.
During long days in Dhaka, Farida and I went over the wealth of material she has about her life in art. We pored over essays, gazing at copious photographs and slowly came to the realization that the only way I could truly comprehend her artworks was to visit the place where it all started, in the Chandpur area, south of Dhaka, where she and her family had lived, and where her parents are buried.
It was as if I were in a dream. I stood on the top deck of that Meghna River ferry with my new young friend Ibshar, Farida’s grandson. We allowed the cooling breezes to wash the day’s heat from us. He, the then ten-year-old Ibshar, had guided me up the steep narrow staircase from the crowded interior below. He had attached himself to me and took responsibility for me, partly at his mother’s bequestand partly because we had become friends. He and I escaped the madness below with the endless human chattering, mechanical grindings and scraping and young children running happily up and down narrow aisles, climbing over splayed legs, squealing with delight as the boat slowly headed towards the fishing port of Chandpur where Bangladesh’s Meghma and Padma rivers meet. This meeting eventuates with the Padma-Meghna-Jamuna Rivers forming a delta and drifting into the Bay of Bengal.
From the upper deck, Ibshar and I were able to I witness the width of the muddy river famed for Bangladesh’s national silvery ‘hilsha’ fish, the ones with the very sharp ‘Y’ shaped bones. We could see fellow vessels navigating up or down river, some obviously laden, riding low in the water while others seemed less encumbered. If we shaded our eyes against the sun we could glance distant banks of the muddy river as we passed. But the upper deck was becoming full. News of the breeze, or experience of previous voyages led families with young children to migrate there, spread themselves out, to take meals or sleep off the hours until the eventual scramble for docking.
In truth, I was being treated to a brief sojourn out of Dhaka, into Bangladesh’s southern green interior where lush green vegetation occasionally made way for rice (paddy) fields and large fish filled ponds. This journey was intended to give me some insight into Farida’s life when she was young, and at a time when she had first began to internalize the symbols and memes, which later became the basis of her most poignant paintings.
Back in Farida’s formative days Sachiakhali (Farida’s village) hand no roads leading to it. It was water bound. Accessed only by boat. Farida would sit at the prow of a boat, let her feet dangle into the water and witness huge fishing nets cast into the water. She could see the silvery flash of fish, white plumaged water birds darting and splashing and all the images she was later to reveal in her paintings. Some of those watery channels have since become roads, making access to her rural ‘home’ much easier for us pilgrims. Yet still many houses have their own fishponds, larger or smaller.
We were driven into the small city of Chandpur, famous for its hilsha fish market, and out into the more rural area, towards Sachiakhali. It wasn’t a long journey, but the sights and sounds were totally different again from Chandpur, from the river ferry and from Dhaka. There was a green peace seeping into that old car, with its wide open windows. As we arrived we were greeted like royalty and treated to cooking by the local chefs who had been hired for the purpose. I had to pinch myself. Is this still a dream. Is it all a dream, will I awaken in Kuala Lumpur having dreamt the caring and kindness of these relative strangers.
A little blurry, I was awoken the following morning still tented by mosquito netting.
After ablutions, we sauntered down to the side of a small lake (or large pond). We sat by that lakeside. On a table before us sat breakfast, conjured as if from nothing. Plates of fried unleavened bread (similar to puris), fresh from our village chef of the day, breakfast eggs and glasses of Indian style tea appeared as if by magic. Gradually a crowd of local men gathered, all wearing their chequered lungi (sarongs) and many were either bare-chested or wearing simple white singlets.
There was a commotion. I noticed a net in the lake. The men separated into two groups, one to either side of the lake at the far end, holding to their sides of the net. Slowly the men moved forward. I could see fish jump before the men as they inched forward, trying to escape the inevitable. The ends of the net were raised higher. The men walked. Closer and closer they came. By the time they had reached our side of the lake fish were milling, teeming in the net.
Large plastic barrels were arranged and fish scooped into them to be sold later. Some fish were put aside for that night’s feasting; while others were handed out to the families involved in the net trawl, as rewards. I was entirely captivated by the event. I was to learn later that it had been brought forward from their usual date, especially for me. It was all staged to help me comprehend the images of fish, nets and birds in Farida’s artworks.
Farida sat sketching. Watching and sketching, reliving her girlhood, her previous sketches and the paintings that are so connected to the place she was now at. It was a great privilege to be there with this remarkable artist, her family and in the village that holds so many memories for her. #
(Photos and text by Martin Bradley, a writer, artist, and teacher, born in the UK, and son of the East as well.)