One evening in the late fifties, the old Press Club in Topkhana road in Dhaka was abuzz with a good number of elites of the otherwise tranquil green city. The Press Club that day was hosting the debut art exhibition of a young artist named Murtaja Baseer. The programme would be inaugurated by the First Lady of Pakistan Begum Viqar-un-Nisa.
The lady was ready to inaugurate the programme, but the artist himself was missing. Some of the attendees then went out to look for him. They finally found him along with his artist friend Devdas Chakraborty, lying on the grass lawn—reflecting on the lighter side of life. As the people reminded him of the inauguration, he jumped up. He did not have his spectacles at that moment. So he took Devdas' glasses— although it did not quite match him.
He joined the inauguration. But by the time his turn came to speak, the young communist artist suddenly cracked up. Looking at the attendees, he spoke out: who are you people? Would you understand my work? I don't want to talk about my art here.
This was how Baseer started his first show, said artist Goutam Chakraborty — son of Devdas Chakraborty. Goutam grew up seeing his father's close friend Baseer grow old and Goutam had promoted and sold many of Baseer's work and thus he knows Baseer up close.
Baseer was one of the cultural icons of Bangladesh who shaped the spirit of the liberation war. He hung around with all renowned senior artists of the country and film personalities like Zahir Raihan, Khan Ataur Rahman and Alamgir Kabir. During the early filmmaking times in East Bengal that started with Mukh O Mukhosh in 1958, Baseer made a film named Nadi o Nari (The River and The Woman).
"They would hang out together and have arguments over politics and forge their opinions," says Goutam, "And you can see the reflection of their opinions in their work. And they have contributed to building our identity in 1971."
Being regarded as Bangladesh's "Master of Single Line Drawing '', Baseer has not always been great in his work. At least not to the eyes of pioneering artist Zainul Abedin. As his class teacher, Zainul gave Baseer's artwork of a hand 24 out of 50. Luckily, Baseer preserved his class work and Goutam put this drawing along with Zainul's note in an exhibition and it was collected by a buyer.
"Single line drawing is tricky," Goutam quoted Baseer as telling him one day, "For instance I am drawing your spectacles. It is very difficult to draw your eyes behind the glass with a single line."
Baseer's one of the most famous print works "Bloody 21st" was a portrayal of killings during the language movement in which he himself had participated.
Over the vast span of his career, Baseer made several art series worth looking at. These include "Wreckage"—that reflects wreckage in real life, "Epitaph", "Homage to martyrs" and "wall". The artist preferred to draw his themes from real materials. Epitaphs are paintings of many stones that he collected.
"He was a writer and he has several books to his credit. He was a researcher and his work on Habshi Sultan (Habshi dynasty) came out in Asiatic Society of Calcutta journal. He also researched on Terracotta temples of West Bengal for which he spent months on motorcycle touring rural west Bengal," says Goutam.
Baseer was an avid collector of coins and stamps and he has chronicled his life with news clippings in dozens of note books and diaries. These clippings include news published in the fifties, sixties or seventies. Goutam has digitized a good part of his clippings and diaries as they have a wealth of cultural information.
"He had always been supportive about my gallery that I launched in 2004. It's tough to run a gallery commercially in Bangladesh; and he had cautioned me from the beginning," Goutam said.
As Baseer's sole source of income after his retirement from Chittagong University in 1998 was selling art; he had developed a synergy with Goutam and his gallery. Thus, Goutam kept close track of him when he developed lung disease some five-six years ago.
Baseer needed extra oxygen as his body retained more carbon dioxide. He carried a portable oxygen cylinder when he would go out of his home. But his ailment did not rob him of his life force. He used to draw and paint regularly till two years back.
Following the death of his wife a couple of years back, Baseer's lung condition worsened and he frequented to hospitals to level up his body oxygen level. In recent times, he would require oxygen round the clock to survive.
"If I summarise what he stood for, I would say whatever project he had ever taken in his hand he did that seriously and smartly," Goutam notes.