Priyabhashini: a tribute to an icon of courage

Ferdousi Priyabhashini, she knew why caged birds sing. The grace, courage and simplicity with which she conducted her life left a legacy for the new generation, particularly for young women to draw inspiration from, writes Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin.

maa-RecoveredAn indomitable-fighting spirit, a woman, a survivor of unspeakable torture, an artist, and an inspiration – one Priyabhashini! Two eyes coated in pitch dark kohl, adorned in earthenware ornaments, a huge bindi (টিপ) on the forehead- each one different from the other, like they are art pieces on their own – this is sculptor Ferdousi Priyabhashini for us.

The strong woman that we have known comes with a story to tell. Born on February 14, 1947 in Khulna, she was the eldest of 11 siblings. Her maternal family was cultural minded, under their influence she grew an avid interest in recitation and music. Her childhood memories consist of winning numerous prizes in recitation, song performances, storytelling, what did she not had nailed? She had had the luck to be surrounded by some of the extraordinary intellectuals and cultural minds of that time, poet Sufia Kamal, artist SM Sultan, professor Dr. Khan Sarwar Murshid, educationist Zillur Rahman Siddiqui were some of them. These people inspired the artist in her.

At a very young age, she had to take charge of her family. She took a job at the front desk of a jute mill at a rather young age. She hoped in midst of the struggle, her husband would appreciate the artist in her. However, it was an unhappy marriage that ended in 1971 when Priyabhashini was a mother of three sons.

The struggle of her life took a new turn, a bed of thorns indeed. Being separated from her husband, Priyabhashini was planning on starting her life afresh even during the brutality of the war. Right at that time, misfortune blessed her in plenty. The society did not accept a divorcee woman. As she had to provide for her three sons, having no other options, she couldn’t discontinue her job at the jute mill, and she was confined there during the war. The officials of that mill used to bring the Pakistani army members in the mill and handover the women employees to them. On October 28, 1971, Priyabhashini was brought to a concentration camp, just like the lacs of women warriors of ’71, she too, was raped and tortured by the Pakistani army. The physical torture was not where they wanted to stop, towards the end of the war, they wanted to kill her, out of sheer luck, this freedom fighter survived.

13576831_997617303624993_7275945212869115426_oThe hideous calamities of her life so far, could do anything but stop her from thriving more as a fighting spirit. She did start her life afresh, married her long term friend Ahsan Ullah Ahmed who would become the partner for the rest of her life. The couple later had three daughters, however, Mr. Ahmed became a father to all of her six children.

Things started to fall into places. But the reality of her life, the depression and melancholia that accompanied her from there on, kept on torturing her peace of mind. Her artworks always had the themes of revolutions, the tyranny of the evil opponents of our freedom. She showcased her understanding of art from the deep-rooted indifference that she received from the society. Depression could never get the better of her, she kept busy in constructive activities and practicing her art. She created art from waste materials – thrown away distorted trees with holes in them, old and trash tree branches, worm-eaten tree trunks, roots, creepers, burnt timbers, moss covered bamboos, banyan creepers, abandoned cooking pots, metal pieces et cetera became the means for her to express life as she saw it. Dead trees would get a new life in the form of a sculpture in Priyabhashini’s hands. She had a unique quality of finding talents of an art work in any defunct material, she could see similarities of human or animal forms in them. Her passion was to create something new from the old and abandoned. At the first glance, even if they look like a forest in ruins, with a careful second look, the life form becomes obvious to people, even to the untrained eyes to appreciate art can deduct some meaning out of her art works.

Ferdousi Sculpting 2Giving a touch of life in the dead, turning the worthless into something valuable and presenting those before us was the work that fulfilled her. Putting up a piece of nature on the walls of a house, a bridechamber, a dining room or a terrace, these bear the evidence of her artistic talent. Like any artist, she had her own style to speak through her art, she looked for beauty in mother earth and in the indifference of people, and she let us see the same through her rather unusual art form.

Putting institutional training apart, she was a true traveler and a sculptor of nature, most importantly a sculptor of human feelings, she never counted her achievements out of her work but always tried hard. Whether she wanted it or not, in 1991, she got a huge recognition from Charupith in Jessore as they arranged her first exhibition in the Jessore Institute Library. Eminent artist SM Sultan inaugurated Priyabhashini’s first exhibition. Sultan showered her works with compliments. That was the start, the exhibition in 1991 was followed by numerous other ones. The efforts she put into bringing out the plight of a housewife can easily become the inspiration for other women.

In the latter days, Priyabhashini’s works and her easy-going humble nature brought her in touch with many youths and young aspiring artists. She inspired them to the fullest, taught them to think constructively about life, artist Soma Surovi Jannat was one of them. Another of her followers, Samiran Datta, found it interesting as she once commented, ‘nothing should be thrown out’. He got to meet her through one of his professors and immediately became fascinated by her personality, their bond lasted till Priyabhashini’s last breathe.

The motherly, kind-hearted, down to earth Priyabhashini was a strict protester against the war criminals. She kept voicing her demand to bring the accused of committing crimes against humanity in the liberation war under trial since 1972. For that demand, she got out on the streets along with the mother of martyrs, Jahanara Imam. She bravely testified against the culprits at the international crimes tribunal. Not only that, she supported the 2013’s Ganajagoron Mancha and actively took part in all forms of protests with them. Imran H. Sarker remembers this mother figure with utmost respect, ‘Till her last breathe, she demanded the trial of war criminals. In 2013, even though she was critically ill, she was regularly present at Shahbagh to protest with us, she was just like a mother’s protection to us. Whenever we faced any difficulties, she would talk us through, we’ve drawn so much positive energy from this mighty woman.’

‘When I am dead, paint a Tip (bindi) on my forehead before you bury me’, such was her last wish, said her eldest son Karu Titash. A bindi on the forehead and vermilion on the hair-parting, traditionally the signs of a woman’s loss of virginity in our culture, are usually worn by married women. But this last wish was not practicable for religious and societal reasons. Her forehead was a canvas for her, the bindi, an artwork. Towards the last days of her life, we’ve seen her to wear big bindis. Extremists didn’t spare a little to criticise her for this. But this bindi, was never a part of ornamenting herself, rather it was a symbolic protest, it was her own language of protesting. Priyabhashini used to say, ‘The more powerful the anti-liberation forces shall get in my country, the bigger my Tip shall be.’

Thus was the revolutionary artist Ferdousi Priyabhashini for us, she was a freedom fighter, a sculptor, an undefeated warrior. On this historic month of March, this freedom fighter left us at the age of 71.


Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin is a young writer, artist and filmmaker.

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