unexpected visitors: novera ahmed and hamidur rahman
 
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- by aminul islam
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aminul islam (1931-2011), one of the foremost of artists of bangladesh, in september of 1953 departed by steamer from dhaka (then dacca) for florence, italy. he had been awarded a three-year scholarship by the italian government to study at the city’s accademia di belle arti (academy of fine arts), one of the most prestigious and oldest such institutions in the world. he reached italy in late september and after a short stay in rome, reached florence in october 1953. this translated excerpt recounts the unexpected arrival of two visitors shortly thereafter. they were hamidur rahman (1928-1988) and sculptress novera ahmed (1938-2015) – later to become two of the most famous names in bangladesh art history. after years of study and training in the fine arts in london, paris and florence in the early 1950s, they came back to the-then east pakistan. the two collaborated in conceptualizing and designing the most iconic of public memorials in bangladesh, the shaheed minar in dhaka, built in memory of the 1952 martyrs of the language movement.
hamidur rahman continued to live and work in bangladesh, with teaching positions at various art institutions abroad. novera, however, in the early 1960s went back to paris and never came back to either the old east pakistan, or to the later independent bangladesh. she died in 2015 in paris and is buried there.

i stayed ten or twelve days in rome, at the end of which i boarded the train for florence. once there i headed straight for the villa fabricotti1, the academy’s international hostel. i was allotted a small room on the second floor. the director of the hostel was dr branco, an elderly man of great charm and exuberance who knew many languages. students from a number of countries of the world resided at the hostel. most of them were studying various subjects, and were on italian government scholarships and stipends. a number of them were studying art and architecture…

the majority of the hostel’s residents, both the men and the women, were the more senior and long-term students. the most striking were the somali students—somalia at one time had been an italian colony. there were also many students from various countries of south america as well as students from spain, the middle-east and the usa. in the room next to mine was someone from el salvador, a student of sculpture. he had come for higher studies at the academy and was enrolled in the sculpture department. his name was emanuel and since his name rhymed with mine, we became friends on that basis. i had a long-standing interest in sculpture. that interest led, within a short time, to introductions with students of sculpture from brazil and colombia, and also getting to know the other students of that department. it was through them that later on that i developed a lasting friendship with the colombian sculptor fernando botera2, who at that time was a student in the fresco department.

every saturday at our hostel there would be a dance party—complete with food and drinks. the organizing spirit behind it was a syrian medical student named solaiman. his right-hand man was also a medical student, a christian from palestine named abraham. though their mother tongue was arabic yet they would carry on their continuous chatter in english and italian. they had been in florence for quite a few years and, judging by their manners and expensive clothes, it was evident that they did not lack for money. at these weekly parties, many other foreign students residing in florence would join us, most of them americans. every saturday the party would kick off with solaiman presenting a welcoming bouquet of flowers to the prettiest girl present there. i don’t know whether it was on seeing how shy and retiring i was, but from the very first solaiman became warm and friendly towards me. he began talking and conversing with me, and insisted on taking me to the parties. and i too would trail along, having no choice in the matter, but i never did learn how to dance. emanuel’s attempts to teach me, too, failed. i would attend these parties as a kind of observer, in an attempt to learn about european lifestyles and in the hope of making new friends.

in the first week of december at one of these parties solaiman’s dance partner was a eighteen-year-old american student named anna, beautiful as a flower. i can no longer recall her surname. even though she was an american, she was very shy, but according to the practice that had evolved she had to first dance with solaiman. once the dance was over she retreated to a corner and stood there, close to where i was standing. it is my guess that perhaps my shyness drew her to start a conversation with me—where was i from, what had i come to florence for, all the usual queries. she introduced herself, and said she had come to florence primarily to study italian language and culture. she also wanted to draw but time constraints for the time being meant she could attend drawing classes only sporadically. anna introduced me to a friend of hers who had come with her. both their families knew each other back in america and they had come to florence for the same purpose. they were staying together as paying guests with an italian family. during our conversation it transpired that the next evening they were going to see a famous opera and invited me to come along. we agreed to meet in front of the academy at 5:00 in the afternoon; they were going to purchase my ticket in the morning.

the next day i was waiting at the agreed-upon spot and both of them turned up at exactly 5:00. since the opera was to start at 6:00, we had plenty of time to spare. as they had bought the ticket for me i thought it was only polite that i should invite them to have a cup of coffee at a little café alongside the academy. when the bill came, i reached for it with an outstretched hand but they stopped me and said “no, no, not at all, we all go dutch,”—i.e. everybody pays for their own coffee. indeed, they proceeded to calculate the individual sums and told me how much i should pay. they also informed me how much i would have to pay for my opera ticket. this was the first time i heard the word “dutch”, from these two american girls i had come to be acquainted with. a lot of photos had been taken with a camera at the party last night, and in the morning i had gotten a photo of me and anna standing together talking. since the photo had come out well i had made a copy and brought it along to give to her. she wouldn’t take it, absolutely refused to, without paying for it, even though i invoked our bengali culture, that to give something to a friend and take payment for it was considered highly rude. i remember that i sent a copy of that photo to murtaza bashir3.

after getting my bearings in florence i had written, giving full details, to hamid at his london address. around mid-december he replied with a very long letter, writing that for quite some time he had been thinking about going to italy, that florence was the city of his dreams and certainly of all artists. i felt very happy on getting hamid’s letter, since after so many years i would get to meet my friend again. i wrote back to say that i would be waiting for him and to let me know when he would be coming, but received no reply. in the meantime the academy had closed down for the christmas and new year’s holidays. many of the people i had come to know left to go to rome, milan, venice, to tour and see italy. one prime reason, of course, was to visit the famous art galleries and museums in those cities. to see firsthand the different regions of italy and to witness for themselves how their inhabitants lived. to savor italian life up-close. though i wished i could do the same, the lack of funds kept me in florence, where every day i would go out to explore the city, to walk around the lesser-known neighborhoods and streets. at this time i also did some sketches. one sunny morning i was warming myself on the verandah and wondering about which direction to head off today, when one of our newest arrivals, a spanish artist and somebody i barely knew, approached me. he said, “come, let me do a portrait study of you.” once i had agreed, he brought out paper, chinese ink and brush and within a short time had completed the work. it was truly a beautiful work and when i asked if i could have it, he gave it to me in a display of warm friendship. alberto garcia was his name. alberto did not stay in florence for very long since he wanted to travel all over italy to look at the famous murals and frescoes as well as study mosaic. a huge party was held on christmas night and on new year’s eve—there was plenty of food and drink and dancing, with the merriment going on till 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. on christmas night i went around to various churches with glad tidings in my heart.

it was bitterly cold from the end of december. after evening a heavy fog lay over everything and one did not feel like going out. on top of it, i didn’t have an overcoat; i hadn’t had the money to buy one. by the 2nd and 3rd of january, those who had left the hostel over the holidays began to trickle back. the academy too had re-opened. it was one january evening that i sat at the dinner table with my architect friend emanuel listening to his account of his stay in rome, especially of his new year’s eve night. going out from his hotel to various bars and pubs emanuel had ended up near the piazza spana. there it occurred to him that he should pay a visit to a red light area, but had no idea where there was one, nor how to get there. by this time it was almost 11:00 pm. with a map of rome in his hand he duly approached a policeman, who, a small smile playing over his lips, listened to emanuel’s queries made in broken italian mixed in with some spanish. the policeman informed him about the nearest such area, marked it on the map and gave explicit directions on how to get there. i observed that latin americans were frank on such matters, and had no inhibitions as such.

it was around 9:00 p.m. when dr branco appeared before us and informed me that i had two guests who were waiting for me in his office. i was very surprised—who could be these guests of mine. i went to the office to see that it was hamidur rahman, and with him was a young lady wrapped up in a dark overcoat. only her face could be seen. i embraced hamid in a rush of joy. hamid then introduced me to her, saying “her name is novera, a sculptor and my friend.” i, in turn, introduced novera to dr branco, and then quickly took hamidur rahman to the dining room to berate him soundly about turning up here out of the blue without any sort of advance warning. and especially about bringing novera this late at night. i had also begun to think about what arrangements could be made. hamid, though, remained calm throughout my scolding, a small smile playing on his lips and with a general couldn’t-care-less air about him. i saw that this was a changed hamid. he had grown up in a respectable, well-to-do household in old dhaka, and had never faced any sort of adversity or want. his life of ease and leisure then could be seen plainly on his face, but the hamid that i was seeing in front of me showed no such traces of ease and luxury. there was a certain hardness in his eyes and face, evidence that for long years he had waged a grim struggle with poverty and want.
he said, “don’t worry. surely we can come up with some arrangement. we have had our dinner at the railway station. if only you can manage some sort of a room for the night, but if it isn’t possible to stay here, we can go to a pensione, if there is one nearby. ” then he added, “looks like you are living like a king in this huge palace. how much scholarship money are you getting?”

upon returning to dr. branco’s office i told him, “they are my cousins. they have come from london. both of them are artists—is there possibly any way for them to stay here?” dr. branco said, “you know that it is impossible to stay unless there has been a minimum of a month’s advance notice. there’s not even a bit of free space. everything’s occupied. but, though the rules are against it, your friend can double up in your room and stay there for a couple of days. as for the lady, you can ask our caretaker whether there’s any possible way he can accommodate her. he does have a very small room for just such emergency visitors. if you guys are lucky, you might get it. if that’s not available, i can call a few places nearby and see if we can manage something.”

leaving novera sitting in the office i and hamid ventured out of the hostel, shivering and trembling in the bitter cold, to the small house by the main gate. there we told our problem to the caretaker. luckily, the small room was available. i was overjoyed on hearing this. the rent per night was 600 lira, breakfast not included, which was an additional 150-200 lira depending on what was served. we agreed to the terms, and after asking him to clean up the room, returned to dr branco and thanked him profusely. the old caretaker, on seeing novera, greeted her warmly, and in an unending stream of italian began to extol her beauty. he even made coffee for us. almost all italians, specially the older males, have a habit of talking unceasingly about beautiful women, to praise female loveliness.

we two went back to my room and spent almost the entire night in conversation. hamid enquired about the art world in dhaka (then dacca), and i asked about the same in london, about the various art movements and trends. that very night we decided that we could not stay here in such luxury. we would search for a small apartment, and also, if possible, a small artist’s studio since we would need a work space, especially for novera.
“who is going to cook every day?” i said. “that is a huge problem since i have classes in the mornings and evening. there is no way i can do it.”

hamid laughed. “leave that to me,” he said. “these last two years, i have learnt it all. you only get 35,000 lira as a stipend, and have to fork out 30,000 every month as rent in this palatial hostel. how can you afford the cost of painting? also, doing some extra work would bring in some more money, like they do in london? you give me 25,000 lira every month and sit back and see how i take care of everything.”

it seemed to me that before coming here, when they were in london, they had informed themselves quite adequately from italian friends about living conditions here. i was very pleased with his proposal. i had grown somewhat weary of the hostel, of its organized and over-regulated life. we decided that the next morning we would embark on a search to see if we could find a flat near the academy that had at least two rooms and kitchen facilities.

we were late in getting up the next morning; we two had hardly slept the entire night. we had a hurried breakfast and raced to the lounge, where we gathered all the newspapers and began to scan the to let ads. we laid out a map of florence in front of us in order to have some rough idea about where the houses would located. a few of the advertisements did not have addresses, only telephone numbers. be that as it may, we found five or six that were near the academy. i had gone previously with a couple of friends to an art gallery called the numero, located in a neighborhood where mostly artists lodged, called the via degli artisti. there were a lot of studios around there owned by individuals. one could also occasionally rent them, but those prices were out of reach for students like us and were very rarely vacant. no studio went for less than 20-25,000 lira. on top of that, during winter the kindling for the fire to be lit all day and night would cost more, at least an extra 5-7000 lira. after hearing me out on this issue, hamid quietened down on the matter of renting a studio. he, however, still said, “well, what harm is there in at least asking about them?” we wrote down the addresses of a few houses from the to let ads and then went over to novera to apprise her about our plans for the morning. by this time, she was also done with her breakfast. on hearing our plan she said that she was also going to come along with us, to which hamid said, “we will have to walk around a lot and you are still very tired. why don’t you rest for the morning session? after we are back and have had lunch, you can accompany us when we look for other places nearby in the afternoon?” though at first she put up some objections to this proposal, she eventually gave in to it.

on stepping out of the hostel hamid said, “why don’t we go to the artists’ neighborhood first. we can see what’s there and then go to other places.” we took the tram to piazza donatello, and from there walked the rest of the way to via degli artisti. there, we were wondering whom to ask about studios for rent when suddenly i thought of fredi. he was an israeli artist and print-maker who lived here. though i had never been to his studio, i knew that he lived next door to numero gallery. i wasn’t particularly close to him either, and had only seen him at work a couple of times in the print-making class. but self-interest is a great motivator, and after asking around we rang his doorbell and waited on the doorstep. upon opening his door he was astonished at seeing me. i introduced hamid, and then told him what we were after, to which he replied that finding a studio here was a matter of pure luck. “i have been here for five years,” he said. “an american lived for a year in the studio next to mine, but there’s been no sign of him these last two months. perhaps the winter and the cold has made him head for naples.” the studio, fredi informed us, was very large, but it was in poor condition. in the winter it would be very cold and while one could work in the studio, living there before march-april was out of the question. “but,” he said, “i can give you the landlord’s number and you can contact him. and i will also talk to him and meet you at the academy and tell you what the situation is.”

later, i came to know quite a few more jews and israelis, and every one of them were very friendly and never hesitated to help if they could. hamid also agreed with me on this score, having had the same experience in london.
after coming out of fredi’s studio, at hamid’s urging, we ducked inside a cafe and used the phone to call the landlord on the number that he had given us. it was hamid who, in english, actually talked with him. listening to the conversation, i understood that nothing was possible this month, though there was a possibility that the house would be vacant in the next month.

then we checked a few other houses from our address list. tired from all the house-hunting, we sat down in a corner of the square in front of florence’s famed church of santa maria novella (3), discussing what to do next. the rents of the houses we had seen were way above what we could afford, and one of them didn’t have any kitchen or cooking facilities. it was now almost 2:00 and on returning to the hostel we asked about novera from the caretaker at the gate. she had eaten her midday repast and was resting. hamid and i told her that she should get ready to head out with us in an hour’s time, after which we two headed for the dining room for lunch.

from translation-work-in-progress of bangladesher shilpa andoloner ponchash bochor (fifty years of bangladesh’s fine art revolution),
1947-1956; dhaka: shilpakala academy; 2003.

glossary
1. the villa with its picturesque surrounding park today is a landmark tourist site. it was built sometime before the 14th century, and was bought by the italian government in 1935. after the second world war, it was handed over to the florence city government, which presumably allowed the academy to use it as its international hostel. aminul islam, though, does not give us much detail about the historic villa, though it is clear from hamidur rahman’s remarks that it was a stunning locale for foreign students to reside.
2. fernando botero angulo (born 19 april 1932) is a figurative artist and sculptor from medellín, colombia, who is the most recognized living artist from latin america. his work is on displayed in cities such as new york and paris. his signature style, known as “boterismo”, depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated shapes, often representing political criticism or humor.
3. santa maria novella is florence’s principal church of the dominican order whose construction work lasted from 1246 to about 1360. architecturally is considered one of the most important of gothic-styled churches in tuscany.

 

translated by : khademul islam


 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
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