Spread across 330 acres, Rashtrapati Bhavan is one of the largest presidential estates in the world. For the last few years, a section of it has been transformed into an artist’s studio. Since 2013, when President Pranab Mukherjee announced two in-residence programmes for writers and artists, Rashtrapati Bhavan has played host to senior artists like Jogen Chowdhary, Paresh Maity and Jayasri Burman.
On 18 February, Bangladesh-born Shahabuddin Ahmed became the first foreign artist-in-residence. Mukherjee had seen his paintings at an exhibition at the Ganges Art Gallery in Kolkata in 2015.
“The idea (behind the programmes) was to enable the creative mind to soak in the environment and be spurred by it,” says Venu Rajamony, press secretary, Rashtrapati Bhavan. There is no pressure on the artists to create new works while they are there. “The residency is not measured by any performance,” explains Rajamony. So, if Maity painted up a storm during his time there, Ahmed simply soaked in the natural environs in February.
Ahmed used to be a Mukti Joddha, a platoon commander who, at the age of 21, fought in the war for the liberation of Bangladesh. On 16 December 1971, he hoisted the Bangladesh flag on the Dhaka Radio office (then, Pakistan Radio). However, rather than working on the theme of pain and suffering caused by war, as one might expect, Paris-based Ahmed chooses to paint the colours of liberation and peace. The images of jubilation following the liberation of Bangladesh are still fresh in his memory. Which is why, he says, his visual language is optimistic, not morbid.
“One day, I wish that there would be no frontiers within the Indian subcontinent, just like there are none in Europe, especially since the ideas of non-violence and peace started with us,” he says. Images of Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman recur in his works—some of them were displayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan towards the end of his five-day residency.