top of page

Nobody Told Me There Would be Days Like These

Curated by Mustafa Zaman
Assistant Curator: Ruxmini Reckvana Q Choudhury

The 1980s was a decade during which art played an increasingly social-political role in Dhaka’s art scene. This defiant point of departure from ‘surface painting’, which saw its emergence in the 1960s, can be seen as a tectonic shift since this strain of artmaking continues to inform the discourses and debates across the cultural horizon in Bangladesh to this day. Artists sought detours and vocalised antagonistic positions primarily to dislodge art from its elite academic perch. Dehumanisation and storytelling became twin conduits for artists to formulate new strategies to articulate dissent. In artist-curated exhibitions, access to ideas and information on art and artists was supplied with the intention to edify the public. This ‘critical turn’ left its influence on many disciplines – it effected a change in how artists, poets, as well as theatre and film activists perceived the relationship between their works and society.

Thus, the 1980s witnessed a determined detour through reframing of the ‘social’ and invocation of the ‘political’.

New idioms were born out of the resistance movements waged against the longest-ruling military dictatorship in Bangladesh – the regime of the recently deceased general H.M. Ershad that lasted from 1981 to 1990. The dictator’s unscrupulous move to align with those who collaborated with the Pakistani army during the Liberation War in 1971, the pseudo-Islamic garb

that came with the emerging brand of populism he was responsible for, the opening up of the economy to global market forces, and rising corruption coupled with political repression provided the backdrop for the subsequent resistance movements leading to the final overthrow of the dictator in 1990.

To parse the developments of the 1980s, one can say that in the arts, it was the decade of radicalisation as interrogation won over introspection and action over passivity. It was an era of political resistance as well as cultural re-organisation. In the arts, this critical turn resulted out of the conviction that to topple the dictator one must spread antagonism in all spheres of life. After the fall of the dictator in 1990 – the fate of ‘democracy’ in Bangladesh became entangled with issues of corruption and flawed elections, and art and activism of the 1980s were carried over to subsequent decades to be reframed and re-organised to bear on various different goals.

As DAS mounts its fifth edition, in which a synergy of the newest samples of South Asian art provide fodder for the public eye/mind, ‘Nobody Told Me There Would be Days Like These’ maps the history of groups that laid the ground for art and theatre, film and literary

movements in the 1980s with the hope that we do not collectively renege on our promises made in favour of life. The exhibition’s title is a nod to a song from the same era by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, Quamrul Hassan (1921–1988) set a visual language into motion that sought to critique the emerging ruling elite of the early 1970s. Otherwise well-known for his pleasant depiction of rural life, Hassan, who belonged to the first generation of artists in East Bengal when Pakistan was formed, tackled what may be termed as the gentrification of urban society and the concomitant loss of social values. His political art, which articulated a critical voice by crowding his canvas with symbolic motifs where the dominant minority or alienated elite is represented in both human and animal form, was the first attempt in Bangladeshi art to instrumentalise ‘social fact’. Later in the 1980s, a group of young artists calling themselves ‘Shomoy’ emerged fresh out of art institutions. The group’s politically cast art once again brought storytelling to centre stage and sought to redefine narrative painting in South Asia. Shomoy, which literally translates to time, sought political salvation, hoping to end the military misrule which coloured life in Bangladesh in the 1980s. Their creative acts percolated into a critical analysis of their time, often reflecting the prevailing mass discontent, seeking to restore the ethos of the 1971 Liberation War. The members of Shomoy were Dhali Al Mamoon

(b. 1958), Wakilur Rahman (b. 1961), Habibur Rahman (b. 1958), Shishir Bhattacharjee (b. 1960), Nisar Hossain (b. 1960), Dilara Begum Jolly (b. 1960), Aziz Sharafi (b. 1956), Saidul Haque Juise (b. 1960), Ali Morshed Noton (b. 1958), Lala Rukh Selim (b. 1963), Tawfiqur Rahman (b. 1959).

Shomoy works lay at the intersection of many fields of emerging discourses and forms. The most active Shomoy members, including Shishir Bhattacharjee, Dilara Begum Jolly, Nisar Hossain, Dhali Al Mamun, and Wakilur Rahman also transported their creative energy to activities which lay beyond the scope of their respective disciplines. To understand the drift, one must take into account how the idea of dissent began to redefine cultural production of the era. 

The most active protagonists of theatre, cinema and poetry began to respond to the unfolding political events and the marketisation of the economy. Shomoy artists worked simultaneously through various themes and trajectories, utilising the power latent in little-noticed popular culture of South Asia.

They devised their own brand of social realism – a way to attend to the ‘here and now.’ The works of Shishir Bhattacharjee, Wakilur Rahman, and Nisar Hossain unveiled the decadence and dehumanisation of the era while throwing up sharp critiques of the dictatorial and imperial political scheme. Both Dilara Begum Jolly and Dhali Al Mamoon’s figurative motifs began to break down into mangled entities referring to what was rotting in society, while Nisar Hossain’s insect-like predators were set against a backdrop teeming with references to rickshaw paintings. The belief in secularism and democracy was of prime importance to the generation of artists

that came to maturity in the 1980s. Pitted against the destructive power unleashed through subsequent regimes, their conviction to create a secular social sphere fuelled their creativity, although the zeal for the ‘real’ assumed many different dimensions in theatre, cinema and even in poetry. If secular logic was the common thread to all this, artist’s voices often turned sarcastic while talking back to power.


Networks of knowledge also kept people in sync with one another although they were working from within their respective disciplines. Chetana, a platform that grew out of a study circle that was presided over by late architect Muzharul Islam (1923–2012), often hosted their programmes in the presence of poets and literary personalities as part of the group’s early advocacy for interdisciplinarity. The late poets Shamsur Rahman (1929–2006) and Belal Chowdhury (1938–2018) and late professor and educationist Kabir Chowdhury (1923–2011) attended Chetana’s inauguration event. The most important element of their activism was that they attempted to bring Bangladesh’s architecture and heritage into the conversation about modern architecture. Chetana saw the union of like-minded architects: Raziul Hassan, Nazmul Latif, Syed Azaz Rasul, Uttam Kumar Saha, Nahas Khalil, then architects working in different fields including teaching at the architecture department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, BUET, comprised the group. Saiful Haq (b. 1958), and Kazi Khaleed Ashraf (b. 1959), were members from the time they were fourth year students at BUET and are now established architects and researchers who continue to build on the ethos of Chetana.


Resistance took the most effective and potent form in the arena of the theatre. The most influential iconic theatre and literary personality Selim Al Deen (1949–2008), who initiated Dhaka Theatre, was also responsible for Gram Theatre (launched in 1983) and worked to extend urban theatre to the rural hinterland. Nasiruddin Yousuff Bacchu, an actor-director, played an important role in the creolisation of modern theatre by way of absorbing Al Deen’s ideals and activism. By the late 1980s, more than 150 theatre troupes were developed in villages across the country under Gram Theatre, although most ceased to be active over

the following years. These troupes lent momentum to a country-wide cultural regeneration and in spreading awareness among the masses about the slow erosion of society and politics under military rule. As a playwright and teacher, Selim Al Deen introduced what many refer to as ‘Epic Realism.’ His extensive study on Bengali popular theatre genre called ‘jatra’ coupled with his attempt in retracing the Hindu-Buddhist performance heritage led to his renowned drama ‘Kittankhola’, which is still considered a milestone in the modern theatre history

in Bangladesh.

Dhaka Theatre and Aranyak among other theatrical groups were instrumental in staging dramas that either harked back to the theme of the Liberation War and the repression of the Pakistan junta, or aimed to expose the anomalies of military dictatorship. Some groups even attempted to poke fun at the then military ruler. Theatrical performances served as a means to educate and open the eyes of the masses. ‘Payer Awaj Pawa Jay’ is a case in point. First staged by Dhaka Theatre in 1976, it was written by the late writer and poet Syed Shamsul Haq (1935– 2016) and was themed around the atrocities of the Pakistan army and the abuse of power by the village elite in the name of religion.


The Short Film Movement added a decisive layer to the cultural fabric woven since the early 1980s. Morshedul Islam and Tareque Masud debuted as young filmmakers in the 1980s and were part of a greater movement centred on the Bangladesh Short Film Forum. Formed in 1986 by a group of young independent filmmakers and activists inspired and mentored by Alamgir Kabir (1938–1989), the platform was created after years of activism and campaigning for creative and aesthetically pleasing cinema by collectives called film societies. When the forum came into being it featured some of the most notable young Bangladeshi film makers among its members at the time, including Morshedul Islam (b. 1957), Tanvir Mokammel (b. 1955), late

Tareque Masud (1956–2011), Enayet Karim Babul, Tareq Shahriar, Abu Sayeed (b. 1962), Shameem Akhtar, Manjare Hasin Murad, Yasmine Kabir, Nurul Alam Atique, Zahidur Rahim Anjan, N. Rashed Chowdhury, and Akram Khan.

The Forum, by way of a biennial and non-competitive International Short and Independent Film Festival, kept hope alive for independent filmmaking, beyond injecting the cultural scene with much-needed optimism in favour of cultural activism. The first festival was held in 1988 and was entirely dedicated to short films. The forum is still active and it continues to organise seminars and workshops on films and film festivals all over Bangladesh, in addition to holding

film shows and film-related events at their permanent venue at Bangladesh Film Centre in Shahbagh, Dhaka. Tareque Masud and Morshedul Islam played a decisive role in the development of Bangladeshi film, they made films that at once drew critical appreciation and public attention, the former for his documentaries and latter for his short-length films. ‘Adam Surat’, a documentary on the legendary artist S. M. Sultan by Tareque Masud, and ‘Chaka’

by Morshedul Islam were among the most influential films of the era, while Abu Sayeed, an early enthusiast of short-length film, later took to making feature films. Chaka carried over the idea of the ‘witness’, a theme that runs across many of his works, from the 1980s to the new millennium while Sayeed attempted to bring ‘Kittonkhola’, a popular stage play written by Selim Al Deen, to the silver screen in the year 2000.


The Little Mag movement was the veritable crucible of talents where writers and poets willing to break the mainstream circuit gathered. Working as a platform for literary aspirants who were willing to look beyond already explored territories, the alternative publications that gave it its shape also created space for artists and filmmakers to work in alignment with the cultural political goals of the time. Among many who played a catalytic role, poet Sajjad Sharif (b. 1963) was particularly active in threading the literary world with the world of art and film as he was behind some specific moments of convergence between members of the Shomoy group and the filmmaker Tareque Masud. Sajjad Sharif’s contributions can be traced to the early editions of the ‘Anindya’ (meaning one who lived eternally without blemish) and ‘Gandeeb’, or ‘Gandiva’ (the bow of Arjuna, the central character of the Mahabharata). Little magazines were selfpublished zines; the writers and poets involved took turns in generating funds for printing. Sometimes they were sponsored by literary enthusiasts. They were cheap and contained works of prose and poetry by emerging poets and writers. Although not directly involved with any little magazine, Ahmed Sofa (1943–2001) inspired many in the alternative literary circuit with his outspoken nature and intellectual honesty, including Salimullah Khan (b. 1958). While Sofa was stationed at Aziz Market, a place where these magazines were conceived and sold, he nurtured a new breed of young poets and writers. These were the literary creatives of the time who fought against conventional patterns of thought that then pervaded mainstream culture.

Among the little magazines that worked as nodal points through which artists, writers and poets made their presence heard, Anindya saw its beginnings in 1985 and Gandeeb had its start in 1987. Together they worked as an alternative platform where the possibility of cross-fertilisation first began to appear. The editors of the two of the most influential and long lasting alternative magazines (both are in circulation now) were respectively Habib Wahid (b. 1962) and Tapan Barua (b. 1956). Of the emerging renegades who helped develop their reputation, some became part of the mainstream at a later date.

bottom of page