Brief Life History of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin was a twentieth-century artist who won a first-class degree in art from Kolkata and studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London.

He was particularly moved by famine senses in 1943, which he recorded. He was awarded the title ‘Shilpacharya’ in 1967.

More interested in drawing than studies!

Zainul Abedin was an artist of exceptional talent and international fame. He was born in Kishoreganj, Mymensingh, on 29 December 1914. He was admitted to the Government School of Art in Kolkata in 1933 and graduated with a first-class degree in 1938. After graduation, he joined the same institution as a teacher.

As a young boy, Zainul was more interested in drawing than his studies. He would draw pictures in his textbook during lessons. He was greatly inspired by the river Brahmaputra and the surrounding countryside.

This is reflected in a series of his watercolor drawings that pay tribute to the river Brahmaputra. He earned the Governor’s Gold Medal in 1938 for these paintings in an all-India exhibition.

The Great Famine of Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin

In 1943 the Great Bengal Famine killed about three million people. Zainul Abedin Was touched by the devastation of the Famine which was caused by the colonial policies and other reasons during World War II and drew a series of sketches depicting the misery.

Though Zainul had little material help to offer to the starving, helpless people, he paid his greatest tribute to the famine victims through his famous famine sketches. He drew the sketches on cheap, brown packing paper with Chinese ink and a flat brush used in an oil painting.

This was Zainul’s way of showing the world what the starving and dying Bengal people were going through.

Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin

The move to Dhaka and a new institute

After the partition of India in 1947, Zainul left Kolkata, came to Pakistan, and settled in Dhaka. He joined a school as a drawing teacher. At that time there was very little artistic activity in East Pakistan. He, along with some friends, tried to convince the government to start an art institute.

He was given the responsibility of establishing the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts in Dhaka. It started on 30 September 1948 in two rooms of the National Medical School.

It was the first art school in East Pakistan and he was made the Principal-designate of the Institute. Eventually, this institute grew in reputation and size to be known as the Institute of Fine Arts.

The Great Master of the Arts

In 1951, Zainul attended the Slade School of Art in London, for a two-year training program. In 1959, his contributions were recognized by the highest award for creative artists from the Government of Pakistan, Hilal-i-Imtiaz.

He denounced the title in 1971 during the War of Liberation. He was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. degree by the University of Delhi in 1974. He was also a Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at Peshawar University in 1965 and in Dhaka in 1973. He was appointed a National Professor of Bangladesh in 1974.

Zainul retired from the post of Principal of the Government Art College in 1967 and devoted himself to painting. He was given the title, Shilpacharya, the Great Master of the Arts, in the same years for his artistic and visionary qualities.


In 1970, he organized the Nabanna festival at the Shilpakala Academy. He drew a 65-feet long and 6 feet wide scroll called Nabanna (in Chinese ink, watercolor, and wax), in celebration of the mass movement of 1969, in which he depicted the story of rural Bangladesh in phases.

He started it with the abundance of golden Bengal when people were happy and in peace and went on to show how the same Bengal became impoverished under colonial rule and the Pakistan regime and finally reached a pitiable state of poverty.

In the same year, Zainul painted another scroll, the 30 feet long and 6 feet wide Manpura, named after an island in the Bay of Bengal. This black ink drawing over wax outlines depicted the devastation of the terrible cyclone of 1970.

Illustrating the constitution

Soon after the liberation of Bangladesh, Zainul was invited by the Government to illustrate the Constitution of Bangladesh which he did along with three other artists. They used folk art and designs from Nakshi Kantha, the famous embroidered quilts made by rural women of Bangladesh.


In 1975, a year before his death, Zainul Abedin set up the Folk Art Museum at Sonargaon and the Shilpacharya Zainul Sangrahashala, a gallery of his own works in Mymensingh. The Folk Art Museum was set up to preserve the rich but dying folk art of Bangladesh.


One of the characteristics of Zainul Abedin’s paintings is the black line. He has made use of the line in many of his sketches including the Famine Sketches. He has painted in a wide variety of styles.

After his return from Slade School of Art, he began to draw in a new Bengali style where folk forms with their geometric, sometimes semi-abstract representations, the use of primary colors, and lack of perspective were prominent features.

Some of his well-known paintings are Dumka (watercolor 1951), sandals: Return (Watercolour 1951), and The rebel Crow (Watercolour 1951). Two Women(gouache 1953), Painna’s Mother(gouache 1953), and Face (oil painting 1971).

His last days

Zainul Abedin died of cancer on 28 May 1976. He drew his last painting, Two Faces, while he was lying sick at the PG Hospital just before he died.

He was buried on the campus of Dhaka University, beside the Dhaka University mosque, with access from the Institute of Fine Arts which he had founded.

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