The Shaheed Minar, established in 1956 to commemorate the martyrs of the Bengali Language Movement, is one of the ultimate emblems of Bangladeshi patriotism. The iconic design of the half-circular arrangement of columns, symbolizing the mother with her fallen sons, standing on the monument's central dais, backed by a blazing red sun, has become synonymous with the Bangladeshi spirit of nationalism, courage, language and cultural progress. The Shaheed Minar is a homage to the martyrs we fondly remember; a tribute to what their valor has accomplished which will be remembered for years to come. However, few know about the history of the monument itself and the brains behind the architecture.
The first Shaheed Minar was built immediately after the bloodshed on February 21 and 22, 1952 by the students of Dhaka Medical College. It was soon demolished on February 26 by the police and Pakistani Army as the monument was rapidly becoming a symbol of protests. Finally, in 1957, after many complications, the construction of the official Shaheed Minar began under the supervision of celebrated sculptor, Hamidur Rahman. However, the fact that the original designs and conception of the monument was by a female sculptor, a pioneer in her field, is often quickly glossed over.
Novera Ahmed has had immense contributions in the creation of Shaheed Minar. While the bulk of the acknowledgment went to Hamidur Rahman, not many know of Novera’s major role in the culmination of one of our nation’s most iconic monuments. Hence, she’s led a life of anonymity, hardly receiving any credit for her efforts. A gifted sculptor, she had worked on about a 100 sculptures in Dhaka within a short period of time. Many of these, unfortunately, have fallen into disuse while some are on display in Bangladesh National Museum.
Novera Ahmed, the first modern sculptor of Bangladesh, was born in 1930 in Kolkata. After the Partition in 1947, her father was posted in Comilla, and she got admitted in the Comilla Victoria College. Later, they started living in Chittagong. Her marriage to a police officer soon fell apart and she began pursuing her interests in the fine arts. In 1950, Novera enrolled in the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London where she made the acquaintance of Hamidur Rahman. Under the tutelage of the likes of Karel Vogel, Jacob Epstein and VenturinoVenturi, she achieved a fusion of knowledge and art and enriched her understanding of the avant-garde.
Her artistic might was finally demonstrated in the Dhaka art scene upon her return in 1955. She hinged her practice upon monolithic sculptural tropes, with her Western modernism dispersed in its many facets. However, her works also demonstrated subconsciously internalized cultural heritage. This showed her alignment with the European modern diction but rooted it in the structural models inherent in our culture by using tropes or motifs from our own locale. A common theme for Novera has been “womanhood” or “motherhood”. This theme appeared again in her design of the Shaheed Minar where the arrangement of columns exhibited the loss of a mother in her martyred sons.
The remaining of Novera’s life following 1960 remains shrouded in mystery. Myths began circulating around her persona among the artistic circle including a speculation of her death in 1995. Her lifestyle was antagonistic to the then-prevailing social norms and sculpting was regarded as an inferior vocation in the milieu of social and cultural constraints of East Pakistan. She embraced a life of seclusion in Paris, Franceat a significant phase of her life, severing any contact with the thriving cultural environment of her homeland right before the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. More discussions were triggered when she turned down the prestigious Ekushey Padak in 1997 and chose to remain hidden from public view, cloistered in her exilic life abroad. It can be ventured that not receiving appreciation or any recognition from her contemporary artists at the time and the restrains in following an innovative art form in a prohibitive social environment led her to choose an exiled life. She died on May 5, 2015 in Paris at the age of 85.
Despite having been the brains behind the iconic Shaheed Minar and a trailblazer in the Bangladeshi art scene, it is quite startling that Novera Ahmed gained no accreditation among her peers. Her keen understanding of locational identity, coupled with the Western avant-garde makes her a pioneer in modern art as well as an abstract presence in the Bangladeshi art scene. Novera’s sculptural prowess and knowledge of the fine arts have long been neglected. It is now high time that artists of her caliber are given proper accreditation and her contributions are recognized.