Archive for the ‘Profiles’ Category


‘Even before I could speak, I was humming’

March 5, 2009

Celebrated singer and thespian Shimul Yousuff turned fifty this week. In a moving interview with Tahmina Shafique, she talks about her childhood and a death that will haunt her forever

photo by Al-Emrun Garjon

This week Shimul Yousuff, the stage performer, is celebrating her fiftieth birthday and a career that has spanned forty-five years. She is renowned for her versatility as an actress and singer, and is famed for her appearances in plays such as Binodini, Moner Kalindi, and Shukhoni and for her screen performances in Ekatturer Jishu, Agami and Ghuddi. However, despite her numerous successes and awards, she tells me that it was the death of her brother-in-law, the music composer Altaf Mahmood in the Liberation War, that stands out as the most abiding and powerful memory of her life.

Shimul was nine when Altaf married her sister, and he immediately became more like a father to her, as well as a guru and a close friend. She was present when he was caught and tortured by the Pakistani army in 1971 and the incident has shaped the rest of her life. Although she has been left with permanent scarring of the soul, it also gave her the impetus to move on and become what she is today.

‘I still remember the look in his eyes – he had so much to tell me,’ says Shimul, fighting back the tears. ‘I was standing there in front of him when they started punching him and slashing up his skin; he was covered in blood.

He looked straight at me – the look seemed to last forever – and his eyes commanded me to promise him so many things – to make the most of my talents, to look after the family, especially his daughter, and to be strong and resolute in whatever I chose to do. I felt numb and didn’t move because, somehow, I think I knew that it was the last time I would see him, and that I had to come to terms with it’. Her voice trails off and she remains silent for a while.

Perhaps this is what gave her the determination to get so much out of her own life, achieving enormous popularity for her singing, composing and acting. In fact, it would appear, as I sit down in a cosy corner of her Dhaka apartment, that the entire nation were paying tribute to her cultural contributions; the sprawling drawing room is filled with bouquets of flowers and cards.

The sunlight is streaming through the window making her eyes look even more exotic than usual. Her face seems to exude more and more confidence with age, and she is beautiful in the way strong women are. She talks to me, excitedly, of her childhood and of her versatile career that started at the age of five.

‘I have been told that I was a natural born singer. Even before I could speak I used to hum nonsense,’ she laughs. She was born into a family where music was a part of everything. ‘My father had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning.’ She and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood but when her father died, when Shimul was just four years old, everything changed.

The family suffered from severe financial problems. ‘I have known what it is like to be poor and I know the pains and struggles of growing up without a father,’ she says. There was no alternative but for two of her brothers to give up their education in order to work and support the family. ‘There were days when we could not even afford two meals, yet my mother’s determination that I continue my education and singing held firm, and she insisted that we keep my music teacher!’

In 1962, when Shimul was five, the radio programme Kochi Kachar Mela took notice of her recitals. ‘I was not formally involved, I was just one of the kids who were occasionally given the chance to sing at the end of the programme,’ she laughs. After a few recitals, Sufia Kamal encouraged her to participate in a live radio programme for children. ‘I couldn’t even read then so Sufia khala taught me, and I managed to do my job well.’

The following year, she was signed up as a singer with the radio programme and a year after that, she started singing on PTV. ‘I began to work harder and to contribute my income to my family,’ she recalls. ‘Although I was still only five, I understood the problems. As I was very close to my mother, I understood her pain and that probably made me grow up faster, and made me more understanding.’ However, it was a stressful job for a child of that age. ‘The worst bit was having to wake up when it

was my turn to sing or recite when all I

wanted to do was sleep,’ she smiles ruefully.

But her precocious talent gained her immense popularity and in 1965, she was awarded as the Best Child Singer in erstwhile combined Pakistan.

But everything leading up to her fourteenth birthday loses all significance in light of what happened on the night of August 30, 1971. The family was devastated when Altaf was killed. Remembered chiefly for composing the immortal song – Amar bhaier roktey rangano ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari as well as his overall contribution to the war of independence, he will always be held warmly in the hearts of Bangladeshis, but none more so than his wife’s younger sister, Shimul.

‘My five brothers had also been captured but they were released when Altaf told the army that no-one in his family had been involved in anything that he had done. But my brothers had seen him before he died on the balcony of the factory in which he was imprisoned. He was tied up and his hands and legs had been broken into pieces. They had slashed his entire body; not a part was left untouched. When the soldiers walked past him, they would stub out their cigarettes on his skin.’ It is almost as if reiterating – reliving – the gruesome details stops her from forgetting the brutality with which he was killed. ‘I have not spoken to a Pakistani since, or been associated with them in any way – and I never will.’

In the years that followed Shimul admits that she suffered a crisis of faith. ‘I couldn’t trust anyone and had it not been for the Dhaka theatre, I would never have carried on in this career. It was the only place where I felt understood. I found that everyone there had a tale like mine, and I suddenly realised that I belonged,’ she says. Although life at the theatre was a struggle, Shimul has fond memories of her time there. ‘We didn’t have the money to travel, so the whole group would go everywhere on foot and get by without eating. I remember, when the bhaiyas used to bring us food, we would devour it in seconds.’

It was also there that Shimul first met Nasir Uddin Yusuf, the now acclaimed film and theatre director and who, after she completed her sociology degree from Dhaka University, would become her husband. ‘Like everything else, I knew I was sure about him – I could not have married anyone else because he is probably the only person who really understands me.’

The couple have two daughters – Shaon and Esha. When I meet her, Shaon tells me that Esha, who is studying Film and Television at MediaCom in Thailand, had come all the way back to Dhaka to surprise their mother on her birthday. It is not until much later that Shaon tells me that she is, in fact, Altaf’s daughter. ‘I promised him I would take care of her,’ says Shimul softly.

As more and more visitors pour in to wish her happy birthday, our interview comes to an end. That evening Shimul is appearing in the show Binodini. ‘What better way to celebrate my fiftieth?’ she laughs.

Her stage presence is mesmerising and flawless and she seems to have even more energy and passion than ever. ‘Of course I want to continue my work; I still have so much to learn, and the fact that audiences today seem to prefer talent over mere celebrity is encouraging,’ she adds.


When silence speaks

March 4, 2009

Master of theatrical illusion, the internationally recognised mime artist Partha Pratim Mazumder speaks of his childhood, three decades of career and the ability to make differences through the art of silent gestures, in a rare interview with Tahmina Shafique

photo by Andrew Biraj

In the winter morning, as he walked through the narrow roads of Baghdhuli village, memories of his father flashed before his eyes, time and again. Having lived more than twenty-seven years abroad, these roads still look familiar and the air that he breathes remind him, that he is home.

‘My friend and I went to the interior village near Pansha and walked a great deal. At one point, we stopped by a tea stall where a man covered with a muffler looked on at me,’ he tells me, as his eyes twinkle with a hint of pride. ‘“You are the famous artist aren’t you? You are Partho Pratim” he uttered ecstatically and I hold that moment close to my heart. This is my achievement in more than three decades of career, that people remember me, even when I have been away from home for so long,’ he says silently.

He has been the laureate of silence- his white face, striped jumper and unique and real-life expressions changed modern theatre and the concept of mime in Bangladesh and with passage of time, inspired a generation of performers across the world. Indeed, when we speak of the legendary artist Partha Pratim Muzumder, we can say with certainty that there has been no one like him across South Asia and he remains to be irreplaceable.

Having lived twenty-seven years in Paris, and moving on to become an internationally lauded mime artist, this past week, as Partha sits by the window of his friend’s apartment in Dhaka, he tells me about his regrets, about his life as a mime artist and his wish to make a difference.

In a career that began at the age of 15, Partha has performed in Europe, America, Asia and beyond. In France, the birthplace of mime, he has performed solo in more than hundred shows. The winner of titles such as ‘Master of Mime’ (by the Jogesh Mime Academy in India) and ‘Master of the World’ (awarded by Malaysia) and many more, Partha feels his struggles and achievements are yet to end. ‘I continue to struggle and learn more each day,’ he tells me.

There is an unmistakable hint of energy and enthusiasm in his eyes, his gestures and the way he talks. He seems to live each moment to the fullest and strikes up a great conversation with almost anyone. And I was no exception, in this case.

It’s around 11.30 in the morning and he is in a rush to go to the workshop where he is taking classes for the next twenty days. In the middle of all this, he does not fail to smile and greet me.

He tells me his childhood was full of colours and festivities. Born on January 18, 1954 in Pabna, Partha had indeed spent a lively childhood- in festivities and events, where his father Himangshu Kumar Biswas, a photojournalist, used to take him.

‘Some of the best memories of my childhood were spent watching cinemas, sitting on a chair by the projector. I loved the screen as it seemed to portray dreams and so much more,’ he says. ‘Moreover dances in different festivals fascinated me beyond words and I use to try to capture their moves.’

While he indulged himself in music, his sense in rhythm and physical movements only sharpened through keen observations. ‘I would imitate little things I would see- an old man, a clown and the films I watched. So soon, the table in our house would become the stage and we siblings would perform these random plays,’ he laughs.

Later, besides being enrolled in Dhaka Music College, a prestigious institute of that time, he also learnt mime craft from Jogesh Dutta of Calcutta. ‘It was during that time that I was adopted by Ustad Barin Majumder, who was a relative and who had recently lost his daughter.’ While being with a new family, Partha was further introduced to the world of art. ‘My passion only increased and I would practice in the indoor stage of the Music school for hours.’

And so started mime, he tells me. By 1974, Partha was known was all across the country through the various shows he performed. In 1975, his first solo performance was seen in LalKuthhi auditorium. Later he performed a number of times at the Shilpakala Academy. His gestures and smooth movements and ability to convey social messages touched hearts of many.

Partha’s stories of struggle remain to be awe-inspiring. ‘I had chosen the less travelled road after all,’ he tells me. ‘It was a challenge throughout my career to keep the audience to an art that is so limited and fast dying. It was certainly not a profession everyone else wanted me to pursue. Moreover, there was little scope and little financial support in this area.’

As Partha appeared on Bangladesh Television through adverts and programs, he became a celebrated artist. ‘I performed countless dramas in Dhaka University, medical colleges and many other institutes, most often conveying social issues and messages that remain unspoken.’

Finally after his production in Alliance Francaise, the French Ambassador invited him to hold workshops there and he began to grow a French connection- a nation where mime has lived through for the longest period.

His turning point came, when the French Ambassador asked offered him a three-year scholarship in Paris to pursue his career through training at a mime school. ‘Right when a huge door of opportunity opened up for me, I realised that I was not being supported by the government of my own home, my country. All that I required was a certificate that needed to be signed that I am allowed go abroad and it took me two years to have that. Those were perhaps my most difficult times,’ he says ruefully.

‘I continued mime nonetheless, as by then it had not only become a part of me but a part of my life and existence,’ he says.

‘Paris was an experience,’ he tells me. He attended the school of Etienne Decroux, the founder of corporal mime

and later he worked with world’s greatest mime Marcel Marceau. ‘Marcel was a legend and he inspired me greatly. It’s still hard to believe that a man like him considered me to be like his son and there were so many nights in Paris that he would come by at my hostel and have dinner with me,’ he says, the pangs of nostalgia only too visible in his eyes.

After Partha completed his course, Marcel asked him to stay back and work on a project that incorporated elements of Indian dancing and culture into modern mime and enrich it further. They co-authored the thesis ‘Oriental and Occidental Mime’ which now occupies a prominent place in mime literature. In the process of this research, Partho went on to perform in great stages in England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and many other countries across the globe.

By 1990, Partha started his own mime school in Bretagne, and taught deaf and dumb children. In the process of his work, he added new dimensions to this art and learnt the beauty of being able to make a difference through silence. ‘When words cannot do justice, it is this art that can hold strong,’ he says proudly.

Partha wrote and choreographed a mimodrama, in a record time of two months, which was staged in Bangladesh in 1994. This was achieved with the collaboration of different group theatres and professional dancers from Dhaka. The mimodrama concerning child abuse was the first of its kind to be shown on South East Asian stages.

Back in Paris, Partho is also a proud father of two children who are involved in art and music greatly. ‘They love Bangladesh and they know, back here, it’s always home.’

When Marcel died in 2007, the mime world was threatened by the risk of not being able to survive, and in that difficult time, Partha was one of the artists who refused to give up. ‘Marcel had instilled within me so much inspiration and determination that I could never let him down,’ he says silently.

As Partha rushes to the workshop, he tells me enthusiastically about the young men and women he has come across here. ‘There are so many talents back home. There is so much potential to bring back mime to life. Children here do not have any form of entertainment and many are introverted. This art is not just for entertainment, but also for being able to open up, ’he explains.

When I ask him about his future plans, he tells me that the journey has not ended yet and as long as he breathes, the art will live through.

Currently Partha is in the process of creating a new episode on the theme of environmental pollution. The mime maestro is currently in town upon an invitation of Bangladesh Lung Foundation to perform at the 1st International Conference on Lung Health (to be held from February 20 to 22 at the Bangladesh China Friendship Conference Centre). Moreover, Partha will conduct several workshops on mime for theatre actors and models through out the weeks.


‘My pictures are inside me, waiting to come out’

March 4, 2009

Celebrated photographer, Morten Krogvold speaks of his memories of sweeping the floors of a gallery he longed to be showcased at, the moments of rejection and success, his passion for art and his life as a photographer, in an interview with Tahmina Shafique

Photos by Momena Jalil

If the biography of photographer Morten Krogvold were written, there would be little space in it for the exclusive nature of his still-life images, his powerful portraits and the fame he has achieved, all around the world. Instead, it would be full of stories that belong in the domain of fiction.

It would be the story of struggle and zeal. It would be the story of a seven-year-old boy who spent three years in a hospital room, owing to a severe hip injury. It would be the story of being rejected and yet never giving in. Of a 19-year-old, who worked as a helper, bringing in coffee and sweeping the floors of the Institute of Norwegian Film Board and often longing to be one of the photographers showcased on its walls. It would be about sleepless nights of hard work and learning through mistakes. It would be the story of his passion and association with all forms of art—poetry, music, painting, and above all photography.

This past week, in the middle of the political chaos and blockades, as I walked into Pathshala, the Dhaka-based South Asian Institute of Photography, there were a bunch of students laughing and chatting with a lively and cheerful looking man in his mid 50’s. The most fascinating thing about him was perhaps, the warmth he conveyed through his simple smile and undoubtedly, his gregarious personality and spirit. He is no ordinary man; he is Morten Krogvold, Norway’s leading ambassador of photography and a legendary name across the globe. His photographs, primarily his dynamic portraits, have been celebrated and exhibited throughout the world, including USA, Canada, France, China, Sweden, Iceland, Botswana and, of course, Norway.

Morten, as in the previous years, is here in Dhaka to display his photographs at Chobi Mela, Bangladesh’s premiere international photography festival and to conduct workshops. ‘Being a part of Morten’s workshop is a different kind of experience. You are bound to fall in love with him. He is an inspiration, someone who does not order rather shares,’ says photographer and colleague Momena Jalil, an ex-student and now, a teacher at Pathshala. ‘He makes you think and question. It’s amazing how he assembles the different forms of art with photography. Most importantly, he tells you about life and the mind, which he says is intertwined with photography.’

Indeed, his workshops are the most awaited event for countless students across the world. It’s the intensity and passion that he carries with him in his workshops in USA, China, South Africa, England, Qatar, Greece, Italy, Germany, Bangladesh and many more, that has marked him, as an extraordinary speaker. His students tell me he is restless, questioning, lively and impossible to ignore or be indifferent to.

Our meeting amidst the chaos and activities for the workshop he is conducting, was unhurried, and yet full of energy.

At the age of seven, while other children of his age went to school and enjoyed life to the fullest, Morten spent days and in fact three years, in the gloomy hospital room, owing to the hip injury which had crippled him. ‘My brain did not support my hips, it was a complex case which could not be healed in those days,’ says Morten. He remains silent for a moment, perhaps remembering the most difficult times of his life as a child.

‘Since I couldn’t go to school, I didn’t know how to read or write. My father would then bring me books of pictures and images, which would be my only source of recreation.’ It was perhaps then, that he grew an innate passion for photographs and most importantly, the human face. After the three dreadful years in the hospital, Morten went back to school at the age of eleven. I ask him inquisitively, ‘did you like it?’

‘I hated it, I just hated it and wanted to get away from there so badly,’ he says, imitating a child, who hates school. ‘Horrible.’

According to Morten, his association with art has made him a better photographer. ‘They are distinct artistic media, sharing a common objective—turning a piece of creative work into an experience’. Perhaps, that is what sets him apart from others: his passion for art. While his father was not at all into art, his mother was an amateur pianist, which brought Morten closer to music. It was during those terrible school years, that Morten read poetry, studying painting and music alongside. In fact, he learnt the violin and had bright prospects in the field.

‘But it was time I chose one, photography or music, and photography stood out as a career.’

Why not music?

‘Perhaps the lack of possibilities in that field,’ he adds ruefully. ‘But, I still love music. Time seems to stand still when I listen to music- Mozart, Bach…and the list will go on,’ he says smiling.

At 17, Morten had his own dark room where he experimented with photography. ‘And trust me, they were horrible,’ he chuckles. Soon, he got a job at the ‘Institute of Norwegian Film’ as a helper. ‘I would clean up the place and serve coffee and observe the different kinds of people coming to have their portraits done — architects, actors, painters, scientists and all kinds of artistic people. I would finish my work early and try to learn from the people who worked there. I must say it was a unique opportunity for someone as young as me.’ But the best was yet to come.

As time passed, Morten learnt more about photography. ‘I would spend nights in the studio and I must say, those were the best times of my life’. The turning point of his life came, when the famous Polish scientist, Jieremy Sasientinsi, joined the Norwegian Film Board. ‘The photographer who was supposed to take his portrait fell ill, and I was asked to take his picture. That paid off all my hard work’.

Indeed, that single exclusive portrait marked a great significance in his career. ‘Later when the scientist died, the government ordered for that portrait to be put up,’ he adds. It was then, that his ascent began.

Morten booked a studio and started working with his subjects, either portraits or still life images for hours. His unique work through interview and photo sessions with well known faces including actors, directors, writers, painter etc in Norway and abroad, resulted in ‘Images’, a book that features a compilation of his early work.

‘The greatest moments of my life as a photographer has been in the studio; late in the evening, in a darkened room with a couple of subdued light sources, a camera, two people and some music,’ says Morten.

It is perhaps his compelling and lively personality that forms images that speak for themselves. He does so through the use of natural background, the dark room, producing a portrait that not only shows the person or the object, but also exposes the inner being. Morten has also produced powerful works of art such as images of death, the essence of optimism and joy despite the difficult life in Africa and much more. Besides the publication of countless photography books, he has made 16 cultural television programmes presented by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Among the many other honours, he has been awarded ‘Knight of the First Class’ of the Norwegian Royal Order of St.Olav.

Morten tells me about his recent work. ‘It is in many ways a repetition, yet different. I have been given the project of doing the same work of portraits with young faces,’ he says. ‘Only this time, they are coming to me because I am famous, unlike before when I approached people who didn’t know me, yet gave me a chance,’ he laughs. I ask him which one he prefers more, he remains silent more a moment, and says ‘the first one, because it was more challenging and I was hungry to explore, although I still am but that would be more special’.

Morten speaks of his earlier experiences much more than the present ones. It’s evident, that, in many ways, he loved the struggle, the challenge of breaking boundaries to capture many images. This is his fifth visit to Bangladesh and he tells me that he adores the fact that people love to be photographed. ‘I think the country has bright prospects in terms of everything. Most importantly it has a bunch of vibrant and keen photographers, who will leave a mark in the world of photography.’

He can’t seem to stop laughing when he tells me about his experience in Dublin. In many ways it was a challenge for him to break his single barrier to success, the lack of confidence. ‘I was so nervous. I didn’t know the people or the place. It was then that I challenged my self to go and approach people. The most challenging was however, knocking on people’s door and asking them to let me photograph them!’ he says. ‘…And there were people who asked me to buzz off but I thought it was not all that bad, so I pushed on and as a result met a diverse bunch of people’.

The man who has conducted countless workshops all around the world, tells me about his struggle to speak before a large audience. ‘I still remember the first time I had to speak before a large audience, in New York. And, they told me that just five minutes before I was due on stage!’ he says, excitedly. ‘I could feel my knees shaking, but about fifteen minutes later, I went with the flow and thus came a list of workshop invitations.’

With Morten, stories alone could be his stock in trade. His experiences and adventures from his many journeys, from various tasks and meeting different kind of people in all continents almost have another-worldly feel to them. He tells me exciting stories of being soaked with water and soap and going to photograph the President of Iceland, the tales of photographing people dying of AIDS and cancer and his projects, his experiences in Africa, his time in Italy.

Anything more about photographs? He tells me smiling, ‘they are inside, waiting to come out at all times. They are responsible for the restlessness that drives me to different places and different images. Most people think it’s the camera that does the wonder, but it’s the mind and the soul’. His eyes sparkle with warmth and passion. ‘Remember, if you are taking a photograph for love then don’t use the flash, it’s the natural essence that expresses the true image’.