Mahabub Zamal Shamim
Fellow Since 1996
This profile was prepared when Mahabub Zamal Shamim was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
Through an interdisciplinary curriculum that raises appreciation of traditional art and folk festivals, Mahabub Zamal Shamim is enabling Bangladeshi children to develop their creativity and a stronger cultural identity.
The New Idea
Mahabub Zamal Shamim sees a gradual disappearance of cultural identity for people of Bangladesh and is equally concerned to see modern society minimizing the importance of creativity, especially in children. Shamim views art and awareness of folk art as the paths that will lead back to these staples of Bangladeshi society. By developing an education program that brings art into people's everyday lives, he is setting the stage for creative development and renewed consciousness of culture. At the same time, Shamim is demonstrating the possibility of building an art-related career in today's world of constraints and financial pressures.Education is the primary vehicle through which Shamim implements his goal of developing creativity in children. He has devised a unique arts curriculum, which he tests, refines, and disseminates at an art program he founded, called Charupith. In Shamim's words, this pilot project has, "in accordance with the psychology of children, a special syllabus and teaching equipment which dispense with formality and make learning a pleasure for children." The interdisciplinary program is not only helping students achieve greater identity with Bangladeshi culture but is also reforming the educational system of government schools. Shamim anticipates teachers as the multipliers of his idea and envisions a day when they will be instrumental in reviving children's cultural identity and developing their sense of creativity. All government schools offer art classes, and art education schools do exist in Bangladesh, but Charupith is the first program working for such fundamental change in the value of Bengali art. Although many art schools train artists, Charupith is promoting fine arts at a grassroots level for the cultural emancipation of the country. The school has an anchor in the community, where it attempts to educate the public about the potential role of art in society. For example, Charupith engages children and adults in the celebration of Bengali festivals.
Bangladesh has a rich cultural and historical past but poverty and changing attitudes have stifled the activity of traditional folk artists and turned others away from artistic professions altogether. No longer able to depend on the patronage of large landowners to provide them with a livelihood and sustain their traditions, artists can only afford to make folk art a part-time interest. The children of potters or weavers often break tradition to work in offices instead of carrying on the family profession, thereby halting the ancient cycle where art and culture were passed down from generation to generation.In addition, after two hundred years of British colonial rule the education system has evolved to ignore Bengali culture and folk traditions and emulate European values. Now, as a result of this foreign education, many Bengalis equate education with the ability to serve as civil servants. Primary and secondary schools give little attention to the creative development of children, resulting in a generation of children who are, in Shamim's words, "incapable of developing into full-bloom workers and creative human beings for society." Furthermore, when Hindus migrated from what is now Bangladesh, their iconographic art-including sculpture, painting, dance, folk song and musical instruments - were rejected by many Muslim Bengalis, although it was this art that defined Bengali culture. Even now, over fifty years after the partition of East and West Bengal, the primarily Muslim East Bengal (Bangladesh) is rarely exposed to this art and culture. Along with the lack of access to folk art, Bangladeshis have also gradually ceased to celebrate festivals in the customary manner, due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of their traditions. These festivals used to provide an occasion for rural artisans, craftsmen, and musicians to come together to display and sell their work. Without these festivals, they suffer financially. The rest of the community suffers as well, as they no longer have exposure to the art and culture that was once commonplace. Only university-educated Bangladeshis in the capital city, Dhaka, have access to art-based culture.
As a pilot program, Charupith is demonstrating how its methods can develop creativity in children, not only in fine art, but in a variety of other subjects as well. Each year, in the small city of Jessore in western Bangladesh, 200 boys and girls from all socioeconomic strata, aged three to fourteen, practice drawing, painting, modeling, design, crafts, and architecture, using hands-on enjoyable methods. Additionally, students are acquainted with geography, environmental studies, art history, and world art. They may also study industrial art and technical education-both courses that are absent in the national education system. Such courses, which are unusual offerings for an art school, offer the opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, a very new concept in Bangladesh.Charupith is best known as an art school, but it also hosts a variety of arts-related activities, including an art gallery, a library of art collections, a sculpture center, and a craft research center. Numerous seminars, symposia, and folk festivals are held on the campus. All these activities contribute to the creative development of children's minds. As Shamim puts it, he links this primary objective of Charupith with "the advancement of humanitarian activities, awakening of the spirit of nationalism and identity, civic sense, and a technically sound and industrially rich nation." Many similar programs inspired by Charupith are already being established in other towns of Bangladesh.Charupith has an umbilical link with the community of Jessore. Children frequent the workshops and sheds of local artisans. They take trips to see sculptors' work in metal casting and terracotta ovens, and they visit design centers to see how experts make crafts. Most community members know about Charupith's public celebrations of Bengali festivals, where they are encouraged to be active participants. An important aspect of Shamim's curriculum is the spread of history and art through these festivals, in which Charupith organizes the children to enact religious and historical events with puppets and masks which they make themselves. The children also decorate the streets with folk art and designs. Like traditional artisans, they sell their artwork and crafts in the festivals. Festivals are now held by several communities around the country and have become an integral part of the University of Dhaka's cultural activities.After graduating from Charupith, many children continue to study art at other institutions while others find jobs based on their experiences from Charupith. Although careers as traditional artisans are no longer lucrative, many students now work as skilled artists and technicians in computer design centers. Others now study in higher art institutes in Bangladesh and abroad. In this way Shamim is showing how art can be an acceptable career choice.Shamim is now mainstreaming many of the innovative ideas, teaching techniques, and even an alternative syllabus developed at Charupith in primary and secondary schools throughout the country. He plans to replicate his syllabus, called Srishti Shaily Shikkahkrami (creative education program), for classes I to X in government schools. This is already happening in some local primary and secondary schools. In order to spread Srishti Shaily Shikkahkrami to a large number of schools, Shamim is training art teachers from government schools. He is also working on replicable school management strategies that enable teachers to implement the syllabus.
Shamim, born in 1960, received his bachelors degree in fine arts with a concentration in sculpture from the University of Dhaka. Throughout his schooling, Shamim had always been interested in the history of Bengali folk art and in reviving these lost traditions. The idea to launch Charupith grew out of a series of discussions with Shamim's childhood teacher, a famous artist, S.M. Sultan, who chose to return to the village and escape urban life. He inspired Shamim to do the same. Sultan believed that for national development and the development of children, activities should be decentralized, instead of only being offered in Dhaka. He also "believed that art should be brought into all aspects of life and that the artistic and creative development of children would help them to grow up to be complete and conscionable human beings." Following his mentor's beliefs, Shamim joined the Institute of Fine Arts and upon completion of his courses, returned to Jessore in 1985 to start a children's art center. He began Charupith with income he generated through selling his own sculptures. The school initially operated from an old college until the government provided funding for Charupith to set up its own center.