The country’s first art school is threatened with extinction

Besides the original Maheshwarpasha School of Art building, the school grounds house two other buildings by the renamed Shashibhushan Shishu Vidya Niketan. Currently, plans are underway to demolish the 100-year-old main building and replace it with a similar building. Photo: Habibur Rahman

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Besides the original Maheshwarpasha School of Art building, the school grounds house two other buildings by the renamed Shashibhushan Shishu Vidya Niketan. Currently, plans are underway to demolish the 100-year-old main building and replace it with a similar building. Photo: Habibur Rahman

The Maheshwarpasha school of art was established in 1904 by artist Shashibhushan Pal, the first of its kind in the East Bengal region.

Shashibhushan established the school on the east side of present Jashore Road, inside his own house. In 1918, he succeeded in gaining government recognition and funding 14 years later.

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Just over a hundred years later, the school premises are about to be auctioned off to construct a similar building in its place. This comes despite the disapproval of conscious citizens, who would prefer to see the original building transformed into a historic monument.

According to pedagogues, researchers and historical books on Khulna, in 1929 the school was moved to the west side of Jashore Road. It conferred the four-year “Diploma in Fine Arts” certificate.

After partition, Maheshwarpasha School of Art was renamed Shashibhushan Art College.

In 1983 it became the Khulna Art College and moved to the Gallamari region. In 2009, it became known as the Institute of Fine Arts of Khulna University.

Meanwhile, local sympathizers built the Shashibhushan Shishu Vidya Niketan at the original location some four decades ago. In 1980, a primary school was established there, while the land hosted a secondary school in 1991. With these two, the complex now has three establishments.

Over the years, renowned artists and prominent citizens from here and abroad have visited the school. This includes Maharaja Vijaychand Mahtab of Burdwan, Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin, poet Jasimuddin, SM Sultan and more.

In a statement written on March 14, 1975, kept at the school, Zainul Abedin mentions: “It is the second art school in common Bengal after the art school in Calcutta, but it is the first for the East Bengal.”

On the same day, poet Jasimuddin and artists Quamrul Hasan and Nilima Ibrahim wrote, “This is the oldest arts and crafts school in Bangladesh. It is necessary to preserve this school to preserve its heritage.

Talk of destroying the century-old building began in 2016. But it was only a whisper until January last year when the Khulna City Corporation wrote a letter to the Department of Archeology (DoA) to find out if the school was listed by the department.

In response, Afroza Khan Mita, Regional Director of Khulna County, said in a written statement that the building was a British-era structure. Although it is not a preserved antiquity, the school is associated with the continuity of cultural development and the passion of local people.

“Conservation and management may be delegated to local government councils or district administrations. The Department of Archeology will provide technical advice on its renovation if the municipality, school authorities or district administration take the initiative to preserve it,” she added.

Later on August 29, 2021, while identifying buildings at risk in a KCC meeting, the then KCC Executive Engineer Liaquat Ali Khan raised the issue of the inclusion of the century-old building in the list of vulnerable buildings, sources told this newspaper. It was recommended to the authorities concerned to take measures to demolish the building.

KCC then sent a letter to school principal Nahid Sultana, informing her of the decision.

On November 14, 2021, at a school meeting held in the presence of Minister of State for Labor Welfare Begum Mannujan Sufian, it was decided that the old building on the school grounds would be demolished, while plans have been proposed to build a similar one in its place.

Amirul Islam, the school’s acting principal, told the Daily Star that the meeting took place after receiving the letter from KCC asking them to remove the building. “On December 21, we published a tender notice in the newspapers to sell the building. January 4 was the deadline for submitting bids for the building; a total of six bids were received.”

Shankar Kumar Mallick, an associate professor and researcher at the city’s Government Brajalal College (BL College), told the Daily Star that rather than tearing down the old building, it should be preserved.

He suggested this can be done by turning it into an art gallery.

When contacted, former KCC executive engineer Liaquat Ali Khan said he was now retired and did not want to talk about the matter. Ejaj Morshed Chowdhury, outgoing chief engineer of KCC, said he did not want to talk about the matter either. Curiously, this was also echoed by school body president Mahfuza Sahabuddin.

Meanwhile, DoA Regional Director Khulna Afroza Khan Mita told the Daily Star: “By preserving it as a monument of special personality, it can be developed as a potential tourist destination in accordance with the 2010 Law on tourism.

She said she would look into it.

Kayleen C. Rice