Muzharul Islam (sometime spelt Mazharul Islam) was born at his maternal grandfather's home in Sundarpur village of Krishnanagar in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, India. He comes from a wealthy, educated family with his mother Zakia Khatoon's family coming from a Zamindari background and dad Professor Omdatul Islam and his uncles working in Dhaka and Kolkata (previously spelt Calcutta). His dad was a professor of mathematics who worked in different government colleges throughout his career which meant most of Muzharul Islam's childhood and school life was spent in Rajshahi, Chittagong, and Krishnanagar. The family household was in Kuepara village of Chittagong and they owned a vast amount of land which was their main source of income.
An important part of my childhood memory is centered around the Zamindar bari of my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandfather was a sub-registrar during the last part of the 19th century. My father and all of his brothers were educated persons, many of whom worked in Dhaka and Calcutta. Our family owned a vast amount of land in the village which was a main source of income. Overall, it can be said that, my greater family belonged to a financially solvent, educated Bengali elite class.
Muzharul Islam on his privileged family background
Muzharul Islam began his schooling in Krishnanagar College School where he studied upto Class Five. However, in 1932 Professor Omdatul Isam was transferred from Krishnanagar to Rajshahi Government College and thus Muzharul Islam moved to Rajshahi Government High School. He was admitted into Class Five and in 1938 passed his Matriculation. Four years later he passed his Intermediate in Science (ISC) from the Rajshahi Government College where his father was a professor.
While studying for Physics with Honours at the College, Muzharul Islam applied for Shibpur Bengal Engineering College (at present Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology or IIEST, Shibpur) and was successfully admitted.
The teachers in Shivpur used to admire his drawings. He was aware that there were beautiful and ugly sides to everything. As an engineer, he could not probably express his profound love for beauty and own culture. Hence, as soon as he got the chance to study architecture he grabbed it.
Architect Shamsul Wares,
From Engineer to Architect
In 1946 he graduated in Civil Engineering from Shibpur Bengal Engineering College and in 1950 he travelled to USA to study Architecture in the University of Oregon after he was awarded a two-year scholarship under Post-War Development. After two-and-half years he earned enough credit for his Bachelor degree in Architecture.
It would have been very difficult for me to live in the USA and study architecture if two people Professor Ross of history and Professor Hayden of design, didn't give me their love and affection. They told me that the curricula would mostly refer to European architecture. But as I was from a region with a rich culture and heritage, something to be proud of but not taught over there, I must study it on my own.
Architecture is, no doubt, an excellent form of art. In the developed world, it is regarded as the foundation of all visual arts. While architecture starts with specific practical day-to-day necessities, it has to, at the same time, transcend to the level of art. Architecture must inspire the people, for whom it is built, by creating spaces that incite the finer, more gracious aspects of the mind. An architect, being a creative person, tries to fulfill the aesthetic yarning.
Muzharul Islam on the appeal of architecture,
At Oregon he observed that seeing is cognitive rather than a rational phenomenon. It involves identifying, understanding properties and usages and digging into the inner meaning of things. He gradually transformed from a practical engineer to an imaginative architect in Oregon.
In 1956 he was awarded a one-year British Council Scholarship for studying Tropical Architecture at the prestigious Architectural Association (A. A.) School of Architecture in London. The following year he achieved a Post Graduate Certificate, making him, arguably, the first trained Bengali architect.
In 1960 he returned to USA to study for a Master Degree in Architecture from Yale University under the supervision of Paul Rudolph, the Dean of Yale Architecture School. The degree was funded with his own money.
His classmates included who’s who of architecture. Amongst these were Sir Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Stanley Tigerman. One of their teachers was Professor Louis Isadore Kahn.
Muzharul Islam would later invite and collaborate with the "American Trio" of Rudolph, Kahn and Tigerman to shape the landscape of Bangladesh.
There are five [mentors]. The first was George Fred Keck, who I worked with for a year after flunking out of MIT. The next was Mies.Then Paul Rudolph, John Hejduk. The last was Muzharul Islam, my great friend and Yale classmate who eventually became chief architect of Bangladesh.
Stanley Tigerman on his five "mentors",
Leftist political stance
During 1940-46 when Muzharul Islam was an undergraduate student pursuing civil engineering at Shibpur Engineering College in Kolkata, he was directly involved with political as well as cultural activities. Through these activities, he came in contact with two visions. One that of Marxism and the other was the cultural vision for a Tagorian elitist, purist but tender humanism of the 19th Century Bengal Renaissance.
His whole personality took place in the balancing of the two.
Architect Shamsul Wares on Muzharul Islam’s Marxist and Tagorian stance,
Muzharul Islam developed leftist view and believed in socialism as the tool for the proper development of the nation and society.
Socialism is a political system, which can ensure the socio-economic equality of the people. Architecture is an activity, which involves sensitivity and creativity. No political system can, all by itself, address, control and enhance such creative issues. A good architecture comes from creative architects and correct education. I saw many buildings in Soviet Russia which look quite the same as American buildings. However, I think, the Soviets put more stress on practical issues and aesthetics took a back seat. The volume of Soviet housing construction was far more than that of all of Western Europe. By 1952, the Soviets were able to make enough housing for all of its citizens. After that, they concentrated on the betterment of quality. They had a superior quality town and city planning and they even built some brand new cities. Care was taken to keep the environmental balance. Historical structures were also brought under conservation schemes.
Muzharul Islam on socialism and architecture of the Soviet era,
In the political area the 1950s registered the first tremor of a rift between the two wings of Pakistan. The dominant political consciousness in East Pakistan, particularly in the 1960s, motivated by the issue of economic disparities between the two wings, and fuelled by the manipulative use of religion by the central government, would polarize most Bengali intellectual towards secular, socialist thinking.
There was a stern quality about Muzharul Islam. The first time I met him was when, at his residence in Paribagh, his daughter Dalia Nausheen introduced me to him. Dalia and I were then students of English literature at Dhaka University and both of us happened to be involved with an English language teaching course at the Dhaka YMCA in the afternoon. That first meeting with the architect left me quite shaken, for though he responded to my 'salaam', it was quite obvious he was in little mood to spend much time inquiring after a callow young man.
In those days of youth, Dalia made it a point to ask me over to her place, to tea and songs. She sang beautifully and I recall asking her, as a group of us sat on the lawn at Paribagh, to sing "ekhoni uthibe chand aadho alo aadho chhaya te". The moon shone full in the spring sky and Dalia sang. There, among the group, was Nazia Jabeen, who I thought for a long number of years was her sister. It was only much later that I knew she was her cousin. Nazia was in school, hugely shy. Even so, Nazia served me some of the sweetest tea in the whole wide world. Thanks to Dalia and to the increasing frequency of my visits to Paribagh, I found myself opening up slowly before Muzharul Islam. I noticed that when I met him, he did not any more have the old hardness in his expression but actually smiled. He inquired about my studies. As time went on, he became a little freer and reflected, very briefly, on politics. Those were the times when Bangladesh lay in the grip of its first military dictator Ziaur Rahman.
In those days, though I was quite aware of Islam's status as a significant architect in Bangladesh, I was rather ignorant about his place in the global architectural scheme. That he had been a student of Louis Kahn, that he had an important role to play in the emergence of what used to be, in pre-1971 times, the Second Capital area were facts I would come to know of later. You could say that my preoccupation with English literature had quite left me unable as well as unwilling to look into the substantive nature of other subjects of human study. As the years wore on, though, I went into a gradual learning process about Muzharul Islam and the symbolism he was in the architectural grandeur of Bangladesh's landscape.
But in those early 1980s, it was an avuncular Muzharul Islam that I chanced to meet in the quiet, almost pastoral ambiance of his home in Paribagh. That home does not exist any more. Neither does that huge lawn where, in somewhat of trepidation, I said hello for the first time to Professor Noorun Nahar Fyzennessa. Her daughter Sadya Afreen Mallick stood nearby. We did not speak because we did not know each other. That lawn now belongs in the past. It exists in the imagination and in that re-creation of a fleeting world come alive images of a hyper-active Muzharul Islam attending to a horde of good men and women gathered on his lawn on a day in May 1981. The occasion was a reception for Sheikh Hasina, newly elected president of the Awami League, just back home after six years in exile. I was, in a manner of speaking, part of it.
And I was because of Dalia Nausheen. At the end of our YMCA classes, she told me about the reception. She wanted me to be there. And there we were. When Dalia told him I was there to see Hasina, Muzharul Islam flung a pretty hard look at me, then broke into a trace of a smile and said, “So you're gate-crashing, aren't you?” I gave him a sheepish smile and stood there, excited nevertheless by the prospect of meeting the new leader of the Awami League. She came, said hello to everyone and mingled with the crowd. Sheer excitement was in the air. The future was before us.
There is one other reason why that May afternoon at Muzharul Islam's residence rekindles memories. Francois Mitterrand had recently been elected president of France and Dr. Kamal Hossain was busy explaining the phenomenon of French socialism to another guest. Islam, happening to pass by, remarked that socialism was yet a mystery and not many could explain it. It was Islam's belief that socialism was the key to progress. Long after the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline of the Left, Muzharul Islam remained a staunch socialist in his conception of politics.
On a fast-descending monsoon evening about a year later, I turned up at Paribagh yet once more, to find Muzharul Islam seated in his drawing room. When he saw me, he swiftly fetched a book from a nearby table and cheerfully informed me that it was one important book he was reading, one that I ought not to miss. 'May I borrow it?” I asked him. 'No, you can't”, he said. At that point, I was ready to do anything for Islam — make him a cup of tea, discuss the world with him, stand in the corner in undeserved punishment — in order to have him relent and give me the book to read. And he did relent, on one condition: I had to finish reading it that very night and return it to him early the next morning.
I skipped and danced my way home in Wari, book in hand. As dawn broke, I finished reading the final page of the work, feeling happy at my achievement. Sometime after breakfast, I took a rickshaw ride to Paribagh and cheerfully returned the book to Muzharul Islam. He gave me a broad smile, the biggest ever that I was to get from him.
That book was Lawrence Lifschultz's "Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution".
Journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan reminisces on his first meetings with Muzharul Islam,
In 1946, aged 22, Muzharul Islam married his maternal cousin Husne Ara Islam. The wedding took place the very next day after Muzharul Islam had finished his exam in Civil Engineering from Shipur Bengal Engineering College.
The couple had a long and happy marriage, and were proud parents of three children – Rafique Muzhar Islam, Tanveer Muzhar Islam, and Dalia Nausheen.
Their family home in Dhaka’s upmarket Gulshan area was a hub for who’s who of Dhaka.
When (Begum Rokeya's) Chhayanaut did not have their own permanent place, they used to practice at my place. As a true artiste my husband always inspired such cultural activities. Different politicians stayed at my place during political turbulences, and I saw my home as a place of cultural gatherings and political discussions.
Wife Husne Ara Islam recalls Muzharul Islam's attachment with contemporary issues of society, culture and politics
We feel so privileged that we could come in touch with so many high-profile artists and cultural activists from childhood.
...I have always seen my father carrying a book with him and if we asked him something, he would not answer all our questions and say 'read and then you would come to know, all the questions cannot be answered, you have to look for the answer of your question by yourselves', this is the way he taught us. My father used to run a volunteer study group named Chetona with the dream to create among young people the spirit to build Bangladesh afresh and be acquainted with the history and heritage of the country.
Elder son Rafique Muzhar Islam
Muzharul islam was cousin of Mr. Abdullah, one of the disciples of my father and often used accompany him and sit in the musical practice session was very frequent . This was in 1950 and 1951. His love of music, particularly of classical music remained throughout his life and was brought in touch with my father again and later through him with other eminent musicians such as dhrupadia Ustad Zahiruddin Khan Dagar and Ustad Faiazuddin Khan Dagar in the mid 1980 in contact with theses musical maestros, Mr Muzaharul islam become an enthusiast of dhrupad classical music. In the late 1950 our paths crossed again.
Architect Tanwir Newaz,
He'd do the shopping. Every Friday he did the raw food shopping from New Market (Dhaka). All of us knew that what our father would buy, none of us could buy anything better than that. But we were also aware of the condition (i.e. fate) of the marketeers! When I was a child, dad would take me to the bazar in the car. I'd sit and wait for him in the car and watch him approach the nearby shopkeeper. Dad would already know which shop to go to. As soon as the shopkeeper would see dad they'd organise all their things and sit upright. They'd not move.
They'd beautifully place all their goods e.g. potato, chilli, tomato, etc., in the front and decorate it. Dad would pick up a potato and pick others to match the same size. Anything that was smaller or bigger he'd throw back. The shopkeeper too would throw those items away all together. If he (i.e. dad) would pick a golden tomato, then all the rest of them would have to be golden. If the tomatoes were long then the rest would have to be long too. That's how we have grown up experiencing him all our life.
At home he'd cut the salad. He'd show my sister-in-law, sister, and others how to cut the salad too! Dad was a very good cook also - everyone used to come to our house during Eid festival just to eat his roast. He was very simple and pure in his eating habits. In fact, he had a simple and pure approach to everything. Whatever he wanted, he wanted in it's pure form. That's how I grew up watching him throughout my life.
Daughter Dalia Nausheen