The energy and magnetism in Sheikh Mujib’s voice in 1972 made me understand why he was a leader of the people: Anne de Henning

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Published on December 20, 2022
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Back in the country, whose birth she documented, after half a century – Anne de Henning effortlessly recalls those tumultuous times. The veteran photographer met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the other surviving family members of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at Dhaka’s Dhanmondi 32 Memorial Museum on December 19, 2022 – an event she described as “an emotional family reunion”. Henning photographed Bangabandhu giving a speech at the first Council Meeting of Awami League in independent Bangladesh, in 1972. After Bangabandhu and most of his family members were brutally assassinated in 1975, his images were routinely destroyed. Henning’s colour photos of the Father of the Nation are among the few known to still exist.

During the Liberation War in 1971, when Pakistan army was not allowing foreign photographers to come here, what compelled her to undertake a perilous journey to Bangladesh?

“I was in Kathmandu at the time, and I saw a dispatch in the local English paper… that trouble had erupted in (then) East Pakistan and that Pakistani authorities had closed the country to the foreign press. And I thought, well, I’m going to go there. As journalists and photographers, when you are told you can’t go somewhere, you know something is going on. So that’s where you want to go,” Henning said.

Henning laughingly said whether she was concerned about her safety, “Well, if you’re that concerned (about safety), you can always take nice pictures of flowers… You cannot be a war photographer then.”

Henning recalled that she made her way – along with a few other journalists – into Bangladesh in early April, 1971. “We rented a car, carried three jerrycans of fuel, and somehow managed to convince the Indian BSF to let us through.”

“When we reached Chuadanga, we came across a Mukti Bahini outpost. It had that Bangladeshi flag with a small yellow map at the centre,” she said.

“From there, we went to Kushtia, where I saw a young freedom fighter – bare-chested, wearing a lungi, carrying a rifle, and a wicker basket. It was extremely moving because on the other side of the street, you could see refugees pouring out from the countryside, fleeing massacres,” Henning recalled.

She was so moved and focused on her subject that she did not get the scope to speak to him, or ask his name. That photo of the young freedom fighter has now become iconic – a visual representation of the spirit of a nation at war.

“I saw unthinkable courage… I saw young men, many teenagers even, training with bows and arrows – ready to give their lives… People shouting ‘Joy Bangla!’ During our journey, crowds would surround us and urge us to get their message across to the world – that they needed modern military equipment, that the Pakistani military was indiscriminately massacring civilians, raping women,” Henning said.

After covering the early days of Liberation War, the photographer again came to Bangladesh just a year later. This time to photograph the architect of the nation’s independence – a man she had not met till then but heard of and read about.

“I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the time (1972), and a friend suggested that I cover a major speech that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was about to give in Dhaka,” she said. “It was the first Council Meeting of Awami League in Bangladesh. So, I came and attended the event.”

“I remember seeing the towering man, Sheikh Mujib, on stage. I also remember seeing Tajuddin Ahmad and Syed Nazrul Islam sitting close to him, as well as another man. I was later told this was the man (Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad) who betrayed Sheikh Mujib,” Henning went on.

“It was an incredible moment. I took photos of him (Bangabandhu), and I observed first-hand the vigour and magnetism in his voice, his charisma… There was an immense crowd, completely silent, held rapt by his voice, listening to every word he was saying. I heard a recording of Sheikh Mujib’s March 7, 1971 speech at Dhanmondi 32 today (December 19, 2022) and the same vigour, and magnetism were there. I could sense why people listened to him, why they were ready to give up their lives,” she said.

“The ambiance at the (Awami League) Council Meeting seemed very intimate, yet momentous. I noticed when someone else was speaking, Sheikh Mujib – sitting on the floor of the stage – would listen intently, occasionally filling his pipe with tobacco, take notes, drink a glass of water. It made the situation seem intimate, and at the same time, he was larger than life,” Henning recounted.

When she met Bangabandhu’s daughters Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Rehana, granddaughter Saima Wazed and grandson Radwan Mujib Siddiq at Dhanmondi 32 yesterday (December 19, 2022), and reminisced those days, emotions apparently ran high.

Why did it take 50 years for her to revisit Bangladesh? Why the long wait to reintroduce her photos – invaluable historical records – to the country and the world?

“No one reached out to me before,” said the photographer. “My photos (taken during the Liberation War) were published, and then, they were forgotten. Then 50 years later, Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani reached out.”

Nadia Samdani MBE is the co-founder and president of Samdani Art Foundation and director of Dhaka Art Summit. Rajeeb Samdani is co-founder and a trustee of the art foundation.

“They asked me, do you have those photographs? I said, yes, and in very good condition. I started going through my archives, and I found the negatives. That’s how they were rediscovered. And I realized that what were forgotten after a few days, 50 years later, they have become historical records,” Henning said.