Syed Manzoorul Islam, taking up the theme of the discussion, was unwilling to use the word 'defeat'. "I would not say we have been defeated in the cultural space, but have lost ground. And we can recover the lost ground."
He said that culture is more than just fine arts, performing arts and such. It creates values and changes values. It is everydayness. However, he felt, technology-driven visual medium was widening the rural-urban divide as there was little access to such technology in the villages.
"Technology controls us, market economy controls us, our culture is being controlled by the visual medium and we are losing out on direct interaction. Watching jatra was like history passing before your eyes, but that has disappeared. A counter culture like Tiktok has become powerful, but we have failed to offer an alternative."
Culture must question power, Syed Manzoorul Islam said, but instead culture is now bowing to authority rather than resisting it. "We are not protesting, we are just struggling to survive. That won't work. Education can retrieve culture. That can be the tool to regain the ground we have lost."
Ramendu Majumdar noted that the middle class was pivotal to culture in post-liberation Bangladesh, but now that class was caught up in the grips of consumerism. "Are we being detached from the spirit of the liberation war," he questioned, "from the values of equality, justice and non-communalism?"
He said, "That in this day and age of globalisation, if we want to stand tall and independently , we must uphold our cultural identity."
He noted how the government strategically compromised with fundamentalist forces to remain in power. They did not cater to the non-communal forces because they were confident these progressive forces were on their side anyway.
He regretted that "the culture of fear has turned us into a society bereft of protest."
Writer Abdul Momen remarked that it has been 51 years since independence. The independence struggle had been spearheaded by the language movement, a cultural movement. It lead to a cultural nationalism, a Bengali nationalism.
"But now fundamentalist politics was exerting its strength. The secular place has been blocked. The killing of Avijit Roy and others who upheld free speech, was a warning. We have fallen back," he added.
Abdul Momen said, "We haven't enlightened the society, we have restricted culture to fine arts. Our education is just about certificates and degrees. But education is more than that. Education is a cultural activity."
Shahriar Kabir noted that all over the world there was the rise of the right, even in a country like Turkey where a progressive leader like Kamal Attaturk had ruled, now the right wing ruled. In Bangladesh, after 1975, the secular values of culture were replaced with religious ones. Fundamentalist elements had entered education, even the administration. "Awami League must realise that they may adopt to strategy to accommodate the fundamental elements, but these elements won't spare them. The cultural activists, the media, everyone must unite and resist this retardation of the culture."
Pointing to the "post-literate community", Zahirul Islam said that people in the multi-media world were losing their interest in reading. These were changes in the society, but a major change was that earlier intellectuals would lead and politicians would follow them. Now it is the politicians who lead and the intellectuals follow. But, on a note of hope he said, this defeat is temporary. We must prepare for the future generations and address the aspirations of the youth.
Jamil Ahmed pointed to certain weaknesses in the progressive and cultural elements in the country, saying, "We don't protest, we don't call our leaders to account. We feel we are 'in power', and so we don't question."
Cinema personality Ilias Kanchan said, "The enthusiasm and courage that we had in the Pakistan times, to protest against authority, no longer exists -- "We have lost our voices, our power to think."
"Religion is not outside of culture, so why get into a conflict with religion," he questioned. "We can give the youth what we have to offer, and it is up to them whether they will accept it or not. If we can't give them anything of value, then the fundamentalists will step in and give them what we failed to give. We have to think of these areas. This is where we cultural activists have failed. We can't just look into our own interests and be safe. Didn't we go to jail in Pakistan times? Do we still have that courage we had back then, or are we just caught up in partisan politics?"
Luva Nahid Chowdhury said, "We have to think out of the box. When we organised the classical music fest, that was a craziness and that craziness was a success. It appealed to the youth, to all. We have to leave our comfort zones and be a little crazy. We are stuck in a rut and need the courage to pull ourselves out of that rut."
Milan Kanti Dey regretted the predicament of the jatra artistes, but spoke on a note of optimism -- "Our fight might be delayed, but we will win. Did we fight our liberation war just for a piece of land? Where is the economic emancipation? Where is the cultural emancipation? Jatra still faces the black laws of 1933."
"Jatra is a powerful cultural medium and must be kept alive. But if we lost jatra, Bangladesh will lose an integral part of its culture. We must fight together for the survival of jatra."
As president of the Sammilito Sangskritik Jote, Golam Kuddus said they were proud never to have been dependent on funds from the government. And so they were not influenced either by the government or any influential quarters.
"If the state is not communal, the culture can't be communal," he said, adding, "It is important for politics to be free of communalism. But communalism was everywhere and this affected culture. We need to focus on education and culture so that youth do not turn to the alternative of militancy, drugs and porn."
Samina Lutfa said culture is a way of life and is manifest in both material and non-material ways.
She said, "While Bangladesh is a secular country, we see Bauls being jailed, writers killed, people suffering for their sexual orientation. Then again, we must note that when expatriates send back remittance from the Middle East, they are also sending back their values and culture. We fail to see these nuances and address these issues."
Moderating the roundtable, Sajjad Sharif said that it was culture that had liberated us from being enslaved.
"The spirit of the liberation war drew us together, consolidated our politics. The cultural movement back in the fifties had a strong impact and led us to the struggle for independence. But now we are divided. This has impacted our culture," he added.
Sajjad Sharif said the issues raised in this discussion on the state of culture have given tangible input on the way ahead.