Why are we losing in the cultural sphere?

Bangladeshi culture
Illustration by Masuk Helal

The lyrics of a popular song of DL Roy are, ‘The country made of dreams and surrounded by memories’. Dreams and memories are the stuff that worked from behind in the formation of Bangladesh. That dream was about a country without any discrimination; and the memory was about a Golden Bangla from yonder, where there was super-abundance of rice, fish, cows, etc. That memory included of ‘a wonderful day when Hindu and Muslim youths would sing Baul songs and Ghatu songs together’. But the fascination of the people of East Bengal burst asunder as soon as Pakistan was achieved in 1947. The state language should be Bangla, this demand was uttered even before August 1947 (When the British India was divided into two countries – India and Pakistan). Since August the demand was taking the shape of a movement.

Following the incidents in 1948 and the Language Movement in 1952, the people of East Bengal realised they have a separate nationhood. Ruling Muslim League suffered a huge loss in the elections in 1954. Bangla Academy was founded in 1955. In the 50’s and 60’s, culture turned into the medium that was holding the protests, hopes, aspirations and memories of oppressed and deprived people of East Bengal. Our political movement and cultural movement had become a unified entity by then. That unified entity reached its pinnacle during the Liberation War in 1971 and we achieved a sovereign country.

Until 1990, our cultural personalities prepared the base of any democratic movement through their independent protesting cultural activities. Upon reaching 2022, we are continuously feeling that we are losing our Bangladesh made of dreams of memories.

Prothom Alo published interviews of three prominent cultural personalities in its supplement on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh this year. I would like draw the readers’ attention to the contents of the three interviews.

Shahriar Kabir said, “Jatra, Palagaan, Kabigaan, Mela – all are part and parcel of Bangali culture. But do these exist in villages anymore? Now, time is set (by the authorities) to celebrate Pahela Baishakh. It needs permission to have Jatrapala and Kabigaan. Those bindings were not there during the time of Bangabandhu.

“Pro-liberation forces are in state power for more than 12 years. But they not even utter anything about a return to the Constitution of ’72, which is the base of Bangladesh as a state. They only talk against communalism, but there is no reflection of that in their actions. The influence of communal culture has increased at the state’s patronage. … There is no step to build libraries, auditoriums or playgrounds. There is no large planning about culture. That’s why though the state is taking initiatives to organise cultural programmes, this are not exuberant. That’s how people are gradually becoming alienated from our culture, they are being made alienated.”

Dramatist and actor Mamunur Rashid said, “Pahela Baishakh is our folk celebration. Elements related to agriculture were found in the events of that celebration. Corporate houses and agencies have now occupied the Barshabaran (ushering in the Bangla New Year). They have taken over all of our celebrations gradually. Actually, the cultural programmes have gone into the hands of powerful people now. As a result, the connection of people’s hearts to these occasions has dwindled, almost everything is formal now. That’s why people’s bond with culture has slackened.”

Rezwana Choudhury Bannya said, “There is no more '13 festivals in 12 months' in villages these days. We are not being able to ensure any environment to for fairs or jatrapala in villages. People in villages do not have anything for pure entertainment.”

Tarkabangla, an online literary journal, has published a special print edition (Baishakh 1429), Tarka, edited by Sakhawat Tipu. There is a long interview of journalist Matiur Rahman there, discussing these issues in detail. Matiur Rahman said, “This situation in the country will not change if democratic education or progressive culture does not expand here. This cannot be achieved by political movements only. A strong cultural movement is required alongside political movements. We are lagging behind in this sphere. We face a huge defeat here.”

If we read what these noted persons said together, we can sense a unique tone and get a clear picture. That tone expresses depression, that picture is pallid. Professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui wrote a column a long time ago. There was a completely autochthonous programme ‘Madhumela’ regarding the celebrations of the birthday of Michael Madhusudan Dutt in Jashore. The programme used to be held regularly. Later, the government took charge of organising the programme. Following this the arrangement of the programme was stalled. In that context, Zillur Rahman Siddiqui wrote, the government is such a entity when it wants to help blossom hundreds of flowers, all the blossoms wither away.

Culture is the way of life of people. This has spontaneity. This is not an artificially dug up pond or lake, rather this is a river that flows from the hills to the ocean at its own pace. The people of Bangladesh have been practicing that from the time immemorial. There was no comparison to our Palagaan, Jarigaan, Baul Gaan, Murshidi, Lokogaan, Bhawaiya, Bhatiali and there is no comparison as yet. There were organised cultural programmes alongside the folk cultural programmes; there were cultural organisations, libraries in every neighbourhood; there were musical instruments there as well. Organisations like Khelaghar, Kachi Kachar Mela could contribute for the development of children and adolescents. Dramas were staged in every area. Winters in villages were full of programmes of jatrapala, jarigaan and sarigaan.

But these days everything, including boat races, has become ‘corporate events’. Earlier, we would organise debate programmes at school with writings on blackboards that ‘villages are better than cities’. Classmates used to clap and a team emerge as winner. But all of that was without spending even a taka. Now it takes hundreds of thousands to organise a debate programme.

After the corporate house, cultural programmes have turned into a government event now. It would have been better if corporate houses, even the ‘Joy Bangla Sangskritic Jote’ could have organised cultural programmes locally at their own initiatives, and celebrate special days. We do not see Awami League organising these outside of the government programmes. Now advertising agencies have become the organisers and a few government agencies remain behind the scene. In the 60’s, even in 90’s, noted artists would come to design the stage at their own initiatives. Artistes like Altaf Mahmud would conduct rehearsals and would sing. Now the government would do everything, there would be sanctions of large budget, event management firms and agencies would prepare the stage, script, would conduct run through and the show. People’s involvement with all these has been severed. We see this very plainly.

Rabindranath said, “The flow of people’s heartfelt exuberance is no lessthan the flow of a river. That flow has kept the shaded villages of Bangla vibrant and joyous from the eternity. But now Bangalee’s flow of heartfelt exuberance has disappeared from the villages. That’s why there is none to renovate the village’s dilapidated temples, its water bodies are now polluted as there is none to clear away the dirt, buildings of wealthy families are now abandoned – there is no cheerfulness in happenings there. As a result, the government is now in charge of providing water, the government is now in charge of providing health, (we) even need to plead to the government at the loss of self-esteem for providing education. The tree that would bear flowers on its own, is now submitting an application holding its rather ailing branches upwards. Even if the application is granted, what would be the significance of this castle built in the air?”

We need to bring back that free environment of cultural practices at every house and neighbourhood. And, the cultural organisations need to step out of the influence of power independently. Culture is the language of who cannot talk, it’s the power of the powerless. The cultural personalities need to ask for a non-communal, independent Bangladesh made of dreams and memories like they want. Pleading to power is like castles built in the air which have no significance, Rabindranath said that a longtime ago.

* Anisul Haque is the associate editor of Prothom Alo and writer

* This column has been rewritten by Shameem Reza