Bangladeshis Take Culture Seriously

Posted by Maher Sattar • Saturday, May 15, 2010 • Category: People and Places
My mother once showed me an old newspaper photo of a man with his face thoroughly beaten into an unrecognizable pulp. Giggling, she told me that the man was my father.

I looked over at the portly clean-cut man sitting across the breakfast table, wearing a starched white shirt and a navy-blue blazer. He averted his gaze, managing to look sheepish, amused, and defiant all at once.

The story of how my father fell victim to the infamous Bangladeshi Gonopituni (public beating), briefly, is this. In the springtime of his life, Shafat Sattar went to see a performance of his favorite singer, Mitali Mukherjee, at BUET, a famous engineering institute in Dhaka (“Porir moto gola – she had the voice of an angel”, he comments wistfully). He was disappointed. The music, the tune, the beats, it was all wrong. The next day, fuming, he marched up to the composer responsible for this disaster to demand an explanation, an apology, some sort of penance. He was not satisfied with the answer, and promptly did what still, today, strikes him as the only thing he could have done.

He slapped the composer, a student of BUET – in the middle of the BUET cafeteria. What followed is fairly predictable. A minor scuffle ensued, which swiftly turned into the entire BUET campus attempting to deconstruct young Shafat Sattar’s face. “The bugger,” he observes now with an objective air, “deserved it”.

* * *

Robindronath Thakoor (RabindranathTagore)

Bengalis are quick to reveal their pride in their culture. I once asked a film editor why so many journalists I came across in Delhi were Bengalis. He replied, only half-ironically, “I suppose it’s because we have this glorious culture.”

Much of the “glorious culture” Bengalis are so boastful of harkens back to the days of the Bengali Renaissance, dominated by the towering figure of Robindronath Thakoor (or RabindranathTagore for the Hinglophiles). The acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray, his student at Shantiniketan, described him as someone who “looked a bit like God.” And in his home state of West Bengal and in Bangladesh, Robi Thakoor is certainly the subject of the reverence the rest of India accords to its deities.

The first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali, a collection of his poems, Robi Thakoor was a man of multiple talents. He is revered as a poet, author, playwright, and composer, and is credited with completely reshaping Bengali music and literature at the turn of the 20th century. Like many artists he was politically active, returning his knighthood in protest of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, when British forces indiscriminately fired for 10 to 15 minutes into a crowd of peaceful and unarmed protesters in Amritsar. His ideas on Indian independence were controversial, however, advocating “steady and purposeful education” over “blind revolution” and strongly opposing Gandhi’s Swaraj movement which demanded discarding all British legal, political, bureaucratic, military, economic, and educational institutions.

British imperialism, Robindronath believed, was a symptom of India’s social disease rather than the direct cause of its oppression, views that placed him at odds with most Indian nationalists. Nevertheless, his contribution to the independence movement was recognized by these nationalists with the choice of his song “Jana Gana Mana” as the national anthem of the new country. In this regard, Robindronath holds the distinction of having composed the anthems of two countries, with Bangladesh giving “Amar Shonar Bangla” that status immediately after splitting from Pakistan in 1971.

But Robindronath was more than the typical politically conscious or politically active artist. A mystical philosopher, the culmination of his belief in the overarching importance of education to social progress was the creation of Shantiniketon. A school and ashram where Robi Thakoor challenged the dominant model of rote learning, Shantiniketon was where he sought to mould a new consciousness of Bengal and India. Its ideal was to produce social change in rural India by removing the barriers of ignorance and lack of agency that stymie the progress of the rural poor.

His philosophy pervaded every aspect of his work. Jyoti Ghosh, a renowned Bengali singer in Delhi, notes that while he never wrote a specifically philosophical treatise, “every word in the lyrics of every song or poem expressed them more powerfully.” His novels, short stories, and plays all possess this gravitas. Ludwig Wittgenstein, possibly the most famous philosopher of the 20th century, would frequently read sections of Gitanjali out during gatherings of the hard-nosed logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, rubbing in their faces what he considered to be a work that succeeded in expressing something higher than logic and analytical philosophy ever could.

I heard Jyoti Ghosh sing at an event in the India International Center in Delhi commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of the Bengali poet. At the event, a Bengali journalist remarked that “the rest of India is unfortunately mostly apathetic to ‘Tagore’. And this is really our fault. The quality of the translations is poor.” Jyoti Ghosh agrees. It is time, she thinks, for a Robindronath revival.

* * *

Robindronath’s greatest success actually lay in his revival and reinterpretation of the works of one of the most fascinating figures in Bengali history, one who predates the Renaissance. Always inspired by the works of the religious and mystical Sufis and the authors of the Upanishads, Robi Thakoor’s poetry is considered to have reached a new zenith once he encountered the Bengali rural folk tradition of Baul music, and especially the songs of Lalon Fokir.

Allegedly born around 1774, Fokir Lalon Shah, poet, mystic, philosopher, political theorist, Sufi, saint, Baul, Fakir, Hindu, Muslim, the only things one could say with any certainty about the man were that he was Bengali and had survived smallpox. Lalongiti (Lalon’s Songs) form the most unique strand of music in Bengali culture.

The nomadic minstrels of Bengal, the saffron-clad Bauls, can still be found wandering through villages with their ektaras (one-stringed instrument) singing lyrics and melodies that sound timeless and universal. Strange, quasi-religious figures, they transport you into a world of oral tradition, giving off the air of a man who has grasped the elusive truth.

Karthik Das Baul (Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/people/mdemon)

And Fokir Lalon Shah was the Emperor of the Bauls. His songs too were an expression of a philosophy, anti-orthodoxy and praising individual faith over religious institutions. His shrine is still visited by Hindus and Muslims who regard him as a holy figure. They place flowers and other offerings at the shrine to request his blessings, often making personal requests they believe will be helped by the intervention of Lalon’s spirit.

* * *

One of the most fertile lands on Earth, the Bengal delta ought to be a prosperous haven. It is instead a poster child for anti-poverty groups, and famous worldwide for its regular devastation by cyclones and floods. Calcutta was the home base of operations for the East India Company because of the economic bounty it offered, and subsequently became the capital of the British Raj. Several invaders have profited and left their mark, be they Mongols, Pashtuns, British, or Hindu. During British rule the Marwaris became notorious among Bengalis for coming in and setting up shop, sniffing profit-making opportunities in a land where industriousness was frowned upon. Calcutta remained the cultural capital of India up until the disintegration of the Raj, decades after the administration shifted its capital to Delhi. Even today, the film, media, and journalism industries in India have a disproportionally high representation of Bengalis. Churning out intellectuals, artists, singers at impressive rates, Bengal however failed on average to produce businessmen, workers, and professionals.

There is a stereotype in the Indian subcontinent of the lazy Bengali, eager to talk and exposit but unwilling to sweat. Marie Seton, in her biography of the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, cites him as an exception to a people who are otherwise “indolent, full of creative potential but little sense of reliability”. These are generalizations. But generalizations are often borne of truth.

Villagers will toil from early morning to late evening, indentured servants and child laborers will break their backs in the city. The Bangladeshi diaspora in the US, UK, and especially the Middle East and East Asia lead an existence that feeds off of an admirable capacity for hard work and dreams for a brighter future. But the cities of Kolkata, Dhaka, and Chittagong brim with unemployed zamindars living off the last of ancestral wealth, corrupt businessmen and politicians exploiting their position in an elitist society.

The tragedies that plague Bangladesh, and to a lesser extent, West Bengal, are manageable and predictable. Famines, floods, and cyclones happen elsewhere with greater natural force. The devastation they wreak in Bengal is due more to poor planning and lack of preventative and reparative measures.

Year after year, levees break, cyclone warnings are go unheeded, and food prices fluctuate wildly. The cultural richness of Bangladesh and West Bengal goes unreported, while images of suffering and portraits of abject poverty are beamed across the globe.

So is this obsession with culture a distraction, a form of escapism from the very harsh realities of life in Bengal? Or is it something ingrained, a part of the essence of what it means to be Bengali, like a love of sweets and ghee? It may be both, but it might also be part of the solution to Bengali society’s ills.

After a half century of comparative dormancy since the end of the Bengali Renaissance, there appears to be a revitalization of culture taking place in Bangladesh, with a new entrepreneurial twist. Fashion brands like Aarong have discovered there is a large market for products that bear the distinct stamp of Bengali heritage, and their success is providing livelihoods for thousands of rural artisans in villages throughout the country. New brands are jumping on the bandwagon, and the products being sold are diversifying. Similarly, the old Bengali tradition of Jatra – a form of musical theater – is being revived, this time by NGOs attempting to use it as a platform to educate the public about important social issues.

* * *

A concluding anecdote. When I was around seven or eight, the television adaptation of the writer Humayun Ahmed’s Kothao Keu Nei (There’s Nobody Anywhere) was airing on the solitary state-run BTV channel to a massive audience. In the penultimate episode the hero – the roguish, but noble and charming Baker Bhai (pronounced Baa-kerr) – is sentenced to death on charges of murder. He’s been framed, betrayed by his close friend and chela. The entire nation was outraged.

Two days before the airing of the final episode (which of course had been taped days/weeks earlier), word began to spread that Baker Bhai was going to die. Those who had read the book the show was based on had revealed that there was no last-minute intervention, no great escape, no deus ex machina in store. Baker Bhai would hang.

The next day the streets were ringing with the chants of a spontaneous procession: ‘Baker Bhaier Mukti Chai – Free Baker Bhai’ demanded the incensed protesters. In a country where the majority of the people are almost completely disenfranchised politically and economically, whose lives have been battered by nature and by the system, this level of investment in a cultural icon is perhaps foolish, and certainly amusing. But Bangladeshis are definitely taking their culture seriously.
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