Monday, January 01, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 1

"The English term culture actually came into use during the Middle Ages. It is derived from the Latin word for cultivation as in the practice of nurturing domesticated plants in gardens. Thus, the word originally referred to people's role in controlling nature." John H. Bodley

01. Where we are at - The Perceived Threat Analysis

Culture, its strength, and far reaching implications in social, national and political life, has remained the most dangerously misunderstood human phenomenon in Bangladesh's aesthetic development. In our constant yearning for 'excellence' - culture in Bangladesh has by far remained a force that has rarely been cultivated and nurtured towards those basic human instinct's : understanding and appreciation, to the way forward.

In Bangladesh culture always had the natural capacity and ingredients in huge bounties to enrich itself through exchange and 'fomenting', of newer trends and attitudes. Had we allowed only an iota of 'space' for sustained nourishment, it would have helped gel unique new dimensions, with far reaching implications. Instead we have chosen to restrict and restrain positive inclinations that time demanded, and have rejected them without enquiry or understanding, expeditiously tagging them that one all encompassing sinister label, 'threats from aliens' or 'alien culture'. We have traditionally shied off acquiring knowledge, more than what our 'text books' could offer. The stimuli for recognition of natural extelligence that leads on to acculturation and the book of human experience that is so much a part of it, is albeit unknown to us.

The potent 'life force' culture truly represents in any civilisation, is something that we have never recognised, and the basic understanding of the confluence's of human interaction over time and space, wherein 'time' does not mean something that 'necessarily' remain stagnant has only exasperated our imagination, and our complications continue to multiply. Our limitations and inability to perform has become pathetically apparent.

02. Innuendoes in our Vocabulary - The Puritanist Trap

To begin, the word 'shuddho shangskriti ' or 'pure and unadulterated culture' in our popular vocabulary, indicates in a peculiar way, that by some tryst of destiny only the Bengalee race has been blessed with an 'experience', no other culture in humankind has had the (mis) fortune of inheriting!

The 'puritanist' Bengalee mindset is constantly trying to redefine its cultural bearing, its identity, and every time it does so - it only reels backward into a veritable time-warp, which as I have argued in several of my earlier writings: has been the traditional enemy of Bangladesh.

The existence of debasing and such hard to define term such as 'Bangali mulyobodh' or Bengalee value system in our cultural life - has only contributed to 'devalue' and derail all our inherent possibilities. If at all there is such a 'system', who ascertains the parameter's of 'value', and how 'invaluable' our culture is, in economics or heritage terms, is something that has never been explored, explained or examined. For now it is a void in the great Bengalee psyche.

"Cultural adaptations have made humans one of the most successful species on the planet. Culture must benefit people, atleast in the short term, in order for it to be passed on to new generations." John H. Bodley

03. Obfuscating our Strength - The Educated Scavengers

Bangladesh is not devoid of creativity or great talent, the most important criteria in the development of culture. What has hindered any major cultural breakthrough is an establishment supported paranoia - a prevalent notion amongst it aristocracy who wish to position themselves as cultural harbingers, that Bengalee culture is indeed so 'unique and rare' that the only way forward is by its 'conservation' - equivalent to a species going extinct.

Problem is, we have not learnt the first rule of conservation, and really where to start? We remain in a state of flux and those that indulge in the 'luxury' of 'cultural exercise' or prefer to identify themselves with social bouquet's of 'cultural activist' are ofcourse a parochial minority their greatest achievement: an 'educated' status.

It is necessary here to have a clear insight into this apathetic Bengalee 'educated' mindset - specially when he desperately tries to masquerade as a representative icon, for the rest of the population of Bangladesh, whom he patronisingly refers to as the 'shadharon jonogon' meaning ' ordinary', or 'riff raff layman'.

He is ofcourse part of the implied 'oshadharon jonogon' or extra-ordinary people, who has only acquired a hog wash of an education, a legacy of the British colonisers, meant only to raise himself into this veritable pedestal from where it is only 'propah' to look down with an extremely myopic vision at his less fortunate native 'country cousin'.

His inferiority complex is evident in his calling or business card, which provide not only his very short name, but longer lines of his BA, MA and Phd degree collected over a period of time, and spiced with the names of the educational institutes that were kind enough to hand him over 'overseas' - complete with his 'Distinction' and 'First Class First' result! The worst cultural obscenity are cards with photograph inlayed and one is likely to get confused as to the bearer's intentions i.e. is this a ready ceevee or an identification label?

All of this reflects back to mentalities and memories of the turn of the eighteenth century, well onto the nineteen sixties, when Bangladesh truly was an agrarian and rural society, and where it was normal for hundreds of peasants from over 'baro gram' or twelve or more villages to congregate, congratulate and pay 'obeisance' to any prodigal son who was fortunate to have completed his Bachelor or Master degree from the 'city'. Matrimonial proposals saw them feasting nightly, in the houses of prospective in-laws.

In those days of 'yore' the 'city' was ofcourse Kolkata or Dhaka. The acquiring of 'coveted' degrees would immediately place the fortunate in a category much above the rest of the 'commoner' - a new 'Prince' of sort, whose father or uncles could well be 'rustic peasants' sunk knee deep next door in the paddy fields, in his community or village. The degree therefore was no more than a 'coronation' acquisition.

04. Tradition - An Obscurantist Conspiracy

'Oitijyo' or 'tradition' - a sham and esoteric ideology in the cultural domain, is what they had hoped, could be championed due to this newfound stature, and it was very fashionable those days for the educated gentry to 'acquire' those pretensions. The establishment was constantly on the lookout for such 'educated', if not gifted individuals. They were the available 'civil people' ready, to fill in the jobs in the new civil service - which was the only convenient ladder in place to rise to a new pseudo aristocracy, promptly.

Nothing exceptional could be expected culturally out of these weird new specimens - but they did master the fine art of 'rejection' - i.e. anything they perceived to be a threat to their limited intelligence. Rejection of new ideas, trends or philosophies came naturally and has since been the forte of cultural manipulation by these die-hard neo traditionalist, their mentors and this came hand in hand with unnecessary state patronage, as they formed the core group of the new ruling establishment. It is therefore a disgrace that 'culture' as defined in Bangladesh even to this day is nothing more than the harping of 'traditionalist' dogma - or the perpetuation of hate mongering and promotion of small coterie interest - by those that have connived to ensnare their shameless presence in the so called Bangladesh 'cultural arena' through ages - propelled in recent times, by sustained media overkill.

Narrow, political, business and social exigencies and use of 'black money' have been more important than sharing or collating rudimentary human interest or experience, in the propagation of 'culture'. Fascist forces and unholy machinations have perpetually been employed to keep Bangladesh's cultural possibilities to deliberately tether on the brink of backwardness. This has all too often contributed to the absence of any effort for a progressive or uniform cultural enhancement, or the development of a 'National Thought Process' that is the abject need of the hour, if Bangladesh wants a firm footing with the players, in the global cultural arena, here in the new millennium.

05. Culture - Groping for a definition

But before I ramble on, it becomes imperative to try and explain what culture is all about?

"A common practice is to divide all of culture into three broad categories, material, social and ideological. A fourth category, the arts, has characteristics of both material and ideological culture. Material culture includes products of human manufacture, such as technology. Social culture pertains to people's forms of organization - how people interact and organize themselves in groups. Ideological culture relates to what people think, value, believe, and hold as ideals. The arts include such activities and areas of interest as music, sculpture, painting, pottery, theater, cooking, writing and fashion. Anthropologist often study how these categories of culture differ across different types of societies that vary in scale size and complexity." John H. Bodley

Clearly there is no ONE easy definition - and those that have tried have always been proved wrong. From these earlier and simplistic definitions, culture has meant different things to different people over different periods of time. Again I reemphasize here the vitality and vibrancy of time and space as the hard basis to any standard definition of culture - for far too many definition are becoming obsolete over too little time. Such is the buoyancy of culture in this new millennium.

Ironically it is only the 'components' of culture' (the arts) - and not diversity in culture, itself that is blown out of context to the average citizen of Bangladesh in an excuse of an 'explanation' or definition, when he tries to delve deep and fathom the unfathomable sea that culture truly is all about. It is again 'attempted' explanation by doublespeak neophytes to 'culture', such as the author of this piece, that probably adds more to this confusion!

First Published 1st January 2001

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