Sunday, January 07, 2001

Bangladesh 2001: The Myth of Bengalee Culture - Part 2


06. The Confusing Cultural Components - Thriving on Chaos

Well let the 'cultural confusion' begin with this hybrid mix, an art specific.

Very rarely in the world does one come across the term 'Cultural Function'. Yet here in Bangladesh it is something that we have grown and lived with, and have pretty much gotten used to. It usually is a 'panch mishalee' or a cocktail program of five or more cultural components, in the neighbourhood auditorium, hall or community centre - even the streets and bye lanes are passé, where 'cultural exercise' if we may, is nothing more than rendering of a few ritualistic songs from Tagore or Nazrul with unsmiling and unemotional artist who keep their eyes closed and nostril's flared, poetry recital in a language that is not only archaic but deliberately 'intellectual' - yet Bengalee, a humorous skit thrown in for good measures, dancing, half a drama (one act plays), a 'patriotic song' - followed by a celebrity appearance etc. To promote token awareness of 'indigenous' culture a folk element might be interspersed - and kept for the fag end of the 'functions' these days is the liveliest component, drawing the largest audience which is more in tune with changing realities : performances of Bengalee rock music band's popularly called Band Music, that has predominantly the young oriented with Western music - screaming and dancing, to the disgust of purist.

Despite its immense popularity Band Music has still been shoved to the sideline by 'mainstream' culturist who portray this 'new addition' as 'oposhangskriti' or 'subversive culture'! An in-depth study of the new phenomenon will conclude this piece.

07. The Elitist Cultural Pogrom - Sliding Backwards hopelessly

However surprise of all surprise - all of this is upstaged by none else then a 'Chief Guest' - who is somebody that has sponsored the program or is an, 'educated and cultured functionary' of the local political elite, whose job, as the invitation card will explain in bookish Bengalee, is to have 'consented to grace the occasion with his Honourable presence'. He is privileged with a 'red carpet' reception as he walks in, red rose bouquets handed to him by children, cutting of red ribbons follow, whereupon he sits in the special throne placed in his honour centre stage, and 'declares the function open'.

Following this a long drawn speech, where the emphasis will be nothing more than the 'importance of holding such cultural functions' in our 'day to day to day' life - and tongue in cheek, solicit support for his candidature in the upcoming municipal or state level polls as the case may be.

The applause from the audience follows as if on a queue, and continue uninterrupted well until the 'Chief Guest' has left the venue - usually before the 'Cultural tamasha' starts - and signal for the raucous ribaldry to begin !

Some 'functions' may continue unabated till the wee hours of dawn and the entire neighbourhood would have to brave it - regardless of old, young, sick, healthy, births or deaths ! Rain or violence may sometimes prove a damper - however the culture of insensitivity, violation of privacy and public nuisance is all part of the Bangladesh 'cultural inheritance'.

Human rights violation? We still haven't quite got that figured out.

From neighbourhood, towns to municipalities - on to the huge state sponsored 'cultural functions'; variations abound yet the format is dreadfully the same as in the basic neighbourhood 'functions'- including the ones we have to view on television. Yawn!

They are 'part and parcel' of political rallies and precede or follow political speeches. Incredible amount of money is spent - yet what are real returns from such charades are never discussed. A lot of this garbage is (exported) 'sent abroad' in state sponsored 'cultural delegations' - and whilst the local media demon's will harp up stories of how foreigners were 'enthralled' by our 'cultural troupe'- we have never heard any appreciation or critique of such events from the foreign press or their media?

To date there is no international cultural personality among Bengalee's.

Foreign dignitaries are routinely subjected to the onslaught and ignominy of 'cultural functions' - and one remembers the boxer Mohammad Ali dosing off to sleep in a 'function held in his honour' at the President House in the early eighties!

A mish-mash of various components of culture are supposed to 'enrich' our 'ordinary people' and anyone that has the 'privilege' of coming anywhere near us following our orientation to such idiosyncrasies.

08. The 'Educated and Cultured' Bengalee - Beginning of an Anathema

Therefore what we have accumulated in large doses consequent to such exercises, particularly in the Bengalee middle class is a now a brand new and yet more complicated breed of denizens called the 'educated and cultured Bengalee' - to replace the sobriquet 'educated Bengalee'.

They could well be the second-generation 'educated' offspring's, - with the genetic strains of 'Oitijyo' firmly in place! These days they also come tagged with newer and more colourful labels like 'cultural luminaries', 'conscience of the nation', 'national poets', and 'literatteurs' - not to forget the much fornicated expression - 'intellectuals'.

This is somebody who is ready to mouth the quotes of your favourite Bengalee poet at the drop of a hat, discuss in 'symposium' the earnestness of remaining Bengalee, the great pride and respect he has for his forefathers, a large dose of 'political democracy' - which is usually partisan in nature, of how 'dangerous' it is to promote or 'ape alien cultures', bring in historical references from your grandfathers time to explain to you, how useless you are and how little you have learnt since the year eighteen hundred and so and so, and ofcourse the 'great Bengalee culture' that starts only with Rabindranath Tagore (eyes closed again) and ends with him too !

All of this 'fatwa' (edict) while he sports a smart shirt and trouser, or the more patriotic and supposedly 'pure Bengalee attire' of a Punjabi kurta - none of which are really Bengalee in origin?

"All the people of a society collectively create and maintain culture. Societies preserve culture for much longer that the life of one person" John H. Bodley

The ultimate feather in the cap to 'modern Bengalee culture' it appears was Tagore's Nobel Prize for Literature way back in 1913. That Tagore was awarded the prize for Literature (a bad English translation of Geetanjaali) and not 'Bengalee literature' per se - is a fact that is quickly brushed aside.

Tagore for reasons unknown, is held in near religious reverence in Bangladesh, considered a 'world poet' - when much of the world has not even heard his hard to pronounce name, and any innocent 'or ignorant enquiry' therefore into the 'sage' is equated to a 'blasphemous attack'. An absence of knowledge on Tagore - in depth and details - may result in your Bangladesh citizenship to be stripped - after all it was he who penned our 'national anthem' (Amar Sonar Bangla) - or was it a lift-off from the Baul tune that the local postman of infamy, Gagun Harkara would hum, as he delivered letters to the poet in the sack full?

Apologies in order. (A very Bengalee gesture of sobriety and decency!)

To add a healing balm to those readers, 'gravely incensed' by the above - I nonetheless have to admit, that Tagore must be credited - for without that 'fateful' Nobel Prize - the Bengalee would have remained an unheard of 'stone age tribe' inhabiting the vast wilderness between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal - by rest of those 'brutes in the civilised world' !!

09. Golden Bengal - The Cultural Diaspora

The mental picture of a 'Sonar Bangla' or 'Golden Bengal' that the 'serious Bengalee' conjures in his imagination, is however one of Bengal in the turn of the last century - and one that is completely alien to the way the world is shaped today i.e. Bangladesh 2001.

With reminiscences of village peasantry and their life - where bullock carts have more preference than an automobile, where polluted ponds (wash, bathe, fish, urinate, defecate and then drink the same water) is more acceptable, than 'tube well hand pumps' - are only indicators that Bangladesh has been condemned by its 'cultural activist' to dwell in the 'beauty' of the dark ages - well before the advent of any technological advancement.

No wonder friends of mine in the decal business were in for a rude shock - when they did not find a single buyer for the sticker 'Amar Sonar Bangla Ami Tomai Bhalobashi' - or 'Golden Bengal I love thee', in the book fair of 1990. They had printed more than 50,000 of them!

"Today for instance many people around the world use similar kinds of technology, such as cars, telephones and televisions. Commercial trade and communication technologies, such as computer networks, have created a form of global culture. Therefore it has become increasingly difficult to find culture that is shared within only a single society." John H. Bodley

10. Traditionalist and constant rewind - The backward way forward !

At fifteen if you are not a Marxist you are a fool. At twenty-five, if you are still a Marxist - you are a bloody fool!

The 'traditionalist' lives by his double standards. What he publicly 'expounds' with aplomb, is actually what he holds in contempt in private. The tall talks and the fashionable Marxist utopia - without which a Bengalee is never complete - of 'standing by' the 'shadharon jonogon' is the greatest lie he has invented. To remain poor but proud is the 'culture' that he must underscore in his attempt to appear a cultural cognisanti.

It is this appreciation of the 'golden days of yore' and the propaganda of the concern for the 'shadharon jonogon', that keeps our cultural dinosaurs, pundits and their prodigies foaming at the mouth - as if the whole world has somehow stopped circling, when the Bengalee decided to change the British soporific pun 'of what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow', to that of what 'Bangladesh thinks today - the world will think tomorrow'.

How little Bangladesh means in the confluence's of nation's or where we stand with our pompous 'Bengalee culture' are standard issues that 'may not be discussed' with pain of being branded renegade, or even 'unpatriotic'. We have decided to close ourselves in an isolationist mode and take great pride in wallowing in our own excrement. A constant rewind is thus what we have inherited to explain our 'culture' - the fast forward button in reality does not exist.

This constant rewind is aptly described visually and textually to subscribers of Readers Digest, February 2001 edition. Readers will find similar pictures and attitudes in an ad placed by the flag carrier of Bangladesh, that has a blurb:

"Fly Biman to Tagore's Golden Bengal. We have kept them safe for you as the 21st century unfolds when exploring the past is even beautiful than dreaming for the future. Make it once in your lifetime with… Biman Bangladesh Airlines, your home in the sky'

I would have loved to add, explore the past - dont even dare dream, because Bangladesh is a once in a lifetime experience - a bitter experience.

But why is that so?

First Published 7th January 2001

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