Saturday, December 31, 2011

Culture, Shons-Krishi and my Gumcha story


by Mac Haque

"জেনে শুনে মুরাউ মাথা জাত এ উঠবি, মানুষ ভজলে সোনার মানুষ হবি" ফকির লালন শাহ

"Wrap your head consciously, and you will rise above the prejudices of class" Fakir Lalon Shah

No discussion on culture is ever complete as they have a tendency to get seriously bogged down over definitions. The simplistic notion that our cultural cognisantis will put forward is one that is riddled with generalized reference to rituals. Songs, dance, books, poetry, play and the fine arts etc are apparently culture! However cultural awakening simply cannot come about by making statements, but by taking a firm stand, and no matter how difficult, idiosyncratic or insane it may seem, unless the prevailing status quo is not challenged, no conceivable change to our fate or destiny is as such possible.

Shonskriti or culture as we know it in Bangladesh is a product and extension of British colonialism, and formulated on the very same premise as krishi or 'agriculture'. It basically meant that individuals or groups selected by the Raj were empowered with sufficient wealth and know how, as also sobriquets such as Zamindars (landlords) and Khan Bahadur's (tax and levy payers) and unbridled control over land. These local lackeys would then go on to determine the course of our ancestor's life and our existence.

Their 'job' was to control or manipulate Mother Nature for purpose of producing cash crops which was then sold to a majority for profit. 'Control and manipulation' were buzzwords introduced as tools for wanton oppression by an obscene minority upon a sufferable majority. Tragically the minority as such were not born into poverty.

The same principals continues to be applied in what we identify as 'culture' today, and the overriding intent is 'control' – however with a slight variation. The times over two centuries ago were thought ripe to 'control and manipulate' the thought process and aspirations of the majority – 'lowly and wild humans' who like animals had to be leashed in and branded. They were after all the chotoloke, read - subordinate culture, low life, and poor riff raffs.

Brit pampered minority views, ideas and representations of thought processes that were alien and unheard of, were effectively bulldozed-in and made standard parameters of behavioral judgment. In today's context we may look at it as a devastating 18th Century 'mind control' experiment which met with unimaginable success. Things like what is or not aesthetically sound, and or of 'pure taste and refinement' etc were of supreme interest.

It laid a pseudo socio-political-philosophical base to justify political exploitation. Acceptance to these domination theories, masquerading as 'culture' came easy as they were left unchallenged. Conveniently overlooked then as even now, is these heavy duty impositions from a different culture were never thought as 'oposhonskriti' or even alien counter-culture?

Consequently what we have today with our so-called 'progressive forces upholding culture' in Bangladesh in their zilch understanding, is propounding a mindset which remains totally alien and obscure to the majority, and its not as if its unknown to them. It is a puritanical trap and one we have not been able to do away with and perhaps will never do away anytime soon. What we are left with by default is a 'forceful shons-krishi' or the fusion of two words 'agriculture and culture', passing off as holier than thou 'shonskriti'.

Our date with fate has thereafter been marked only with pitfalls. Our cultural confusions continue to precipitate into a maze of myriad and damaging dimensions, none of which the sufferable can either control or complain about. Clearly while the Brits and the Pakistanis may have been kicked out from our 'sacred land' - what they have left behind is a legacy that has been firmly implanted into our genes. We have a mindset which while reveling on the wondrous conduits that culture has to offer, is yet one that is deluded and leads us to oppress without our even been conscious about it. Cultural cohesion is as yet an unknown domain for us.

My Gumcha story starts here.

In 1970 I traveled to my ancestral home in Borholla, Jorhat, Assam to attend the wedding of a favorite uncle. What amused initially but later fascinated me were the gifts of 'gamusa' (literally meaning body cleaner or sweat dryer) he received - and there were over a hundred – with a broad range of motifs, design and shape, offered by his students, fellow teachers and other villagers. Little did I realize in my adolescent curiosity that the gamusa would be my first practical initiation to culture – and love, obsession and importantly faith for its Bangladesh counterpart, the Gumcha?

The lessons I learnt were important. In Assam there is no class or community called tati or 'weavers'. Almost all homes have their own handloom and each gamusa therefore bears the unique signature of a family, clan or household. Spun in pure cotton, the base is traditionally white or off-white color and unlike its Bangladesh counterpart the Gumcha, has beautifully embroidered side borders with indigenous motifs that date back centuries.

The Assamese Gamusa

That being a physical description, the socio-cultural angle to the gamusa is profound. It is used in Assam for more than the purpose of a body cleaner or sweat dryer per se. When a guest arrives for the very first time or after protracted absence, the rituals of adoroni or 'welcome to the loving fold' is done with betel nuts and leaves and a new gamusa is adorned around the neck or shoulder of the visitor. The ritual has been handed down to each generation from times of the reformist Sage Shankardeva or even earlier. It is not uncommon for a visitor to reciprocate with a similar offering. Gift of a gamusa is thought to pay recognition and homage for a persons wisdom and talents.

In Assam almost everybody sports a gamusa irrespective of the fact that they may or may not be wearing traditional dresses. The significance and the ritual offering of gamusa are noticeable even in Government functions and/or Cultural celebration like the three national cultural festivals, the Bihu. During agnostic rituals in Shankardeva inspired mufti-faith-denominational Naam ghar or prayer halls, gamusa are used for varied purpose, such as wrapping ancient manuscripts, prayer books or even as offerings to the priest or headman.

In Bangladesh it is entirely a different story, for none have been able to convince me about the history of the Gumcha (made from pure cotton, are bright and multi-colored) or about it's a socio-political-cultural significance, which it obviously has.

All we know and all that our city bred citizens have been led to believe is, the Gumcha is synonymous with chotoloke. In reality, the multi-utility Gumcha, other than drying sweat off, it is a rag that can be used to clean almost anything, as dusters for table, chairs, even toilets! Village folks use it for catching fish fries or carrying dry provisions such as rice, salt etc from markets.

It can also be used to keep dust off ones face and considered more convenient and hygienic than a towel, as it takes less than ten minutes to dry in summer. Farm and day laborers use it as a head cover to keep off the scorching sun, as well as base to protect their cranium when they carry heavy bricks or mortar. The finest demonstration of how a Gumcha can be wrapped around the head is noticeable among rickshaw pullers in Dhaka and elsewhere.

In the early 90's when I started wearing the Gumcha seriously I was taken aback by the mighty sounds of disapproval. This was not only limited to people who did not know me personally, but very many well meaning friends and relatives, and many who I may say were educated and 'culturally progressive'. At least they all knew a song or two of Tagore by heart!

The questions were baffling. 'Why on earth are you wearing a Gumcha?' and that by the way, not borne out of curiosity but SHOCK. My retorts revolved around a bewildered, 'but why not', to 'tell me what's so wrong about it' would be met with deafening silence or spiteful indifference.

The whisper campaign behind my back was, 'Mac has taken on a rickshaw puller, day laborer mentality' or even worse that a transformation has set in, whereby I wasn't being 'rational' in my dress and attitude, and was becoming 'khyat' meaning unrefined, unsophisticated, peasant like, straight off the paddy field? It wasn't long before the word Pagla Maqsood or 'insane' was being underscored with double strokes below my name! My association with the Baul fraternity didn't make things any easier.

Even though my intentions were never so; wearing a Gumcha tied as a bandana on my head was not to be a 'fashion statement' as quite simply anything worn by the majority can be anything, but 'fashion'? Head gears are worn in almost all cultures, from the Arab Kaffiyeh, to the Mullah's tupi, to Jewish skullcaps, to the English hat; to American baseball cap etc and are all passé in Bangladesh. But what beat me completely in those early days, was how a simple piece of clothe used by almost eighty-five percent of the population of Bangladesh DAILY, when worn by a city-bred musician such and me, could be the butt of ridicules, jokes in poor taste and rancor?

I realized over time that the hostility was not ideally directed to me, but as a culmination of our genetic hatred for the poor. This is the implied 'children of a lesser God' doing overtime in the minds and mentality of those living a sheltered and prosperous life, in our hypocritical society. I prepared to challenge each and every scumbag notion against the Gumcha and defend those who wear it. I couldn't care less. My revolt became more focused, and instead of being dissuaded, I persisted and wanted to see how far I can go. I stepped up the attack and ended up making more enemies than friends.

Bibi Russell

In 1995 I met the International fashion icon of Bangladesh Bibi Russell for the first time at the house of my friend Rubana Huq. Seeing the Gumcha I was wearing, she gave me a bemused but over all look of pride, and asked me over to her office in Motijheel the following day. When I reached her Rahman Mansion office and display center I was in for a huge shock myself.

Bibi had an entire range of Gumcha shirts, pants, ladies wear, baseball caps, dining and bedroom accessories! All of 1995 and 1996 I collaborated with Bibi whenever there was any fashion show, and all of them had aggressive Gumcha promotion. In summer of 1996, Bibi and her troupe went to Paris for an exclusive haute couture event where a track from my first Baul fusion with FeedBack and Abdur Rahman Boyati was played during catwalk passes. The interest for Gumcha in the West was unbelievable.

That being a more positive early incident in my ongoing story of the Gumcha, I remember the particularly sad events as well.

In 1997 I was barred from entering a functions at the Sonargaon Hotel because, while my jeans, T shirt and dinner jacket was okay, the security guard wanted me to take my Gumcha off as it was 'inappropriate'. I complied, folded it into my pocket, stepped in, went to the Gents and promptly put it on. For the rest of the evening I proceeded to shock and harass the genteel and their many pretensions.

Around the same time, I read about our 'progressive cultural elite' scoring a victory of sort by entering the Dhaka Club with their 'national dresses'? How on earth the 'Punjabi' as the word suggests, and the attire of our Pakistani colonizers went on to become the Bengalee 'national dress' is yet unknown to me!

And there was this talk show in 1999 on 'culture' in ATN TV and in a long time I was face-to-face with our pompous Culture Vultures. As expected they wanted my Gumcha off before the cameras started whirring. I stood my ground and questioned etymologically whether their Punjabi was at all Bengalee?

In disgust I reminded them, 'if there is anything 'cultural' or Bengalee about this evening, it's my Gumcha which I wear with pride on my head. If you can't accept that, I might as well leave'. Good sense prevailed and I carried on, but when the program was aired, most of what I had to say was predictably, edited out.

Finally it was left for my Baul fraternity to explain the Gumcha in its symbolic socio-cultural-philosophical significance.

Much as an ox carries the yoke as its burden of keeping man alive (as in agriculture), the Gumcha is worn symbolically by those that have taken on the yoke of the poor consciously. However, for those wearing them on their head, it is to symbolize that at no times does our thoughts drift away from the poorest of the poor, the farmers, the day laborers, and the riff-raffs in Bangladesh. Ultimately it is them and how they formulate our thought process, is what will make us a NATION, and not the other way around.

On my part, I could be whoever I am, and even though I may be just be one among millions, I am a citizen of Bangladesh and do have a right to think and act the way I do. I only wish I had more on my side. Can it be that those reading this piece will make a New Year resolution to buy, wear or use a Gumcha?
Bibi's model

If not anything, please remember that the few Taka (no higher that 150) you spend buying an individual Gumcha will perhaps keep a poor farmer family alive somewhere in Bangladesh for a full day? This is not only your chance to be of service to the marginalized that are too proud to extend a begging bowl for sustenance, but a chance for you to contribute to your culture – directly?

Let's look at 'accessorizing' Bangladesh all of 2012 by demanding that the Gumcha be declared a 'national headdress', as we do not have one. Nothing could be more secular, generic, genetic or democratic!

New Age Xtra, Friday, 30th December 2011

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