Friday, July 12, 2013

The corporate usurpation of cultural icons - Part 1


by Mac Haque

‘Cultural icons do what brands strive to do: to be imprinted in our consciousness. Icons are irreplaceable, incomparable and timeless, whereas many brands are commonplace, inconsistent and indistinguishable. Brands can learn a lot from cultural icons.’ Harvest, Lessons from Cultural Icons


In any discussion on culture, we narrow it down by common understanding to regimes confined to specifically fine art forms, its components, proponents or their visible exponents in our social and national life. While the broader definition of culture could easily overlap each other and get mired by definitions alone, culture as we know or identify with immediately, is no more than the dynamic interactions of our sixth senses.

The human species, unexplainable and intangible sixth sense in turn creates the stimuli as how we instantly identify, accept or reject ideas and concepts that in most cases are construct of the human mind. Other than our physical beings, humans since the dawn of civilisation have been provoked, made passionate, and have also artificially induced urges, whereby it craved and capitulated to a yearning for things that may or may not have had any number values assigned whatsoever. 

Yet when it comes to our national cultural life, many of these cravings and product of the emotion or intellect are often invaluable, priceless and precious. What therefore is identified as cultural icons in ideas or concept is; no individual or a community owns them, in fact proprietorship of such icons are owned by the public at large, the citizens of a country and to a large degree by the state, who in today’s world shoulder the gravest of responsibilities in protecting them.

What is a matter of great pride is when it comes to conflict of interest; on national cultural icons, there is usually none. It is the beauty of joint ownership by all, of such icons, the commonalities of our instant appreciation that gratifies our senses of well being and makes culture such a delectable ‘commodity’ as such.

Historically, patrons of culture – specifically those of the fine arts were hemmed in from three strata of our society, the nobility, the communities and the common man - with all contributing to nurturing its appreciation, growth and promotion. With the dawn of modern nation states, governments in turn took on and enlarged the scope, field, participation and development of culture and its many varied components. 

The support to culture leads on to aesthetic developments of individuals or groups of citizens, who then as a matter of praxis acquire a higher level of creative output in getting things done or are organised and executed, in precise, acceptable terms of reference of the masses expectations. The acquiring of talents for precision delivery of ideas in high order and sophistication is the ultimate and indispensible regime of cultural exercises of any kind.

In Bengal, until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was the nobility, the Maharajas, Kings, Emperors and feudal landlords that supported and patronised the fine arts and the components were expansive. From music, dancing, painting, drama and dramatics, literature, poetry, astrology, cosmology, agriculture, history and its recording, sculpture, to tapestry and architecture as much as food, recipes, drinks and cuisines – the list is long.  

What we have comprehensibly and collectively acquired in our beings, over the centuries is a contextual record of how culture has helped us acquire and expand our common sense of belonging and pride – and what is termed our value system or mulyobodh in Bangla. Those values in numbers were not limited as doles or a one-off cash handouts to a particular cultural component, but were distributed across to skilled people in the field for generations, and who went on to become seasoned professionals thereafter. They were largesse offered to artists, musicians, artisans etc cash grants, stipends, scholarships, land, cash and jewellery and outright purchase of artwork, holding of concerts and recitals at palaces as well as fairs and exhibitions where artwork could be bought and sold. 

The nobility and emerging elite class in turn made culture a religious discipline by encouraging contributions in promoting and constructing opulent Temples, Mosques and Minarets, Shrines, Khankas, Monasteries, Pagodas, magnificent buildings and by commissioning statues, artworks, and welfare of pilgrims etc thereby leaving a firm physical imprint of ways and means as how culture ought to be promoted, practiced and preserved for posterity. Culture soon evolved into a social byproduct and not one merely guided by rituals, but importantly in the preservation of values in society. Moral and ethical values or noitik mulyobodh evolved in our culture and took firm roots.

The outreach of the nobility and elite promotion of culture resulted in its reflection and replication down to the communities and the common man, who in turn promoted and patronised cultural regimes as well. Events having socio-religious-cultural and even commercial significance such as Pujas, Melas, Shadhu Shongo, Kirtan, Baul, Murshidi, Ma’arefoti, Jari, Shari music, funding of libraries, schools, Madrassahs, Makhtabs, to exhibitions, became part of the communities cultural value system or shamajik mulyobodh which went on to fashion socially acceptable behavioural patterns, where ethics and aesthetics both played a significant part. 

Local functions, neighbourhood talent contest, publications, stipends and scholarship became part of a community supported cultural activities and this led to newer avenues of cultural phenomenon’s and components being added specifically from our vast folklore – and the transformation and acceptance of the dominant heritage culture was completed.

However, it is the richness and diversity of our culture that also contributed to our own doom, and the advent of the early colonialist to the soil of South Asia, whether they be Portuguese, French or the British, it was our culture with its immense potentialities that enamoured them, that later turned to greed. From initial curiosity and later its real, intended or imagined promotion and patronisation to outright loot and plunder of cultural commodities and icons, history teaches us how dangerous it is, if preservation and conservation routines are not included into the regimes of culture or for that matter even ‘cultural policing’. 

While we go about promoting culture, do we even have the flimsiest of knowledge as how culture can be usurped and what contextual historical records available have repeatedly taught us or have left many a disappointing examples? If we trace back the history of Dhaka muslin for instance, a fabric that evolved around the 9th Century in Bangladesh, we may be able to focus on how and why we lost this most precious cultural commodity of a kind unknown anywhere in the world. 

The Greeks are slated to be among the first to trade in muslin and by the time the British arrived in our soil, after praising and eulogising the fabric for decades on how Persian and European nobility purchased them in ‘price of gold’ and its multiple use i.e. funnel for decanting wine vessels, separating mush from any fruit, and cheese making,  beekeeping, to use in defusing lights at theatres, or still photography as well as stopping bleeding during neurosurgery – it set about a destruction of this priceless cultural icon by criminally amputating the fingers of the finest Dhaka muslin weavers!

And the plain reason for such horrific cultural crimes was the British wanted to popularise and promote Manchester – then churning out machine made yarns and fabrics at a fraction of the cost of muslins. Mahatma Gandhi’s insistence of weaving and wearing handlooms fabrics set the tone and standards of cultural resistance to the British as much as that of Independence after nearly 200 years of domination. It also heralded the dawn of the Industrial age, and warning bells were sounded on the ultimate demise of cultural commodities that evolved, or were developed over centuries by our own people. The impending threats to traditional knowledge and the culture they represent was never, ever so pronounced.

As a continuation of cultural icon’s usurpation and pilferage; by the time the British left the soils of India, most of what we have treasured including the Kohinoor diamond (originally from mines in Andhra Pradesh) or the Peacock Throne of the Mughals were looted and taken to Britain as ‘spoils of war’ where it remains as even today, sitting shamelessly on the pretty head and throne of the Queen of England.

Whatever may have been our historical millstones to cultural aspirations, there is no denying that we Bengalis as a race have always been at the forefront of major cultural renaissances in South Asia. The Bengali’s natural creative instinct is not only sophisticated and of very high order, they have been aptly and repeatedly demonstrated in all our major political struggles, resistance and the revolutions, which we have been pitted into for centuries. An idyllic race that produces poets, philosophers, artisans and musicians, Bengal has always been the defacto cultural capital of South Asia, a hub that bridged the expanse to Europe and Persia in the West as well as to South East Asia in its heydays.

Despite all of the above, the cause for our culture often being brutally compromised is our racially self-degrading penchant and ‘love’ for anything foreign – and/or foreigners, and a frustratingly paralysed inability to understand the fine and thin line that cuts through culture and commerce. When it comes to marketing ourselves, we have only heralded disasters. 

Least recognised yet highly relevant is the point that be it the French, British or even the Pakistani colonisers, their first thrust at occupation of our land and eventually the reasons for our misfortune is their entry were for innocuous reasons – trade and commerce.  Bengalis have traditionally been good sellers of produce, they were never marketeers, consequently it never evolved as a ‘mercantile race’, and there has always been a serious paucity of good business Managers too, yet an abundance of clerks and lowly intermediaries – agents and brokers. 

History therefore records and reveals the inherent naivety of our ancestors, encouraged the occupiers to take away much more than what was merely tangible. The agenda for cultural hegemonies of outsiders was never recognised or understood and one seriously doubts, whether we do so now. 

The independence of Bangladesh in 1971 was just not the culmination of a political struggle against oppression by our then Pakistani masters, but precisely a cultural struggle of a dimension that is rare, almost non-existent in the history of the world. The Pakistanis pursued the policy of divide and rule of the British in its oppressive policies, in the loot and plunder, and those attempts at divisions were essentially to thwart the historical march and strides of our culture. 

First, it was the Bengali language, which rubbed Mohammad Ali Jinnah the wrong way, and in arrogantly demanding that Urdu be declared the national language of Pakistan, he argued that Urdu was necessary for forging national unity among the Muslim population of Pakistan. Ironically, Jinnah himself could neither speak Urdu, nor was there a shred of evidence available that he was a scrupulously practicing Muslim! 

What was uncorked thereafter were double genies, the first led to the Language Movement in 1952 that eventually saw the demise of the geographical absurdity, East Pakistan and birth of a new nation Bangladesh, in 1971, the first of its kind in South Asia after the British inevitable departure from South Asia, in 1947. 

The second genie was that of communalism, a British invention and until their arrival in India, a mindset that was unknown and unthinkable in our culture. 1971 proved the strength of Bangladesh’s culture in somewhat stemming and ebbing the flow of communalism and sectarian hatred.

What needs to be understood is the 1952 Language Movement incorporated and introduced by default, two specific cultural components into our national life. The first was the immortal song amar bhai er roktey rangano Ekushey February, ami ki bhulite pari (my brother's blood drenched day 21st February, can I ever forget) which reverberated across the length and breadth of the fertile delta and still does so sixty one years later – was the intangible aspect to the movement. It is unconceivable to imagine Ekushey in the Bengali psyche without the song.

The second was the emplacement of a tangible aspect to the movement. The Shaheed Minar – a secular Minaret to the Martyrs – and the formal induction of the first of many cultural icons into the heart of Bangladesh was completed. 

...to be continued

New Age XTRA, Friday 17th July 2013


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