31. The arts in Dhaka and beyond

I’m just back from the Bengal Gallery of Fine Art on Road 27 where I visited a wonderful exhibition of paintings. I feel lucky to have this gallery on my doorstep and frequently escape into its peaceful, tranquil interior. I always leave feeling calmer, more thoughtful and more hopeful – all the better able to cope with the frenzy of city life on its doorstep.

Thinking about the exhibition got me thinking about the arts. It occurred to me that I hadn’t included a section on the arts in my ‘overview’ of Bangladesh (see post 8), although there have been references scattered throughout other posts e.g. the rich cultural heritage associated with the language Bangla (post 11); the traditional crafts of textile weaving (post 10post 24 and others); my visit to the folk-art museum in Sonargaon (post 24); the place of the annual monsoon rains in Bengali culture (post 27); Dhallywood film (see post 43); Rabindranath Tagore (post 29), and many more. Throughout this blog too I am featuring some of the works of Bangladeshi visual artists.

I can’t imagine a world without the arts. People often ask the question, ‘What are you passionate about?’ I always find it difficult to answer this question succinctly and I often say ‘travel’ or ‘literature’ or ‘learning’. What I really mean though is that I am passionate about anything that broadens and deepens my understanding of the world. Travel almost always involves the discovery of new cultural experiences e.g. music, art, architecture, craft, design, literature, poetry, film, photography, food, fashion, philosophy, etc. I treasure these discoveries: they give me new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

Paradoxically though, I also experience the opposite – something internal – when I am in that trance of engagement with a piece of art or literature. In a TV interview some years ago, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, spoke about poetry, or art more generally, as a sort of ‘fortification of inwardness’. He said that if art teaches us anything it is that the human condition is private. I am often intensely aware of this, and of the innate ‘aloneness’ of the human condition.

On the other hand, part of the enrichment, enjoyment and sense of calm that the arts bring to my life is derived from brief, treasured moments of revelation (transcendence?) that suggest I might not be completely ‘alone’ in the world afterall. For example, I recall visiting a retrospective of the work of Irish artist Tony O’Malley (1913-2003) in the Irish Museum of Modern Art some years ago. I remember wandering reflectively through the exhibition and then standing in front of a picture thinking: That looks like music. I approached the painting to read the title and though I can’t remember it exactly now, the word ‘music’ was there. I was overawed! I can’t explain why I had that thought/feeling standing in front of that picture. It was an abstract painting and there was nothing depicted that might suggest music. I was neither an artist nor a musician and the very concept of ‘looking like music’ didn’t make sense to my rational brain. Yet, it was an instant when everything made sense in the world, an instant when I felt connected. I’ve had similar insightful experiences with other art forms (e.g. literature): maybe it has something to do with what Coleridge termed ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ that is part of the pensiveness of engagement. In addition, I often find connections between these experiences in the rich interplay between different art genres.

There are times too when day-to-day activity or work or study is somehow transformed and enriched by the arts (and vice versa of course). For example, I might find myself acting differently or thinking differently about something because of a piece of literature I have read, a painting I have seen or a play I may have attended. It’s a bit similar to the way a project can be (re)energised through interactions between people from diverse disciplines and backgrounds.

In Bangladesh, there is a flourishing arts scene which has its roots in Bengal culture. In the context of the discussion on ‘poverty’ (see post 30), the richness of this arts culture is often overlooked in media representations of Bangladesh. Oftentimes, it can be the problems that beset Bangladesh that dominate our images of the country. And while not wishing to detract from those problems, there is also much to be celebrated in this culture in terms of the arts – both past and present. It would be difficult to explain each and every art form – there are simply too many. Banglapaedia provides an introduction to a number of these under its category ‘art’. There you will find information on nakshi kantha, for example, the traditional embroidered story-quilt said to be indigenous to Bangladesh, and popularised in Jasim Uddin’s (1903-1976) poem Naksi Kanthar Math (see below); on pata painting, the illustration of canvases with stories based on myth and folklore that are unrolled by patuas (rural canvas painters), while they are narrating the story through dance and song (pata gan); on terracotta artwork; on bamboo craft; on textile weaving and many more. There is also a category called ‘performance arts’ under which are included different kinds of dance e.g. Manipuri dance, the classical dance form of the Manipuri people (see post 18); different kinds of drama and song performances, such as the Baul tradition (see post 55). There is also a thriving modern arts scene emerging from an ongoing narrative of struggle within Bangladeshi contemporary art circles. On the one hand, in a relatively young country, the arts have been central to the articulation of a national identity: on the other, artists are striving to connect to a shared, global, contemporary art world.

I would love to have had more opportunities to participate in arts events throughout Bangladesh, particularly in rural Bangladesh, though I usually stumbled upon some event or saw an interesting piece of art or architecture when I travelled, as you will read in accounts of those journeys. I could easily have spent the full year travelling around the country getting to know all the different art forms. In Dhaka there is always something happening. Every day, events are listed in the Arts and Entertainment section of the Daily Star newspaper. Of course to really appreciate the arts, particularly the performance arts, I’d need a deeper knowledge of the language. I have visited many galleries though, and I have had the unexpected pleasure of meeting some of the artists at their exhibitions. For example, I had an interesting discussion with Ranjit Das at the aforementioned Bengal Gallery. On another occasion, I had the pleasure of meeting the renowned Bangladeshi photographer Akash at an exhibition of his work in the Alliance Francaise in Dhaka. You can browse through some of his thought-provoking galleries on his website. While visiting an exhibition titled, ‘The Face of Bangla’ at the Drik Gallery of Photography in Dhanmondi, I met the photographer Nayeem and he told me the stories behind some of his pictures.

Apart from the arts discussed thus far, the writing, reading and recitation of poetry is pervasive. Large numbers of people of all ages know a lot of poetry by heart, and recitations are part of most melas (festivals). Writers and poets played a leading role in the language movement  (see post 11), and I have already made reference to Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of work in translation from contemporary Bangladeshi writers, which perhaps explains why Bengali literature from Bangladesh is not well known in the international arena. Annually, in February, the Boi Mela (Book Fair) is held in the grounds of the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. The fair lasts throughout the month and there are over 350 stalls selling books in Bangla (and a few books about Bangladesh in English too). There is everything from fiction to history to comic books and academic books, for both adults and children, all published in Bangladesh. The atmosphere is festival-like and I really enjoyed the day I spent there.

Melas (festivals) play a central part in Bangladeshi life to celebrate events such as harvests, marriages, seasons beginning or ending, boat races, etc. Apart from religious festivals (see post 37), the biggest and most colourful festival in Bangladesh is Pohela Boyshakh – the New Year Festival – held in April on the first day of the Bengali Calendar. This is a public holiday and is celebrated, not only throughout Bangladesh, but also in West Bengal in India. To get an idea of what the festival is like, see post 15, where there is a YouTube video clip that gives a flavour of this year’s (2009) celebrations.

I’ve been to a few musical performances too – both in Dhaka and on travels. There are many musical traditions in Bangladesh and I have only got to the stage of being able to distinguish a few. Much of the song tradition mirrors the country’s poetry. One of the most enjoyable music events I have attended – so far – was a concert in the Drik Gallery by a group called Lokkhi Terra. They are UK-based and play a fusion of Bangladeshi, Cuban, Hip Hop and Latin music. The band members are from the UK, Bangladesh and Cuba. They included a Lalon Shah  song in their repertoire and another beautiful one about a river. (For more on Lalon, see post 55.I wished I could understand more of the lyrics. I read an interview later with Kishon Khan, the keyboard player and founder of the group, and he said that he spent a lot of time going to melas around Bangladesh during a year he spent here after college. He also mentioned that there were a lot of melas in London, so I must look out for these when I’m back in that part of the world and in need of a Bangladeshi fix. (P.S. More on music at end of posts 46 and 55.)

While I have only touched the tip of the iceberg with regard to the arts in Bangladesh, I often feel that art is something I am immersed in everyday through the vibrancy, dynamism and colour of daily life – rickshaws, mosques, markets, music, language, fabrics, foliage, fruit, children, etc. I have mentioned elsewhere that I regularly see scenes that are like stills from art films. For example, one day I came across a group of children flying brightly-coloured kites against the backdrop of the beautiful, all-white Sat Gumbad mosque – not far from where I live. Kite-flying is a traditional and popular pastime and the making of kites from cloth or paper is a distinctive sort of visual art as well. (Kite painting was once a popular art-form too but has now almost died out.) There is an annual kite-flying festival in Old Dhaka – ‘Poush Sankranti’ – in mid-January to celebrate the end of the Bangla month Poush. I have read that it dates back to the Mughal era. Unfortunately I missed this festival – one of many that I missed. I would love to have gone to the traditional longboat race festival too, but I didn’t find out about it until it was over. Advance publicity of events is non-existent in Dhaka –  in English, at any rate.

As well as the paintings featured throughout this blog, there are so many more examples I could give to illustrate the richness of the arts in Bangladesh. Take for example one that combines poetry, story-telling and quilting in Jasim Uddin’s  tragic love poem Nakshi Kanthar Math, written in 1929, which translates as The Field of the Embroidered Quilt. Much of his work depicted the life of rural Bangladesh and its people and as a result he was known as the rural poet or folk poet. His descriptions and details of life in the fields, nights of harvest music and the rites and rituals of the countryside are captivating. I find myself once again wishing I could read Bangla. Against this background of rural life, the above mentioned poem tells the beautiful but ultimately tragic love story of Rupa and Shaju. They marry and live happily for a while until Rupa, involved in an altercation that results in the death of a man, must go into hiding. As the days, months and years go by and Shaju waits for his return, she embroiders the story of her sorrow into a nakshi kantha (quilt) which, when she dies of a broken heart, is spread upon her grave. Upon his return, Rupa learns of her death and in his grief goes to her grave where he kills himself, clutching the quilt as he dies.

Spreading the embroidered quilt
She works the livelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupa’s life is there,
Line by line expressed.

Another well-known story from Jasim Uddin is Gypsy Wharf, set against the canvas of communal strife between Hindus and Muslims in rural Bangladesh. It is another tragic story of a doomed love affair: this time between Sujon, a Muslim, and a Hindu girl called Duli.

Incidentally, if you would like to find out more about the story quilts of Bangladesh, the work of the wonderful Suriya Rahman might be of interest. She is responsible for transforming the traditional embroidered quilt into a national art form, and in the process has helped numerous women escape destitution. A film is being made about her life and work and you can see a trailer here.

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