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New face of Bangladesh

New face of Bangladesh

Author: INA Puri
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: April 26, 2009
URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1090426/jsp/calcutta/story_10872698.jsp

It's five in the morning. Dawn is about to break. Hundreds of people, young and old, from different social strata, diverse professions and pursuits, are making their way to a banyan tree.

The place is Ramna, an open ground in Dhaka, where Chhayanata, a cultural organisation, is about to begin a concert to celebrate Poila Baisakh. At the centre of it all is the old bot gachh (banyan tree).

It's a unique celebration. It's not only the music - there are about 200 performers, sitting in different tiers on the stage - it's also the statement. The event is being staged as if to tell those who have suspended a fundamentalist threat over the young nation's head that creative freedom is difficult to suppress.

As we make our way to Ramna, my hosts Perween Hasan, who teaches Islamic history and culture at Dhaka University, and Zahid Hasan, remind me that this early morning music programme, followed by a colourful carnival, had its origins, too, in a protest, when the Ershad regime forcibly shut down Dhaka University in 1985. It was begun by Sanjida Khatoon, a feisty activist who used this unique platform to assert the freedom of the creative spirit when political pressures attempted to instil censorship.

Surrounded by singers and musicians, some as young as 10, I spot an unmistakable presence amongst the saffron-clad singers on the dais. Khatoon is still at the helm of affairs. The music begins and silence descends on the listeners.

Leading musicians from the country are performing on stage, accompanied by a young chorus. The country that was besieged by a recent, violent rebellion in the BDR, the Bangladesh border force, and political unrest in general, with many fearing Talibanisation and enforcement of Sharia laws, recedes into the background as the music takes over.

Instead, before and around me I see men and women united by their commitment to a better tomorrow, come what may. It is this surge of hope that makes me realise that beyond a political, fundamentalist agenda are a people, undivided. In the hundred thousand voices that sing Amar Shonar Bangla, aami tomaaye bhalobashi.., there is pride and a sense that all is not lost, not yet.

And through the day, as I roam the streets crowded with children, young parents or lovers, all dressed festively in the colour of the day - red and white - the same spirit appears as the leitmotif.

The whole of Dhaka has come out to celebrate the new year. The people are chatting and eating bowls of panta-bhaat and ileesh bhaja, or buying clay dolls and flutes.

Later the floats and a masked procession of the art school snake their way down the streets, lustily cheered by crowds. When the Ershad regime had shut down Dhaka University, a few art teachers, students and artists had thought of protesting by bringing out a procession in Jessore with the floats and masked protesters.

As different strains of songs waft across - Bhatiali, Nazrul, Palligeeti, Rabindrasangeet and Bangla rock - from different street corners, there are no party-poopers in sight: no fundamentalist raising his banner. Rather, the voices that I hear are very different.

Theatrepersons Sara and Ali Zaker, writer Sayyed Shamshul Haque, Perween Hasan, Runa Khan, who runs her Friendship Hospital on a specially equipped boat complete with cabins and operating theatre, Ruby Ghuznavi, who is re-introducing vegetable dyes in fabric, Ladly Faiz, who trains impoverished women to fend for themselves, Rezwana Chowdhury, who is reinventing the Tusu and early folk songs and giving the genre a new identity in contemporary times with Surer Dhara, all of them agree on one thing. "This is our country and we will fight to keep it ours," they seem to say.

They are the faces of Bangladesh today. There is also Protitee Debi, a custodian of Bangladesh's history, elegant still in her mid-80s, who stayed back in Bangladesh, though she also wrote a book on her brother Ritwik Ghatak. She is optimistic about the country even after witnessing the upheavals down the decades.


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