In the international sport of geopolitics, culture is an underdog that fortune won’t favour; the worst kind of underdog, the kind of underdog cinema won’t waste its endless numbered minutes on. Culture is in music, it is in fragrance, it is fluid; it belongs to everybody in the moment and nobody thereafter.
“Today, the world is in a dark place because people look at each other as shadows of their own political minds. People are not agents of agenda. People are people, with the same dreams for their children, with the same fondness for love, with the same prayers for good health and the same desires of prosperity. That is why, cross-border people-to-people contact is pivotal to world peace,” says Lubna Marium, artistic director at Shadhona, a center for the advancement of South Asian culture that works towards the preservation of intangible performative cultural heritage.
“In 2001, during the border clashes between the two countries, I was in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. It was then that an image of the decomposed bodies of two Indian troops being carried back to the LOC by the Bangladesh forces was being splashed in the media. In such a situation, I could have easily been the subject of the hatred of those around me but because they knew me personally, they refused to believe what they saw. Unless people reach out to people, perceptions formed by governments won’t change,” says Lubna, articulating her belief.
She is in India again. Her troupe recently performed at the 43rd annual Khajuraho Dance festival on the invitation of the Ustad Alauddin Khan Sangeet Evam Kala Academy. “Except Delhi and Kolkata, the rest of India doesn’t understand what Bangladesh stands for,” she says. For instance, in villages, where more than 60 per cent of her country still lives, mystic minstrels like the bauls and the boyatis carry forward the spiritual sahaja way of life. Such cultural uniformity binds India and Bangladesh. For example, snake cults were especially important to eastern India and Bangladesh, where for centuries worshippers of the indigenous snake goddess Manasa resisted the competing religious influences of Indo-Europeans and Muslims. In West Bengal and Bihar, festivities to honour Manasa take place on sravan sankranti. This is on the last day of the monsoon month of sravan (usually 17 August) at the Champaknagar temple in Bhagalpur, Bihar, and at the Khedaitola Mela in Nadia district of West Bengal, among other places. In Bangladesh, Manasa and Ashtanaag puja is a month-long affair in the country, where worshippers sculpt statues of the goddess, pierce their bodies and arrange a display of poisonous snakes on the altar. And, as Marium points out, what Bangladesh shares with India isn’t limited to mythological folklore.
Sarabhuja is a socio-cultural institution from Rangamati, Midnapore (West Bengal), which has been playing an intrinsic part in the movement for the revival of traditional folk culture since 1986. Sarabhuja and Shadhona have collaborated to identify and strengthen Rai Beshe — the Martial Art of Bengal in Bangladesh. In 1933 an ‘All Bengal Stick Challenge Shield’ was established in Majampur of Kushtia District, in (the then) East Bengal. Groups from all over Bengal participated in the tournament, including a few enthusiastic English players. Today, lathikhela lacks both form and skill but is practised across the region.
There is a culture that is performed and yet another that is imagined. To take care of the latter, there’s Bollywood. “Youngsters in Bangladesh speak fluent Hindi, because Bollywood is hugely popular in the country. Jinnah might not have been able to teach us Urdu, but any youngsters can tell you how much they like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Deepika Padukone in chaste Hindi,” Lubna reveals.
On one side, the two cultures are sipping along on the same chai. On the other side, within Bangladesh, another badly brewed cultural conflict is coming to a boil. Last July in Dhaka’s posh pocket Gulshan, which is also where Marium’s Shadhona also is, youth was killing youth at the Holey Artisan bakery. As per records, last year close to 600 students went missing from Dhaka’s top schools and FIRs were lodged by the parents. Nibras Islam, one of the six terrorists who attacked the café was one such student. Lately, Marium has been noticing regressive thoughts seeping into the minds of parents, who are now questioning the need for chanting shlokas or lighting brass lamps before the dances. “This is disturbing because in Bangladesh, we aren’t even conscious of somebody’s religion. I teach both Hindu and Muslim students and for me, they are one,” she says.
Today, the greed for petro-dollars and migration to the Middle-East has brought Pan-Islamic Wahhabism to the forefront. Bangladeshi youth, in awe of the global image of the ISIS, modern weaponry and bold social media threats can get drawn towards the rebranded global image of terror. Earlier, the police was seen handing bamboo sticks to villages to combat attacks by the indigenous Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, especially on minorities. “The consumption of western culture through the media and an inability to earn that kind of lifestyle for themselves, combine to create such a situation,” Marium explains. This it seems is manifesting itself in the need to be a part of a global mission, even if it’s a terror mission. “The youth is vulnerable and cultivating pride for borderless cultures they are born into is all the more necessary,” she feels.
Interestingly, a new book Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Borders by Pradeep Damodaran, contains tales from villages along the north-eastern borders of India. India has a 4,096 kilometre long border with Bangladesh. It is the fifth longest land border in the world, out of which 2217 km lie in West Bengal. The border also passes through Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Here’s one excerpt that explicates the aforementioned cultural uniformity between India and Bangladesh in a whole new context:
“Men and women who intend to go to Bangladesh would sit in fishing boats late at night, with the Indian flag flying and the approach as close to the Bangladeshi border as possible. A boatman from the other side would then arrive at that point and transfer the passengers to his boat. In half an hour or so, the entire activity would be complete. Over the years, Shahjahan had transformed himself into a full-fledged Indian. He had a voter identity card, a ration card, and an Aadhar card. He had voted in several Parliamentary and Assembly elections in the past and claimed to be a communist. On the occasions that he travelled back to Barsila, Shahjahan was careful to not carry any of his Indian identity documents. He claimed to have a separate set of Bangladeshi identity documents that he carried with him when he was visiting the other side of the border. 'If I am intercepted there, I will show them my Bangladeshi identity card. If someone asks me for identity proof in India, I will produce my Indian card,' Shahjahan declared, proudly flaunting both cards for my benefit.
I asked him if he considered himself Indian or Bangladeshi.
‘Ami Bangla’, was his simple reply.”
Published Date: Mar 05, 2017 09:30 am | Updated Date: Mar 05, 2017 09:30 am