The Financial Express

Freeing villages of cultural barrenness

Shihab Sarkar | Published: March 05, 2020 21:06:17 | Updated: March 05, 2020 21:08:05

Freeing villages of cultural barrenness

In the last two decades, the number of cultural events in Bangladesh villages has declined to two or three annually. Some years do not witness even the single performance of a cultural item. The vast expanses in the villages have lately turned barren culturally. That in these countrywide cultural wastelands, people with finer sensibilities will feel choked is understandable. In the earlier times, the rural swathes would be found coming alive with fairs, musical and other recreational sessions during winter. While the capital pulsates with different types of entertainments nowadays, the life in the villages is found confined to a narrow and mirthless cocoon. Yet only three to four decades back, the rural people used to engage in their typical ways of fun and frolic. Even in the pre-independence days under obscurantist Pakistani rule, festivals featuring folk music, open-air competition of village bards' impromptu verse composition etc comprised the villagers' pastime. Apart from the village males, the audience would comprise large numbers of women sitting in enclosures close to the dais. The 'Jatra' or the hundred-year-old Bengal operetta would emerge as the centre-piece of night-long cultural events.

The rural cultural landscape has been changing fast for over the last 20/25 years. The change has hit some areas so hard that activities like singing, playing musical instruments, acting etc began to be viewed as alien activities. Certain quarters did not fail to call them even 'anti-people'. By nature the inhabitants of the Bangladesh villages are relatively more fun-loving than their counterparts in the cities. It is interesting to see how these simple-living, plain-thinking and entertainment-loving people have undergone a noticeable change in taste. Social experts call this change insidious and it is feared to last. Many others oppose this view, saying due to their being mercurial in nature, the villagers will one day return to their roots which are enriched with the gems of Bangladesh's centuries-old rural culture. In fact the traditional and everyday rural rites and rituals have never been in clash with the urban cultural expressions. This troubling feature came to the fore only recently.

For the moment people in the vast rural tracts find themselves imprisoned in a quarantined state which is off-limits to all kinds of urban cultural influences. Villagers have access to the global cultural activities through the internet, the smart phone-based online in particular. But it has become hard for them to be in the close proximity of the cultural personalities and ensembles, especially their performances. In the past, village youth organisations would be found inviting urban cultural icons to their humble functions and ceremonies. It was a common feature characterising the rural cultural landscape. Upon being stopped for a long time, the streams of urban culture, of late, have resumed their village-bound journey. This time it is the painters who recently shouldered the responsibility to acquaint the villagers with the art world.

The almost uncommon scene featuring the exchange of ideas between the Dhaka-based artists and a few Bangladeshi artists based in foreign cities has added to the beauty of the event. It was held at a venue in the Nilphamari district. Of all features, the local educated and creatively disposed people's participation in the view-exchanges has contributed to the creation of a vibrant atmosphere at the festival venue. To the inhabitants of the country's northern district, the whole episode turned out to be an extraordinary experience. The smooth holding of the events, the organisers' cooperation and the spontaneous attendance of the local curious people at different events eloquently spoke of one thing: the rural people were made to detach themselves from the nation's mainstream culture. The cultural events range from typically rural musical performances to those presented by the city-based artists. In this perspective, the successful holding of a highly uncommon event like an art festival in the midst of rural environs speaks of one of the village people's age-old passions --- making occasional trips to pastime activities having roots in the country's cultural heritage. 'Potchitras' were once considered a major artistic pursuit in the Bengal region.

The recently held 4-day Third Art Festival Nilphamari 2000 in the district was not only unexpected. It finally emerged as a strong blow to the long-held belief that painting and sculpting were socially unacceptable activities. Brushing aside the baggage of the antiquated notions of fine arts, the 350 artists and the organisers took part in the 4-day art festival at an idyllic venue in the district. Suiting to the nature of the event and the participants, the festival continued for four days in a pristine rural ambience --- on the bank of a spacious and serene pond called Nilsagar. Rafiqunnabi, the noted painter and professor at the Dhaka University's Fine Arts Institute, inaugurated the festival. Stage personality and former cultural minister Asaduzzaman Noor presided over the opening ceremony of the art festival and workshop. There were also arrangements of art camps, nowadays an integral part of outdoor art events.

Dozens of celebrated painters and younger artists of the country participated in different types of camps held in the vicinity of the main venue. The festival was based on the theme 'Nature is Life, Art for Brighter Life'. Like the art festival events in Dhaka and other cities, the Nilphamari event was also divided into seminars, workshops, a folk art and craft fair, campfire, cultural performance sessions, sight-seeing tours etc. Before its formal conclusion on February 29, hundreds of school students were seen visiting the improvised art galleries and outdoor installations. Many of them attended the seminars, the subjects of which opened a new vista of knowledge and information about fine arts and its creative process in them. From this point of view, the festival proved a grand success. With the general people largely apathetic about the extraordinary event in their area, the school and college-going students' interest in the festival stood out prominently.

The spontaneously created positive response of the teenagers and youths to the art activities apparently sparked delightful enthusiasm among the organisers. Taking cue from this feedback, they might now think of organising art festivals and smaller art camps in different parts of the country. Like in the foreign countries, large business conglomerates have started backing cultural festivals in the country --- especially those centring on literature and painting. In spite of their focus on the Dhaka-based creative activities, they have for some years been fanning out to the emerging big cities outside the capital, obscure townships and remote villages. In each of the events they were welcomed heartily by the locals. As for example, the 10-day colourful literary and cultural festival in Sylhet in 2017, organised by Bengal Foundation, emerged as an immensely successful event. It has undoubtedly pioneered the path for holding such grand literary and cultural festivals in the other large cities of the country. Meanwhile, both massive and small-scale literary-cultural festivals continue to be held in the relatively smaller towns. The most prominent of them in the recent times is the biennial Tangail Poetry Festival. It is being held in the district town for the last 10 years. Poets from Bangladesh and West Bengal participate in this gala 3-day festival. Accommodations of the poets are made by the local organisers at posh hotels, rest houses, government and NGO-run bungalows and resorts. This year's Tangail Poetry Festival has seen 300 poets from Bangladesh and India participating in the festival.

The cultural events held outside Dhaka with the participation of performing artistes, writers and painters leave a positive impact on people in the areas concerned. The cultural emissaries from Dhaka carry with them a lot of messages for their rural brothers and sisters --- the most prominent of them being continuing the search for the nation's true cultural identity.



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