Bishwa Sahitya Kendra: Guiding young readers into the path of light

Shihab Sarkar | Published: February 14, 2019 21:21:53

Like the authors, readers are also born.  And they need to nurture the habit. If one doesn't grow a passion for out-of-syllabus books, he or she can never grow into a reader. An adolescent learner has a latent love for books. For it to mature, the boy or the girl needs guides. It's them who teach their disciples how to begin and continue reading in a systematic order. On the other hand, the average students' intimacy with books comes to an end with the completion of their academic life. However, there are self-made readers. Their growth has a lot to do with spontaneity. During childhood, they start with fairy tales or ghost stories --- different from today's hard-core horror tales. As they enter adolescence, they mostly switch over to suspense-filled crime thrillers. These books are commonly known as 'detective novels'. With this short phase receding to a nostalgic past, there appears the most critical part in a compulsive readers' career.

Abdullah Abu Sayeed, the pioneer in the launch and spread of 'reading movement' in Bangladesh, has been playing a leading role for the last 40 years in creating young book lovers. Bishwa Sahitya Kendra, which was founded by him along with a group of young literary enthusiasts in Dhaka in 1978, gave birth to a movement aimed at creating true readers. In attaining the goal, the youthful and culturally disposed teacher in the early days of his campaign formed a 'readers' circle' at his humble one-storey institute at Bangla Motor in Dhaka. Mobile phones or internet-connected PCs had yet to exert their overwhelming influence on the post-adolescent readers. Thanks to his vibrant and warm personality, he had already proved a highly popular teacher of Bangla literature at the city's Dhaka College. Thanks to this, it did not require much effort for Abdullah Abu Sayeed to attract scores of school and college-going youths to his readers' circles.

The task became easier for the teacher for his excellence in another literary pursuit. He brought out a committed anti-establishment literary magazine in the 1960s. Titled 'Kantha-swar', it instantly won over the country's promising and talented young poets and prose writers. Many of today's renowned authors made their literary debut in 'Kanthaswar'. By the time Sayeed launched his 'reading circle' movement in the early 1980s, he had become seasoned in leading and tutoring book-lovers. In his lectures, he skipped the preparatory phase of readership. Instead, the teacher-cum-editor emerged before the young readers with the treasures of classical literature --- both Bangla and written in other languages. The classics he picked also included those written in the modern times.

Achieving the mission which Abdullah Abu Sayeed undertook was no cakewalk. Once he embarked on the task of building a new generation of readers, he found himself faced with impediments. But they could not stop him thanks to his unflinching dedication. To attain his goal of creating post-adolescent and young readers across the country, Sayeed travelled the length and breadth of Bangladesh. He and his team of reading circle members visited thousands of rural schools to convince the teachers and students about the benefits of reading books that were out of syllabus. In cases, the indefatigable teacher had to entreat the schools' teaching staff to get enlisted in the countrywide programme.

Despite the painful beginning, branches of the reading fraternities sprouted throughout the country in a span of 10-12 years. The Kendra's headquarters being located at Bangla Motor in the capital, a central area, its activities didn't face much difficulty covering the city's secondary schools. By the mid-1980s, Bishwa Sahitya Kendra became a well-known haunt for poets, prose writes, intellectuals, and of course, readers. From that period on, the Kendra launched a new programme --- sessions of book reading. The young members were allowed to take home certain books for a specific period. Upon their return of the books --- a novel, a collection of poems or essays, the reader at a session was required to give his comments on the book. A question-answer part coupled with a discussion would follow based on the reader's experience of going through a book.

Around this time, Abdullah Abu Sayeed and his youthful team began organising book-reading competitions. It would feature reading and book-awarding festivals. It is the Bishwa Sahitya Kendra which can be termed the first ever forum in South Asia which has put in all its intellect and organisational efforts solely to attain a single goal -- encourage the young to read great books and become enlightened. The motto eventually became a slogan with emphasis on becoming perfectly knowledgeable   through reading.

Abdullah Abu Sayeed launched his reading circles buoyed by a grand dream. He would love to see the younger-adult student segments emerge as true guides to the nation. Although by profession a college teacher, he would cast his look beyond the confines of conventional institutions. This scribe was fortunate enough to be his student at Dhaka College. Throughout his two years at the college as a HSC student, the sprightly teacher has hardly been seen delivering class lectures centring on textbooks. But he would continue talking, with subjects ranging from literature, philosophy, human virtues to everything, traditional and modern, that is related to cleansing of the mind of all impure thoughts and longings. He has hardly been seen open the attendance register. But his classes remained full of students. The mystique of Abdullah Abu Sayeed was irresistible. His spellbinding impact on the students could be compared to only a few teachers of his times, especially Munier Chowdhury. That this teacher of literature was not born to remain content with mere ritualistic teaching had proved true in one and half decades. By the 1980s, he discovered his final area of work. With the passing of time, it assumed the proportions of an off-beat venture, one where creativity and organising capability coalesced into one another.

In his prime youth, Abdullah Abu Sayeed instilled his creative energy into literary movements. Those were different from the conventional assertiveness of the other literary platforms. In course of time what finally suited him was opposing all forms of conformism. He became a true rebel and got briefly linked to the Sad Generation movement of the poets of the 1960s. But Sayeed by temperament disliked all types of compromise. After the publication of 'Swakkhor', the movement's mouthpiece, he sensed in it faint elements of acquiescence and a penchant for leaning excessively towards decadent thoughts. He parted with the movement stalwarts wishing them success, and brought out his own voice of 'non-compromise' --- the bi-monthly 'Kanthaswar'. Its maiden issue contained an irreverent pamphlet, prohibiting the magazine for all academic poseurs, yuppies and opportunists. Sayeed invested a large portion of his active youth and creative energy into the magazine. Despite becoming irregular in publication, 'Kanthaswar' came out for three decades. According to many of his admirers, the 'Kanthaswar' magazine has sucked in a large portion of Sayeed's creative energy. Indisputably, Abdullah Abu Sayeed could have emerged as a brilliant poet celebrating the essence of human existence. However, he has published more than 40 books that include collections of essays, juvenile tales, edited works, poetry etc.  In spite of his close association with writers championing Baudelairean morbidity, he had all along nurtured the sunny aspects of life. Perhaps, this particular feature of his mental make-up prompted him to dedicate himself to a different calling: Building enlightened citizens of the future.             

Bishwa Sahitya Kendra set out with its venture from a nearly derelict but quiet one-storey building. Only 10 book-loving youths led by Abdullah Abu Sayeed formed its base. Today it boasts of members numbering several thousand. An imposing multi-storey structure stands tall in its unique glory at the venue. Along with its publication and other wings, Bishwa Sahitya Kendra is now considered a glorious tribute to the nation's broader sphere of the arts. Abdullah Abu Sayeed doesn't take any special credit for the institution and the reading movement it sparked forty years ago. He calls the love for literature and artistic fraternity the real strength of the Kendra.


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