Kristine Carlsson, a Swedish poet visiting Dhaka, was found engrossed in poetry as he listened to the poems being read out on the dais. The event was the annual open-air session of poetry for 2017. Under the title of Jatiya Kabita Utsab (National Poetry Festival), it is being organised since 1987 on the eastern premises of the University of Dhaka. Initially a formal outlet of protests against the then autocratic regime, it has continued as a literary platform to denounce oppression, be it orchestrated by the sitting governments or parochial forces. The National Poetry Council, the organising body, has been firm in its conviction to promote progressive thoughts, and peace. The first-ever theme of the festival was 'Poetry for breaking shackles'. The theme this year was 'Poetry against savagery'. Befittingly enough, the poetry festival chose February, the month of the Bangla Language Movement, for its holding.
In its over three decades' journey, the festival has also been dedicated to pure literary messages. Some of these themes or slogans: 'Let poetry be triumphant on being bathed in mother-tongues'; 'Poetry festival celebrates truth and beauty'; 'Poetry must bring better times'; 'Let us reach the horizons of poetry and future', etc.
In spite of its identity as an occasion to assert the poets' socio-political commitment, the festival has in the recent years promoted the pure arts. As part of its predominant character nowadays, it welcomes the all-encompassing contents of poetry. As a result, love poems or those dealing with urban melancholy and ennui have been attached the same importance as that denouncing the decadent conventions. The reason Kristine Carlsson was found attentively watching the poets read out their poems in mostly Bangla was the poets' spontaneity of expression. He had no trouble understanding the poems' meanings, as there was no dearth of local poetry lovers around. In their broken English, they helped the Swedish poet get to the essence of the poems being read out. Himself a consummate poet, he appeared to have been immensely impressed by the massive occasion dedicated to poetry. To prove his love for poems, Carlsson took part in a session of discussion on 'poetry in translation' on the opening day. Apart from it, several paper presentations and discussion on them featured the 2-day poetry festival.
On the inaugural morning, the mega festival began with the participation of Bangladeshi poets and a number of poets from abroad. The foreign countries included Russia, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Argentina, Puerto Rico and India. All the foreign poets were visibly moved by the large audience enjoying poetry reading for two long days.
The sprawling area around the Dhaka University Arts Faculty was found throbbing with beats of the arts last week. The whole swaths witnessed the opening of one or another cultural event. Apart from the poetry festival, there were the ceremonial openings of the month-long Ekushey Book Fair and the 3-day International Literary Festival at Bangla Academy. Another important part of the Academy's February 01 programme comprised the handing over of Bangla Academy Literary Prizes to the award winners. The eagerly-awaited Ekushey Book Fair, held annually in honour of the Bangla Language Movement Martyrs of 1952, will continue through the whole month of February. The fair venue had been at the Bangla Academy compound for four decades until it was shifted to the spacious Suhrawardy Udyan ground. Given its rising number of visitors and the participating publishers, the book fair can be expected to emerge soon as one of the largest book-related events in the region. The strong presence of electronic gadgets in today's popular culture, undoubtedly, is a phenomenon. Yet traditional books and other entertainment objects are set to enjoy their premier status for a long time to come. From this point of view, the dominant presence of printed publications at the country's largest book fair is destined to remain in place for a long time.
As part of these formal and ceremonial inaugurals, a number of venues in the Dhaka University (DU) area remained bustling for three days with festivities centring on creativity. All these activities emerged as a great relief to the people feeling choked with many a foreboding for over the last six months. Thanks to the people's strong urge to come out in the open to bask in the celebrations of the arts, culture in the broader context, the spectacle has changed almost overnight. And then by mid-February, long queues would be seen at the entrances of the book fair and swarms of people at events of music and plays at the Central Shaheed Minar.
Over the last few years, the opening of the cultural fiesta in the Dhaka University area has been a remarkable event. The upsurge of youthfulness, coupled with creative and performing feats, has eventually become an annual cultural rite. It received a jolt after the gruesome terror-killing incident at Gulshan in the city last July. Thanks to the resilience of the culturally oriented people, the dreadfully fraught atmosphere subsided in no time. Despite an insidious feeling of unease, the area from the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) to the Central Shaheed Minar has got back its usual February fervour. By the beginning of the 2nd week of February, the air of Dhaka University area was filled with its unique festivities, which stem from purely arts-related activities. The most notable aspect of the literary-cultural assemblages this year is the presence of overseas authors. Many would like to define it as the universal appeal of the arts. This instinct defies both tangible and intangible fears and threats in responding to the calls of events of the arts far from one's own land.
Perhaps just to prove this truth, overseas litterateurs were found gracing the events of the International Literary Conference on February 2, 3 and 4. The three-day colloquiums and reading sessions were held at the open-air venue at Bangla Academy with the participation of foreign and local poets, novelists, essayists and academics. Seminars and lively discussions on various topics marked the festival. The foreigners' participation in literary events began this year with their attendance at the main event --- the inauguration of the book fair by the Prime Minister. And what a wonderful opening it was! On February 01, it was quite pleasant to hear most of them trying to speak Bangla. Of the foreign guests present on the dais, Chinmoy Guha, the Vice Chancellor of Rabindrabharati University in Kolkata in West Bengal, was the only Bangla-speaking academic. The mother-tongues of the other foreign guests ranged from Chinese, German (Austria) to Spanish (Puerto Rico). They appeared to have taken extensive preparations before coming to Dhaka. Thus Dong You Chen told the enthralled audience in Bangla that he was in Bangladesh with a 'humble' offer: a 33-part Chinese translation of the writings by Rabindranath Tagore. Perhaps it will be the largest anthology of Tagore's work so far published in a foreign language. All the foreign litterateurs attending the literary festival have spent large parts of their careers serving the Bengali literature and language.
In order to have a deep understanding of the importance of February, the month of Language Movement, one has to be in Dhaka. Despite the grisly happenings, the city couldn't be severed from the outside world, and its own glory days. Here, the unassailable cultural ethos plays the role of a great catalyst.