6 years ago

A poetry fest's maturing into a great event

Poets from overseas countries on the dais on the opening day of the National Poetry Festival, 2018.
Poets from overseas countries on the dais on the opening day of the National Poetry Festival, 2018.

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Few creative persons bother about how people receive their work. Many remain so indifferent that they complete their whole careers without a single piece of feedback. In the days of cave paintings or the later-time writing on papyrus or barks, the artists or poets remained happy being confined to their secluded world. In such a world isolated from the localities, creativity would be celebrated in solitude and seclusion. Over the centuries, the nature of both the works and their creators has undergone changes. There are exceptions, though. These days when the authors and painters continue to be in search of a place in the limelight, many are found relishing their lonely creative pursuits. In fact, the state of seclusion is inherent with the artist. Yet finally, a poet or a sculptor or an artist emerges as a social being. Thanks to this, through the ages creative people have been found participating in public readings and demonstration of their art works. The occasions later assumed the forms of arts festivals. Their root can be traced to the pre-Christ times in Sumer or Greece.

The scenario in the sub-continent was not much different. In the land of immortal epics written by ancient bards and poets, creativity has been a part of social evolution through the ages. Many were court poets of legendary kings. In spite of these exposures, the composers of poems in essence preferred to live outside the view of the masses. The case for plays, however, was different altogether. This literary form remains incomplete without direct response from an audience. But poets, on the other hand, would find themselves in bliss in their idyllic environs. Yet in parts of the sub-continent, assemblages of poets eventually emerged as widely acclaimed cultural events. They began as small-scale poetry sessions indoors to later become outdoor events like 'Mushaira'.

The concept of days-long poetry festivals thus has its origins in the South Asian sub-continent. The over 300 literary and poetry festivals now being held across the world annually are directly or indirectly inspired by the similar events in the sub-continent's past. With changes in the connoisseurs' taste and styles of presentation, the festivals continue to wear newer looks. In spite of the presence of the age-old dais, other modern accessories keep adding to the spectacular grandness of the occasion. Additional video display of presentations, thus, is an integral part of the arts festivals, especially those involving poetry. On several counts, poetry festivals these days are virtual literary pageants. The one being held in Bangladesh annually is no exception. It is formally known as Jatiya Kabita Utsab (National Poetry Festival). Earlier limited to poets from Dhaka and several regions of the country, it is being participated by poets, translators and academics from different countries over the last couple of years. India has been represented by its poets since the early days of the festival, annually held on February 1 and 2. Coinciding with the month of the Bangla Language Movement and Martyrs' Day on 21st February, the general mood of the festival is one of solemnity. However, owing to its origin in protests against an autocratic rule in the late 1980s, socio-political realities of the time have also played a dominant role in the mass gathering of the poets and poetry lovers. The sombre air notwithstanding, it did not take much time for the occasion to wear a festive look. After all, the arts finally celebrate the inner joy, festivity and the spirit of liberty. Perhaps this is the reason the Bastille Day has finally turned into a day of great celebration in France despite the violence, mayhem, blood and gore accompanying it in 1789. So have the all the revolutions across the world until they emerge as celebratory occasions. The other way round, the leitmotif of liberty dominates all celebrations with their root in the longing for change. In the world of the arts, the dominant mood is, finally, characterised by pure celebration of everything salubrious, pleasant and auspicious. The arts, including poetry, have been paying tributes to the universal triumph of truth and beauty. Nonviolence and peace have added to the immortality of the human virtues extolled by the poet, the painter or the composer.

Thanks to its blossoming from the fire and fury of a protest movement, the National Poetry Festival in the formative years was vulnerable to being overrun by overtly politicised poets. Each of its last 31 editions was based on a different slogan, carrying the message of freedom, resistance and change. Many younger poets mistook the festival for a platform to champion brazenly political causes. At one moment, even after the fall of autocracy, the festival was found to be hostage to the dictates of a section of political activists-turned-poets. To the great relief of the genuine poets and poetry lovers, the Jatiya Kabita Utsab has eventually been able to carve out its character focused on pure poetry. This radical change prompted an all-out change in its programmes and ensured participation by poets from overseas countries. The National Poetry Festival 2018 witnessed the participation of poets from countries as varied as India, Sweden, Britain, Cameroon, Egypt, Taiwan, Colombia, Mexico and Japan. Like in the last few years, the 2-day festival featured over a dozen programmes. They included poetry readings, seminars based on keynote papers, recitations, songs based on poetry etc. Participation by poets from different small Bangladeshi ethnic groups made up an added attraction. The slogan for this year's festival was 'Poetry in the Struggle of Displaced Peoples'. A 2-hour-long open discussion on persecuted refugees fanning out across national borders was held on the opening day on February 1. A number of foreign poets took part in it. Another widely participated and major discussion on the Bangladesh Liberation War and the country's poetry was held on the second day.

The National Poetry Festival in Dhaka is now indisputably placed alongside many such global fests. Although exclusively dedicated to poetry, many would like to view it as an emerging international literary and cultural event. Although it is far from the cultural celebrations at the Edinburgh International Festival or the Hay Festival in the UK in terms of participation and organisational strength, the Dhaka poetry festival carries all the potential for eventually becoming a major literary event. In many respects the Dhaka poetry fest is more participatory than those organised in different cities in India. The Dhaka event has long been on its way to catching up with the Poetry Festival held in Haldia in Midnapur, West Bengal. Unlike many such events around the world, the poetry festival in Dhaka is fully open to the poets willing to participate. The only requirement is they need to register their names beforehand and submit the poems they want to present on the dais. The invited noted poets are not required to go by this formality. A large number of the young and senior poets spontaneously take part in the festival. The National Poetry Festival, due to its being born of a mass upsurge, discourages all kinds of elitism. Since its early days it has stretched out its arms to all poets and poetry lovers.      

Love for poetry is a unique kind of feeling that cannot be compared with those related to other art forms. Unlike painting or songs, a modern poetry admirer ought to be literate and educated. He or she is required to have the ability to enjoy the cadence or music of the printed or spoken words as they appear in poetic forms. Thanks to this different character, poetry remains inaccessible to even many otherwise enlightened people. Poetry presented in a festive atmosphere, coupled with the allied performing arts, doesn't fail to draw fresh audiences. These festivals thus play a great role in popularising poetry among the general people. The National Poetry Festival is, in effect, carrying out this task in style.

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