One recurring theme in this issue of Critical Muslim is that it is impossible to discuss Bangladesh without getting drawn into the larger and longer history of Bengal and the Indian subcontinent. It also makes little sense to separate the ‘real’ Bangladesh from its diaspora, or its Muslim from its Hindu heritage. At the same time, what it means to be Bengali has been profoundly shaped by British colonialism, the partition of India and Bangladesh’s War of Liberation from Pakistan. Hence, another recurring theme is that there are intertwining yet competing versions of the story and history of Bangladesh and what it means to be Bangladeshi. Bearing this in mind, we present an eclectic list of entries that we hope will be useful for newbies while resonating with our Bengali readers, especially in Britain and Bangladesh – wherever and whatever they consider desh (home) and bidesh (foreign lands) to be.
1. The Sylheti Language Revival
The language that the vast majority of London-based Bangladeshis use is mutually unintelligible with standard Bengali. They speak Sylheti, the main language of the Surma and Kushiara valleys of Sylhet Division in Bangladesh and the Barak valley region of Assam, India. There are an estimated 10 million Sylheti speakers worldwide. Although it is related to Assamese and the rural dialects of eastern Bengal, Sylheti has numerous words derived from Persian and Arabic and its own distinct grammar. Its written script, Sylheti Nagri, is now seeing a revival in Bangladesh, Bengal (in India) and the UK, as new generations question the disconnect between what they speak at home and how they communicate in public.
Sylheti Nagri started declining from around a century ago for a combination of reasons, including British colonialism, the partition of India and the birth of Bangladesh. As a result, a standardised form of Bengali emerged. Yet proponents of Sylheti would argue that it is a language in its own right and not a colloquial or ‘peasant’ corruption of Bengali. Also, the region of Sylhet has a rich canon of literature in the Sylheti Nagri script, going back at least 200 years, in the form of puthis, or poetic religious or fairy tales. The Sylheti revival is inspired by these and other related aspects of South Asian history. Some of this was explored by the British Bangladeshi visual artist and designer, Saif Osmani, in his 2017 exhibition, ‘Bangla is Not My Mother Tongue’.
2. Akram Khan
The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games was an artistic spectacle directed by British Oscar winner Danny Boyle. It also sparked an infamous response by the Conservative MP Aidan Burley, who labelled it ‘leftie multiculturalist crap’. The ceremony featured a segment with Akram Khan and his dance company performing to ‘Abide With Me’, sung by Emeli Sandé, in tribute to the victims of the London bombings of 7 July 2005. ‘Leftie multicultural crap’ ostensibly included this artistic response to terrorism, led by a British Bangladeshi dancer-choreographer and supported by a Scottish singer-songwriter of English and Zambian parentage singing a well-known Anglican hymn. But Khan is not just any dancer or choreographer – he is practically an institution in the performing arts in Britain. Born in London in 1974 to a family originally from Dhaka, Khan began training in the South Asian classical dance form of kathak when he was seven. His work has won him multiple awards in Britain and beyond. Apart from Boyle and Sandé, he has also collaborated with Kylie Minogue, Hanif Kureishi and Juliette Binoche. These accolades, however, meant nothing to NBC, the US broadcaster of the 2012 Olympics, who cut Khan’s sequence and replaced it with an interview of swimmer Michael Phelps by Ryan Seacrest, host of American Idol. Khan admitted that this had upset him, but suggested that perhaps American viewers might not have been able to handle a work that was ‘too truthful’. Ouch.
3. Bangla Stories
After the independence of India in 1947, more than 20 million people – Muslims and Hindus – left their homes in the Bengal delta region to move across borders and settle in a new country. A small number moved further, to Europe and the Middle East. All migrated for varying, complex reasons, including to escape war, communal conflicts or natural disasters, for work, or for marriage. A team of researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge conducted a three-year project, involving over 180 life history interviews, to understand the experiences of first-generation migrants living in India, Bangladesh and the UK. It focused on Bengali Muslims – the largest group to settle in Britain. Their findings are presented in Bangla Stories, a website that showcases eight core interviews in detail, alongside a wealth of other resources that delve into the rich and extraordinary stories of the Bengali Muslim diaspora.
4. The Bengal Tiger
It’s the national animal of India, appears on Bangladeshi banknotes and – through the character of Richard Parker – was the lead character in the Booker Prize-winning novel and Oscar-winning film, Life of Pi. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Bengal tiger is also the most numerous tiger sub-species, with more than 2,500 left in the wild. Yet, for all its political symbolism and cultural ubiquity, the Bengal tiger is under threat from poaching to meet rising demand in Asia, including for tiger bone wine in China. Furthermore, the Sundarbans – shared between India and Bangladesh and one of the tigers’ major habitats – are the only mangrove forests in the world that are home to tigers. Yet, despite protests from local and international environmentalists, the Bangladesh government appears keen to develop coal plants next to this World Heritage-listed ecosystem. The effect upon the Sundarbans would be devastating, say activists. In the light of this, saving the Bengal tiger is not merely symbolic, nor should it be the trendy preserve of soft-hearted celebrities. According to the WWF, protecting just one tiger means protecting around 25,000 acres of forests. And this means protecting the lives of those people who rely on the Sundarbans for clean water, food and their livelihoods.
5. Baul Songs
Elsewhere in this issue, we have showcased the poetry of the nineteenth century mystic and philosopher Lalon Shah, who is also considered a Baul saint. The Bauls are described by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as ‘mystic minstrels’ living in rural Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. They have historically drawn upon Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism to produce a unique, unorthodox tradition which is devoted to – and centred upon – making music. Although they have always been relatively marginalised, Bauls are an intrinsic part of Bengali culture, notably influencing the compositions of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. UNESCO includes Baul songs in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and notes that the tradition is regaining popularity in rural parts of Bangladesh. The Baul tradition has also been popularised in the world music scene through artists such as Purna Das Baul and Bapi Das Baul.
6. Rickshaw Art
Rickshaw art, or auto art, is not exclusive to Bangladesh. In many parts of South Asia, elaborate paintings adorn trucks or the rears and canvas roofs of three-wheeled pedicabs, or rickshaws. There are subtle variations across the region, however. Truck art is more prevalent in Pakistan, especially in cities like Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, while rickshaw art is much more visible in Bangladesh, notably in Dhaka, the ‘rickshaw capital of the world’. The country has an estimated million rickshaws, which millions of people rely on for transport every single day. Well decorated vehicles attract better business, and owners will hire artists for good money – up to $200 – to paint the Taj Mahal, for example. Others might request peacocks, pigeons or generic landscapes.
7. Hilsa or Elish Fish
Stereotypes be damned. Bangladesh has a national fish – which many refer to as the king of fish – the hilsa or elish fish. A species within the herring family, it contributes up to twelve per cent of the country’s total fish production and approximately one per cent of its GDP. It is eaten for breakfast during Pohela Boishakhi (see below) and, among Bengali Hindus, a pair of fishes is usually offered on auspicious days, for example Saraswati Puja and Lakshmi Puja. Part of Bengali wedding ceremonies also involves an elaborate gift exchange, or tatwa, which often includes a pair of elish fish dressed as bride and groom. (Cue Google Images search now.) Unfortunately, however, the species is now overfished and reserves are dwindling due to the impacts of climate change. In October 2016, the Bangladesh government had to impose a twenty-two-day ban on hilsa fishing in twenty-seven districts and compensated the affected fishermen with rice. This conjures another variant of the Bangladesh Paradox – if you want to keep enjoying hilsa fish, you’d better not cook it or even order it when you visit a Bengali restaurant.
8. The Dhaka Art Summit
Since the 1990s, Dhaka has developed a vibrant art market and galleries, along with a circuit of curators, critics, collectors and artists. This scene has grown to become part of a web of private entrepreneurs, multinational companies, government officials and political parties who all play a part in the patronage of the arts. In 2012, the Dhaka Art Summit was founded by the Samdani Art Foundation – a private, Dhaka-based body established by the collector couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani – in collaboration with Bangladesh’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The summit is hosted every two years at the state-run Shilpakala Academy. The third Summit in 2016 attracted more than 138,000 local and 800 international visitors. The next summit will be held on 2-10 February 2018.
Alongside its burgeoning arts scene, Dhaka is also a literary hub. The Dhaka Literary Festival, founded in 2011, is held during November each year. There is also the month-long Ekushey Book Fair or Ekushey Boi Mela, which takes place every February.
9. Bengali New Year
The Bengali year is based on a solar calendar. A revised version is used as the national and official calendar of Bangladesh while an earlier version is followed in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. The Bengali New Year is known as Pohela Boishakh (or Pahela Bhaishakh) or, more popularly in the UK, as Boishakhi Mela. It falls on 14 April and is a national holiday in Bangladesh, and either on 14 or 15 April in India. It occurs around the same time as other Hindu or Sikh harvest festivals including Vaisakhi, Vishu (in Kerala) or Puthandu (in Tamil Nadu). In Bangladesh, Pahela Bhaishakh is non-sectarian – it is celebrated with equal enthusiasm by the Muslim majority and Hindu minority. The festival is marked by processions, fairs and lots of eating, singing and dancing. Boishakhi Mela is no less festive in London – in 2017, it was celebrated on 14 May in Weavers Fields and was supported by John Biggs, the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
10. Asian Dub Foundation and State of Bengal
Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) is not a British Bengali or Bangladeshi band per se. Formed in 1993, it blends and subverts multiple genres, including punk, hip hop, electronica, reggae and bhangra. Its line-up has changed over the years but not its politics – explicitly anti-colonialist, anti-racist and critical of neoliberalism. ADF has also attracted more well-known fans along the way, including Radiohead, Sinead O’Connor and Primal Scream. According to Anirvan Chatterjee, the self-described ‘progressive Desi’ activist based in San Francisco, ADF’s output ‘is more obviously music of second generation South Asians than music for second generation South Asians’. Yet ADF has never shied away from embracing its Bengali roots either. Before its first album was even released, ADF recorded the anti-racist anthem ‘Rebel Warrior’, directly inspired by the classic Bengali poem ‘Bidrohi’ by the nationalist poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. This is why, as Chatterjee puts it, discovering ADF in his youth was ‘electrifying’: ‘Hearing them incorporate Bengali poetry into anti-racist anthems reminded me that I’m allowed to pick, choose, and remix parts of my culture in ways that make sense to me.’
We close the list with this taste of how incisive ADF’s political analysis can be. Here’s an excerpt from their single ‘Fortress Europe’:
Keep banging on the walls of Fortress Europe
We got a right to know the situation
We’re the children of globalisation
No borders only true connection
Light the fuse of the insurrection
This generation has no nation
Grassroots pressure the only solution
We’re sitting tight
Because asylum is a right
Put an end to this confusion
This is a twenty-first century Exodus.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a response to the 2015 refugee crisis or post-Brexit fallout. But they released this prescient track in 2003. (Cue YouTube search now.)
(Thanks to Irum Shehreen Ali, Anato Chowdhury and Saif Osmani for their contributions to this list.)