SPECTACLE OF A CULTURAL RISING
Some public intellectuals and international media are much fond of portraying Bangladesh as a conservative Muslim society with exaggerated figures in support of their arguments and selective photos showing young Qaumi Madrassa students with fresh beard on their cheeks and Islamic skull cap on their tops - vigorously memorizing verses of the Quran. They should have been in Dhaka on the Bangla New Year, Pohela Baishakh, on 14 April. A year ago, they were taken aback seeing the size of Hefazat-e –Islami rally mostly attended by under order Qaumi Madrassa students; now, they would have been startled, should they have had the glimpse, by the sight of spontaneous millions — male, female, young and old — draped in colours in an ocean of festivity around Ramna-Dhaka University area. Such a momentous and explicit expression of non-religious cultural extravaganza is no ordinary thing in a country, 90 per cent population of which is Muslim.
The sheer spontaneity, the number and the level of energy and excitement around the festivity is simply astounding. The police blocked vehicle movement up to about a mile all around from the central area of the main events, yet that didn’t stop these pouring millions of various age groups from moving around and getting the taste of the environment and the fete. Women and young girls wore colourful saris. They did matching makeovers including colourful face paints and floral bands around their foreheads or flowers in their bun or braid. There were of course carnival like processions in the center of the city with young boys and girls carrying big animal and caricature masks of real and imaginary beings. Even few Hijabi women were seen enjoying the festivity wearing a colourful Hijab and draped with gorgeous blocked or embossed saris and their face made over like other cheerful beauties. There were stages and music all around.
Even other areas of Dhaka and the cities and towns outside had similar extravaganza. The rural areas weren’t far behind either. There were Pohela Baishakh fairs in almost every locality of Bangladesh and people attended en masse.
This is another face of Bangladesh. Perhaps the real one as many would argue. You take out the pressure of orthodox dictates or neutralise it by some means the people of the country will come out with all sorts of splashy cultural expressions. It just needed removal of the lid of suppression and then the cultural blossom is obvious. Same can be observed in the national days — with some somber tones and in few other occasions, in a lesser scale though like beginning of a Bengali season etc.
There are some interesting things about culture and heritage. Some people claim culture as primordial, which is not. Certain aspects of it can be as such, which survives the sifting of historical courses. Culture is often informed by the historical journey of a land and its population and obviously its modern experiences. But there are challenges for certain population group who are required to reconcile between two competing and often conflicting cultural trends.
Bangladeshis have this creative and colourful cultural stream that acts as the vehicle for natural human expressions, but also counterpoised by another stream, curtained sub-stream of which are hostile, cynical and vicious informed by flawed rendition of faith. That’s the tool of suppression. This stream or sub-stream don’t know coexistence, tolerance and accommodation; rather expounds self-styled religious puritanism and the elimination of the rest. They had been vocal in their own way and to their core audience against this cultural rising.
This threat to creativity, freedom and cultural expressions has to be faced with the language of strength and vigour that its perpetrators understand. Liberal generosity is weakness to them. The cultural mobilisation of Pohela Baishakh is, therefore, a right answer to the rallies and congregation of bigots.
It’s difficult to define a free and neutral space; especially in the context of time. The bigots also clamour for freedom of their activities – just to ensure that they conduct the end game of freedom. They fancy the use of freedom not embracing its spirit. They even don’t have the proper sense of propriety and honesty. Brute force of orthodoxy won’t always get moderate with the touch of liberal subtlety — experiences have vindicated that several times.
Thus only cultural celebration won’t suffice — cultural risings are essential. Bangladeshis can inculcate that. The sheer pervasiveness of Pohela Baishakh celebration is a fitting demonstration of the cultural power of a largely secular nationhood. This rising must maintain the momentum and sustain under challenges and adversities for the brute forces of bigotry won’t give up their age-old habit so easily of infringing people’s creative cultural world.
The author is the Head of
Operations in BRAC Institute
of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University, Dhaka