Mohammad Anwarul Kabir

In Quest of a Bengali Cultural Bridge

A few years back, my visit to Kolkata resulted in a certain amount of dismay assessing the unequal exchange of culture between the two parts of the old Bengal, namely Bangladesh and West Bengal of India. In the economic realm, it is evident that there is a wide gap in trade between Bangladesh and India. We import more commodities from India than we export to that country. Perhaps, this imbalance in trade reflects our weak policies which, in turn, lead to huge losses in terms of our hard earned revenues. However, exploring the cultural realm one may wonder at the fact that although both the people of Bangladesh and the Bengalis in India, especially of West Bengal share the same cultural heritage, the harsh reality is that in exchanging cultural discourses we lag far behind. In this case also, we are mainly the recipient and contribute less in framing a common cultural dimension for both parts of Bengal.

A walk through College Street, the biggest book market of Kolkata is a case in point. In this famous book mall, it is not that easy to get books published from Bangladesh. Even the books of Bangladeshi popular writers like Shamsur Rahman, Humayun Ahmed, Taslima Nasrin, Syed Shamsul Haque, Showkat Ali, Rizia Rahman, Imdadul Hoque Milon, Al Mahmood and Nirmulendu Goon are not available due to some restrictions on book import from Bangladesh imposed by the Indian administration. In contrast, books of most of the popular Bengali writers of India are readily available in the book markets of Bangladesh. In New Market and Nilkhet areas of Dhaka, bookshops lavishly display books by popular Indian Bengali writers such as Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar, Buddhadeb Guha, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, etc., which signifies their popularity among the readers in Bangladesh. The market demand for Indian books in Bangladesh has reached an extent that even the pirated copies of these books are being sold openly in the Dhaka markets. Obviously due to this we get exposure to the advancement of Indian Bengali literature. But, unfortunately, we hardly observe the reverse scenario in the Kolkata markets. Due to a lack of availability of books published in Bangladesh, readers in India get little opportunity to assess the dynamism in the arena of our literature. However, there is a huge demand for Bangladeshi books among the readers of West Bengal.

My discussions with some Bengali youngsters at the Coffee House revealed that Bengali readers of West Bengal are eager to read Bangladeshi books, especially those on literature. Gauranga Mitra, a student of Kolkata University, lamented, "Dada, the irony is that, though you also write in Bangla, we hardly get any chance to read your books. A few book stores in Kolkata sell Bangladeshi books." "Why is the West Bengal government reluctant to import books from Bangladesh?" I raised this question. Subimal Basak, a dedicated editor of a little magazine, pointed out that "the central government (of India) is cautious about Bengaldeshinationalism. They don't want us to develop any strong cultural ties with Bangladesh!”Perhaps, Subimal Basak has rightly analysed conditions. Once undivided Bengal played an important role in politics, economics and other cultural aspects in the context of all India. Gopalakrishna Gokhale (1866-1915), an eminent Indian statesman whom Gandhi regarded as his mentor assessing the contributions of Bengal to the Indian socio-economic, politics and cultural aspects once commented, "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow."

His evaluation, indeed, was fully justified if we objectively analyse the socio-political aspects of the Bengalis at that time compared with those of other communities of the subcontinent. Even in the last decades of the British Raj, Calcutta (Kolkata) as the capital (from 1772 to 1912) of undivided India was the heart of India, from the cultural to the political. On the political front, we can cite many names of those days like Deshbandhu Chitta Ranjan Das, Subash Bose, M N Roy, Comrade Muzaffar Ahmed, Abul Hashim, Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Hoque, and many others of Bengali origin who were at the focal point of Indian politics. On the cultural front, Bengali reformers, philosophers and litterateurs of those days were marked as toppers in the context of undivided India. Raja Ram Mohon Roy, Iswar Chandra Bidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Michael Modhusudan Dutt, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das, Satyajit Ray, Abbas Uddin, Jainal Abedin and many other names can be stated at a stretch who contributed much in shaping and placing the Bengali culture in a distinguished position in the world context. However, if we objectively analyse, since the partition of India in 1947, the dominance of Bengal in an all India context has been diminishing with time. The reasons behind this are manifold.

The Delhi-centric post-independence politics of India and rise of Hindi culture have driven away the prominence of Bengal and Bengali culture in the Indian socio-economic and cultural fabric. The 1947 division of Bengal can also be regarded as one of the delimiting factors that has reduced the importance of Bengal in the Indian context. However, here in Bangladesh, if we assess the cultural aspects then we can justifiably claim that we have been contributing much to the total advancement of Bengali culture since our liberation. During the dark period of Pakistan (1947 to 1971), no doubt, our achievements were negligible due to the then governments' hostile attitudes in this respect. In fact, during the Pakistan regime, the ruling classes viewed many aspects of Bengali culture as anti-Islamic and so they tried to formulate different schemes (for instance inclusion of more Arabic/Urdu/Persian vocabularies and exclusion of Sanskrit words from our Bengali scripts, restriction on Rabindranath Tagore's songs to undermine our cultural aspirations. But after independence, the situation has been totally reversed and in a true sense Bangladesh has emerged as a nation state by getting a new dimension of cultural practice. It may be mentioned here that due to socio-political and geographical boundaries with West Bengal, Bangladesh has produced a flavour of Bengali culture different from that of West Bengal. However, this difference does not imply any sort of superiority or inferiority complexes. Rather, an objective analysis suggests that since our independence, in the cultural domain we have achieved significant points. Our literature – poetry, short stories, novels and fine arts – no doubt have attained world standards. Many Indian intellectuals are highly appreciative of our endeavours in Bengali literature and fine arts. In this context, the comment of Mahashweta Devi, a noted Indian intellectual, social activist and novelist can be cited. She has appreciated the contributions of Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmood and Syed Shamsul Hoque to Bengali poetry. Not only literature and fine arts, our songs, lyrics and dramas have found their new horizons through continuous evolution over time.

Even with all limitations gradually our cinematography has been achieving its new form and uniqueness. At the time of Partition, when East Bengal joined Pakistan as its eastern wing following Jinnah's so called religion-based two-nation theory and several occurrences of riots between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent before and after partition, antagonism developed between the Muslim majority Bengalis in erstwhile East Pakistan and Hindu majority Bengalis of West Bengal. However, after the emergence of Bangladesh, based on secular Bengali nationalism, it had been expected that eventually a congenial relationship would prevail between the people of Bangladesh and West Bengal having the same ethnic identity. But the harsh reality is that the legacy of past hostility still haunts the psyche of the Bengalis on both sides of the border. My interactions with the common people in Kolkata have revealed that many Indian Bengalis perceive a stereotyped notion of the Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh. Perhaps this notion has its origin in the Muslim community in West Bengal, which is very conservative. But in practice, the Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh inherently are more moderate and secular. A Bengali businessman named Sudhir Chandra Das who migrated from Tangail to Kolkata in 1956 described how he had worked hard in the refugee camps in Kolkata during our liberation war. He pointed at the rise of Islamic extremism in independent Bangladesh, especially after the brutal killing of Bangabandhu. Indexing the activities of Bangla Bhai, Shaeikh Abdur Rahman and their associates, he argued that unless these religious bigots received support from the grassroots, they could not have carried out their mayhem in the name of Islam. However, I did succeed in making him understand the reality in Bangladesh and stated that at the grassroots level the extremist groups have received little support. Now it has been revealed that most of the brutal activities of the Islamic extremist groups were in fact patronised by the powers that were and Islamic extremism as an ideology has got little footing at the grassroots level.

Proper cultural exchange is a powerful tool for minimising hostility between two nations or communities. However, it is quite surprising to note that even in this information era, India is not as liberal in exchanging information, particularly with Bangladesh as one would expect. On the other hand, Bangladesh is very liberal. For instance, Bangladesh has a very lenient policy in allowing cable operators to transmit all the electronic media (almost all channels of the Indian TV) of India. But in West Bengal, the cable operators usually do not transmit any Bangladeshi TV channel programmes, presumably due to some restrictions imposed by the Indian government. This, in turn, largely deprives the Indian people and the people of West Bengal in particular of a more vividly understanding of the Bangladeshi people and their culture. Indian policy in this case is more inclined to a sort of cultural intrusion or aggression than the creation of healthy cultural exchange. High human mobility across the globe at present has produced trans-national Diasporic cultures. Ketaki Kushari Dyson, a noted non-resident Indian writer and researcher I met once noted, "The Bengalis of India have their greater identity of Indianness and nurturing of Bengali culture will not demean their nationhood." In support of her assertion, we can argue that the formation of the European Union in the closing decade of the last century has not diminished the individual identity of its member countries. Rather, it has paved the way for the member countries to understand each other in better ways by minimising hostilities and cultural distances. If the people of the old Bengal across the border can have an opportunity to exchange cultural aspects in a true sense, it will help much in enhancing bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. Intermingling of the cultural aspects of Bangladesh and West Bengal will eventually create a brilliant confluence of Bengali culture and in turn, recreate the past glory of the Bengali nation in the global cultural spectrum.

*This aticle was first published in the Daily Star, Bangladesh

Mohammad Anwarul Kabir is a university academic from Bangladesh. He is also a columnist and a poet. He can be reached at kabiranwar@yahoo.com.

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