• Friday, April 18, 2014

Cover Story

Enlightening Bangladesh

Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan

Every Friday, a lively crowd of children and adults is seen in Jigatala, eagerly waiting for something to come. They are not waiting for a school bus; it's a weekend. Rather, it's a van covered with classic books for the readers of all ages that they patiently wait for. Thanks to Bishwa Shahitto Kendro's (BSK) mobile libraries, it is now a common scene in different parts of Bangladesh. Anybody can be a member of the library with a nominal membership of Tk 10 (less than a penny, if you think of it) a month. Members can borrow a book every week. With the tagline, “We want Enlightened Individuals”, mobile libraries of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro now cover all parts of Dhaka and most of the major cities of the country.

Bishwo Shahitto Kendro's library offers 200,000 books for the readers with a perfect environment for reading.
Bishwo Shahitto Kendro's library offers 200,000 books for the readers with a perfect environment for reading.

Besides catering to readers with books they love, Bishwo Shahitto Kendro is also working to build a generation of literature enthusiasts. Its programme titled “Developing the Reading Habit”, aims at working with school children from class six to ten to provide them with a selected list of books (one book every week).
Each week, BSK volunteers go to the schools with the books. As in Banani Bidyaniketan, Monday is a day of great joy for the students. Raka a student of class seven says, “Every Monday we eagerly wait for Tania Apa and her team. They come to our school, chat with us and give us amazing books. We love them and we love the books.”
The BSK does not limit itself to schools in the capital; students of 8,000 schools in the country have been getting these books every week. It has also taken its project to many madrasas, where the students' experience is quite inspiring. Irfan, one of the students of Sharsha Dakhil Madrasa says, “Life in the madrasa is hard. We have to study a lot and work very hard. But despite all the difficulties, we love to read the BSK books. Our teachers also encourage us in this regard.” Mesbah Uddin Ahmed the senior co-ordinator of the Developing the Reading Habit Project shares the same feeling. He says, “For the first time we are getting in touch with the madrasas and we have got a good response from them. We will include more madrasas in our upcoming projects.”
Due to its versatile readership, books have been selected according to the age group of the readers. Md Monir Hossain, senior coordinator of the “Developing the Reading Habit” programme says, “Our experts have selected the books very carefully for the students keeping in mind their intellectual maturity. We usually give 15-20 books, trying to cover all the genres of literature where the students can get the taste of Bengali and international literature, classics and contemporary as well.” On top of it all, as most of the books are BSK's own publication, the quality of the books has been ensured, and no compromise in this regard has been made.

Members or non members, anybody can read the library books. Photos: Prabir Das
Members or non members, anybody can read the library books. Photos: Prabir Das

But reading is not the only component of this programme. To ensure effective reading, it arranges a test for the students, who are provided with papers and they need to answer some analytical questions based on the books. Ishfaq, one of the students, says, “I have been participating in this programme since I was in class six. Now I am studying in class nine. This year, I will also take part in it. It is not like our usual exam. Reading the books and answering the question is fun. It's not actually an assessment or exam; it's like re-reading the books.”
Through this innovative and interactive way Bishhwo Shahitto Kendro (BSK) is creating an environment where the country's young people can hone their literary talents. The BSK offers attractive gift hamper for the participants. Those who read five books become eligible for a small award. The best reader wins a collection of four to 10 books. Besides the prize, the award ceremony, which includes inspiring speeches given by eminent personalities, is a great source of joy for the students.
One of the winners Tousif says, “The experience of receiving an award from Abu Sayeed sir and Zafar Iqbal sir is unforgettable. But my highest achievement is that I have got the autographs of Abu Sayeed sir and Zafar Iqbal sir in the books”. In Dhaka metropolitan area, this ceremony is usually arranged at Ramna Park. During the ceremony, hundreds of young boys and girls fill the park, making it one of the liveliest places of this mechanised city.
Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, one of the most celebrated teachers of Bangladesh, has taken the initiative of developing a knowledge based society through his Bishwo Shahitto Kendro (BSK) in 1978. He has given us the chance to dream of an enlightened nation by creating enlightened minds. Bangladesh government's ministry of education is sponsoring this under its Secondary Education and Access Enhancement Project (SEQAEP) and the World Bank is also providing the necessary support. The able leadership of Professor Abu Sayeed and the dedication of the BSK members have been crucial in the making of the BSK.
Professor Abu Sayeed says, “These young students come in touch with the great minds by reading these books. Through these books they get the finer feelings and sensitivities, values and above all the qualities that are required to be a true human being”. After teaching the students of Dhaka University for almost 30 years, this great literary personality has become a national teacher.
There is no denying that the Bishwo Shahitto Kendro has now become a movement. The BSK in its academic building offers many others facilities to develop an individual, in the words of Professor Abu Sayeed, “a renaissance human being.” Alor Ishkool, another initiative, is working to create a generation of enlightened individuals. Anybody above 18 years can join the Alor Ishkool. In these sessions, participants will take part in study circles on philosophy, music, world history, theology, cinema, fine arts and so on. Professor Abu Sayeed himself facilitates the session sometimes. Each Friday the academic building of BSK bustles with art lovers and knowledge seekers.

Madrasa students have been reading BSK's books with great enthusiasm.
Madrasa students have been reading BSK's books with great enthusiasm.

The BSK has set up one of the largest libraries in Dhaka with 175,000 books and some superb sitting arrangements. Sumaira, a regular reader of the library, says, “This library is one of the richest libraries I have ever seen and it's open to all. The reading environment is very good. But the only problem is very few know that we have such a rich library in Dhaka city.”
Professor Abu Sayeed says that for the participants of different activities of the BSK it has made arrangements to offer them with the best creations of the world music and cinema. "To develop a refined taste of art and culture it is very important to taste the classics,” he says. In the audio visual centres of BSK's academic building a music archive is established. Under the cinema department a study circle on cinema is regularly arranged where the world's best films are shown. They also arrange regular film festivals. According to Monir Hossain in 2013 alone, the BSK has showed some of the best movies of the world to 80,000 school students of different districts of Bangladesh.
As a dynamic movement, the BSK is trying to spread its wings and will soon launch one of its biggest offers to the literary buffs of Bangladesh. As Mesbah, senior coordinator of DRH said, “We are going to launch a dedicated website named Alor Pathshala for our Developing the Reading Habit Programme. In this website anyone will be able download 72 books from Bishwo Shahitto Kendro's own publication. Twelve of them are only for the higher secondary school level readers and the rest 60 are open to all. If they send their assessment after reading each 4 books, they will be awarded with the minimum award of 1 book. We are expecting to launch this online programme from the first week of March, 2014.”
Though this online book reading programme will not be able to cater to the readers of the rural area, it will certainly increase the readership of classic books. Through this programme, Bishwo Shahitto Kendro will also be the first Bangladeshi publisher to allow download of books completely free of cost.
Bishwo Shahitto Kendro's contribution to create a generation of knowledge seeker is invaluable. Through its decades-long efforts, it has already created a generation of scholars and enlightened youths. D Saikh Imtiaz, a teacher of Dhaka University says, “I have discovered my thirst for knowledge after participating in Bishwo Shahitto Kendro's book reading programmes. In the eighties, I was an avid student of the BSK and from that time I got the real taste of studying and seeking knowledge. BSK has actually paved my way to be a teacher and a knowledge seeker.”
A nation's prosperity does not depend on the bounty of the materialistic properties that it has. Rather it depends on whether its people are enlightened with education and literature or not. The contribution of Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed's Bishwo Shahitto Kendro to create an enlightened nation is really remarkable. It is the glimmer of light that can guide us to a progressive future. After all, the hand that holds the book is also the hand that rules the world.

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed. Photo: Prabir Das
Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed. Photo: Prabir Das

An Enlightened Mentor

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, the celebrated teacher and Chief Executive of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro talked with the Star about how he initiated his journey to bring about a renaissance in Bangladesh.

With many innovative initiatives like Developing the Reading Habit programme Bishwo Shahitto Kendro has now become a movement. What was your inspiration behind this initiative?
What we have seen during the early sixties is that there was no knowledge movement in Bangladesh. Like Calcutta we could not establish any knowledge based society here. We could not initiate any literary movement here. So at that time I started to think of a study circle mainly on literature. Abul Hasan, Humayun Kabir, Mahmudul Huq many writers also joined with me. I was a teacher of Dhaka College at that time and many of my students joined the study circle. But after one year the mass upheaval of 1969 started and then the Liberation War began. After the liberation we again initiated our journey. It was started with only a study circle that means a form of knowledge practice. Every cultural and literary movement should be initiated with knowledge practice.

Your initiative ‘Developing the Reading Habit’ has been reaching the readers for 35 years. Do you feel the changes among the youth?
Developing the Reading Habit is one of the major programmes of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro. Ministry of Education and World Bank has been supporting us throughout the project. Now we have reached 8000 schools and also madrasas with our books. But what I never did is use my projects for publicity. Many people wanted activity reports from me. I replied to them my activity report is the voice of my students. Their changing voice and thoughts after reading books on literature and all aspects is the evidence of our efforts to enlighten them.

Your Mobile Library project is also a very innovative and popular project.
Yes it's the only project we have accomplished with foreign donations. But the unfortunate fact is we cannot manage anymore fund for this. Government appreciated our initiative but never gave any substantial help. It will be very unfortunate that if this project fails only due to lack of resources.  More than 300,000 readers have been reading books from mobile libraries comprising of 46 buses. But we are really struggling to continue this programme.

Bishwo Shahitto Kendro has started study circles called Alor Ishkool which is based on Kendro's Academic building. Do you have any plan to spread it all over Bangladesh?
Yes, soon we shall open branches of Bishwo Shahitto Kendro in all the districts where study circles of Alor Ishkool will be arranged. Students will learn about all the forms of arts and culture through these study circles. I have always dreamed of developing an enlightened generation who will possess knowledge on every field and on every aspect. This is the inspiration of all my projects. I believe this generation will be the flag bearers of renaissance in Bangladesh.

Published: 12:00 am Friday, February 21, 2014

Last modified: 1:22 pm Friday, February 21, 2014

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