• Friday, July 25, 2014

Of memories, identities and sacrifice

Meghna Guhathakurta
Photo: star
Photo: star

In our culture, sacrifice is often celebrated and observed as a ritual. It is evident in religious culture, for example Eid ul Azha in Islam or Bolidaan during Kali Puja of the Hindu community. We also ritualize it in the observation of our national days. E.g. Ekushey February as Shaheed Dibosh or Shaheed Intellectual Day on the eve of Victory Day on 14th December. Time and again we are reminded of how many lives had to be sacrificed in the course of the birth of Bangladesh. I have often wondered whether such rituals help us to naturalize the initial pain or loss involved in such acts of sacrifice so much so that it eventually becomes a way to blanket the very emotions that give meaning to such a day. However it is also true that for the first generation i.e. those who actually witnessed or participated in the war, the feelings tend to be more intense  and heightened and perhaps in the course of history closure is reached and all these days become a mere reference point in the march of time. But is that always the case?
Interestingly we often see the reverse to be true. The intensity in which the centenary of the World War I seems to be remembered in England does not seem to be as profoundly celebrated in other countries, although by its very definition it was a World War! On the other hand last year during the pinnacle of the Shahbagh gathering where a young generation who had not witnessed the Liberation War was demanding the punishment for war criminals, many western diplomats were left wondering, why it was being articulated by the younger generation, those potential yuppies, who should be thinking about furthering their careers in the global rat race, falling in love and getting married or simply chilling out in the newest coffee joint in town; not thinking of what happened  40 years ago! The simple answer was of course the young generation was doing all that and more and yet what happened 40 years ago mattered, because the search for an identity or dignity is a continuous one and one that needs to be worked and reworked by each generation. It does not stop at the making of a Constitution, neither does it get resolved even at the amendment of one. The reworking takes place at a depth of the consciousness that is both individual and collective and hence involves complex processes of both collective memories and individual propensities.
Let's begin with the collective memories. All too often, collective memories get conflated with national memories or national consciousness. The reasons are obvious. The emergence of the nation-state came with all the power of the state which was deemed to control a unifying process of bringing a nation together ideally under the aegis of one single, broader identity. In Bangladesh when we use the term Bahanno thekey Ekattor (1952 to 1971), we are implicating a broader unifying process that brought the nation together under the banner of Bangali nationalism. This is not about Bangali versus Bangladeshi nationalism because interestingly enough both strands share similar markers. It is just that they interpret them in their own ways. Whoever is in control of state power use the same marker albeit with their own legends and polemics. But on the other hand if you ask a Chakma or a Tripura from Khagrachhari or Rangamati about what her or his markers of consciousness are it can be very different. When doing research in the Chittagong Hill Tracts I did ask them and they had responded with a variety of markers which  we Bengalis would not relate to: the Kaptai Dam eviction, the entrenchment of the army, when the Bangali 'refugees' first came in, the declaration of a stable ceasefire etc. Exploring further, if you asked women of any community what their markers of consciousness were, the responses vary even more. More than grand-scale political events they would relate stories of when they could wear a 'teep' in their foreheads without fear, or when schools stopped becoming concentration camps or perhaps for a future generation of garments factory workers it would be the Great Disaster of Rana Plaza. Their responses could also tell you about the nearness and the distance of the state from their own daily lives. For example several years ago a 90 year old village woman was asked whether she knew who was in state power at that time. She had answered, “Well I knew at one time it was Queen Victoria, but now I don't!” Interpret it anyway you like, but the long and short of it is that collective memory i.e. memories of Chakma, Tripura, Santal people, women, wage workers may be very different from the state-sponsored national discourses and debates on memories. They in fact may be broader, more complex and run parallel to or in opposition of national discourses and hence failed to get integrated into it. But that is not to say they do not exist. That is why we see movements, uprisings in different period of time surface, often demanding recognitions of such memories and their consequent realties.
Individual memories through an intricate process of story-telling and legend building which often fit in organically with collective memories help to strengthen respective strands of thought. We witness such individual reminiscences of victims and freedom fighters periodically during national day celebrations, in other days stories of successful women or brave indigenous warriors inform their respective histories. But in the play of power (e,g, those who control the media, education,  or broadly speaking  production of culture) some stories get valorized over others hence influencing the direction of history.
However, individual memories also have a potential for playing the subversive role of deconstructing some of the collective legends through creative translation inevitably reflected in works of art.  Artists in general facilitate the translation of memory or recall of events even decades after that event is over. Masterpieces of films on the World Wars even 100 years on still hold us spell bound not so much as documentation of the events or an informed retelling of history, but as an emotional re connection with events based on principles that transcend time and space; principles such as humanity or a rediscovery of truths which the conscious mind had so far denied or not previously acknowledged. We yearn for such works of art whatever the medium.
In Bangladesh the 1971 War of Liberation is vibrantly alive in many such art works and installation both in the visual and the non-visual form. Visual art is interesting in that they attempt to relate the unspoken word (the language of terror, pain and passion) in a vocabulary that need not communicate with words. The communication is more sense related and hence triggers memories that are often forgotten, denied or not consciously perceived. Works of Hamiduzzaman Khan, Shahabuddin, Kalidas Karmakar and more recently Dhali Mamoon echo the sublime, heartrending memories of 1971. I remember when I took my mother to see one of the earliest of installments by Hamiduzzaman Khan “1971”. She was so overwhelmed that she had to come out of the gallery in order to breathe properly. 1971 was too near for her and the installation emitted the trauma she had experienced in such a way that she needed to protect herself from it. At a safe distance however such works of art helps us to rediscover different facets of events that often prove larger than life. Through such medium meanings such as sacrifice do not become mere platitudes but powerful tools of transformation that may affect generations to come.

The writer is Executive Director, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh.

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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