I grew up with Chhayanaut. No, I never took any music lessons there. I am simply one of those countless Bengalis who partook of its rich cultural offerings over the years. Some of my fondest memories of childhood and youth are inextricably linked to Chhayanaut, our great cultural treasure, that completes 50 years this month.
In my childhood, I accompanied family members to the Ramna Botomul to join Chhayanaut in welcoming the Bengali New Year. The remarkable thing about Chhayanaut's naba barsha celebrations wasn't just the music – lovely as it was. I marveled at its ability to create a quintessential Bengali cultural environment that resonated deeply with the public.
This is no small feat. Our colonial biases die hard, especially among the educated middle class,who are easily seduced into mindlessly aping the West. Yet on that particular day, those in attendance followed Chhayanaut's example. Women dressed in lovely cotton saris, men wore kurtas.
What a sight it was to behold! On a beautiful, crisp dawn, nestled amongst the lush greenery of Ramna, men and women, dressed in traditional clothing, listened to enchanting Bengali music. The moment had an almost sacred ambiance. This was a heartfelt homage to our language and culture.
In my youth, I recall attending a Nazrul birth anniversary musical soiree at the Eskaton Ladies' Club (Chhayanaut didn't have its campus then. Volunteers ran it on weekends out of the University Laboratory School in Nilkhet.)I listened, mesmerised, to top Nazrul song exponents of the day –Kamal Rodrigues and Sadya Afreen.
Like all Chhayanaut events, the event was free and open to the public.
The organisation began in the early 1960s. Bengalis were getting ready to celebrate the birth centenary of their beloved literary icon, Rabindranath Tagore.The erstwhile East Pakistan government and its sectarian cultural goons, forever terrified of the plural, humanist spirit of Bengali culture, slapped a ban on Tagore.
How do you battle a grievous injustice? In 1971, Bengalis took up arms and wrested freedom after a nine-month-long bloody battle. The cultural battle in the early 1960s was no less momentous, though not a drop of blood was spilled. The cultural activists who seethed at the ban were an unassuming lot. There was not a single weapon between the lot of them. All they had was a deep, abiding love of Bengali culture, which, it turned out, is no less formidable as a weapon of defense.
Their sustained struggle made a profound impression on the Bangladeshi cultural psyche. For 50 long years, with minimal media fuss, the volunteers of Chhayanaut took upon themselves a mission to nurture a love and appreciation of Bengali culture. Some of the nation's top performers gave their services for free, and over time, their hard work paid off.
Today, every year, 1,300 students enter Chhayanaut's multi-year programmes in various genres of Bengali music in its impressive campus. Many more thousands are turned away. Cabinet ministers, tycoons plead to get their wards in. The multi-story campus, built entirely with private donations, is a testament to the enormous public esteem and affection the organisation has acquired.
Chhayanaut has become what it is today, thanks to the efforts of, among others, the late Wahidul Huq, a polymath cultural activist par excellence, and Sanjida Khatun, his wife, an acclaimed, cerebral scholar of Tagore and Bengali literature. Wahidul Huq was a bit of a curmudgeon who didn't suffer fools gladly.This ferociously well-read, peripatetic activist crisscrossed the length and breadth of Bangladesh to promote Bengali culture with missionary zeal. The overwhelming outpouring of grief across the country following his death is proof of how deeply his efforts were appreciated.
For 50 years, Sanjida Khatun has nurtured Chhayanaut like an affectionate but strict mother. A retiring person who avoids the limelight, her great contribution is not just imparting excellent instruction in Tagore songs over the decades. She has been uncompromising in demanding an overall Bengali ambiance at Chhayanaut that has made it clear to students – and everybody else associated with Chhayanaut, for that matter – that Chhayanaut is not just a music school. Chhayanaut's goal is to imbue its students with an appreciation and love of being Bengali. This means adhering to a dress code and conducting oneself in a manner consistent with Bengali etiquette. Thousands of graduates leave Chhayanaut with a renewed pride in being Bengali, and become potent ambassadors of Bengali culture.
In a globalised world, there can be no greater asset for a young person today. This is an age of flux, of uncertainty, of great social and political change. Chhayanaut provides a profound, reassuring sense of cultural identity deeply anchored in our roots as we try to steer through the stormy seas of social and cultural turmoil in a fast-changing, globalising world.
The writer is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.