How music and culture drove the Liberation War | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:39 AM, March 26, 2017

How music and culture drove the Liberation War

In conversation with Nasiruddin Yousuff

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. – Frantz Fanon

Since its inception in 1973, Dhaka Theatre has since been synonymous to the national cultural voice. As one of the leading troupes that pioneered the theatre movement and its many artistic forms, Dhaka Theatre has always been devoted to representing the various traditions of our land, as well as creating new directions in theatre.  Nasiruddin Yousuff was one of the founding members of Dhaka Theatre, along with Selim Al Deen and other members, all of whom were Freedom Fighters. In a recent conversation with The Daily Star, Nasiruddin Yousuff reminisces the early years of the troupe and the significance of the cultural movements during the Liberation War. Excerpts:

“It wasn't until 1975 that we staged our first major work. It was a musical, consisting of 17 songs as well as some choreography. This was the first musical comedy to be performed in Bangladeshi theatre, and it was received very well. After this came 'Shakuntola', or rather a twentieth century interpretation of the original narrative. In those early years, Selim Al Deen and I focused on abstract and other kinds of plays, but something always felt amiss. We had fought in the war to gain Independence - but were we really free? The theatre is a largely colonised domain, with many borrowed elements from the West, and the absence of a culture we could call our very own was poignantly felt. It was this realisation that spurred Selim and myself to change artistic directions, in the hopes of nurturing a culture that is uninfluenced by any historical cultural oppression. This was what gave Dhaka Theatre its identity.  In 1977, we began performing the first street plays, for which we even got arrested mid-performance. It was during the military occupation of Bangladesh, and unable to look past the female cast members in colorful costumes, dancing, they could not tell that a performance was being staged. But those were the socio-political circumstances of the time, and we have had overcome those limitations since.”

“Gono-sangeet and songs of revolution had existed before the Liberation War. These were the songs that not only gave us hope and spirit to fight, but also helped shape our ideals. When night brought impenetrable darkness due to the blackouts, we used to listen to the songs of freedom through Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra.  “Amar Sonar Bangla”, “Dhono Dhannyo Pushpo Bhora”, “Ek Sagor Rokter Binimoye” and other songs echoed throughout the entire land, unifying the people, and we would hear them wherever we travelled. Culture is an unstoppable force, and it gives people something to stand for. When we were under siege on the night of March 25, none of us had weapons to defend ourselves, and we had lost during the initial stage of war. But the strength we had derived from culture and tradition, led us into victory. After April, tables turned and victory was on our side.”

“Our people have gone through cultural upheavals brought about by many oppressive years of Colonial and Pakistani rule, and that is why we have gone back to our roots, focusing on post-colonial works in order to find our national voice. We maintain close connections with theatre troupes from rural areas, and make sure their art is exposed. There is an urgent need for such patronization, or else these cultures will fade from our memories over time. Sadly, folk culture is dying due to the precedence television and radio has over entertainment.”

Asked about his current work, Yousuff says “I have finished a film, and right now I am awaiting its release.  I have plans to start a new theatre venture as well, based on Syed Altaf Mahmud's life. I also have plans to work on a couple of more films – one of which will be an attempt to construct a grand narrative of the Language Movement.”

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