Spotlight on an essence of Bangladesh's culture | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 02, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 02, 2015

Spotlight on an essence of Bangladesh's culture

Author: Shamsuzzaman Khan (Bangla Academy, 2015)

IT goes without saying that rising globalism in this age of information technology has had, is having, and will continue to have for the foreseeable future, a significant impact on societies and cultures across conventional nation-state borders. Of course, this impact, irrespective of being positive or negative, is overwhelmingly a one-way traffic. Even if we accept, for theoretical purposes, Canadian Marshall McLuhan's concept of a 'global village', envisioned years before the Internet was first developed for the US Department of Defense, that village has, in practice, turned out to be a reflection of old English fiefdoms, a place not of harmony but of clashing moral spheres. Now we have, in the colourful, yet accurate, words of a premier scholar of global communication, Majid Tehranian, “(t)he lords of the electronically moated opulent castles and the rebellious serfs, shamans, and jesters surrounding them have confronted one another through a variety of violent encounters:  physical, political, economic, cultural, and environmental.”

The influence of global communication on international cultural life is probably its most visible manifestation. And that impact is, to reiterate, almost entirely one-way:  from the few lords of the communication manors in a few advanced countries (notably the US, but also Great Britain, not to forget Australia --- remember, Rupert Murdoch hails from that country!) to the vast multitude of diverse residents of the countryside, to carry on with the analogy of the erroneous concept of the 'global village'. Such pervasive cultural incursion is no less menacing to a country than a massive military presence in its proximity, though far less obvious. As another scholar of global communication, Hamid Mowlana, trenchantly states, “The notion that information and communication are, in fact, culturally neutral is the greatest myth of our time.”  Since mass migrations and international trade began millennia ago, cultural interface was inevitable, and cultures underwent modifications, wholesale additions and subtractions included, under the influence of the interactions. That is not at all a bad thing. In fact, a static culture represents a moribund society.  Nonetheless, some changes, those representing the enduring core values of a culture, should not happen. Such cultural transformations debase a society, and diminish group identity.

Folklore: New Challenges, an outcome of the Bangla Academy-sponsored First International Folklore Conference held in Dhaka in 2013, has, under the circumstances of the global communication onslaught, intended as well as spin-offs, on national cultures, undertaken the admirable task of projecting a crucial aspect of Bangladesh's culture, folklore, through articles written by local and international authorities on the subject. The chief editor, a longtime scholar and devotee of folklore, lays out the centrality of culture and folklore in the “Prelude” to the book: “Bangladesh has benefited from cultural pluralism in spite of a semblance of communal rancor resulting from political bitterness. Folklore presents enormous evidence of communal harmony.” And, then, elaborates: “In Bangladesh we are concerned with the safeguarding of minor cultures and the study of folklore pragmatically.” As several of the articles spell out, or at least indicate, they have not been easy to execute in practice. Khan is particularly incisive in acknowledging the inevitability of the encroachment of globalism and the necessity of preserving a society's core values and culture in the face of such onslaught: “In the current state of globalization…economic greed and political dominance manifest, and as such it is a real threat to cultural autonomy for the weaker nations.  Apart from promoting national cohesiveness, folklore can stand as a bulwark to thwart the cultural dominance of the technologically superior entities…. While we recognize the necessity of knowing others and opening the mind for contacts and exchanges with people belonging to different cultural traditions, it is also important to preserve one's own heritage.”

And what is the state of our folklore and culture in the first decade and a bit of the twenty first century? Let some of the writers, twenty two in all, thirteen of them Bangladeshis, elucidate. Mahbubul Haque (“Folklore in the Global Context”) is seriously concerned that the age-old Baul tradition is being undermined by those he terms the pop Bauls or of the fake variety of the present times using heavy metal music, making bizarre and indecent body gestures, and wearing weird costumes. “This,” he says, “is one of the many instances where our folklore is being seriously affected by harmful cultural invasions.” In a very short piece (“Secular Identity and Bengali Nationalism: A Perspective from the folklore of Bangladesh”), Shafiqur Rahman Chowdhury is concerned that the forces of religious intolerance and fanaticism have been mounting a challenge to the secular and syncretistic modes of cultural expression that the folklore of Bangladesh strongly espouses. However, he concludes by placing his faith upon the success of Prajanma Chattar to save and secure secularism, the driving force behind Bengali nationalism and the folklore of Bangladesh. We are in trouble if we have to depend solely on a transient movement to preserve our secular traditions!

Saifuddin Chowdhury (“Effects of Globalization on Bangladesh Folklore: Two Contexts”), as if to reassure us that the protection and continuation of secularism rest with a variety of people and practices, relates how the Gambhira has metamorphosed into a secular folksong after discarding its religious overtones. That secularism is splendidly exemplified by, among other things, the Sufi tradition of the country and the mysticism of Lalon Shah. The section on Sufism includes the pieces of Pierre-Alain Baud (“Sufi Soul or Sufi Soap?”), Frank J. Korom (“Modern Anxieties and Sufi Solutions”), and Muhammad Zamir (“Sufism”). Korom portrays an intriguing mystic from Sri Lanka, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, while Zamir's is a succinct, yet thoughtful, discussion on the origins and practices of Sufism. Zamir singles out Lalon Shah for special treatment as a great humanist, and eloquently captures the essence of his songs: they “aim at an indescribable reality beyond realism.” Another folklore form, and an endangered cultural species at that, the yatra, is discussed with passion, sensitivity, and sympathy, not to mention a sense of foreboding, by Christina Nygren (“Yatra in the Centre of the Storm: A Bengali Tradition in Danger”). She fears its “unfortunate stagnation or even imminent extinction” in the face of negative influences from the proponents of highbrow culture.  She pleads for the preservation of “this ancient indigenous popular and folk theatre form, which is part of the world heritage of traditional folk performing arts.”

Niaz Zaman's (“The Bangla Baromashi Songs of Sorrow and Celebration”) is a delightful depiction of the light-hearted Bangali in tune with nature as exemplified by having songs written and sung as odes to twelve months of the Bangla year. To her, “…these songs which juxtapose the sadness of separation from the husband/lover and agricultural scenes are celebratory more than sorrowful. They celebrate the ever-changing splendours of the natural months as well as the bonds between men and women which separation cannot destroy.” Indranil Acharya (“Quest for an Alternative Aesthetic in Bangla Dalit Folk Poetry”) touches on a sensitive (on several counts) topic, and concludes with an assessment broad enough not to ruffle too many feathers: “Bengali Dalit poetry strives to occupy a space where contradictory feelings of anger, cooperation, frustration, toleration, resentment, pity all cohabit to create a complex web.” Murshid Anwar (“Ghazir Gan”) discusses at length a song that originated from the popular legend of Ghazi Pir, lauds it as exemplifying religious harmony prevailing in rural Bangladesh, and categorizes it as a combination of three genres: a folktale, a folksong, and a folk belief.   

Jawaharlal Handoo (“The Status of Folklore in Indian Society and Discourse: A Theoretical Viewpoint”) is outraged that, to many historians, a culture and a civilization have been reckoned only in terms of stone structures, wars, conquests, colonization and slavery. He is even more indignant that, very often, both the scholars and laypersons subsume folklore and oral traditions as relics of the backward past and of no use in the modern processes of development and modernization. He urges for the reversal of such thinking.  Syed Jamil Ahmed (“Exorcizing the Orientalist Ghost of Messrs. Thoms, Temple, Day et al.: A Call for Decolonizing Folklorists of Bangladesh”), in a hard-hitting essay, advises:  “…unless the legacy of the colonial village is uprooted by decolonizing the mind of the folklorists, folklorists of Bangladesh will continue to be the playground of romantic pastoralists driven by transparent Orientalism and dressed as postcolonial folklorists.”

In his illuminating keynote speech (“Recording Folklore”), Henry Glassie lays down the truism that, “Folklore is a human universal…a central, perpetual reality, always present, even changing.” He then prognosticates (not forgetting to end with a disparaging remark): “The twenty-first century…will be the Asian century.  Folklore will be studied in relation to preservation and cultural autonomy in the context of the high-tech, neocolonial expansion of greed called globalization.” Shamsuzzaman Khan (“In Search of a Model for Bangladesh's Folklore Materials”) argues that both the diachronic and synchronic methods have to be employed in the study of folklore of Bangladesh rather than just the synchronic method being preferred. That is because, “(s)ince this subcontinent of ours has a history of great antiquity and a perennial backwardness in the social development, non-literate culture or oral culture still has an abiding influence.”

Margaret Ann Mills (“Trickster between Myth and Tale”) and Ulo Valk (“Magic, Participation and Genre: Narrative Experiences of the Supernatural”) have written two delightful pieces on two subjects that stride a gray area between myth and possibility, while M. Shahinoor Rahman (“Belief in the Evil Eye: A Critical Study”) deals with a topic that will, I dare say, remain a wonderful superstition for many Bengalis to follow for a long time. Susmita Chakrabarty (“When Folklore becomes a Survival Tool for the Laboring Women in the City of Rajshahi”) highlights a folk food called kalairuti that sustains labouring men and women in Rajshahi city. Folklore: New Challenges is a monumental book that has knowledgeable writers on folklore expounding on various topics related to it --- ranging from the theoretical aspects to its practice in Bangladesh. Going through it will be a worthwhile journey. 

The reviewer is an actor and educationist.

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