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    Volume 8 Issue 92 | October 30, 2009 |

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Slices of History

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

For anyone interested in the contemporary history of Bangladesh, Prothom Alo's ‘Shomoi Chitro’ (Timeline) was a must-see. The installation art exhibition, featuring news reports, photographs and cartoons published in the leading Bangla daily over the last 10 years ran from October 17 to October 24 at the Jatio Chitrashala of the Shilpakala Academy. Part of the yearlong celebrations marking Prothom Alo's first decade of publication, it offered viewers a tantalising trip back through time.

The world was a different place when Prothom Alo started its journey. Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was the president of Bangladesh, doomsday cults were predicting the end of the world by 2000, and Twitter was still considered the chirping of a bird. The very first issue came out on November 4, 1998 with the slogan “Ja kichu bhalo tar songe Prothom Alo” (Standing with whatever is good and just). Ten years and 350 issues later, Prothom Alo is the leading Bangla newspaper with a circulation of around 4,00,000. The journey has been exciting, occasionally controversial, but invariably marked with a pursuit of excellence. The Timeline exhibition was a fitting tribute to Prothom Alo as well as a fascinating glimpse of the recent past.

The exhibition itself was aesthetically pleasing. The open-sided gallery at the Chitrashala was filled with Prothom Alo exhibits. Important issues of the newspaper were placed on the floor with a glass cover. The photographs accompanying the news reports were blown up and hung from the roof. Hard-hitting cartoons by Shishir provided biting satire to offset the reports. Mammoth rolls of newsprint and cameras used by Prothom Alo photojournalists were displayed to set the ambience. The installation art exhibition featured a total of 119 photographs and 112 cartoons.

The only gripe could be that the display was not set in chronological order. Visitors could be excused for feeling slightly bewildered by images dated 1998 appearing next to photographs from 2008. But overall, the exhibition provided a rewarding look at Bangladesh through the journalistic lens of Prothom Alo. The entries were nothing less than little slices of history -- some tragic, some joyful but always colourful.

April 14, 2001. A bomb rips through the crowd assembled to celebrate Pahela Baishakh at Ramna Batamul. “Blood soaked New Year: Bangladesh Stunned” read the Prothom Alo banner heading. Nine people dead, and more than 20 injured.

On display are similar reports of carnage that shocked the nation. The bomb blast at CPB meeting, the Udichi blast, the cinema hall explosions -- all recreate a gory trail of destruction. At the time the trail of terror inevitably pointed to the rise of militancy in Bangladesh.

Prothom Alo was one of the first to report on the existence of the extremist outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). JMB killed at least 64 people including Rajshahi University teacher Prof Mohammad Yunus and two Jhalakathi judges, and carried out more than a thousand bomb attacks across the country between 2000 and 2005.

May 21, 2004. British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Anwar Choudhury is injured by a powerful bomb blast at Hazrat Shahjalal Shrine in Sylhet. Two people are dead, more than 70 injured. The Bangladesh-born envoy, barely 18 days into his new assignment, suffered minor leg injuries as the bomb exploded on impact bouncing off his belly to the tiled floor of the shrine after Friday prayers. Prothom Alo displayed an unforgettable image of the High Commissioner in a suit being pulled by rescuers from a pile of injured people.

August 21, 2004. A grenade attack on an Awami League rally at Bangabandhu Avenue terrifies the country. The grisly attack leaves 23 people dead including AL women's affairs secretary Ivy Rahman, and seriously injures more than 300 others. AL president and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other central leaders survive the attack. Five years on, the masterminds behind the attack still have not been unearthed. Although the finger of blame is pointed at another extremist outfit Harkatul Jihad (Huji).

March 3, 2006. After a concerted effort to root out the JMB, law enforcement agencies capture JMB chief Abdur Rahman. Prothom Alo is on hand to document the militant leader's meek surrender. Barely four days later a team led by RAB Intelligence Chief Col. Gulzar Uddin Ahmed succeeds in nabbing militant kingpin Bangla Bhai from Mymensingh. On display is a memorable photograph of Bangla Bhai in shackles, scorched by the bomb he had set off.

When a section of Bangladesh Rifles soldiers staged a mutiny on 25 and 26th February 2009 at the Pilkhana in Dhaka, Prothom Alo was on hand to provide unforgettable coverage. The attack killed 57 army officers including the BDR DG General Shakil Ahmed, Col. Gulzar Uddin and several civilians. The images of rifle toting mutineers, faces covered with coloured cloth, as seen through the lens of Prothom Alo, were burnt into the consciousness of the nation.

Prothom Alo was on hand to chronicle watershed events in the country's political arena. On October 29, 2007 during the waning hours of the BNP government, Paltan became a battleground as activists of Awami League and Jamaat e Islami fought pitched battles. Bodies bludgeoned to death, lay on the street. Prothom Alo reporters were eye witnesses when President Iajuddin Ahmed was sworn in as Chief Adviser. Following agitation by the AL and its allies, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed took the oath of office as Chief Adviser of the Caretaker Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh on 12 January 2007, and pledged to hold free and fair elections. Prothom Alo reported in-depth the election campaign and the sweeping victory of the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina. Words and images recorded the country's return to democracy.

The economy, the arts and the environment have not escaped the eye of Prothom Alo's lens. On display at the Timeline exhibition were reports of sensational moments -- the collapse of the Phoenix building at Tejgaon, raging fires at slums in the city, the inferno at Basundhara City. There were moments of great pride such as Dr Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel prize and Bangladesh's victory over India in its 100th One-day cricket match. There were moments of simple joy such as successful SSC candidates jumping for joy in the pouring rain after the results were published.

For 10 years, Prothom Alo's rays of light have illuminated the darkest recesses of our society. The ‘Shomoi Chitro’ exhibition provided a timely dose of lessons and inspiration as we continue the struggle to change ourselves, and change the world around us.

Photos: Zahedul I khan


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