Preserving Bengali identity
At dawn on Bangla New Year, Ramna Park wears a festive look. People from all areas of Dhaka city as well as different parts of the country congregate at the verdant ground to celebrate Pahela Baishakh. By 6.30 am, the famous park that has been the venue of many cultural and political events, pulsates with acitivity. Although a number of regular programmes take place every year within Ramna Park and Dhaka University area, it is the musical programme arranged by the country's leading cultural organization Chayyanaut that has played a pioneering role in making Pahela Baishakh into a joyous and grand occasion. As per tradition, each year the Chhayanaut artistes and students welcome the Noboborsho with a collection of well-chosen Rabindra, Nazrul, folk and other patriotic songs. Enthusiasts of different religions and social backgrounds mill around the batamul to enjoy the performance. But how did it all begin?
The year was 1961 and it was the 100th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore's birth. For most culturally minded Bengalis it was a cause for great celebrations to honour Tagore. Unfortunately, the last thing the then Pakistani government wanted was a lot of Bengali hoopla over a Hindu Bengali cultural icon. The government had even thought of banning Tagore's songs altogether not to mention its attack on the language itself. Defying such state disapproval, which no doubt would have repercussions, singers, artistes and intellectuals got together to celebrate the birth centenary of Tagore. A Rabindra Committee was formed and included prominent cultural personalities such as Muklesur Rahman (popularly known as Siddhu Bhai), Begum Sufia Kamal, Waheedul Haque and Sanjida Khatun. It was this grand celebration that set the stage for the birth of Chhayanaut. At a picnic in Joydevpur these Bengali artistes and intellectuals decided that there was a pressing need for an institution that would help to develop Bengali culture. Prior to this, Bengalis had never really done anything together and the success of the centenary celebration clearly indicated that when they did, the outcome would be something quite spectacular. The name 'Chhayanaut' was taken from a raga and unanimously accepted.
This was no small achievement for Sanjida Khatun, one of the main founders of the institution and its principal. Sanjida, at the time, was teaching at Eden College and although she was one of the most active agents in Chhayanaut's birth and activities, she was forced to stay in the background. She held, after all, a government job and so could not get official permission to be general secretary of Chhayanaut from the Pakistani government.
In fact, in spite of being its founder she couldn't even be Chhayanaut's committee member before the Liberation War as she was constantly being watched by government agents. In 1963 Chhayanaut celebrated Pahela Baishakh, setting a tradition that would endure the onslaught of communal forces and political oppression and has still remained an important part of our lives today.
The committee that came into being to celebrate Tagore's birthday, decided to set up a cultural institute that would impart lessons in every aspect of traditional music. Thus Chhayanaut Sangeet Bidyayatan was born. Besides providing lessons in Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Sangeet and Palli Sangeet, the institute also offered lessons in classical forms of dance such as Monipuri and Bharat Natyam and lessons in playing the tabla, the sitar and other Eastern musical instruments.
Chhayanaut then began to arrange informal cultural gatherings calling them 'Srotar Ashar' first with artiste Firoza Begum (a well-known Nazrul Geeti artiste) then with Fahmida Khatun (who sang Rabindra Sangeet) and artistes of classical music.
Chhayanaut soon became the leading proponent of songs and dances of Tagore, Nazrul, old masters (such as Atul Prashad, D L Roy) folk music as well as instrumental Raga music.
From the beginning, the committee of the organisation decided to stage cultural shows featuring well-known artistes. The first show staged by Chhayanaut was the 'Sharodutshob' (the occasion that celebrates the Bangla season 'Sharot' in the early 1960s. The venue of the event was Baldah Garden. It was a memorable occasion for Chhayanaut. 'Sharot' was celebrated in style with children floating paper boats in the pond and everyone having khoimurki. The next major event was the 'Bashonto Utshob' (celebration of spring), which took in the Dhaka University area. Thus, Chhayanaut started a trend to celebrate all the important seasons of the Bangla Calendar, like Pahela Baishakh, Barshamongol etc.
Such seasonal festivals became a regular feature and soon became integrated with Bengali cultural consciousness. "In this way, we tried to remind Bengalis, what it meant to be Bengali," comments Sanjida.
Chhayanaut's main target, however, was the younger generation. Young people being impressionable and easily swayed by imported cultures, had to be reminded of who they were and Chhayanaut was persistent about teaching them through music, the richness of Bengali cultural traditions. This has been Chhayanaut's underlaying objective and continues even today.
A longer version of this article appeared earlier in The Star.