Selina Bahar Zaman - Author, Educationist and Cultural Icon
Selina Bahar Zaman left the mortal world on December 1, 2004 at the age of 64. She, along with her mother Anwara Bahar Chowdhury, played an active role in the cultural manifestations of Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA) in the 1960's. After independence, Selina Bahar Zaman became a chronicler of biographical studies of Rokeya and many others. She was known to many and one of them was Mary Frances Dunham, wife of an American architect working in Dhaka in the 60's, herself an accomplished lady, a friend of Bengali culture and Bangladesh. Mary left Dhaka in 1967 and became an active supporter of the nation's struggle for liberation in 1971. She returned to Bangladesh in the 1990's to further study Bengali culture and published her seminal work titled "Jarigan: Muslim Epic Songs of Bangladesh" (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1997). Mary Frances Dunham passed away on October 11, 2021 in New York. She received the award "Friends of Bangladesh Liberation War" in 2013. This tribute to Selina Bahar Zaman by Mary Frances Dunham is also a tribute to both, the great champions of Bengali culture.
My friendship with Selina and her family dates back over 40 years. I shall always remember my first sight of her in the early 1960s when I watched in awe as Selina diligently, often heroically, worked for the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA). The Academy was run by a Committee whose members all worked voluntarily for the school. Selina was the Assistant Secretary of the Committee. At that time, she was in her early 20's, yet she had already finished her Masters of Science degree from Dhaka University and was appointed Lecturer of Mathematics at Eden Girls College (now Badrunnessa College). Selina herself was a dancer and was involved in the staging of several dance-dramas. In those early years of our acquaintance, I was ignorant of these precocious accomplishments, only learning them recently from Selina's sister Dolly. Through Dolly, I found out that during that early time, Selina produced dance-dramas along with Saaduddin, a friend of mine at a later date, who was the first Bangladeshi to receive a doctorate in Ethnomusicology, an outstandingly bright and dedicated scholar like Selina herself.
In those days, I belonged to a triad of foreign housewives eager to learn whatever we could about Bangladeshi (then East Pakistani) music and dance. Once a week riding our bicycles, we gathered together at an intersection in Ramna from where we pedalled through the old city to the elegant premises of BAFA on the Buriganga. There, like ungainly elephants among graceful gazelles, we tried to imitate the accomplished students in the front rows of the beginners' class.
As I watched Selina helping with the work of BAFA, I admired her intelligence and determination. How quickly she understood what was needed doing and what needed more thoughtful solutions! Somehow we became friends and I started visiting her and her family where they lived in Shantinagar, not far from our house on Siddheswari Road. Selina's mother reminded me of a favourite aunt of mine, a doctor by profession, whose home was always full of visitors who enjoyed her company for the comfort and good advice that she shared. Especially after our daughter Katherine was born, I would visit Selina and her family where affectionate fuss was made over our spoiled baby girl. Meanwhile I felt at home in a family where literature mattered, where the house was simple and practical, and where so much laughter filled the rooms.
It happened that the idea to attend BAFA had come from my early acquaintance with my tutor for lessons in Bangla, someone who became a life-long friend to my family, Professor Ahmed Sharif, also a relative of Selina's family. At that time, Professor Sharif lived with his wife and three small sons in the Dhaka University faculty quarter. When I expressed my interest in Bengali music (later a career for me), he suggested that I visit BAFA, little knowing how close I would become to Selina and her family.
In the fall of 1963, the English lady who brought up my brother and myself visited Dhaka. Selina met her at our house and she and Emmy (Mary Emerson) became friends. Emmy invited Selina to visit her ancestral Suffolk village where she retired. As it turned out, Selina was able to visit her soon after, when she went to England to study in Newcastle. On my trip to Dhaka in 2003, Selina showed me an article that she had written in which she described her visit to Emmy and her village. The description is full of Selina's sharp observations and lively recreation of conversations and surroundings. Unlike myself, Selina could remember precise dates and places and the very words spoken.
In later years, I knew Selina as a writer of children's books and many biographies, which she generously gave me. My Bangla is good enough for reading her children's books, but unfortunately not for reading the biographies, but I am proud to have them on my shelves. Around 1994, when I was preparing a book on Jarigan, Selina took me around to scholars who could help. I remember bouncing along in rickshaws with her as she took me from place to place, telling me as we went along about what projects she was working on at the time. Anyone who has met her must remember the eager way in which she spoke of a multitude of her books in progress already printed. She used to leave me feeling quite breathless and ashamed that I was not doing as much for the world.
Selina's siblings share her traits of intelligence, energy and devotion to hard work. her brother Iqbal and sisters, Dolly, Bacchu and Puplu all share a generous, outgoing, hard-working, warm-hearted nature. By coincidence, Dolly (Shaheen) was one of my husband's architectural students. She is one of the first three women architects to graduate from the first Bangladeshi (then East Pakistani) Department of Architecture at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). At the time, my husband, Daniel Durham, was a member of the team of American architects who were hired to establish the pioneer department. With Dolly in his class, our bond with Selina was happily increasing.
During my visit to Dhaka in 2003, Selina entertained me with dinner and on the early morning of my departure she turned up where I was staying with gifts in her hands. I know that future visits to Dhaka will entail missing Selina even more than I do as I write now, but her smiling face on that morning and her warm embrace will remain with me forever.