Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican social activist and the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica (1914), once said that, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” So as Bangladeshis, how well-informed are we of our roots?
Bangladeshi culture primarily reflects the rural concept of art and most people even in major cities identify with a natal or ancestral village in the countryside. Our culture is influenced by the culture of the Greater Bengal. It is an amalgamation of tradition, art and religion. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity influence the art adopted across the country in various forms, including music, dance and drama, art and craft, folklore and folktales, languages and literature, philosophy and religion, festivals and celebration, as also in a distinct cuisine and culinary tradition.
In a country where 80% of the Bangladeshis are Muslims, people of other religions freely practice their beliefs and perform their religious rituals with festivity in Bangladesh. Whether it’s Durga Puja, Christmas or Buddha Purnima, Bangladesh depicts the cultural heritage formed by them and declares National holidays on all important religious festivals. And no festival is complete without folk dances, music, and performance arts.
Music is widely enjoyed by the people of Bangladesh and classical, light-classical, devotional, and popular music attract many people. Let’s see how music is rooted deep into the various forms of art that represent Bangladesh:
Dance – The art of dance in Bangladesh draws freely from the sub-continental classical forms as well as the folk, tribal, ballet and Middle Eastern strains. Of the tribal dances, the Manipuri and Santhal traditional dance of India is also quite popular in Bangladesh. Bengali folk dances are commonly performed during festivals and other special occasions.
Songs – Spirituality, mysticism, devotion and love are a few themes that embody Bangladeshi folk songs. It’s lyricists like Lalon Shah, Hason Raja, Kangal Harinath and Abbas Uddin who have enriched the tradition of folk songs of Bangladesh, have eventually given us songs such as : Bhatiali, Baul , Marfati, Murshidi and Bhawaiya.
Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul geeti are still hummed by a certain crowd who take classical music seriously. In recent times, western influences have given rise to several quality rock bands, particularly in urban centers like Dhaka. However, the Gen X crowd prefer a touch of fusion, which is why instruments such as the bamboo flute (banshi), drums (dhol), ektara, dotara, or the mandira come nsync with the guitar, drums and saxophone, thus, providing us with a blend of traditional touch to modernity. More popular today are the secular male-female duets that accompany Bengali films. These songs are rooted in the classical tradition but have a freer contemporary melodic structure.
Literature – Bangladeshi literature goes back to the days of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Most people, regardless of their degree of literacy, can recite more than one poem with dramatic inflection. Although from West Bengal, Tagore is respected as a Bengali who mastered the art of preserving the Bangla language and culture. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore’s poem “Golden Bengal” was adopted as the national anthem.
Performance art – Drama in Bangladesh has an old tradition and is very popular. Jatra (folk drama) is another vital part of the Bengali culture with its depiction of the mythological episodes of love as well as historical and social themes. In the past jatra was the biggest form of the entertainment for the rural folk, who made up 80% of the country’s population. Nowadays, jatra has been relegated to the back seat in the entertainment world. Gradually, popular western and Bollywood culture are having a greater impact on traditional cultural forms such as jatra. Today , plays in the cities, particularly in Dhaka, are attended by the educated young.
Artists are largely self-supporting. The Bangla Academy in Dhaka provides support for some artists, particularly writers and poets. Many artists sell aesthetic works that have utilitarian functions. At least through them we see our culture still survive.
Bangladesh is famous for its distinctive culinary tradition. Whether it’s a combination of Panta-ilish during Pohela Boishakh or the dried fish(shutki) with boiled rice , pickles and dal on a typical rainy day , Bangladesh is unique in the way its locals relish food in all seasons.
Boiled rice constitutes the staple food, and is served with a variety of vegetables, fried as well as curries, thick lentil soups, chicken, goat or beef curries alongwith fish being the dominant source of protein in the diet. Even at weddings and on important holidays, food plays and important role. At weddings, a common food is biryani, a rice dish with lamb or beef and a blend of spices, particularly saffron. No Bangladeshi meal is complete without yogurt, or several delights such as : Roshogulla, Sandesh, Rasamalai, Gulab Jamun, Kalo Jamun and Chom Chom.
The “sari” gives Bangladesh its cultural identity. It is the main dress of Bangladeshi women and sari weaving is a traditional art in Bangladesh. In recent times, salwar kameez has become quite popular among the younger women. TV has largely influenced the fashion scene in Bangladesh. Thus, we can find a good population of women in urban areas wearing pants, skirts and tops. On the other hand, Bangladeshi men wear Panjabi on religious and cultural occasions, lungi as casual wear and shirt-pant on formal occasions. During annual festivals like the Pohela Boishakh, the streets are thronged by women particularly young girls dressed up in white saris with red borders, adorned in jewellery made of earthen clay and head decorated with jasmine flowers while the men are dressed in Punjabis or Fatua with cultural pride.