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Bangladesh @ 50: Rabindrasangeet singer Rezwana Choudhury Bannya on Tagore’s legacy, and actor Jaya Ahsan on changing the narrative of women in Bangla films

How two Bangladeshi artistes divide their time between Dhaka and Kolkata and embody the essence of a Bengal beyond borders


Updated: December 13, 2021 3:20:06 pm
Bangla films, women artistes, Tagore’s legacy, Rezwana Choudhury Bannya, Jaya Ahsan, Bangladesh, Dhaka and Kolkata, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news(Left) Rezwana Choudhury Bannya and (right) Jaya Ahsan.

Rezwana Choudhury Bannya, 64

Rabindrasangeet exponent and winner of Independence Award, the highest civilian award of Bangladesh

If there is one concrete entity that can define a borderless Bengal, that’s Rabindranath Tagore. People on both sides need to translate his thoughts for the masses. Both Bengals need to unite in this mission. For he couldn’t be more relevant in a world driven by binaries, polarities and toxicity. We need his humanism, philosophy, compassion, values, open-heartedness and consciousness. He is our lodestar.

We should embark on a translation project that captures his essence. Shuttling between Dhaka and Kolkata and having performed across India, I will say this, we haven’t been able to percolate his message to other states here. And that’s because there aren’t enough quality translations in regional languages. Even Bengalis residing across other parts of the globe have confined Tagore to conversations and soirees and aren’t doing enough to disseminate his work. Tagore was an internationalist and should not be cocooned, or else we will lose out on his ideals which hold the solutions for our future.

Growing up in Dhaka, our lives weren’t any different from those growing up in Kolkata. Tagore to me, therefore, was a natural influence and inspiration and not an acquired knowledge. When I sing his words, it is almost transcendental, it unifies my mind, body and soul. I was particularly taken in by the educational philosophy of Santiniketan, an equal and free space amid nature that nurtures your expansive spirit. I dreamt about walking the campus barefoot, just as he had envisaged. So, when I got a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to study at Sangit Bhavana (Visva-Bharati), it was a dream come true. I was blessed to have legends like Kanika Bandyopadhyay as my teacher.

The Santiniketan of my time was an ashram in the truest sense, where you shed worldly trappings and found your true self. Of course, Santiniketan today is no longer educational, but it is still one of the best workshops of humanity. We need to balance change with Tagore’s ideals, not erode his legacy. He espoused a holistic education model that laid the groundwork for what shapes UN policies today.

Tagore touches the depth of emotions in such a manner that it is not difficult to internalise the experience. That’s because for all his enlightenment, he was not shy about documenting his own evolution. His growth was personal and, therefore, relatable. Nowhere is this more evident than in his understanding of women. For a man who followed custom and got his daughters married at 13 and 14 years of age, he developed his perspective of women through life experiences and came to know of their inner strengths as they played several roles as sister, daughter, mother and so on. He paid a tribute to their completeness and honoured their equality through his dance drama Chitrangada. He acknowledged and elevated women much before women empowerment became an agenda. That’s why we need to be carriers of his legacy and re-interpret him for the world. That will be the greatest maitree (bond).

Jaya Ahsan, 38

Actor/producer

Notable films in India: Bisorjon, Bijoya, Robibar, Kontho and Binisutoy

My father was a muktijodhdha (freedom fighter) and growing up, Bangla was an enveloping consciousness, an ethos that transcended borders. My physical address was Dhaka but Kolkata was always my second home. In fact, that emotional attachment to India can be the template of a borderless world, if there could be one. I consider myself an ambassador of Bangla, representing a mindset that’s common, shared, evolving yet definitive and equally relevant to both sides. Fortunately for us in the creative space, we have been able to attempt a confluence of ideas and culture. But we need to do a lot more and can do so because Bengali today is the seventh most-spoken language in the world. Both the Bengals make for great human stories that need to be told and our films can do that. Bangladesh has suffered the physicality of struggle and survival, be it the conflict of Partition, the fight for nationhood or battling successive waves of natural disasters. Kolkata has been a seat of learning and culture. One has had more than a fair share of felt and lived experience, the other has distilled the experience and encouraged new thinking and dialogues. If there could be an intellectual blending of this dynamism of both sides, we could enrich the language of cinema and take it to France, the citadel of international films.

Unfortunately, for both sides, politics is increasingly appropriating the cultural space. Artistes need a fertile ground to express themselves. People still remember singer Runa Laila as a subcontinental phenomenon, not just as a Bangladeshi icon, because somehow the politics of the day did not impinge on artistic expression. For example, if we were to do a joint production today, we have to conform to a whole set of technical criteria and almost a mathematical representation of artistes and crew from both sides. Art cannot be created in silos. That’s why I work for filmmakers on both sides independently. In any nation, political leadership should not assume cultural leadership. In fact, our policymakers should foster a climate of idea exchange, enable more cross-cultural events to restore the historicity of our peoples. Otherwise, what you get is projected reality. As art and culture ambassadors, we will continue to seek the truth, cinema being our language of protest and expression.

My reading of Tagore shaped me as a woman and helped me articulate the woman’s voice in films like Bisorjon (2017) and Bijoya (2019). That is why cultural leadership is necessary for nation-building.

In the end, I also believe that we need to resolve the hurt of Partition, expiate it from our lives by talking about it. We can heal collectively and I will continue to represent the spirit of Bangla.

As told to Rinku Ghosh

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