Their fear of items being stolen, or not being returned, was considered preposterous. When the Honorable Adviser and his excellency the Charge d’Affaires had themselves, guaranteed the safety of Bangladesh’s most prized artefacts, surely the protesters could have no reason to oppose this arrangement. News of the missing crate, and the priceless statues it contained, had been suppressed, but the information leaked out. Could the guarantors please explain?
Mr. Jean Romnicianu, Charges d’Affaires, Ambassade de France ? Dacca, met with Bangladeshi journalists at the French Embassy in the first week of December 2007. In response to questions about the possibility of goods being damaged, stolen, or not being returned, he stated emphatically, “What I am saying is that for at least 30 years, it has never, not once, happened within the framework of an international exhibition. This is an international exhibition with a signed agreement between governments, there is no scope whatsoever of that kind of thing.” “We will take care of the artefacts, until they are returned to the museum. All the insurance and everything is what is called nail to nail,” elaborating that it implied protection from the moment the artefacts left their original position in the museum, to the time it was returned to their original position.
Today we hear him on television saying “The responsibility of the French Goverment begins from the point where the items are in French cargo.”
“We are not going to put the artefacts at risk by unpacking them,” was also something the Charge d’Affaires had said that day. Today (Dec 24th 2007), the BBC quoted that the remaining crates had all been checked at the airport. So airport officials who have no knowledge of archaeology are permitted to open the crates, while neither members of the expert committee nor the people who are legally required to inspect the artefacts, are allowed to do so. These officials had also signed documents stating they had verified the contents of the crates, which they had obviously not been allowed to do, even though it made the documents presented, technically false.
“The Museee Guimet and our authorities in France have worked rather hard, I must say, even though it resulted in one mistake, in keeping all the controversies outside of the French papers, of the European papers,” the Charge d’Affaires had also said that day. So the cover up was taking place at both the Bangladeshi and the French end. Presumably it continues.
(Audio recordings of these statements are available and will be uploaded as soon as they have been digitised)
The plane that was meant to have taken the artefacts to Paris. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
From Pukur Churi (stealing a pond) to Pukur Pare Churi (stealing by a pond). Search party looking for stolen artefacts by the pond at Zia International Airport. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
The empty crate. We had been told these were special crates that could not be opened, as they were very special. A 300 year old French company had been especially commissioned to pack the crates. The government and the French embassy decided to show improper documents rather than risk opening these special crates for proper inspection and documentation. Looks like a pretty ordinary crate to me. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
This was a story the state owned BTV had chosen to completely ignore. The rest of the media however, despite government efforts continued to report this important story. Despite the widespread protests and the media attention, the shipment was to go ahead. Both the Cultural Adviser and the French Charge d’Affaires, emphatically promised there was no question of items going missing or not being returned. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
b035.mp3 Interview of police officer after discovery of crate (Bangla). Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
One of the arrested security officers. What of the big fish that masterminded this theft? Or the people who authorised this shipment despite the proven irregularities? ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Press conference at Chitrak Gallery, where the incident has been called the most major cultural disaster of the century. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
It was the letter from Shanika, the girl I had found during the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, that reminded me of how we had forgotten all the other things that were going on. It was now Boxing Day. The Day the Tsunami had struck. Bodies are still being discovered after the Sidr cyclone. Demand for the trial of war criminals has moved off the headlines. Bodies of workers remain buried in the Rangs building rubble. It reminds me of how classed our struggles are. While we had united in protest when our archaeological heritage was being threatened, no such protest had taken place in solidarity with the workers.
It was Christmas day, and it is the wedding season in Bangladesh. People had gathered outside the musuem, as word had spread that the remaining artefacts were being returned. It was a very different mood, and the local flower shop was using the wide road to decorate a wedding car. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Media professionals outside museum gate watching the return of remaining 12 crates. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Homebound heading home. The crates are now back in the museum. The demand for reinstating them in their original location continues. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
It was the vigilance of Nisar Hossain (teacher at the college of fine arts, affectionately dubbed, ‘Sector Commander’ by fellow campaigners) and his friends that led to many of the irregularities being unearthed. Nisar being interviewed on the ATN channel. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The media played an important role in keeping the issue in the public eye. Munni Saha interviewing Nisar Hossain for a programme in the ATN channel. The discussions included a clear condemnation of the French Charge d’Affaires’ statement blaming the protestors for the theft. The programme will air at 11:00 am Dhaka time on the 26th December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Letter from Shanika, received earlier in the month.
During an assignment for Help The Aged in Sri Lanka last month, I had sneaked a visit to Totagumuwa, in Hikkaduwa to see Shanika. The Tsunami had taken away her mother and her three sisters (including her twin sister). Photo: ? Priantha (Shanika’s dad).
27th December 2007
Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo Magazine in France, just sent me this press release last night. It was issued yesterday (the 26th December 2007) by the French Ministry of Culture. While it talks about the theft of the two statues, from Zia International Airport, there is no mention of the 10 crates that are already in Paris at the Guimet Museum.
Press Release by French Ministry of Culture (26th Dec 2007)
It was a bad day for cows
Korbani meat being distributed outside National Museum during Eid. 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
But the Bangladesh government had a supreme sacrifice in mind. When the most prized of your possessions needed to be sacrificed, and when the gods have changed to western powers, the four-legged creatures simply wouldn't do. The nation's most prized archaeological possessions were therefore bundled away in Homebound chariots to distant museums. The door to heaven's gate might not have opened, but a Schengen visa and perhaps a few trips to Paris for some, had surely been assured.
It was well timed. The Eid holidays meant there would be no newspapers for two days. Most reporters would be away. The streets of Dhaka would be empty. Holidays meant there was no rush. No pesky public to worry about at opening hours. Still one needed to be sure. Bus no Dhaka Jo 11 1767, was on standby with riot police. The police jeep Dhaka Jo 11 4364 followed behind. Then the media that got in the way. With so many Eid events to cover, why had they gathered round the national museum? The sanctity of sacrifice should surely have been respected. Reinforcements in the form of another busload of riot police came in via bus number Dhaka Jo 14 1799.
Balloon man outside National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Family out on Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Aisha outside National Museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Sign says the museum is closed from the 20th till the 22nd on account of Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Aisha had come with her parents to visit the museum. Like many others they were turned away. The museum was closed, at least to the public. The Eid holidays of museum officials had however been cancelled. The shippers were working overtime.
Police returning to station, after staging the 'escape'. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Police and plainclothes intelligence officials were present in abundance, their riot gear jarring with the bright new clothes of Dhakaites. Then it took another turn. Spitting and booing had failed to stop the Homebound trucks earlier. This time the protesters changed tack. Chains were put on the gate of the national museum. Visions of the Chipko Resistance
Protester chaining front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Police breaking padlock at front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Gazi Nafis Ahmed/DrikNews
Burning shirt in protest outside National Musuem. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Despite emergency rule and government efforts to bury the story, media continued to give the event full coverage. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
sprang to mind. In place of burglars breaking in, the comic view of government officials breaking their way out of the national museum to escape with museum valuables would have brought laughter in a trirotno drama (popular Bangladeshi sitcom). In the theatre of Bangladeshi governance, it was yet another tragedy.
"The benefits, for both countries, are cultural: it is a win-win situation where France gains a better knowledge of Bangladeshi heritage and Bangladesh gains a better image on the international cultural scene," the French embassy handout had clarified.
The partially demolished Rangs building continues to be a grave for the buried Bangladeshi workers far down the priority chain. Presumably, that is a 'Bangladeshi heritage' the Parisians will not get to see.
The last time round, they had been playing one of my favourite Bhupen Hajarika songs. This time there was no music, and no one was smiling. Even the Bangladeshi flag failed to flutter on this Eid day. Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
embed> Bangladeshi flag refuses to flutter as prized Bangladeshi objects are taken out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum.
I am the rage I am the storm
My path I leave barren and shorn
Swaying in my crazy dance
I rejoice at all I face
Move at my own pace
I grapple my foe
I wrestle to die
I am the warrior, head held high*
He was a dreamer, a rebel, a lover, a poet. He moved strong men to tears and woke a nation to unite against tyranny. The British imprisoned him only to find his pen spewing venom from the prison cell. Yet, Kazi Nazrul Islam was a romantic, and his lilting songs, magical stories and even his fiery verse did more to bring together Muslims and Hindus than any peacemaker had ever done. The poor turned away from God?s door, the lover spurned, the weak, the meek, the downtrodden, all found refuge in his words and his music. Unlike the literary giant of the time – Tagore, Nazrul was uncompromising. He spoke of strife, and the peace of acquiescence was never his mettle. Mixing Persian, English and Hindi with his majestic repertoire in his native language Bangla, Nazrul called a nation to war against its occupiers, but also spoke out against the tyranny of religion and class. It was his haunting love songs however, that made Nazrul inimitable. Living the life he preached, he refused to conform. Marrying outside religion, shunning material comfort, and eventually rejecting our carefully defined sanity, he rebelled against a peace that required the acceptance of the status quo. Conflict was his muse.
Lalon, long before him, had traversed a very different terrain. The journey between the body and the soul. The metaphors of the bird and the cage, with the soul flirting with the body, elusive. tantalizing and ever so ephemeral. The sufi saint dealt with the conflict between the material world and the spiritual realm. But for Bangladeshis it wasn?t Tagore or Lalon or even Nazrul, but the struggle for language itself that galvanized the nation. Separated from India on the basis of religion when the British were forced to leave, East Pakistanis had always felt exploited by the West wing and discontent had been brewing, but it was when Jinnah declared that Urdu would be the national language of Pakistan that people took to the streets. The violent birth of Bangladesh, gave a nation with its own language, but Bangali nationalism too became the oppressor of other cultures and the indigenous people of the Hill Tracts have been brutally reminded ever since that they are the other. Their peace could only be earned at the cost of their identity.
Surendra Lal Dewan, was sad that his song had been stolen by the president, but that was not what pained him most. As director of the Tribal Centre in Rangamati, he was required to bring out Pahari women dressed in ethnic garb at regular intervals. They would dance in bright tribal costumes for tourists, visiting dignitaries and even curious Bangalis whenever the state needed to demonstrate Bangladesh?s tolerance and its ethnic diversity. In his song Dewan had spoken of a Bangladesh free of oppression and torture. That a military general, claiming the song to be his own, would use the same words to chant of an egalitarian Bangladesh pierced Surendra with his own words.
Even the naked halogen lamp that shone on the creaky planks that made up the stage near Ispahani Gate 1 had gone. It was the port town of Chittagong and there was no electricity. It didn?t affect Mustafa Kamal and the UTSA theatre group. A string of candles lit up the actors. The children came up close. Kamal wasn?t involved in national issues. He and his group performed to children and their parents, in the slums around Gate 1, and in many other parts of the country. The plays would talk of HIV/AIDS, dowry and land rights. The team would go out to villages and settle land disputes, or fights over someone?s loss of face, by getting the villagers to enact their strife in public. Their participatory plays used humour, love and the occasional risqu? dialogue to enthrall a rapt audience who found a momentary outlet from their tortured lives. But the plays were not simply about temporary relief. They introduced strategies for dealing with the tensions that built up between the landed and the landless, between the buyer and the seller, but also between friends, relatives and neighours. Kamal understood that conflict was a natural product of relationships. While controversies and grievances resulting from differences in values, competition for resources, or perceived threats, often result in conflict, its mitigation rarely depends entirely upon the solution of the problem, but might only require a release through rituals of protest.
Artificial barriers between nations, illegal occupation of lands, the struggle between the worker and the employer, the exploitation of women and children, and the suppression of minorities generate sparks that might set ablaze communities, and the fires needed to be doused. But there was more to art than being the key to the cage. Kamal worried that while his art might allay the tension, it might, through appeasement – like the empty rhetoric of politicians, like the opium fed to the hungry child, like the comfort assured in afterlife, like the promises of peace by generals – help perpetuate the greater wrong.
24th May 2007
* Translated and adapted from the poem ?The Rebel? by Kazi Nazrul Islam
Abridged from an essay written for the Prince Claus Fund for the 2007 Award Book on the theme ?Culture and Conflict?.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (b. May 25, 1899 ? d. August 29, 1976 ) was a Bengali poet, musician, revolutionary and philosopher who is best known for pioneering works of Bengali poetry. He is popularly known as the Bidrohi Kobi ? Rebel Poet ? as many of his works showcase an intense rebellion against oppression of humans through slavery, hatred and tradition. He is officially recognised as the national poet of Bangladesh and commemorated in India.
The birth date of Kazi Nazrul Islam, originally recorded on the basis of the Bangla calendar, is considered by some to be the 24th May 1899.
?Come out we won’t shoot?, they had yelled out over the megaphone. Not the most alluring of invitations, particularly when it is from a police van surrounding your flat at midnight. They had thought we were hiding someone and after searching our rooftop had come into our flat. As they left, I had gone out to take pictures from our verandah. Rahnuma had turned up the television volume to hide the sound of the shutter on my Nikon 501, but it still seemed to make a very loud click. Luckily, I wasn?t noticed. It was the 2nd December 1990. Ershad?s autocratic government was feeling the heat.
Two days earlier, after the Friday prayers, they had opened fire on the Baitul Mukarram mosque killing a man.
Lawyers had played an important role in our democracy movement. They had upheld writ petitions against the government, and when the government tried to flex its muscles, they came out in protest, united in their stand.
On this day, exactly sixteen years ago, barrister Shahjahan, Sarah Hossain and other lawyers were meant to meet at Drik. We were monitoring the government action, and were ourselves under scrutiny. My colleagues had warned me that plain clothed detectives were looking for me at the office. The detectives seemed to know we lived in Lalmatia, and my colleagues suggested that we stay elsewhere that night. Ma (Rahnuma?s mum), Rahnuma, Tehmina (a lawyer friend of ours) and I went over to Saif and Rini?s flat in Dhanmondi Rd 8. This was not the time for taking chances. The media too had played their role. When censorship became intolerable, they refused to publish. It was that night that Ershad had announced on television that he was going to step down. People were rejoicing in the streets. The following morning the first newspaper was out.
We all went out into the streets. Altaf on his motorbike, me on my bicycle, and the others in whatever transport they could find.
A little girl walked down Mirpur road with a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She too was celebrating the return of democracy. People were dancing in the streets. In Paltan, too often the scene of violence, people gathered in ones and twos.
Men and women in their sleeping clothes, some with children, gathered in the winter night. Chatpati wallas sensing a business opportunity appeared out of the fog. At about 1:30 am Shimul Billa, Bangladesh’s Shirley Temple, sang out ?Bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara, aj jegeche ei jonota?.
The song ?O judge, the people have risen, it is now the day of your judgement?, was strangely prophetic.
And now in 2006, the chief justice of the supreme court intervenes to prevent a decision
going against a political party, lawyers ransack the court, a president with zero credibility heads a caretaker government, and of all people, Ershad himself is in the streets, demanding the removal of the current president, while Moudud, the chameleon survivor, then Ershad’s right hand man, now holds hands with the chief justice.
4th December 2006
It was a dramatic ending to Robert Pledge?s presentation. Via Topu and Omi, I?d received the news that the military had been called out. Robert wanted to finish the presentation, but once I?d announced the government?s decision, the auditorium of the Goethe Institut quickly emptied out. This particular Chobi Mela IV presentation had come to an abrupt end. It was 1987 revisited.
Noor Hossain had painted on his back ?Let Democracy be Freed? and the police had gunned him down on the 10th November 1987. But the people had taken to the streets and while we were scared the military would come out, there was no stopping us. It had taken three more years of street protests, before the general was forced to step down. The people had won. But then it had been a military general who was ruling the country. This was a civilian caretaker government. The general mistrust of a party in power, had resulted in this unique process in Bangladesh where an interim neutral caretaker government headed by a Chief Adviser (generally the most recently retired Chief Justice) and consisting of other neutral but respected members of the public were entrusted with conducting the elections. Why then the military? Yes, the president was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the largest party in the outgoing coalition government) appointee, there are ten advisors who are meant to be neutral.
A free and fair election hasn?t yielded the electoral democracy we had hoped for. After each term, the people have voted out the party in power, only to be rebuffed by a political system that has never had the interest of the people on their agenda. Still, the elections were held, and despite the fact that there had been one rigged election in 1996 (rejected and held again under a neutral caretaker government), an electoral process of democratisation, was slowly developing.
This time however, the total disregard for the electoral process has created a sham, and the three key people in this electoral process, the president, the chief adviser, and the chief election commissioner (CEC), are colluding against the people. The first two, being represented by the same person, was a BNP appointee. He also happens to be the head of the military. The CEC, now a cartoon character, had also been appointed by the BNP while it was in power. Coupled with a clearly flawed voters list, this has removed any hope of a free and fair election. Can the caretaker government genuinely conduct a fair election? I believe it still can, if given the chance, despite the president?s lack of credibility. But for that to happen, the military, the bureaucracy and the police need to remember that it is with the people that their allegiance lies.
However, it does depend upon the removal of the other obstacles. The election commissioner cannot constitutionally be removed, and his removal is central to the opposition demands. What then can we do? There is only one body higher than the constitution, the people themselves. The advisors need to be empowered if they are to pull off this election. Sandwiched between a partisan executive head and another partisan CEC, the advisers risk becoming irrelevant. The only way this can be checked is if people come out in droves. Not ?hired for the day? supporters but ordinary people committed to civilian rule, and a multi-party system.
It is we the people who need to take to the streets. And it is time we sent out the message to all political parties, that an entire nation cannot be appropriated. They need to be told that we did not liberate our country in vain, and despite the poverty and the hardship that we go through, we will not be cowed down, and will not blindly tow a party line, when the party itself has disengaged from the people. If tomorrow, every woman man and child takes to the street of Bangladesh, there is no power, not the military, not the president, not the advisers, not the CEC, not the BNP and not AL that can stop us.
There is hope yet. The advisers have had the good sense to reverse the home ministry?s unilateral decision to call out the army and the president and chief adviser has been challenged for taking such a step. Whether the advisers can continue to take such bold steps depends on our ability to bolster their nebulous position.
Blockades and hartals do hurt the economy, and ironically, it is the person in the street who is the most vulnerable. But faced with an attempt to take away the only chance she has to exercise her right to elect the government of her choice, she has little option left but to take to the streets. As the world is finding out, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else there is conflict, a military victory is never a victory. If the anger of the people is to be quelled, then the underlying causes of discontent need to be solved. Flexing the muscles of the military, will only put a lid on the boiling pot, and the longer the lid is pressed down, the bigger will be the eventual explosion. More have died today, and with every death, the flashpoint looms closer.
Chobi Mela IV has continued despite it all. The dancing in the all night boat party,
the heated arguments at every meeting point, the mobile exhibitions, all went on despite the turmoil. The presentations on the night of the 11th, with Yumi Goto, showing work by the children from Bandar Aceh, Neo Ntsoma showing her work on youth culture in South Africa, Chris Rainier showing his long term projects on ?Ancient Marks?, and the deeply personal, but very different accounts of Trent Parke
and Pablo Bartholomew, made one of the most intriguing evenings I can remember. The packed audience that had braved the blockade had perhaps an inkling of what was to come. Morten had a full house for his ?gallery walk? at the Alliance Francaise and Trent?s workshops were packed out. The grand opening was at the National Museum, where we had one fifth of the cabinet opening the show. Kollol gave a passionate rendering of his song ?Boundaries? written especially for the festival. The rickshaw vans designed to take the festival to the public, plied the streets of Old Dhaka, Mirpur and other areas not used to gallery crowds.
The chief guest, adviser C.M. Shafi Sami, the special guests adviser Sultana Kamal and Robert Pledge, photographers Morten Krogvold and Trent Parke and the scholarship recepient Dolly Akhter all spoke eloquently. Little did the audience know about the drama that had taken place the night before. With the museum functionaries doing their best to keep us from putting up the Contact Press Images show (http://www.chobimela.org/contact_press_images.php), we were under pressure, but working all through the night and sleeping on the museum floor, we managed to put the show up on time.
Last night, the empty streets, looked ominous as I dropped off Chulie, Robert and Yang, and people have been dying in the streets.
Since then we have had Morten Krogvold?s passionate presentation at the gallery walk at Alliance, Rupert Grey?s clinical dissection of the law and his dry British humour,
both at the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Saiful Huq Omi?s disturbing but powerful images of political violence, Cristobal Trejo?s poetic rendering of an unseen world, Richard Atrero De Guzman?s honest response to difficult questions about representation and my own presentation on natural disasters and their social impact have all been well attended, despite the tension in the desolate Dhaka streets. The evening presentations close tonight with an insightful film by Indian film maker Joshy Joseph, presentations by Norman Leslie and a behind the scenes look by the photographers at the Drik Photo Department, Md. Main Uddin, Shehab Uddin and Amin, Chandan Robert Rebeiro, Imtiaz Mahabub Mumit and Shumon of Pathshala and Mexican exhibitor Cristobal Trejo. The shows go on as they always do at Drik.
In 1991, a woman with her vote had avenged Noor Hossain’s death.
A fortnight ago, the city was in flames, and a stubborn chief election commissioner is stoking the flames again. It is a fire he and his allies will be powerless to stop.
Chobi Mela site
Blog by Australian curator Bec Dean
Short video on Chobi Mela IV
Chobi Mela IV
She packed her load of firewood onto the crowded train in Pangsha. The morning sun peered through the lazy winter haze. The vendors called ?chai garam, boildeem? and the train slowly chugged out of the station, people still clambering on board, or finishing last minute transactions. Some saying farewell. The scene had probably not been very different a hundred years ago. Maybe then, they carried pan in place of firewood, or some other commodity that people at the other end needed. She would come back the same day, bringing back what was needed here. Only today she was a smuggler. The artificial and somewhat random lines drawn by a British lawyer had made her an outlaw. She was crossing boundaries. There were other boundaries to cross. The job a woman was allowed to do, the class signs on the coaches that she could not read but was constantly made aware of. The changing light and the smells as sheet (winter) went into boshonto (spring). The Ashar clouds that the photographers waited for, which seemed to wait until the light was right.
Rickshaw wallas find circuitous routes to take passengers across the VIP road. Their tenuous existence made more difficult by the fact that permits are difficult to get, and the bribes now higher. Hip hop music in trendy discos in Gulshan and Banani with unwritten but clearly defined dress codes make space for the yuppie elite of Dhaka. The Baul Mela in Kushtia draws a somewhat different crowd. Ecstasy and Ganja breaks down some barriers while music creates the bonding. Lalon talks of other boundaries, of body and soul, the bird and the cage.
Photography creates its own compartments. The photojournalist, the fine artist, the well paid celebrity, the bohemian dreamer, the purist, the pragmatist, the classical, the hypermodern, the uncropped image, the setup shot, the Gettys and the Driks. The majority world. The South. The North. The West. The developing world. Red filters, green filters, high pass filters, layers, masks, feathered edges. No photoshop, yes photoshop. Canonites, Nikonites, Leicaphytes, digital, analogue.
The digital divide. The haves, the have nots. Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores. Heterosexuals, metrosexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals. The straight, the kinky. The visionaries, the mercenaries, the crude the erudite, the pensive the flamboyant. Oil, gas, bombs, immigration officials. WTO, subsidies, sperm banks, kings, tyrants, presidents, prime ministers, revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, activists, pacifists, the weak, the meek, the strong, the bully. The good the evil. The hawks the doves. The evolutionists, the creationists. The crusaders the Jihadis. The raised fist, the clasped palms. The defiant, the oppressive, the green, the red. The virgin.
Whether cattle are well fed, or children go hungry, whether bombs are valid for defence, or tools of aggression, boundaries ? seen and unseen ? define our modes of conduct, our freedoms, our values, our very ability to recognise the presence of the boundaries that bind us.
Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck?s cab like a crown. Like Ali?s father, who first put a brush into his son?s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter?s workshop after mornings in school.
Over the years, February has become our month of resistance. This is the window that successive repressive governments have allowed us, to vent our steam. The open air plays in Shahid Minar, the book fare in Bangla Academy and of course the midnight walk and the songs of freedom on the night of Ekushey, the 21st February, are all tolerated, for one month.
Yuppie Bangladeshis put on their silk punjabis and saffron sarees, and become the torch bearers of our heritage, for one month. Come March, it will be business as usual. It has been difficult convincing development experts of the value of culture in our society. With ‘poverty alleviation’ being the current? buzzwords, one forgets, that it was the love for our language that shaped our resistance in ’71 or that ‘Bangla Nationalism’ has been used to justify repression in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the 1st February, perhaps we could look back at a collaboration between Drik in Bangladesh, and Zeezeilen in the Netherlands:
Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit
Culture glides through peoples’ consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing in the slipstreams of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.
Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred on the computer’s ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry, one that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth hides the ubiquitous and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before.
Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.
It was in the early 90?s that Pedro had written. I had only heard of this famous Mexican photographer, a pioneer of digital photography and author of the first photo essay on CD ROM, ?I Photograph to Remember?. It was a gentle, intimate and deeply perceptive essay on the last days of his parents who were dying of cancer. I remember the image of his father looking as if he could fly. He was bringing out his new CD, ?Truths and Fiction? and wanted me to write an introductory text, something about my responses to the new digital technology. We didn?t have email then, and faxes were expensive, but we continued a dialogue that went far beyond his CD, or his subsequent books.
We met several years later when Ma, Rahnuma and I had gone to Arle, in the South of France. I had a small exhibition in the festival there. Rahnuma was doing her PhD in Brighton and Ma and I were going to join her there. We would go on to France, and Italy and then go overland through the Alps to Holland. It was before Schengen, so we needed visas for each country that we needed to cross. Armed with invitation letters from friends in each country, Ma and I did the embassy rounds. Friends at the embassies helped, and we even got recommendation letters for Rahnuma which she could use in London for her visas. Undaunted by the sign inside the Belgian Embassy in Dhaka, that said ?We do not issue tourist visas?, and other equally friendly mementos in the remaining ones, we gathered all the visas, joined up with Rahnuma in London and headed off to Paris. The organisers were paying for my trip, but Andre Raynouard at the Alliance, had kindly arranged for trips to France for photographers Shehzad and Mahmud as well and we all met up in Paris. Trips to Editing, the agency that represented us in France at that time, and visits to Magnum were warm ups to Arles. We took the train to Marseille where Gilles and Isabelle picked us up. Driving through the sunflower fields that Van Gogh and Gaughin must have painted, I remember wondering if the mottled bark of the trees in Arles had inspired their rugged brush strokes.
Pedro had a massive exhibition at Arles, and I remember marvelling at the digitally produced images printed on canvas, hanging in gilded frames, all along the walls of what appeared to be a medieval church. Pedro was showing the new CD on a Mac to his enraptured audience. I too had a go playing with this new toy. Thinking I was Hispanic, Pedro came up to me and asked if I would like to see the Spanish version. In an air of nonchalance I shrugged, but suggested I might be interested in the Bangla version. Pedro smiled and told me of this very good Bangladeshi friend that he had, called Shahidul Alam, who he would introduce me to! The bear hug that I got when I revealed my identity nearly did me in.
The rest of the trip went well too, but the highlights were, being in Milano at the house of Gabriela Calvenzi, the picture editor of MODA, when Italy beat Bulgaria in the semis of the world cup and that breathtaking train ride through the Alps. We visited Nipa and Alam in Basle, and they drove us through the sunflower fields and gentle waterfalls in Switzerland. Ma was disappointed that they did not check our German visas on the train. We had gone to so much trouble to get those visas! Walking through Amsterdam?s red light district with Ma was another interesting experience, but what I remember more of that city was the meal we had. I had been in the jury of World Press (WPP) the two previous years, and had many friends there. Marloes Krijnen, the managing director of WPP took us all to dinner at a fancy Argentinean restaurant. Ma ordered a very exotic sounding dish, which we were a bit jealous of, until the waiter turned up with a baked potato with a blob of butter on top!
The US trip to visit Rahnuma?s brother Khadem, was relatively uneventful, except for the immigration officer?s zeal in checking us out, as he always did with ?certain types of passports?. This resulted in us missing our flight, and I was in full ?journo mode?. Out came my notebook, my digital recorder, I took copious notes, interviewed people, quizzed him on what he meant by ?certain types of passport?. The guy was rattled enough to upgrade us to business class for appeasement. He tried to mumble something about our garb being inappropriate, but my cold stare put a stop to that.
We didn?t go to Mexico that trip, and my first opportunity came in 1996, when the Centro de la Imagen invited me to speak at PhotoSeptembre. As it is now, there was no Mexican embassy in Dhaka. even my foreign secretary friend had been unable to extract a visa application form from the nearest embassy in Delhi, let alone a visa itself. I tried plan B. The consul general in London had heard of me and wanted to help. We exchanged phone numbers as I went off to Fotokina in Cologne, loathe to hang around in London while the bureaucrats decided what to do with me. The consul phoned me in Cologne, asking me to take the night train, in order to arrive in time. Groggily, I made my way from Waterloo to the consul office. True to his word, the consul managed a visa in time for me to race to the airport and catch my flight to New York and on to Mexico City.
Being the only African or Asian in this huge meet with over 800 exhibitions should have been daunting, but my naivet? helped me overcome such inhibitions. I was thrilled by the work on display in this amazingly culturally rich city. Manual Alvarez Bravo turning up on the day of my talk should have been enough. Reaching across to the next table over dinner to chat to Gabriel Garcia Marquez should have left me sufficiently awed, but I was too excited to be fazed by any of this. My memories were more of the trip to Oaxaca that Patricia Mendoza, the director of Centro de la Imagen had organised for a few of us. It was a small but interesting group. Fred Baldwin and Wendy Waitriss who ran Fotofest in Houston, Alasdair Foster (this was when he ran the photo festival in Edinburgh and before he became the director of the Australian Centre of Photography), and Marcelo Brodsky, the president of Latin Stock from Sao Paolo, made up our motley team. We passionately argued, and fervently planned; charting out the routes that we felt photography should take. I remember those torrid moments, but my most distinct memory is of the midnight visit to the Aztec temples that Patricia had managed to organise. The temples were off limits after sunset, but Patricia knew everyone, and had arranged for us to go on a full moon. I remember walking along the ancient corridors of the shrine, glistening in the moonlight, the quiet and eerie stillness, the sound of the bats, the whoosh of the owl, and sparkling in the valley below the gently glowing city of Oaxaca. I have very different memories of Francesco Toledo, sitting on the red clay, chatting to other artists. This was the artist who had raised millions and donated his own work, to set up some of the finest museums and galleries to be found. I could imagine him in the dried up pond in Charukola, or in Modhu?r canteen, passionately debating the merit of some work of art. While the visions included Toledo and other students, sadly, I couldn?t see the directors or the DGs of our own institutions coming out of their dull carpeted offices with towel backed chairs and touching the earth with such sincerity.
I remembered the brightly coloured shawls, the hibiscus and tamarind drinks, the blue beans and the fried crickets. So when Pedro asked me to speak at the 10th anniversary of zonezero.com I could hardly refuse. There was still no embassy, and no guarantee that it would work again in London. The world had changed in between, and Pedro was loath to have a bearded Muslim, negotiate immigration officers in the ?land of the free?. So he arranged for a direct flight to Mexico City from Paris, and sent a very official looking letter with lots of stamps to the embassy there. I had been emailed a copy. I was going to Prague enroute, so two visas needed to be managed. Luckily Martin Hadlow of the Media Development Loan Fund in Prague who had invited me to Prague, knew the ambassador in Paris, who knew the ambassador in Bangkok, who spoke to the consul general in Kuala Lumpur. The Czech consulate gave me a multiple entry visa immediately but Mexico was not going to be so easy. I was going to buy the tickets to Prague, Amsterdam and Manchester in Paris. So I had a ticket to Mexico and no visa and a visa to the Czech Republic but no ticket. It was going to be fun.
We were all approaching Prague differently. Sameera and I travelled to London together, and I went on to Paris. Czhoton had been doing a long assignment in Denmark, so he flew directly from Copenhagen. Shabbir unfortunately had been denied a visa, for the ?Catch 22? reason that he had never been to Europe before. I was staying with Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo. In the morning, it was Sylvie who navigated the answering machine sil vous plez?s, but ended up getting no coherent response from the embassy. So armed with a map, I walked down Strassbourg St Denis to rue de? . The embassy was closed. With my rusty French, I could work out that the 16th September was Mexico?s Independence Day. Luckily, and rather uncharacteristically, I had kept a margin and had resisted purchasing my other tickets until I had my Mexican visa.
Dominique from Contact Press recommended their travel agent who was very helpful, but struggled with my itinerary. A Paris Prague single came to over $ 1,200! A return would work out cheaper, but I needed to include a Saturday night. That meant missing out on my show in Groningen, as I wouldn?t have time to go on to Manchester and then to Oldham and back to Paris in time to catch my flight to Mexico City on Tuesday morning.
Eventually we managed a Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam Paris ticket that was reasonable, and good old Easyjet from the nearby cybercafe, provided a Paris Liverpool Paris flight, at a quite good price. All I now needed was that Mexican visa. The visa officer I met on the 17th was very pleasant. Pedro had provided an imposing looking document, with several stamps. The sort bureaucrats love. Gauging that they would issue the visa, I hesitantly asked how long it might take. ?48 hours? was the short reply. I was in trouble. All my budget price tickets were non refundable and non endorse-able. Besides, I?d already killed two of the four days I was meant to have for this meeting in Prague. Luckily, I had my itinerary with me. The sight of eleven flights, two train journeys and four car journeys, across ten cities in three continents over fifteen days, should have been enough to convince her that I was totally mad, and shouldn?t be allowed in any country, but it worked, and she agreed to let me have the visa in an hour (my flight to Amsterdam was in the afternoon). There was the minor matter of the fee. 134 Euros to be paid in cash. I gulped. In these days of electronic money, one rarely carried cash around. No problem. I had my travellers cheques. I would be back in a jiffy with the money. Could I have my passport please. ?Sorry, we need the passport to process the visa.? Logical enough, but I was stuck again. I combed all the banks in the neighbourhood, but they wouldn?t give me an advance on my credit card. Eventually a bureau de change with a trusting officer, decided he would take the risk, and cashed my travellers cheques without a passport. Back to the embassy, collect visa, rush to Sylvies?, train to Garu du Nord (Charles de Gaulle, doesn?t have a left luggage), pick up luggage, and finally with visas, tickets and passport, I dashed to the airport. Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Amsterdam, Groningen, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Manchester, Oldham, Manchester, Liverpool, Paris and then on to Mexico City. In between Martin had taken us on a lovely night walk across old Prague. Drew, arranged the Liverpool, Manchester Oldham circuit, and Lotte and Anonna, joined me in Groningen, where Maria and Ype gave me a grand tour of the Norderlicht (the Northern Lights) Festival. Opening up galleries in the middle of the night, Bresson, George Rodgers, Capa, all in one go! And of course there were my two shows, in the synagogue in Groningen and the one in Gallery Oldham that I had gone to see.
Mexico was all that it had promised to be. Great speakers, old friends, wonderful presentations. Our own session was unusual. There were only two speakers as opposed to the customary four. Brian Storm, Bill Gate?s right hand man at Corbis, versus this bearded Muslim from a small agency in Bangladesh! Techno power versus spunk! It was the classic duel and the gallery loved it. I don?t think Gates will be making a takeover bid for Drik just yet. It was again at Pedro?s on the eve of the talk. Trish was leaving for New York the next day, for the judging of the Eugene Smith Awards, and this was a quick dinner she?d arranged. Mark (senior curator of Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and I were the only guests. Pedro took us for a walk along Coyocan. We went down the streets where Frieda Kahlo and Trotsky used to live. Visited Cortes? palace where Pedro and Trisha were married, and soaked in the energy of Pedro?s bustling para.
There were of course the more traditional touristy visits. I?ll remember Maximilian?s palace for its ornate loo, and the boat ride along the ?Floating Gardens of Xochimilco? and the Aztec dance amidst the pyramids. It took a while to get used to the fact that we had a film crew following us for most of the trip. The producer, Michel, had been a war photographer for many years, but was now known for his sensational environmental films. We talked of the possibility of him coming to Pathshala to teach. The highlights for me were the visit to Fototeca in Pachuca where we saw the original glass plate of Zapata?s official portrait. The joy of holding history in my hands, was only to be topped by the visit to the incredible ?Museum of Anthropology? in Mexico City. I had been told about this famous museum before, but hadn?t quite made it during my last visit. This time round I was determined to make it. North Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans and one lone Bangladeshi made a curious mix.
What a museum it was! Having visited some of the most famed museums around the world, I felt I had seen it all, but this one simply took one?s breath away. Apart from the sheer exquisite nature of the exhibits, I was enchanted by the love and the care that must have gone into setting up the display. Each piece of stone, was carefully positioned, thoughtfully lit, and displayed as a prized possession, which of course they were. The tombs descended down an intricate stairway, with sections cut out, so we could visualise our descent into the burial grounds. Lights carefully placed at floor level, lit up small artefacts, that characterised the personalities of dead. Tools for the rights of passage, a child?s toy, a garment to take one across the border of the living and the dead. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the distant vision, each had a role to play in this wondrous display.
I had finally managed to free myself from my endearing film crew, on the morning of departure. I was not going to miss the Koudelka show. Hanging around the Palais Bella Artes, waiting for the doors to open, I made rapid notes of what was left on my ?to do? list. Gift for people back home! I was in trouble. But Koudelka was having none of this. This was an exhibition that could not be rushed. The sheer versatility of the man was amazing in itself. And then to see, in his latest reincarnation, images with such mastery of tones, such splendid play of forms, such freshness of vision, was simply mind blowing. Shopping time had to go. I needed excuses. Still reeling from this visual feast, I dashed to the alleyways at the back of the Sheraton. There were no ponchos for Topu, but a few revolutionary T shirts, and the odd Mexican trinket would have to do.
I stopped in Paris long enough to drop in at Reza?s and pick up the CD for the new Drik calendar. Sylvie had arranged an assignment for me with Geo, and having taken over the Contact Press Office, I asked the writer to visit me there. Michel Szulc Krysnovsky had just returned from his assignment in Dhaka where Pathshala student Sunny, had worked as his fixer. He brought his portfolio over, and we talked of exhibition possibilities. Robert gave a copy of his new book on the Cultural Revolution for Rahnuma and me, duly stamped with his new Chinese signature. A few hours sleep at Sylvie?s and it was time for the airport again. I would have three whole days in Dhaka before heading off to Taipei. Bliss.
A gentle trickle
A surging river
A gentle plain
Four long years
Three thousand kilometres
Cormorants, sea gulls
Sparrows at dusk
A flurry of wings
La brume matinale
Boats bathed in twilight red
In narrow paths
A banyan tree
Tall strong shady
A forlorn reed
In amber garb
Reaching for the sky
Arching along the water
Betwixt the land and the sea
A river rests, a delta speaks
Older than the mountains, it is a river that forces its way across the towering Himalayas. The Tibetans know it as the Yarlung Tsang Po (the purifier). In India it is known as the Brahmaputra. In Bangladesh it is also known as the Jamuna, the Padma and finally the Meghna before it opens into the sea. No one is known to have traversed the entire run of the river. We take you on this journey, across the millenium, across three nations, through Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. From the icy trickle in the glaciers. Along Pei in China, where the river narrows into a rapid-filled gorge reaching phenomenal depths and amazing cascades. Through the crystal clear waters in Arunachal Pradesh. Across the We take you sailing along the Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra Diary. An exhibition based on my journey along this majestic Asian river opens at the Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur tonight (Sunday the 7th September) at 8:00 pm.
Sun Sep 7, 2003
Multimedia version with video in Zonezero.com