Poet With a Kodak and a Restless Eye

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By?HOLLAND COTTER

Published: September 12, 2010

WASHINGTON ? The poet?Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997, adored life, feared death and craved fame. These obsessions seemed to have kept him, despite his practice of Buddhist meditation, from sitting still for long. He was constantly writing, teaching, traveling, networking, chasing lovers, sampling drugs, pushing political causes and promoting the work of writer friends.

?? The Allen Ginsberg LLC

?Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg?: Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson in San Francisco, in the show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.?More Photos ?

In the early 1950s he began to photograph these friends in casual snapshots, meant to be little more than souvenirs of a shared time and ethos. Years later his picture taking ? often of the same friends, now battered by life or approaching death ? became more formal and artful, as if he were trying to freeze his subjects? faces and energies, and to show off his photographic skills, for the history books.
Nearly 80 pictures, early and late, many with handwritten inscriptions, are on view through Thursday in ?Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg? at theNational Gallery of Art here. Some are familiar; others rarely seen. As arranged by Sarah Greenough, the senior curator in the museum?s department of photographs, they form a continuous narrative. In the space of two small galleries we watch legends take shape, beauties fade, an American era come and go.
Ginsberg began his photographic chronicle of what would become the Beat generation in earnest in 1953, when he was in his late 20s and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He had known the group?s crucial personalities ??William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso,?Jack Kerouac and their communal muse Neal Cassady ? since his student days at Columbia. He regarded them collectively, himself very much included, as a new literary vanguard. The work they were doing in the early ?50s seemed to confirm his faith. And his early pictures, taken with a secondhand Kodak, project a buoyant confidence.
We see figures who would soon enough become cultural monuments still vital and mercurial. In one much-published picture Kerouac, smoking and brooding, is already a romantic hero, but in another he?s a mugging cut-up on an East Village street ?making a?Dostoyevsky mad-face,? to quote Ginsberg?s caption.
Continue reading “Poet With a Kodak and a Restless Eye”

Painting and Photography

The Golam Kasem Lecture Series

By: Dhali Al Mamoon

6th September 2009. Drik Gallery Dhaka

Painting and Photography

Dhali Al Mamoon

Is there an art form that does not draw upon other disciplines? Are literature, music and architecture not informed by visual culture? Are the many manifestations of visual art not encapsulated within them? Today, the boundaries of creative work are difficult to define. If one has to draw a boundary, perhaps it is the sky. The activities that question our intellect, philosophy, science or art ? have all directly or indirectly, become complementary.

Painting and photography, these two forms of visual art are about seeing and showing, creating images and visual signs. The differences in their mode of production, has created some particularities. Painting is not merely the earliest form of visual art, but also the earliest example of human creativity. In this long journey, its structure, its form, its language and its expression both outside and within, have drawn upon each other and gone through transformations. Photography, the youngest of the visual art forms, is less than two centuries old, but has gone through dramatic shifts both within and outside.

The advent of this young visual art form has influenced painting, the earliest visual art form, the most. Very few painters have been able to distance themselves from this influence. According to many, photography has evolved from within the fine arts. Painters have searched for ways to capture the fleeting visuals that surround them, and it is this need that has enabled the discovery of photography.

Earlier in this decade the celebrated British painter David Hockney through his book, ?Secret Knowledge? analysed the creative practices of prominent western artists. This led to a storm of controversy in learned circles, for in that book, Hockney talks of how, well known artists had, prior to photography, used various techniques to enhance their painting skills. Da Vinci, Vel?zquez, Caravaggio, Van Eyke and many other painters had used lenses, mirrors and many other optical devices, to help them create their paintings. The book provides detailed descriptions of these techniques.

One of these devices was the camera obscura. Astronomers had used the camera obscura to obs as early as erve heavenly objects1630. This led physicists and optical scientists to the invention of the telescope and the microscope which revolutionized astronomy and the world of unseen microscopic objects. It opened up a new frontier in our visual culture.

The camera obscura took on many shapes and forms between the 16th and 19th centuries. Large, small, with and without lenses, with reversing mirrors, etc. They were all designed to render a faithful rendering of the scene before us.

Of those who were involved with painting and the visual arts, and also played an important role in the development of photography, a key figure was Louis-Jacques-Mand? Daguerre. Well before he began to improve upon the camera obscura he had established a reputation as a painter, particularly in panoramic painting and theatrical illusion. He later invented the diorama. He began experimenting with photography since 1823. Meanwhile another artist, Joseph Nic?phore Ni?pce successfully created a permanent rendering of a scene in 1822. Ni?pce had been working on lithographs for quite some time. So the advent of photography involved an amalgam of the two disciplines right from the start. Daguerre and Ni?pce began collaborating on their research, and overcame many of the obstacles in their path. In 1833, after the death of Ni?pce, his son succeded him as Daguerre?s partner.

Daguerre?s successful use of photography in 1839 (by a process known as the Daguerreotype) when he was able to record the effect of sunlight through chemical means, created a stir, and the Parisians felt this was superior to painting as it was more lifelike than painting could ever be. The Daguerreotype became increasingly popular and the use and power of photography spread. At the same time, Daguerre was given more responsibility, particularly in the preservation of valuable documents.

By the time photography became ubiquitous in the representation of human activity, the human landscape had also begun to change. Industrialisation led to the disappearance of earlier modes of living. Perhaps the camera too is a product of this industrialization. Photography?s ability for accurate representation led to a rapid increase in its usage. Since the Paris Commune, photography began to be used as material evidence in many political investigations. The revolutionary transformation that had taken place in advertising, post-Napoleon, due to the lithograph, was succeeded by a similar transformation due to photography. The role played by painting was gradually taken over by photography. Gradually, photography took on a more diverse role. Its contribution in extending the scope of visual arts to that of visual culture, is well recognized. On the other hand its replicability gave the image a popularity which other visual art forms like painting lacked due to the limitations of the medium. Rather, even in the fine art spectrum, the reproduction of paintings through photography has led to its democratization and a place in popular culture. Other artwork in museums, galleries and private collections, have become more accessible to the general public by their reproduction through photographs. Consequently, the chapters in western contemporary arts that have gained in prominence, owe their success to the discovery of photography. The advent of photography has transformed the structure of painting, its language, its technique and its perception. In adapting an image or painting to the confines of the photographic process there are elements that get truncated. Before the advent of the mechanical eye of the camera painters were very conscious of these truncations and ensured that the canvas was able to contain the gaze of the viewer. Visual boundaries were created through the use of shadows, or play of colour to restrain the eye. However, dividing the canvas itself was deemed acceptable. The image is a fragment of the visual scene, but artists want to create a complete vision, through the conjunction of images split across canvas divides. The tensions between the whole and the fragment, the seen and the unseen reflect the effects of the artist and the perceptive influences of the social structures she finds herself in. The visual structure or composition of an image has a focal point, around which the other elements are placed. This placement could even be an invisible pyramidal structure that provides stability in our everchanging reality. An attempt to arrest time, or perhaps suggest timelessness. The ramifications of the contemporary art forms reflect perhaps current social structures, and our collective wisdom, religion, philosophy, concerns, from the deeply personal to the centralization of power.

Our perceptions are changing. The inventions, the tools, the techniques follow a parallel path to these ideas. Photography is such a representation of our times. This avatar of our times has broken the boundaries of our experience, it has immersed itself into the fine arts. Similarly, this advent of photography has injected new energy into other contemporary fields of learning. The visual divides of a canvas are no longer a threat to the painter, rather she has learnt to incorporate it into her visual language. Her frame can now be invaded by peripheral objects that interject, exude, linger at the edges. The snapshot aesthetic has been appropriated into her language. What is interesting is that such visual grammar was in use even before photography was invented. Perhaps this was a pre-visualisation of photographic forms in our minds. It manifests itself in woodcuts. Perhaps the impressionists were inspired by Japanese printmakers in the same way that the visual truncation of photography has influenced other visual artists.

In the early days, photography was perceived as a threat by painters, but instead they have gained a new independence and a different visual grammar. It was the impressionists that led the way to this change. The aspects of photography that were trapped within the accepted norms of painting have also found new freedoms. The techniques of dissemination, as well as the specificities of production have become modes of expression for the artist. Freed of the rigidities of material taboos, there is a new democratization in the arts. The modes of production have opened new doors. There was a time when artists followed pre-determined layouts or set ideas which were enacted in the studio. Now they migrate to the open, letting their experiences guide their artistic rendering. No longer does their art work need to conform to a fixed visual straightjacket. The acceptance of this uncertainty has been liberating. The edges are now blurred. The brush has taken on new forms. The ability to freeze fleeting moments, has led to time and timelessness becoming elements of construction. The appropriation of photography has led to a modernization of the arts.

Photography has become a vital ingredient not only of visual arts, but of visual culture. But art critics and intellectuals have raised questions about the creativity and aesthetic validity of the medium. However it was in 1859 when photography held its own space in the Paris Annual Art Exhibition. A few years later in 1863, after a few legal skirmishes, photography was officially recognized as an art form by the French government.

While painting has been influenced by photography through seen and unseen ways, photography too has gained through the discipline of the visual arts. The pictorial syntax of painting has evolved over time. Many consider photography to have a ?pictorial syntax without a syntax?. There are others who think photography is a literal rendering rather than a representation of reality. That it is a receptacle for reality, and can hold no more than what is visually obvious. That it does not have the independence that other visual art forms have. These questions about the validity of photography as an art form have now lost relevance. What a photograph holds depends upon who, when, where and how, it is presented and contextualised. The postscript film ?Letter to Jane? (1972) directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, is a back-and-forth narration by both Godard and Gorin. The Hollywood actress Jane Fonda had gone to Hanoi during the Vietnam war. A photo of her was printed in the French newspaper L?Express. The film serves as a 52-minute cinematic essay that deconstructs the single news photograph.

It is difficult to value a medium based on its specific characteristics. It depends upon time, space and context, and the perceptions of the individuals or collectives that surround it. It is true, that photography can seek out, hold, capture and select, or arrange. While it may differ in modes of creative production, are these not intrinsic to all other art forms? In practice these categorizations depend upon the depth of intellectual ability, the sensitivity, the passion, and even the knowledge of the one who decides. That is precisely why creative work varies with time, space and context. Marcel Duchamp?s ?Fountain?, opened up new spaces for creativity. Soon the tools, the medium and the process, of art became secondary, the ideas and the concepts became the central elements. Duchamp inverted a urinal and called it art. He established the relationship with the roots of one?s work with what one created. He linked creativity with history and culture. His notion that art could be about ideas rather than material things revolutionised thinking about art. When this urinal, through its presentation lost its original functionality, then it entered a new space. Took on new meanings. So the construction of the artwork, or the creativity in its form gave way to the ideas and concepts of the artist.

The interrelationship between painting and photography in Bangladesh is different. In our visual practice, the fine arts institute has a firm foundation. From an organizational perspective it is this academy which quantifies artistic merit. As I?ve mentioned earlier, the Salon de Paris had, over 150 years ago, accepted photography as an art form in fine art exhibitions. That is about a 100 years before fine art practice itself was initiated in Bangladesh. We suffer from the inferior complex that colonial heritage has left us. We unthinkingly accept what is western as superior, so why this condescending attitude towards photography? Even now the fine art exhibitions at Shilpakala Academy (the academy of fine and performing arts), do not recognize photography. But the funny thing is that at the Asian Biennale, many participating countries submit photography as their artwork. More recently digitally manipulated photography is accepted as art. So even the disparity towards the medium is not consistent. Why then is photography not treated as part of the visual arts in Bangladesh?

This may be due to the patriarchal mindset or the fundamentalist concepts about fine art or to do with the power-play between the strong and the weak, the experienced and the inexperienced, or indeed a struggle between the past and the present, the old and the new. We have not learnt from the natural progression of either history or civilization, where progress is entwined with change. Who knows where our art is heading? Our lifestyle, or reality, or work sphere, our learning, our future, our hopes and the dreams of our next generation will shape the future of our art.

Translation by: Shahidul Alam

dhali-al-mamoon-2-400-pix

Dhali Al Mamoon

Dhali Al-Mamoon is a painter and a lecturer at Chittagong University. He was born in 1958, in Chandpur, Bangladesh. He holds a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, University of Chittagong. He received the National Award 2000, Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, for the best art work of the year and the Grand Prize in the 12th Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, 2006



The novelist in wartime

By Haruki Murakami
In this powerful speech, the great author explains his controversial decision to accept a literary prize in Israel and why we need to fight the System.
I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies. Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling lies. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?
My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies — which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true — the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.
Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.
So let me tell you the truth. In Japan a fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The U.N. reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens — children and old people.
Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.
Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me — and especially if they are warning me — “Don’t go there,” “Don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.
And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.
Please do allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:
“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”
Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?
What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them.
This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “the System.” The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others — coldly, efficiently, systematically.
I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on the System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories — stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.
My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the battlefield. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.
My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.
I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called the System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.
Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow the System to exploit us. We must not allow the System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made the System. That is all I have to say to you.

she had a dream…

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Rahnuma Ahmed

“A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests….”
Begum Rokeya, Sultana’s Dream (1908)

New York, 1906

Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish woman, joined a group of shirtwaist makers. They wanted to form a union, but didn’t know how. Six young women, six young men and Clara formed Local 25. In those days, the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) was small. Most of its members were male cloakmakers.
Although Clara was determined to be a “good girl,” two days later she was talking union. The oppressive conditions at work made her angry. The forewoman would follow the girls to the toilet. She would needle them to hurry. New girls would be cheated, their pay was always less than agreed upon. The girls would be fined for all sorts of things. They were charged for electricity, needles, and thread. “Mistakes” would be made in pay envelopes, they were difficult to get fixed. The clock was fixed so that lunch hour was twenty minutes short. Or, it would be set back an hour. Not knowing, they would work the extra hour. Unpaid (Meredith Tax, “The Uprising of the Thirty Thousand”).
Clara took part in her first strike in 1907. At one of the union meetings, strikers argued about “pure-and-simple-trade-unionism.” Clara asked one of them what that meant. They went for a walk. Her first lesson in Marxism took place during that forty block long walk. “He started with a bottle of milk?how it was made, who made the money from it at every stage of its production. Not only did the boss take the profits, he said, but not a drop of milk did you drink unless he allowed you to. It was funny, you know, because I’d been saying things like that to the girls before. But now I understood it better and I began to use it more often?only with shirtwaists.” (Paula Scheier, “Clara Lemlich Shavelson”).
In 1908, the first Women’s Day was initiated by socialist women in the United States. Large demonstrations were held.
In 1909, a Women’s Day rally was held in Manhattan. It was attended by two thousand people. The same year, women garment workers staged a general strike. Known as the Uprising of the Thirty Thousand (or Twenty Thousand, depending on the source), the shirtwaist makers struck for thirteen weeks. The weeks were cold and wintry. They demanded better pay, better working conditions.

Bangladesh, 2008

Things are better now, says Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garments Sromik Oikko Forum (Shomaj Chetona, 1 January 2008). Of course, there are still problems. Workers wages are not paid within the first week of the month. Overtime payments are irregular. Festival allowances and festival leave is not forthcoming unless the girls take to the streets. The minimum wage (1,662.50 taka ?USD 24) is not paid. There is no earned leave. No weekly holidays. Girls do not get maternity leave. If they become pregnant, they get sacked. Appointment letters are not issued. No identity cards are given. They do not get government holidays . For unknown reasons, the eight hour work day, the result of the 1876 May Day movement, and other international movements organised by workers, is not followed in the garment factories. Safety standards in most factories, many of them located in residential areas as opposed to industrial ones, are horribly lacking. These factories, says Mishu, are “death traps.” These traps have killed five hundred workers. Electric short-circuits have led to fires, workers fleeing to save their lives have been trampled to death, locked exits have remained locked even during accidents, or poorly-built buildings have collapsed burying workers underneath the rubble. Mishu spoke of the collapsed Spectrum garment building in Savar, of factory workers in Tejgaon, and of KPS factory workers in Chittagong.
Things are a bit better now, says Mishu, who has been organising workers, and fighting for their rights for the last thirteen years. It was far worse in the beginning. Girls would be worked to their bones. They would work the whole night, but would not get their night bills. Nor would they be paid their overtime bills. Often, not even their basic salaries. There would be a lot of dilly-dallying over wages, aj na kal, this would go on for 2-3-4-5 months. And then, one fine morning the girls would come and and find that the owners had packed up and left. In the middle of the night. No wages, no overtime, nothing in exchange for many months of hard labour. Having a trade union to protect their rights was unheard of. Not only was there no maternity leave, if a girl’s pregnancy was `discovered,’ she would immediately lose her job. She would be forced to leave, penniless. Physical assaults, beatings, threats of acid attack, other forms of intimidation were common. Owners do not regard workers as their colleagues or co-workers, but as slaves. As their servants However, Mishu adds, things have changed. Not big changes. Tiny ones. (Sromik Awaz, 12 January 2008).
She goes on, I have seen many marriages break up. The factories had this outrageous attendance card system. It said, work hours are from 7 am to 5 pm. But, in practice, women worked till midnight. Or, till one in the morning. Why or how it is allowed to happen, I do not know, said Mishu. The 1965 law, the Factory Law says women workers work hours can only be from 7 in the morning to 8 at night. How that can be so blissfully violated in the case of garment factory workers, I do not know. Of course I understand, if there is a shipment yes, but surely there aren’t shipments the whole year round.
Yes, I was talking about work hours, said Mishu, when girls returned home late, of course, they would be returning from work but since the attendance card said work hours were from 7 to 5, husbands would be suspicious. I know of husbands who would beat their wives, who would drag her by the hair, yell abuses, “Where have you been, you whore?” And also, in our country, it is not safe for women to be out so late at night. Rapes, gang rapes, these happen. They still do. Inside the factory too, there is a lot of sexual harassment. There are other problems, there are no colonies close to the factories where the girls can live. They come to Dhaka city in search of work, leaving behind their families in villages, in townships. They live here in a mess, many to a room, or they take in a sub-let room. They can pay the rent, or the local shopkeeper for food items, rice, salt, oil, on getting their wages. If they can’t pay, they are harassed by the landlord, or by the shopkeeper. I know of girls who have been turned out of their rooms by the landlord, sometimes in the middle of the night. Because they could not pay their rent. I have seen girls in Adabor (Mohammodpur), I have seen them take refuge in front of Shaymoli cinema hall, in the verandas of local mosques, and yes, even beneath a tree. And, as you know, girls working in garment factories are very young, as young as 16. The oldest girls are in their early to mid-twenties.
Mishu said, the Emergency has affected the garment workers movement adversely. The May 2006 movement arose over piece rate payments. Payments were very low at the Apex factory. Workers protested, the police opened fire. Shohag, a young worker, was killed. The movement spread like wildfire, in Gazipur and beyond. It spread to Savar, to Ashulia. It erupted later again, in October. We achieved some, said Mishu, our demand for minimum wages, for setting up of a wage board. We also lost. The wage board would include representatives from both owners and workers. But both sets of representatives were to be selected by the owners! Eleven organisations had demanded a minimum wage of three thousand taka. But we were betrayed. Minimum wage was fixed at 1,162.50. But even that is not paid. Of course, we haven’t given up our demand for a minimum wage of three thousand taka. It is ridiculous to expect that workers can live, they can reproduce their labour power, at such low income levels.
The Emergency has adversely affected the garment workers movement. It has made things much worse. Before, because of one movement after the other, there was some hope. The factory owners had nearly agreed to trade unions. I don’t know what the ILO (International Labour Organisation) office is doing sitting here in Dhaka, I am sure they know that trade union activities are banned. That workers do not have basic democratic rights. As a result of the Emergency, we cannot put any pressure on the owners to follow the 2006 tripartite agreement. We cannot pressurise the government either. The owners are benefiting from the Emergency. They are sacking workers, they are implicating both workers and leaders in false cases. There are 19 such false cases against me in Gazipur, and 7 in Ashulia. Working people are increasingly getting very angry. Spontaneous movements keep bursting out in different factories. Whenever any protest takes place, you get to hear another round of conspiracy theories. Either the workers are conspiring. Or their leaders are conspiring. Or, it is an international conspiracy. Issues of social justice in the sector that owns three-quarters of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, are sidelined.
As far as garment workers are concerned, this government is no different from other governments, said Mishu. It looks upon us as the enemy, as conspirators. It instructs the police to fire bullets at us. Things far worse happen to us. The Emergency has taken away our rights. It has increased the power of the owners over the workers. Our movement is part of the larger movement for democracy, not the state-sponsored one, but the people’s one. The real one. And of course, we wish to link up to other movements that oppress people.
Postscript: A hundred years ago, Sultana had a dream. The lion is bigger and stronger than a man. Just like men who are [generally] bigger and stronger than women. One can invent similar parallels. Like factory owners, who are richer than workers, and have state backing unlike workers. Other parallels also come to mind.
But in Sultana’s Dream there is a twist. Those who are stronger, and more powerful eventually lose. They are outwitted by their captives, who dreamt of freedom and emancipation.
First published in New Age 8th March 2008

The Price of Peace

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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.
Shahidul Alam
Los Angeles
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.

The First Element

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Poem on Waterwall at exhibition “The First Element” at the National Art Gallery Malaysia.

Water
Fluid, flowing, feeling, water
Life, death, birth, union, water
Meandering, shaping, eroding, changing, water
Cosmos, clouds of gas, the ice age, frozen seas, water
Drips
Waving, trickling, surging, swaying, water
Giving, creating, forming, bleeding, water
Emotions, passion, unbridled, desire, water
Decanting, oozing, seeping, leaking, leeching, water
Drops
Wanting, longing, aching, waiting, water
Spraying, spurting, frothing, spewing, water
Coalescing, merging, blending, easing, water
Searching, probing, seeking, beseeching, water
Damp
Dank, fog, mist, wistful water
Soaked in tears
Bathed in rain
Drenched in joy
Cleansed in pain
Immersed in womb
The first element
Water

Shahidul Alam

Mon Nov 10, 2003

Mrs. Packletide's Tiger

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Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, and talked of nothing else; only a personally procured tiger-skin and a heavy harvest of press photographs could successfully counter that sort of thing. Mrs. Packletide had offered a thousand rupees for the opportunity of shooting a tiger without over-much risk or exertion. However, when the opportunity came, she accidentally shot the goat, and the tiger died of fright, and she had to settle with Miss Mebin so that her version of the story would be the one to circulate.

?The release of the hostages by the military, had all the hallmarks of Mrs. Packletide?s tiger hunt,? said Ching Kiu Rewaja Chairman Rangamati Sthanio Shorkar Porishod, the local government head. Unlike the story by the Indian born writer Saki, there were no press photographs to show here, but radio and television and the carefully fed press releases had been prepared so that the story of the heroic release of the two Danish and one British engineer in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, would circulated unchallenged. There had been a few hiccups, and the two separate government press releases on the same day, explaining the circumstances of the kidnapping, had cast shadows on the otherwise well orchestrated adventure story.

Ching Kiu Rewaja sat in his big government office, surrounded by a large number of people vying for his attention. He gestured grandly for us to sit in a position of honour as tea and biscuits immediately appeared. He was busy signing things and would stop momentarily to look up and apologise to us for keeping us waiting. ?There is a subtle competition here, civil administration, police, and military all wanting credit. And they didn?t want to share the credit, hence this deceit.? However, while the chairman understood the underlying politics, despite his colourful analysis, he didn?t really know. No one besides the kidnappers and the military knew exactly what had happened on that night, or the subsequent morning. Post release, the Danish engineers in distant
Copenhagen, had reconstructed the hours preceding the kidnapping. ?After a seven hour walk through the jungle we were led to a bamboo cottage, during the night. Then the abductors went into the jungle, and after some hours they heard some shootings, and soldiers shouting, ?you have been released by the Bangladeshi Army?.?

The Brigadier General Rabbani, who headed the military in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, did speak to us, and was extremely cordial, but would not give an official answer. Neither his version, nor the extremely vague government press releases, explained how both the military and the abductors arrived at the same remote spot at the same time, particularly when it takes so many hours to get to. How the abductors escaped, when they had the place surrounded, is mysterious, and the fact that no one from either side was the slightest bit hurt in this confrontation is a bit surprising. Given the secrecy surrounding the issue, the rumours have been flying, but certain significant facts do emerge.

  1. The incident (which took place less than 500 metres of the military camp) was not an isolated one. People were advised to keep some money, in case they were stopped by hijackers. This was common knowledge.
  2. In internal discussions, (which the police and military deny), there had been talk of compensation, even for incidents of rape that had been reported.
  3. Though the government claims that they have advised all donors to take police escorts, there appears to be no document in support of this claim.
  4. The early mediators had been suspected of being on the ?take? themselves, and later people were shuffled.
  5. There is resentment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for some of the ?developments? being planned, particularly the establishment of a 218,000 acre ?reserve forest? which will take over further land from hill people, and the proposed construction of two extra units of the Kaptai Dam.
  6. There is a certain degree of ?tolerance? for the criminal activities that go on in the military protected zones.

While in general people in the government and others who are seen to be recipients of foreign aid clearly want aid to continue, there are hill people who question this development process. ?Who is the development for? If there is no peace then what will it solve? Once development funds were given, crores of taka were given. Bungalows and roads were given, but what did it do for the average person? The roads made it easier for the military, and for bureaucrats to live in, but these did not affect the general people. It might appear that a road will lead to progress, but it has been seen that roads have been used for taking away the forest resources, the trees and the wood, it has made the forests barren, now we even have floods in the hill tracts which we have never had. This increased inflow of people have pushed the people further back. The local people do not get the benefits of this development,? says Prasit Bikash Khisha: Convenor UPDF, who?s party has been accused by some of having orchestrated the kidnapping. An association that UPDF vehemently denies.

Others like engineer Kjeld J Birch, Senior Advisor, CHT Water Supply and Sanitation disagrees with the withdrawal of Danish development aid. ?The hospitality here is very good and kind, so it is difficult to understand that things have to be closed down. I don?t feel unsafe. On a personal level I wouldn?t feel worried. We never used an escort, except when the ambassador was here. Never have I had any untoward experience. Neither my wife. The people we have been in touch with, have been very protective. I think there is an overreaction.? But Birch, who left an attractive job offer in Bhutan to come to one which offered him ?a challenge? and his wife who left a job to accompany him are now both unemployed, so they too have personal interests to protect.

It is therefore difficult to sift the ?truth? from this rubble. But certain changes will have to be in place before development in whoever?s definition can be in place. Information has to flow to the people. A misinformed public will construe the worst, and the rumours currently circulating within the Chittagong Hill Tracts certainly do not favour the government. There has to be a greater degree of transparency in the way things are conducted in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The military will have to be more accountable to the people in both Bangladesh at large and the hill people in particular. People not affiliated to the government, or not necessarily in full agreement with the peace accord, need to be involved in matters affecting the future of the hill people, and that the zone must no longer be treated as a military zone. Within Bangladesh and within The Chittagong Hill Tracts, a democratic system has to give weight to marginalized communities. If these issues get addressed, maybe the kidnapping will have done more for Bangladesh?s development than the players involved had originally envisaged.