Saturday, December 12, 2009

School for Music

Sunil Das playing the violin with his students.

Music education, in the last few years, has gained a lot of acceptance both amongst children and parents. In fact, several schools in the city offer lessons in both vocal and instruments alongside regular studies. However, there are also schools and institutions exclusively dedicated to teaching and learning music education in Dhaka today. It is also a fact that too many of such schools are springing up in every other neighbourhood in the capital today, that it becomes difficult to actually keep up with them. The complaints turn out to be the same the teachers are not efficient enough or the school closes down after a few months because of problems related to the managements, funding etc.

There are a few music schools that have survived and become popular amongst students and Music Planet happens to be one of them. Located in Gulshan 2 in Taher Tower, this school has been teaching music to young people for the last year and a half. The school made a grand announcement of their existence through a function at the Spectra Convention Centre in April 2008.

More than 120 students children between the ages of 10 17, university students and also working professionals are seen attending their weekly classes at Music Planet. They are taught instruments both in the eastern and western styles the guitar, drums, violin, bass guitar, piano, keyboard, tabla and vocal training.

Recently, the Music Planet school authorities decided to formally introduce degree programmes in music at Music Planet. “However, it is not as easy as we think it is,” says director of Music Planet School Saifuddin Saki. “After we discussed this proposition with the concerned authorities, we decided to introduce diploma programmes for the time being.”

Over the last three years, the school's vision has grown bigger and today, it not only has classes in musical instruments and vocal training, but also in sound and audio engineering live sound, studio and broadcasting, radio jockeying, creative writing and art. A recent change in the management of the school has led to such changes and the Music Planet authorities plan to make many changes for the better. “We plan to eventually turn Music Planet into an institution dedicated to arts and music,” adds Saki. Classes in both eastern classical dances and Salsa have also attracted many students to the school.

Labu Rahman instructing the students in his guitar class.

The students at Music Planet, especially the youngsters are fascinated by the famous and accomplished musicians that the school boasts in the faculty the legendary Sunil Das (violin), Labu Rahman from the band Feedback (guitar and bass guitar), Funty (drums), Titu Ali from the band Chime (keyboard), famous sound engineers Charu, who currently works in Desh TV and Shameem from Live Sound. The curriculum for each subject is outlined and organised by the teachers themselves and discussed with the Music Planet authorities.

Many students say that not only does Music Planet follow a disciplined manner of teaching the arts, the school is also popular amongst the youngsters because of the flexibility it shows towards its teachers, many of who are also regular stage performers in and around the country. “It is an honour for us that famous personalities like Sunil Das is a full time faculty member in our school,” says Saki. “But there are times when our teachers themselves have performances and are unable to attend classes. That is why, all our teachers have been instructed to let us know beforehand in case they miss a class. We immediately arrange for make-up classes.”

Music Planet has a long way to go, but even then, the school has proved its accomplishments and holds promises to take music education to another level.

(For more information on the school, call 01678029843 or 01720564950)

Copyright (R) 2009
Volume 8 Issue 69 | May 15, 2009 |

Thursday, July 30, 2009

As I finally Stop ...

As I reach the very end, I smile and smile and smile at myself,
Wondering at the child I had become – curious, stubborn and teary eyed.
As I bolt open the last door, I laugh and laugh and laugh at myself,
And all the “No’s” that I had shouted with pride.
I check my nose in place, high up in the air,
Refusing to move down and look into your eyes.

As I cross the threshold, I hear...
Something familiar, pulling me back,
Something poignantly sweet,
Something that speaks to me and sings to me,
Something that sounds a lot like music;
Not music designed, nor music planned,
But sounds coming from... within,
Pulling me back, asking me to turn around.

As I listen to this... thing,
I remember everything that I love-
Mother’s reassuring hands,
Friends screaming by the ice cream parlour,
A long drive in the rain,
A surprise birthday party,
Cuddled up in front of HBO,
Books, bowls of apples and oranges and a rainy day,
Peacefully sleeping at night,
A walk under the scorching sun,
Little gifts! Oh! Stationery!
A red scarf and a painted rose.
An auto rickshaw ride together,
Touches, kisses and long nights.

Something that goes beyond music,
Beyond your loving gazes,
Beyond the warmth of blood and
Beyond the kind words
Quenching the thirst of a lonely wanderer.

I stop, finally.
I enter and close the door behind me.
After all, it is time I faced the music,
All alone and all by myself.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Self-obsessed Creative Analysis

A white page, or an empty blue-green glass on the table top
Strewn with debris – half-eaten chicken limbs, pulses and bread crumbs?
I am a kindergarten art book – grand and flying with colours.

A symphony, or a tune hummed by a couple in love
On a crazy, lazy afternoon, hiding from the world behind curtains?
I am the cacophony of notes, scales and skills – never coming to an agreement.

A tear, or a poignant tale of a long gone kingdom
With princes and princesses and knights on white horses?
I am just a helpless child with hopeless fairytale romances in her eyes.

A success story, or a corporate wearing an ironed tie
Over an ironed shirt tucked inside a pair of ironed trousers?
I am a struggler who starts over and over – again and again.

A petal, or a rose garden blooming in winter
In the foreign fields of a foreign country?
I am a bunch of wasted- bundles for sale.

I am not blood, thick enough to speak of
Generations of pride and legacy.
I am water stuck in a century-old well – green and creepy.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Rabindra Jayanti: The Legacy Lives On

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

As the 148th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore goes by, Tagore singers, purists and admirers wonder for the umpteenth time - with digital production of music slowly taking over the scene, will Tagore compositions also be the target of distortion? Will youngsters still take a liking to Tagore's music and lyrics, which even a couple of decades ago, was a part of a child's regular education? Is the ever-moving Rabindra Sangeet taking a back seat in today's music scene?

For years now, it has been a trend in Bangladesh to provide children an education in music, alongside their regular schooling. Academies like the Chayyanaut, Nazrul Academy, Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts (BAFA), Shurer Dhara and many more, have been witnessing the growth of talents for decades. Many, after graduating, go on to pursue their dreams in the fields of performing arts, while others nurture their knowledge and talents for personal fulfilment.

A large number of children and young people spend a good part of their childhood learning Rabindra Sangeet. Families involve themselves with the learning of Tagore compositions to develop their children's personality. There was a time, however, when studying Rabindranath's compositions would define sophistication and would be exclusively confined to a certain section of the society. For many families, possessing the natural gift of singing was not required of their children. It was enough as long as their children attended Chayyanaut.

It is the unique texture of Tagore compositions that appeals to both the young and the old even today.

“I simply cannot carry a tune!” laughs 29-year-old Durdana Khan, a Marketing Executive of a private company in Dhaka. Durdana, who currently lives with her husband in a two-room flat in Badda, is an admirer of Rabindrnath Tagore's works. She tries not to miss any of the Tagore musicals that go on in the city. Along with the stacks of Tagore poetry and plays that she has in her home, her collection of music also boasts CDs and old tapes of Tagore's compositions sung by singers from both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Growing up in Maghbazaar and going to Viqarunnisa Noon School, as a child it was taken for granted by her parents that a music education in Chayyanaut would be appropriate for their daughter, “The fact that I could not sing in tune did not seem to bother my parents at all,” she says. “It was a trend to send children to Chayyanaut or other musical academies every weekend or after school. Frankly speaking, I did not like my Chayyanaut classes and would make up excuses every week to miss them. However, even as a child, I did appreciate Tagore's ideas and poetry. I would like to read his short stories, plays and poetry, rather than sing them any day!”

It is the unique texture of Tagore compositions, a mixture of the western with the traditional, that appeals to both the young and the old even today. Shanthi Sarkar is a busy housewife and strongly believes that it is never too late to pursue one's dreams. At the age of 41, she takes care of her home, two children and still hopes to sing Rabindra Sangeet with “beautiful” accompaniments on special occasions. “I love the soft strokes of the harmonium, tabla, violin and the flute that accompany a Tagore singer,” she explains. “They make the Tagore compositions all the more mesmerising.” Now that her children are in their pre-teen years and are able to look after themselves, Shanthi has decided to start pursuing her dreams of becoming a Tagore singer by attending Rabindra Sangeet appreciation courses in Chayyanaut and other institutes, where many her age have signed up to learn Tagore compositions. “I never got a chance to actually learn Tagore songs as a child,” she says. “But I would never miss the musical shows on television. I got married early and had to take care of my household from a young age. But my family has been very supportive in letting me follow my dreams. That is how I gathered enough courage and confidence to attend classes after all these years.”

Thanks to Sanjida Khatun and Wahidul Haque, the creation of Chayyanaut in 1961 led to a revolution in the field of music and philosophy with Tagore's poetry and compositions.

One of the biggest fears that Tagore singers have today is of a possibility of a slow disintegration of Rabindra Sangeet mainly because not many youngsters nowadays take a liking to the genre as they used to a few decades ago. Because of the new genres of music, which have hit the scene today, youngsters seem to be more inclined towards learning and performing them. Some of the popular auditoriums of Dhaka, including the Russian Cultural Centre, All Community Centre and even Shishu Academy host plenty of concerts for rock and alternative listeners. However, in places like Shurer Dhara, run by famous Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, quite a lot of youngsters attend the 5-year diploma classes. Not only in places like Chayyanaut and Shurer Dhara do young people learn Tagore compositions, but many of them make an effort to learn at home after hectic schedules filled with classes and private tuition.

Fifteen-year-old Imtiaz Mahboob Russel is taking a break from his musical endeavours because he is soon to sit for his O' level examinations this month. An aspiring guitarist, Russel has been saving up money for many months to buy an electric guitar. Amongst his friends, he is known to be someone with “a very rich sense of music”; someone who regularly attends the happening alternative and heavy metal concerts in Dhaka. Little do they know that every weekend he has also been taking Rabindra Sangeet lessons for the last couple of months. “My older sister recently began learning Tagore songs from a teacher, who comes to our house every Saturday,” he explains. “I would listen to Tagore songs all the time, since both my parents are very big fans. But once I started to listen to the teacher teaching and describing certain aspects of Tagore poetry and compositions to my sister, it caught my attention. I learn Tagore songs along with my sister now and I find it very refreshing. Along with the rich words and poetry, I also enjoy the use of melody and the particular sense of feeling that each one encapsulates in a particular Tagore composition.”

Yet another fear that Tagore puritans have is the distortion of the Swaralipi (staff notation) that is to be strictly followed by musicians and singers rendering Rabindra Sangeet. On the occasion of Tagore's birth anniversary, many students are seen gathered in the CD outlets of New Market, Rifles Square in Dhanmondi, Bashundhara City Complex in Panthopoth and also Fahim Music in Banani. Most of them are looking for Tagore compositions for performances in their respective schools, universities and musical academies. Some of them ask for the contemporary renditions of Tagore songs, rather than the conventional ones. It is true that many a musician today is introducing new concepts in Rabindra Sangeet compositions and also renditions. However, they say that as long the Swaralipi is maintained, Rabindra Sangeet can never be distorted. Recently, in a telecom ad-film, well-known contemporary musician Ornob's composition of the song 'Purano shei diner kotha' took listeners by storm. In fact, Sahana Bajpai's album 'Notun Kore Pabo Bole' which came out from Bengal Music in early 2007 also introduced several new elements in the field of Rabindra Sangeet. With Sahana's vocals, Ornab's music and plenty of harmonising, a concept which was quite new in the Tagore music arena, these young musicians tried to make Rabindra Sangeet more accessible to the present generation. It did take the cultural elite quite a long time to come to terms with this, since many strongly believe Rabindra Sangeet to be almost sacred, and beyond changing and modernising.

In Shurer Dhara, run by famous Tagore singer Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, many youngsters attend the 5-year diploma classes.

At the end of 2007, popular Adhunik (Modern) singer Fahmida Nabi, recorded a Rabindra Sangeet album titled 'Amar Bela Je Jaye' under the banner of Impress Audio Vision Limited, on the occasion of Tagore's death anniversary. Even though her album gained a lot of popularity, many purists indirectly expressed their disapproval over such an experiment. According to Fahmida, this album was filled with her own interpretation of the Tagore songs. “Many purists have actually laid down certain laws,” she exclaims. “That Tagore songs are to be rendered in a certain way. This actually puts a lot of strain in the art form and creates blocks within artistes.” She does admit that there is a line between experimenting with Tagore compositions and distortion of these songs, which should be understood by artistes before trying to experiment and breaking free from tradition.

Thanks to Sanjida Khatun and Wahidul Haque, the creation of Chayyanaut in 1961 led to a revolution in the field of music and philosophy with Rabindranath's poetry and compositions. Despite the fears of alteration and misrepresentations in Tagore songs by purists and the patrons of Tagore, this revolution is recognised even today by the youngsters and contemporary musicians and is going to be spread to the generations next. Tagore's legacy lives on.

Copyright (R) 2009

May 8, 2009

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Making it More Endurable

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

When 8-year-old Farida fried three chillies instead of two, as instructed by her employer, 27-year-old Bithi Khandaker, Farida was punished, as all children are when they make mistakes or do not follow instructions. However, in Farida's case, Bithi went slightly overboard. She poured a pan filled with hot cooking oil on Farida, disfiguring a part of her face. For two days after that, Bithi and her family tried to hide the crime, until neighbours found out and complained to the police. Farida's older sister Rekha filed a case against Bithi with the police. Bithi was arrested, but released after three days. Because Bithi's husband worked in the Middle East and earned more in that neighbourhood of Munshiganj, the family would flaunt power in the community. None had the courage to speak or act against Bithi or her family. To end this as discreetly as possible, Farida's family was paid a measly amount of Tk 5,000. The case was finally forgotten.

An age-old norm in this part of the world, every household employs domestic help to do the cleaning and the cooking.

The Labour Law 2006 (of Bangladesh) clearly states that a worker has the right to rest and recreation during and after work hours. In fact, the law ensures the workers security, the right to take his or her employer to court in case of an offence, compensations in case of accidents, weekly and yearly holidays, a proper salary fixed by the government and in some cases, education facilities for young workers. In a nut shell, the compliance law has played a significant role in developing the lives and maintaining the self respect of these workers.

The law, however, does not apply to individuals working in sectors other than the RMG or similar industries, for instance domestic workers. An age-old norm in this part of the world, every household employs domestic help to do the cleaning and the cooking. For decades, this informal sector has been growing and today there are more than 20 lakh domestic workers in urban homes of Dhaka and Chittagong alone. Despite this burgeoning sector, domestic workers are considered informal labourers. Moreover, the government does not recognise them as workers with rights, as in the case of factory workers. “Domestic workers are not included in the Labour Law 2006,” says Nazma Yesmin, the Programme Officer of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS). “They have no fixed amount for salary or working hours. There are no rules or regulations which can be followed by the employer or the domestic worker.” Obviously, one of the biggest secters in the country is in a mess.

A majority of these home-workers being young and female, they are much more prone to exploitation.

It is mainly because of this exemption from law, that domestic workers are exploited each day. For one thing, these workers are not provided with the basic necessities. A majority of these home-workers being young and female, they are much more prone to exploitation, sometimes even sexual harassment.

On March 12, 2009, in Dhanmondi, 8-year-old domestic worker Shapla was attacked with a hot iron spatula (khunti) for a mishap in the kitchen. According to Shapla, this is not the first time that her employer had physically assaulted her. She says that her employer would hit her head hard with a comb if her rutis were not made in the perfect shape. Her employer also hit her on her back several times. She was made to do all the work in her employer's home and not given much to eat. “Domestic workers do not even have a proper place to sleep!” exclaims Nazma.

If children under the age of 14 are employed as domestic workers, they should be provided with education, food and recreation leaves.

According to a BILS survey report, 40 per cent of domestic workers are made to sleep in the drawing room or in the middle of the master bedroom on the floor. Even today, quite a large percentage of domestic workers, 33.33 per cent are made to sleep in the kitchen. While only 6.67 per cent of all domestic workers are actually given sleeping quarters or their own rooms, 16.69 per cent are made to accommodate themselves in the balcony and about 3.33 per cent sleep in store rooms.

Recently the Domestic Worker's Rights Network organised a press conference, urging the government to pass a law whereupon the rights and security of the domestic workers will be protected. BILS also urged the authorities to take immediate steps to incorporate domestic workers in the Labour Law to ensure their rights. Speaking at the press conference, Nazrul Islam Khan, the executive director of BILS mentioned the tragic deaths of at least 305 domestic workers due to violence on the part of the employers. The study was made by the organisation based on reports published in different dailies from 2001 to 2008. Not only the law, he said, but also a strong social movement is also required to eliminate violence against domestic workers. The Domestic Worker's Rights Network was established in 2006 with the active alliance of 22 organisations. Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) works as the secretariat of the network.

Nazma points out how dependent households in Bangladesh are on domestic workers. “They are more like managers, who actually take care of your household while you are out working,” she explains. According to Nazma, a large number of domestic workers are tortured physically, mentally and also sexually harassed on a regular basis. “The other day I visited Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) when I came across a young girl carrying a baby,” she says. “The young girl was a domestic worker in Dhaka. The employer took advantage of her one night when his wife was spending the night outside at her mother's. After she was discovered pregnant, she was immediately sent off. The employer did not take responsibility of the baby either.”

The government should make an effort to create a database of domestic workers.

On January 14, 2008, in Mohammadpur, 14-year-old Shumi was beaten and tortured to death by her employers Shah Mohammad Kamrul Hassan and Yasmin Mallik Rani. Shumi's father filed a case against them. While Rani was out on bail because of her young baby, her husband is still in jail. The case is still undergoing a very slow trial. Shumi's body was filled with marks of torture and severe beating, including burns on her scalp, face and wounds all over her body.

Nazma says that there are no national data records of domestic workers working in this country. “Which is a shame,” she says. “We have taken into account the urban homes in Dhaka and Chittagong only, calculating at least 20 lakh domestic workers. Just imagine the actual number!” Nazma says that the government should make an effort to create a database of domestic workers. “Not only should they be recognised as workers and be included in the Labour Law, but their earnings should also be included in the GDP calculations.”

To bring all domestic workers under legal protection, a memorandum was submitted to the Ministry of Labour and Employment on 9 January 2008. “A code of conduct was initially made and submitted as well” says Nazma. “We are still awaiting a response.”

The memorandum has been divided into three parts, according to the roles to be played

The government should keep track of the domestic workers and the employees once they register with their nearest police stations.

by the employer, the domestic worker and the government. According to the memorandum, a contract or a work order should be made with the domestic worker prior to starting work. The contract must include the kind of work that the domestic worker is expected to do, details regarding finance and salary, work hours, holidays, off days, relaxation period, providing education facilities etc. Upon employment, the domestic worker will have to be presented with a photo identity card. The worker's name, permanent address, details regarding the employer etc. will have to be registered with the nearest police station. Domestic workers should be allowed a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night and 4 hours for rest and recreation during the day. Yearly holidays (totalling to a minimum of 14 days) should be arranged in such a way that domestic workers are able to celebrate their respective religious festivals and / or enjoy time with their family members and friends. Weekly holidays must also be given to the domestic workers, where upon they will not be made to work and will be allowed to go out with permission from their guardians. Domestic workers should also be provided with a proper sleeping area and healthy environment. Along with education, domestic workers should also be provided with regular medical facilities. In fact, pregnant workers are to be given maternity leave and are to be exempted from carrying heavy objects while at work. In case of an accident while working, a domestic worker will have to be compensated for by the employer accordingly. A domestic worker should give a month's notice to the employer if he or she wishes to resign.

The government should also fix the wages of domestic workers accordingly. The government is also to punish or take appropriate actions in case of torture physical or mental and sexual harassment of the domestic worker by the employer. The government should keep track of the domestic workers and the employees once they register with their nearest police stations. Establishment of special monitoring cells should be made in every area in the country by the ministry of labour. This way, the authorities will be able to monitor the workers' safety and security through their respective monitoring teams by visiting homes on a regular basis. Domestic workers themselves will also be able to visit these monitoring cells and place complaints if any. Moreover, the cells can also be contacted through letters, over the phone and also via the help-line to be created by the government.

The memorandum also proposes that children under the age of 14 should not be employed as domestic workers. However, in a country like ours where a large number of people are extremely poor, younger children are either sent to beg or work at dangerous places. Unfortunately, they do not have any other way of survival. “If children under the age of 14 are employed as domestic workers, they should be provided with education, food and recreation leaves,” says Nazma. “And the child will be allowed to work for not more than 5-6 hours.”

The recognition of domestic workers as working and earning individuals in society and also including them in the Labour Law, might not solve all the problems. It is a moral obligation on employers and the so-called educated members of the society to exercise patience and restraint in their interactions with home workers. Being a little more humane, on the part of the employers, will definitely have great benefits in the long run.

Copyright (R) 2009
May 1, 2009

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Spirit of Baishakh

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

The first day of the Bangla New Year is celebrated with characteristic splendour. The day begins for all as the very first rays of the sun hit the ground. The Dhaka University campus area is filled with music, colourful rallies, street vendors selling glass bangles, sweetmeats, sugarcane juice, wood and clay jewellery, and of course the very recent addition to the streets of Dhaka - ‘petis' sandwiches. Pahela Baishakh, today, is much more than just a Government holiday on the calendar. It is a day of celebration for people from all walks of life; a day, indeed, when the past is allowed to cast away, the future embraced with open arms and the present lived with a sense of identity.

A massive dinosaur-like creature slowly takes shape for the rally.

It is a yearly routine for 25-year-old Nazneen Omar and her friends to visit Charukala on Pahela Baishakh. Clad in new, colourful saris and kurtas, these young professionals enjoy the mela (fair) inside the Charukala premises, have lunch at the famous restaurant Nirob and sometimes even relax by the Dhanmondi Lake. “Baishakh is incomplete without a visit to Charukala,” says Nazneen. “What appeals to me most about this place is the preparations that the students have taken for days to make the whole area, including the streets outside, colourful.” Being amateur artists themselves, Nazneen spends a lot of time looking at the new artwork done by the Charukala students. “Every year, they make all these beautiful bird-like creatures for the rally,” she says. “We always make a point to make a note of them. I, especially, adore the little jewellery that Charukala sells on Baishakh and spend a lot of time selecting and buying them as well.”

Charukala is a frenzy of Baishakh activities even two days before the actual show-day. With music blaring from one corner and students of all ages working on their Baishakh projects, the Charukala Institute of Fine Arts of the Dhaka University becomes an apt place for youngsters to hang out and watch while creations take shape. The campus corridors are lined up with first year students working on Styrofoam, chart paper, paint and many other mediums. At one corner, the students' magnificent creations are left to dry- birds, butterflies, masks of all shapes and sizes, life-size flowers and even bats. While the first year students work, chat and sneak off from work at the same time, a senior student or two, playing the role of supervisors and advisors, prod the juniors to talk less and work faster. At one point, the small but stern senior female student is seen lecturing a group of first year boys who had sneaked out for a spree in one of the motor-bikes, instead of bringing back the supplies on time.

Outside by the sculptures and fountains, a massive dinosaur-like creature is slowly taking shape. With at least 8-10 students working on this single project, the creature has big wings which actually moves in the wind, is around 20 feet long and will definitely seem bigger by the time it is finished for Baishakh. “We are making this for the rally,” says Upol, a final year student, while taking a break. “We started working on this project 7-8 days ago.” Upol explains that the frame was built right in the beginning and to make it sturdier, loads of papers were being plastered onto the frame before finally giving it some colours. Upol further shows the bar-like framework on the inside of the body of the creature, explaining all the physics theories behind the floating wings. “By the time it is finished, it will look very different,” says Upol. “There is still a lot more work to be done here,” he says and goes back to work.

With the grand day closing in, the Charukala Institute was filled with both professional and amateur photographers. Everyone wanted to experience the 'behind the scenes' of the Baishakhi celebration. Plenty of television channels were also seen slogging away to capture the perfect image of the students and the crafts. At another corner of the Charukala grounds, a school building-like structure is being worked on by students. A part of the mela festivities, the school is built to attract children on Pahela Baishakh. The students draw figures of children and also chalk caricatures of animal characters on doors and windows - a fox with spectacles, a cat wearing clothes and walking by the river and so on.

The city is in a festive mood prior to the Baishakh festivals.

Pahela Baishakh is not limited only to the Dhaka University campus area anymore. Just like any other festival in Bangladesh, plenty of preparations are taken to celebrate this day. Weeks before Baishak, the shopping spree begins all over the country and is believed to even beat the Eid and Puja enthusiasm. Red and white are not the only colours that define Baishakh anymore. Shoppers are seen with bags filled with combinations of white, red, black, olive green and even peach. Popular shopping areas in Dhaka city-Baily Road, Dhanmondi, Banani Road 11 - were teeming with both families and students trying to look for the best sari and kurta for the occasion. For those who opted to stay home from the crowds outside, grand recipes were being cooked for days ahead of the time.

We Bangladeshis have always been fond of celebrations and colours. Pahela Baishakh can be defined as a day when all Bangladeshis leave their differences at their doorsteps and come forward to celebrate in their very own ways. The day is proof enough to say that it is the spirit of being a Bangladeshi, within us, that truly defines our race and unites us.

Charukala is a frenzy of Baishakh activities even two days before the actual show-day.

Copyright (R) 2009
April 17, 2009

The Economy Safe, for Now

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

There have been reports of workers being treated inhumanly by their employees in their countries.

In the last few months, the plight of migrant workers abroad has caricatured a sorry picture in Bangladesh. Not only have there been reports of workers being treated inhumanly by their employees in their countries, but also several hundred Bangladeshi workers are still stuck in in foreign jails as illegal aliens, thanks to some money swindling agencies in Bangladesh promising poverty-stricken young men jobs and better lives outside Bangladesh. Today, the country, where the inflow of remittance reached a staggering 7 billion dollars in 2008, not only faces the dilemma of providing employment to an extra thousand or two, but also fears of a possible downslide in the country's economy.

Recession has little to do with migrant workers returning home.

However, according to Anu Mohammad, a Professor of Economics of Jahangirnagar University, the economy of Bangladesh will remain, more or less, unaffected. "There will of course be a slight decrease in the inflow of remittance in the country," he says. "Especially because migrant workers returning home in the last few months resided mainly in countries of the Middle East, North America and Malaysia, which have been hit badly by the global recession. However, this will not damage the present status of our economy, at least not in a way we might be led to think because of the global financial meltdown." Professor Anu explains that the countries hit by the recession are already looking for a way out, which obviously would indirectly create demands for foreign labour. "These countries are now tackling their way out of the global recession through public spending, bail outs and so on," he says. "New job markets are also being created where labour will be required, be it in the IT sector, Management or Construction work. A huge number of skilled and semi-skilled workers will always be in demand from our part of the world." Hence, there is also no fear of a decrease in the inflow of foreign remittance by a huge margin as compared to the inflow in the past years, says Professor Anu. "In any case, the government has never created any link, whereby the migrant worker, bringing in the remittance, would enjoy benefits if he or she invested in the country," he says. "All the investments done are personal, be it a shopping mall, an amusement park, well-built homes or construction of roads in the villages. Migrant workers have always made these structural developments mainly for personal gain in their hometowns or villages. Hence, there will also not be an alarming decrease in infrastructural developments." Speaking of the migrant workers returning home, Professor Anu says that recession, in the host countries, had little to do with the crisis. "Upon observing, one will see that in most cases there were no jobs allotted for these migrant workers in the foreign countries," says Professor Anu. "Either they were duped into spending lakhs and leaving the country in the hopes of a job and a better life, or many of them were trying to live illegally. It is not possible for workers to lead lives irregularly in foreign countries, especially in the Middle East, where even regular workers have trouble coping. These workers would be sent back home irrespective of recession hitting the host countries."

Attractive investment opportunities should be created in the country so that workers residing abroad are more than willing to invest their savings in their home countries.

A recent article, 'Do we really have a crisis on the remittance front?' by Ahsan Mansur, Executive Director, Policy Research Institute, broadly summarises the effect on the inflow of remittance due to the returning migrant workers. According to his report, the negative impact of the global crisis is being experienced by many countries today, primarily in two forms. One would be the lower inflow of remittances in dollar terms and second would be the returning of workers from abroad in large numbers. He says that so far Bangladesh has not experienced any significant rise in workers returning from abroad and the inflow of remittances has also remained strong. On a net basis, workers are still going abroad in sizable numbers, albeit at a pace much slower than the record migration reported during the last two years. "We have to look at two categories of migration to foreign lands in this case," he explains. "In North American countries, migrants usually go there to stay, seeking permanency. That is not the case with migrants going to the Middle East and also Malaysia, where they go there mainly to work and earn a living." Mansur explains that the nature of the job markets, for instance in Malaysia, is very seasonal. "If we look at the Palm Oil business, a company can hire labourers from abroad and then let then go and then rehire more labourers after a few months depending upon circumstances," he says. In his report he says that workers are not expected to return from industrial countries like the USA, the UK, other European countries, and the industrialised Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan). Essentially, the threat lies in the GCC and Malaysian markets. The GCC economies comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- while homogeneous in many respects, are at different stages of construction boom. Mansur further adds that the inflow of remittance will definitely be affected in Bangladesh, but not to an extent, which might cause a shocking depression.

Hence, as Manusr adds, while the country should not be complacent, there is no need for Bangladesh to panic. Efforts must be made to attract remittances and attractive investment opportunities should be created in the country so that workers residing abroad are more than willing to invest their savings in their home countries. At the end of the day, greater benefits for these workers from the government, might be one of the ways to combat global recession from taking over the country in the near future.

Copyright (R) 2009
April 10, 2009

A Blazing Problem

After the Basundhara Complex shock, the need for better fire-fighting measures has come to the limelight. Star File Photo

Last month, the devastating blaze that reduced the upper levels of Basundhara City Shopping Complex to a mere skeleton, did much more than scare everyone out of their wits. The blazing fire, have opened up the eyes of several skyscraper owners, tenants living on top floors and employees with a nice view of the city from their 20-storey office buildings.

After the Basundhara Complex shock, the need for better fire-fighting measures has come to the limelight. With this in mind, the following week, the Rajshashi Secretariat Building organised a fire drill in their 20-storey building. As the sirens rang loud into the air and fake smoke (created with the help of mosquito repellent medicines) clouded the sky, the ever-ready firemen had already begun their rescue efforts. A fire truck appeared with a ladder, which was helping the 'victims' to climb down to safety. In less than an hour, the 'fire' was doused and the employees were rescued.

It leaves one to wonder, however, as to what would have happened in a real-fire scenario. It would obviously have taken the Fire Service quite a while to reach the fumes, considering the jam-packed roads. A 20-storey building would be expected to have a proper fire escape, which would at least bring the occupants of the building to safety, instead of waiting for the fire truck with the ladder. “A high-rise cannot be built without a proper fire escape plan in its initial stages of planning,” explains the Director General of Fire Service and Civil Defence Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah. “The secretariat building has alternative staircases and if one is closed down during a fire, the other can automatically be used to bring people down to safety. This drill was, however, done to figure out how long it would take the Fire Service to douse the fire and for the employees to come out of danger. Rescuing important government and official documents was also another factor behind the drill. If these documents are destroyed, it would be considered a violation.”

For fire fighters and rescue workers, it must have been a moment of deja vu while trying to douse the fire in the very recent Mirpur 1 incident, where a shopping complex was burnt down.

Shahidullah further adds that both the government and private sectors are now concerned about fire safety and are checking in with the Fire Service Department to cross check their fire safety / precautionary measures. “We provide three services from the Fire Service,” he says, “One would be to conduct a survey and check the items required for fire safety. The second service is offering training to fire fighting officials inside the building and the third is conducting fire drills with the occupants of the building.” While these services are offered for free to government organisations, the Fire Service Department charges a fee for the private sector.

Nousheen Khan, a 42-year-old businesswoman has postponed her plans to move to a plush apartment in Gulshan from her Moghbazaar residence. Both Nousheen and her husband, parents of three children, are now discussing last minute changes with their real-estate agent. “This apartment building is a six-storey building,” says Nousheen. “And it does not have a fire escape! When I raised this question, our agent pointed out a small locked doorway in our balcony, which can be used as an emergency exit. However, this door is too small to let us out and is not an appropriate fire escape plan.” As Nousheen researches and asks around further, none of the apartment builders, even the well-known ones, have proper fire escape plans in their initial design plans.

Fire safety planning actually begins at the design stage. Architect Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed says that a typical fire pattern involves initiation, enlargement, rise of smoke, heat and fire due to flue effect (going upwards), leading to structural failure over time and if sufficient combustibles are available. According to a report written by him on fire safety designs, fire hazard has multiplied in Bangladesh because of taller buildings, air-conditioned enclosed space, increased use of electro-mechanical equipment, increased use of flammable finish materials and designers not addressing new hazard dimension. He says that people will die in a fire incident if the architect or the building owner does not provide a means of escape to a place of safety. Since smoke kills, people will die in a smoke incident.

Firemen try to douse the flames that gutted 10 shops and nine dwellings at Cheragi Pahar intersection in Chittagong. Star File Photo

Efforts must be made therefore, to increase the number of fire drill practices, not only to keep a check on the efficiency of our fire-fighters but also to practice precautionary measures which are to be managed by the occupants of the building themselves. Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah says that during a drill, the escaping occupants must also try to use the fire extinguishers and protect themselves as much as possible. Expiry dates of fire extinguishers must be checked regularly and staff or occupants of the building have to be trained in using these devices.

The drills may also help in creating an environment of self-restraint amongst people. For fire fighters and rescue workers, it must have been a moment of deja vu while trying to douse the fire in the very recent Mirpur 1 incident, where a shopping complex was burnt down. Hundreds of people had to be moved aside, sometimes even forcibly pushed aside for the fire officials to do their job.

It is appalling that despite innumerable incidents of fire, with large number of casualties in many of them, basic facilities such as proper fire exits and practices such as proper training through drills are still non-existent in many buildings. This is unacceptable and the state should make be extremely strict about such violations of law.

Copyright (R) 2009
April 3, 2009

Harmonising with the Quartet

As the band played on the cahon, stroking the wooden chimes to add effect, the audience, thanks to the piano melodies floating in time and again in between the percussions, realises that Duende was playing a Latin jazz version of the famous song 'Mrs. Robinson' by Simon and Garfunkel (with just a hint of Led Zeppelin). Moving on to a more soothing tune, the rhythm gets all the more complex and 'funki' as they play Duke Ellington's 'African Flower.'

Last week, music lovers got to listen to Latin Jazz - a combination of rhythms and beats from African and Latin American countries with jazz and classical harmonies from Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States. The US embassy very recently hosted a free open-air concert at the GSO Field near the US Embassy, where the Duende Quartet presented a bunch of tunes from famous jazz musicians in the west and also thrilled the crowd with their 'jazzed-up' versions of popular rock ballads and soft rock numbers.

(Top) The Duende Quartet. PHOTO: Frank Stewart for Jazz at Lincoln Centre.
(Bottom) The fusion mix at the workshop in Dhaka University. PHOTO: Nasirul Islam.

The band is named after the mythological creature - Duende - a fairy- or goblin-like creature in Spanish and Latin American mythology. The quartet includes Harry Appelman on piano and keyboards; Josh Schwartzman on the bass; Sam Turner and Mark Merella on various hand percussions. Many listeners, especially the ones belonging to Asia, have asked the band why they do not have a vocalist. To that Duende replies that the quartet is made up of percussions and musical rhythms hailing from African and Latin countries. This kind of music emphasises much more on the harmonies that can be played with acoustic measures created with the help of natural sounds and elements, rather than the melody of a vocal. "However, there are Latin jazz bands out there, which do have vocalists," explains Sam Turner. "In our case, it's Harry who plays all the melody!" referring to Harry Appleman on piano and keyboards.

A workshop was held in Dhaka University, in association with the Department of Theatre and Music, where the Duende Quartet demonstrated various kinds of Latin jazz tunes and rhythms. Two major categories of Latin Jazz are Brazilian and Cuban. While Brazilian Latin Jazz includes bossa nova, the Cuban jazz includes a variety of fusions between Cuban music and American jazz, such as Cubop.

The students seemed particularly interested in the cahon, a box-like structure, literally referring to a box in Spanish, producing the sounds of a drum, resembling much more the baya of a the traditional tabla set. Mark Merella, the cahon player, sits on the 'box' and plays the raw sounds and rhythms. The story goes that during the eras of slavery, the slaves would get together during lunch breaks and beat rhythms on boxes and crates and sing songs. According to Mark and Sam, that is where the cahon originated.

The workshop ended with musicians from the department fusing the Bangla dhol, tabla and dotara with the Duende Quartet's Latin jazz compositions, bringing out a mix of the eastern classical melodies and the African - Cuban beats. The quartet had also played at the American School following a grand outdoor performance at the GSO Field. The Duende Quartet's Latin jazz performance was a new experience for many in Dhaka. The quartet successfully introduced new forms of harmonies and melodies amongst music lovers.

Copyright (R) 2009
March 27, 2009

Picks from the Boi Mela

The last week at the Boi Mela was thronging with more people than expected. Many had, at last, finalised a list of books to buy at the book fair. Book lovers of all ages were seen fishing out book lists from their pockets and bags and moving from one publishing house to another. While some were still in their school uniforms along with their school bags, others had clearly taken an early leave from their workplaces.

This year, the Bangla Academy dedicated three days to children and families February 6, 7 and 27. New sets of adventure stories, science fiction, horror tales and children's poetry became extremely popular with young children. Disabled children were not left behind. Poet / Writer Nazia Jabeen brought out a poetry book for children with impaired vision, 'Chorar Taale Monta Dole' from the Bangladesh Blind Mission. While a group of children were waiting patiently for the fresh copies of 'Motku Mamar Goyenda Abhijan' by Anisul Haq from Mizan Publications, Pathsutro Publications were almost run out of Selina Hossain's 'Muktijoddhara', a book on the Liberation War.

Plenty of work of young writers hit the bookstalls this year. A few popular novels included 'Baundule 8' by Sumanta Islam from Pearl Publications, 'Ashomotol' by Opala Haider from Barshadupur, 'Ek Chokhu Rakhosh' by Maruf Rahman from Shubhro Publications and many more. Poetry lovers were seen waiting eagerly for 'Anik Khaner Chhorar Boi' by Anik Khan from Barshadupur, 'Parke Nirjon Benchir Khoje' by Foyez Reza from Annesha Publications and 'Porikhamulok Bhalobasha' by Palash Mahbub by Pathsutro.

The younger crowd was on the lookout for science fiction and not to mention moving tales of passion and poetry. Those infatuated with space and beyond were seen lining up by Mizan Publications for Ali Imam's 'Mohashunnyajan: Shanta Maria'. Mohammed Jafar Iqbal's 'Icarus' from Somoy Publications became extremely popular with not only the youngsters, but also older readers. Based on the mythological creature Icarus, Iqbal creates the character of Bulbul, a boy born with wings because of experiments done on genes of animals, birds and human beings.

Many publishing firms brought out fresh essays, discussions, stories not to mention reprints of famous books written at the wake of independence of Bangladesh by well-known writers and thinkers, which had shaken up readers more than thirty years ago. Two such books are 'Kutirbashi Rabindranath' by Moitree Debi and 'Roktatto Bangla' written by several thinkers--Ahmed Safa, Shawkat Osman, Dr. Anisuzzaman, Shatten Sen, Shantosh Gupto, Jahir Raihan, Ranesh Das Gupto, ramendu Majumdar and many more. Muktadhara Publications launched both the books. Several books on the Liberation War also attracted many readers, such as 'Bangabandhu O Tajuddin' by Aamir Hussain from Adorn Publications, 'Muktijiddho Pothe Pothe' by Rabindro Gope from Mizan and a small publication from Protiti called the 'Muktijuddher Itihash' by Mohammed Jafar Iqbal. This year, Shyk Siraj also brought out a book on agriculture called 'Matir Kache Manusher Kache' from Mowla Brothers.

This year, as every year, Humayan Ahmed undoubtedly clinched the 'Most Popular Author Award' thanks to his yet another tale of the 'Himu' clad in yellow from Annesha. However, many seemed to appreciate his autobiographical 'Ballpoint' instead, from Annya Prakash. Ahsan Habib surprised his fans with a book, 'Tumi', which was written and compiled years ago. Barshadupur brought it out this year. Syed Shamsul Haque's 'Bini Poyshar Neel Golpo' from Ittyadi and 'Bristy O Bidrohigon' from Annesha were selling like hotcakes at one point in the fair. Selina Hussain's 'Abelar Dinkhan' from Annesha, 'Poralalneel' by Rashida Sultana from Mowla Brothers, 'Naribadi Golpo' by Purobi Basu from Ittyadi and 'Kaleidoscope' by Shonali Islam from Somoy created waves also. While Purobi Basu writes about women and the thousands of lessons that they learn from a very young age in their very own homes, Shonali Islam writes about growing up in a patriarchal society. Imdadul Haque Milon also became popular with his readers, especially with his 'Phele Aasha Laal Golap' from Annya Prakash.

The books can be found in bookstores located in Dhanmondi, Shahbaag and Bangla Bazaar.

Copyright (R) 2009
February 27, 2009

On the Cover

The Ekushey Boi Mela brings to us, not only spirited novels, essays and biographies to read, but also promotes the art of design, illustrations and sketches. Cover art has evolved significantly over the years combining clever graphics with artistic acumen to increase its appeal to the readers.

Dhrubo Esh
A professional Cover Designer, Dhrubo Esh is probably one of the most famous names in the field of book cover art in Bangladesh today. He first designed a book cover back in 1987. "Back then, I would probably do one cover a year," says Dhrubo. Today he does more than 400-500 covers a year. This year, Dhrubo has designed more than 650 covers. Some of the books that he has designed and illustrated are 'Icarus' by Mohammed Jafar Iqbal (Shomoy), 'Himur Modhyadupur' by Humayan Ahmed (Annesha), 'Doshjon' a collection of Humayan Ahmed's novels (Annesha) 'Shey Akhando Britte' by Sirajul Islam Chowdhury (Bidyaprokash), 'Tomar Shonge Kichu Kotha Chilo' by Tarek Mahmud (Nalanda) and many more. Dhrubo's artwork is special because his work portrays a certain amount of sophistication blended with elements from our day-to-day life. For instance, Mohammaed Jafar Iqbal's 'Icarus' has a unique combination of the mythological figure Icarus and an aura of energy portrayed through Dhrubo's colours. Dhrubo has always been inspired by Purnendu Potri, Shubhroto Chowdhury, Qayyum Chowdhury and surprisingly enough, television actor Afzal Hossain. "Not many know this but Afzal Hossain is a tremendously gifted artist," says Dhrubo. "I really admire his work."

Ahsan Habib
The editor of the satire monthly magazine UNMAD, Ahsan Habib is a very popular artist and a cartoonist as well. Not only does he base his artwork on the 'sly' aspects in life, many of Ahsan's artwork portrays the lighter side to living as well. For the last many years, he has been designing book covers and illustrations for many authors, both old and new. Through the use of his colourful expressions, he brings out the true nature of people, something that is abundant in the satire magazine as well. Ahsan Habib is a writer of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. After quite a number of years, he has also brought out a book of 'sher' in the Boi Mela this year. Truly an all rounder, Ahsan Habib has written and designed many of his own books as well. Some of his works are ‘Jokes Shomogro’, a collection of funny snippets written by Ahsan Habib himself (Protik), ‘Ek Chokhu Rakhosh’ by Maruf Rahman (Shubhro), ‘Nanan Rong’ by Ahsan Habib (Bibhash), ‘Bhut Jokhon Ghost’ by Ahsan Habib (Rodela) and ‘Science Friction’ by Ahsan Habib (Ekushey Bangla). An inspiration to many youngsters, Ahsan Habib's favourite cover artists are Dhrubo Esh and Anik Khan.

Niaz Chowdhury Tuli
Tuli, as he is known, has been drawing cartoons professionally for slightly more than a decade. He began his career designing and drawing for brochures and magazines in Chittagong and would also contribute to newspapers in Dhaka as well. Today he is a Senior Cartoonist for the Daily Prothom Alo and does editorial cartoons regularly. However, Tuli is also well known for his skills in making covers for books, which he has been doing for several years alongside being a cartoonist. This year, Tuli has done almost 300 covers and also illustrations for authors both, well known and new. Some of them are ‘Binipoyshar Neel Golpo’ by Syed Shamsul Haque (Ittyadi), ‘Dhongshosthupe Kobi O Nogor’ by Syed Shamsul Haque (Ittyadi), ‘Kobirer Okobita’ by Kabir Chowdhury (Annesha), ‘Upohar, Tomar Jonnyo’ by Tawhidur Rahman (Ittyadi), ‘Amader Posha Bhut’ by Moinul Ahsan Saber (Bijoy) and ‘Naribadi Golpo’ by Purobi Basu (Ittyadi). "I use different medias to make the covers," says Tuli. "Sometimes I use simple paint, or sometimes I create each object by taking pictures or looking for them online or other sources. These objects are then combined together to make a cover art for a book. My favourite cover artists are Dhrubo Esh and Shomor Majumdar."

Mehedi Haque
Popular for his sharp humour in his cartoons, young Mehedi Haque has achieved quite a lot thanks to his observation power and drawing skills. An Executive Editor of the satire monthly magazine UNMAD and Editorial Cartoonist of the Daily New Age, Mehedi won the last TIB award for his cartoon, depicting corruption in various sectors in the country and the recent Right to Health award for his cartoon representing the non-existing government health plans. In a nutshell, his cartoons bring out the reality, yet with a dash of absurdity. Though he claims to be still growing in field of cover arts, Mehedi has worked on several covers for quite a number of authors in the last few years. This year, he has worked on five book covers -- 'Chader Pahar' by Bibhutibhushon Bondopadhyay (Progoti), 'Anik Khaner Chhorar Boi' by Anik Khan (Studentways), 'Tomay Nie Sher Bedhechi' by Anik Khan (Mizan), 'Ajob Obhijane Manager Chacha' by Sajjad Kabir (Annesha) and 'Kathpencil' an illustrated Children's book edited by Masrur Mithun (Kathpencil Publications). For both cover arts and book illustrations, Mehedi seems to prefer doing sketches and cartoons and doesn't forget to add his signature of humour. His work has been inspired by well-known artists, namely, Dhrubo Esh, Sobboshachi Hajra, Qayyum Chowdhury, Shomor Majumdar, Shahdat Chowdhury and Purnendu Potri.

Copyright (R) 2009
February 20, 2009

Muktodhara's Journey

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

It was the urge to do something for the country that led to the birth of Muktodhara, a publishing house, which began on May 28, 1971 in Mujibnagar, Kolkata. Chittaranjan Saha, born on January 1, 1927, along with many other famous writers and poets of the time would get together in Professor Syed Ali Ahsan's house in Kolkata. "It was around the time of Liberation of Bangladesh and everyone wanted to do something for Bangla," says Advocate Jahar Lal Saha, Chittaranjan Saha's brother-in-law who had been with Muktodhara right from the beginning and also the current owner of the publishing house. "Theoretically, we also wanted to be a part of the war. Chittaranjan Saha decided to fight along, not with weapons, but with knowledge and books thereby instilling the love of reading amongst the Bangalis. That is how the idea of establishing a publishing house came about." It was in Professor Syed Ali Ahsan's home when Chittaranjan Saha, the then young Jahar Lal Saha along with other writers and poets coined the name Muktodhara, representing the free mind and an independent soul of a Bangali man or woman.

Inside the Muktodhara office in Bangla Bazaar.

Under the banner of Shadhin Bangla Shahittyo Parishad, Muktodhara started publishing essays, biographies and various literary discussions besides a few novels and poems as well. In 1971, Muktodhara had hit the market with 33 books. One of the first few books published from Muktodhara was a collection of articles based on the Liberation War, 'Roktatto Bangla' written by well-known writers -- Shawkat Osman, Ahmed Safa, Dr. Anisuzzaman, Syed Ali Hassan, Shatten Sen, Shantosh Gupto, Jahir Raihan, Ranesh Das Gupto, Ramendu Majumdar and many more. Famous artist Kamrul Hassan had designed the cover of the book. "This year at the Boi Mela, we are reprinting this book," informs Jahar Lal. "In fact, after so many years we are also going to use the same cover done by Kamrul Hassan." Along with 'Roktatto Bangla', this year, Muktodhara plans to bring out reprints of editions of biographies, essays and poems that had become extremely popular with readers more than thirty years ago.

After Liberation, Chittaranjan Saha and his family moved to Dhaka. By then, Muktodhara had become much more than a mere hobby and an initiative to publish a few editions a year. Muktodhara had become very popular amongst Bangali writers, both established and aspiring. What attracted them to Muktodhara was the fact that the publishing house was very selective in terms of publishing materials. Jahar Lal says that Muktodhara has always been in the habit of checking and rechecking proofs of manuscripts. "Even today, we make sure that we go through at least four proofs of our manuscripts before publishing them," says Jahar Lal. "Times have changed. Today you might even find a so-called writer who, for the sake of name and fame, will spend a single night writing trash and then get a publishing house to publish it. What makes it worse is that these publishing houses do not bother to proofread the materials or even question the literary significance of the material they publish, let alone running a check on these materials, which might have unhealthy information for the readers."

Books that had come out in the early 70s from Muktodhara. Some of them are being reprinted this year.

Back then, a seven-day event used to be held at the Bangla Academy grounds, commemorating February 21, in the memory of those who had fought for the Bangla language. In 1972, Chittaranjan decided to display some of his books at the Bangla Academy. "We found a spot on the grass and displayed our books on a small jute-mat for the visitors," remembers Jahar Lal. Very soon, Muktodhara had hit it off with quite a number of readers. For the rest of the week, there was a huge demand for these books, something that was quite unexpected by the Muktodhara team. "We did the same in 1973," says Jahar Lal. "In 1974, we built a proper stall for ourselves besides the mango tree in the Bangla Academy grounds, where the security is placed this year. Artist Pranesh Mandal had even designed a gate. In 1975, a few more bookstalls joined Muktodhara, making the seven-day event an unofficial book fair. We had with us Khan Brothers, Ahmed Publications, Boi Ghor from Chittagong and a few more. That was when we decided to have the 'unit-system' for each stall. Back then, 8 feet by 8 feet was the normal size for one unit. The publishers would take up one or two units for their books. But today, the unit size has come down to a mere 8 feet by 6 feet which is not enough for us to accommodate all our books, even if we take up two units."

Eventually, as the number of bookstalls began to grow, attracting a lot of people, the Bangla Academy took the book fair under its wings and would organise it every year for the whole month of February. In the 1980s, a list of criterion or popularly known as the nitimala was also formed to maintain a standard of the publishing houses and also the kind of books that they published, so as to participate in the fair. Today, a publishing house will have to publish at least 15 or more books in a single year to participate in the fair. "A committee was formed to make sure that the nitimala was followed," says Jahar Lal. "Chittaranjan Saha was one of the members of this committee." Presently, the Boi Mela is known as the Ekushey Grantha Mela.

Many think that Muktodhara Jahar Lal Saha
should be given a fixed
spot at the Boi Mela.

Chittranhan Saha died on December 26, 2007. At the Boi Mela in 2008, the Bangla Academy authorities offered a token of respect to Muktodhara and specially mentioned Chittaranjan Saha as someone who had pioneered this whole event. Many intellectuals and famous writers, however, think that Muktodhara should be given a fixed spot at the Boi Mela, which will remain unchanged every year. "This is not a lot to ask for from the Bangla Academy," Jahar Lal Saha says. "The Bangla Academy has a fixed spot at the fair as well. I believe that Muktodhara should have a fixed spot as well. We want to reprint all our old books once again for our readers and for this we need a bigger space." Every year, through a process of lottery, each publishing house is given a spot according to the number of units that they want. "Muktodhara should not go through such a lottery process," asserts Jahar Lal.

Jahar Lal Saha also says that the authorities have to work harder to instill the habit of reading books amongst children and develop reading habits amongst older children. "To do this, we need to make sure that our children develop a habit of reading from a very young age. Each classroom in schools, starting from the Kindergarten to the senior classes should have shelves filled with both old classics and contemporary books. I am not against the 'computer technology', but we also have to make sure that our children do not ignore books because of the computers."

Secondly, he says that we should have a Boi Mela, not only in Dhaka but all over Bangladesh. "If people in Chittagong, Khulna, Sylhet and other districts are not exposed to the quality and quantity of books like those in Dhaka, then how can we expect these people to create a demand for books?" says Jahar Lal. "A proper distribution is very much necessary." He also talks about distributing Bangla books to Bangalis living in foreign countries. "Not only in Kolkata, but there are thousands of Bangalis living in the United Kingdom, United States and all over Europe," he says. "If the respected High Commissioners in these countries can arrange a three-day or a five-day book fair and invite publishers from Bangladesh, we will be able to arrange our own travel expenses and display our books in these countries. The Bangalis living abroad are always craving for books from Bangladesh and this would be a wonderful way to promote our books to them."

Chittaranjan Saha (top left); For 38 years, Muktodhara has been encouraging readership and adding to the Bangali culture.

Even after 38 years, Muktodhara continues to play a significant role in the Boi Mela, selling books to readers of all ages. Every day of the month, people throng the stall looking for chapters on history, literature, art, novels, poetry and also short stories for children. "In spite of everything, I am amazed at the fact that more and more children love to simply finger through pages of books when they come to our stall!" remarks Jahar Lal, sitting at stall number 121-122 at the Boi Mela. "The other day I could not help taking a picture of a large group of children who were going through books in a nearby bookstall. It was wonderful to watch them practically devouring the books!" After all, says Jahar Lal Saha, "one can anticipate a bright and a corruption-free future for this country, if these children are given the right books to read at the right age."

Copyright (R) 2009
February 20, 2009

Moving to Canada

Selina Ahmed is a single mother of two living in the outskirts of Toronto, a massive hub of multicultural identities and cultures. Like her other family members currently living in Toronto, she had decided to immigrate to Canada from Bangladesh. When Selina was married to a Canadian immigrant at least a decade ago, all she could think of was the wonderful life she would finally live. She had heard from her sisters, who were married to other Bangladeshi-turned-Canadians, that everything was possible in Canada, not to mention free education for one's children, free medical and a world filled with modern technology. Sitting in Khulna, it seemed to Selina that in Canada, one would only need to press a switchboard filled with buttons, like the mere wave of a magical wand, to get all the back-breaking work done.

She got her first whiff of reality in the first few months after she entered the country. Everything was not as easy as she had thought it would be. Due to lack of skills and experience she could not get into any workplace that she wanted to, in spite of having a Master's degree in Psychology from Khulna, she had a lot of problems communicating with people because she did not know English and after she got separated from her husband, she and her two children, now have to depend on the Child's Benefit allowance and a partial welfare allowance that she receives from the government. After finishing her part time work in a nearby school and looking after her children, she hardly has any time left to pursue the dreams that she had once upon a time, before she came to Canada.

Stories like the above are very common in Canada, especially amongst those who tend to think life will magically change for the better, once you are Canadian and live in Canada. Rezaul Karim Chowdhury was 31 years old when he and his wife moved to Toronto and wanted to begin a new life. After almost seven years, while his wife sells traditional food and clothes that she makes in various Meena Bazaars and also on special days like birthdays, Diwali and Eid, Rezaul had drifted from one place to another, looking for the 'right' job that an engineer like him deserved, but in vain.

Very often, it is seen that most Bangladeshis who immigrate to Canada or any other foreign country, do so with an intention to escape the problems in his or her own country. 26-year-old Romel's next step after completing his BBA is to take courses on IELTS, an English proficiency exam which is a requirement in countries like Canada, Australia and countries in the United Kingdom as well so that he can immigrate to Canada. “I have tried to get work here in Dhaka but life is too difficult and unpredictable here,” says Romel. Romel also adds that constant pressure from his parents led him to take this decision. “I have to do something with my life, if not here then elsewhere.”

One of the major reasons as to why most immigrants are caught off guard once they enter the land of their dreams, is simply because they do not do enough research before they decide to settle down in Canada or in any foreign country for that matter.

Dr. Md. Jamilur Rahim

According to Dr. Md. Jamilur Rahim, a Certified Canadian Immigration Consultant, CCIC, researching Canada is an extremely easy task today as compared to what it was even a decade ago. “You have all the answers online,” he says. “It surprises me how even the young clients that I get today are not aware of how resourceful the Internet is today.” Dr. Jamil, as he is referred to by all his clients, a Full Member of the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants is also the president and the CEO of Scotia Consultants, a consultancy firm for prospective immigrants to Canada.

There are consultants everywhere today, including Bangladeshis returning from Canada who claim to be 'lawyers', extracting large sums of money from those who seek a shortcut-ticket to Canada. “Only certified consultants, who have to give a series of exams, and actual Canadian lawyers are authorised to give legal advice to those who want to apply for a citizenship,” explains Dr. Jamil. “In fact, one can even go online and verify the list of certified consultants. That way, not just anyone can claim to be a 'consultant' or a 'lawyer' and trick people into paying them outrageous sums. They would have to be authorised with the Canadian Government, which anybody can verify online.”

In the mid-90s hordes of people have been applying for the Canadian Immigration. However, only a few were being selected by the government based on their occupations. “Last February, the Canadian Government issued a list of 38 occupations and skills which are needed in Canada right now,” says Dr. Jamil. “Anyone who belongs in this list will be accepted as soon as an application is made.” This list can be found online.

Dr. Jamil himself was a fresh MBBS graduate when he had decided to immigrate to Canada. His wife had also graduated from BUET as an Engineer. “My friends had come to pick us up in Toronto, the first time when my wife and I had landed,” he says. “They had all the negative stories in stock for us. They could not understand why a doctor and an engineer would waste a promising future in Bangladesh and prepare to slog in Canada.” Dr. Jamil, however, decided to work hard, deflate his 'deshi' ego and finally became a part of a very small percentage of Bangladeshis who are truly successful in Canada.

Dr. Jamil has a list of pointers that he shares with his clients. “Firstly, finish your basic education in our native country,” he says. “Basic education is defined as an Honour's degree or an undergraduate degree. Also, basic work experience is very helpful as well. Nowadays, many students are working along with studying in their respective colleges and universities, which is a good sign. Secondly, check the list of 38 occupations which are currently being accepted by the Canadian Government. If you can get experience in any of these particular fields for at least a year or two, that would guarantee your immigration for sure. The next step is to sharpen your language skills. Prepare for the IELTS. Basic courses in French would help as well.” After getting the immigration, most people immediately move to Canada. “Don't do that!” says Dr. Jamil. “You have one year to enter Canada, so that gives you enough time. Spend the next two three months researching online, for example your job prospects. Finally after reaching Canada, look for an off-track job, popularly known as an 'odd job' and get into an educational institution for higher studies.” Dr. Jamil stresses on going to school no matter how old one gets, because not only does it give one a chance to explore the Canadian education field, the immigrants will also get a loan from the government. “This loan is enough to run a whole family modestly,” says Dr. Jamil. “You would have to pay it back only after you finish your studies and get a job.”

Most importantly, according to Dr. Jamil, getting immigration to Canada should not be a reason to end ties with your roots in Bangladesh. “Rather this should strengthen your ties with your country,” he says. With an office in New York, Malaysia and Dhaka, Dr. Jamil spends most of his time in Scotia Consultants located in Dhanmondi, Dhaka. “One of the most important things that you need to survive, not only as an immigrant in Canada, but also as a successful human being anywhere in the world, is confidence,” says Dr. Jamil. “Confidence, honesty and a loyalty to your own roots and identity are the keys to success.”

Copyright (R) 2009
February 13, 2009

Children at the Boi Mela

Photos: Zahedul I Khan

A wide variety of children's books are on display at the Boi Mela.

Fourteen-year-old Synthia Ireen Ria is seen moving from one bookstall to another looking for the latest Mohammad Jafar Iqbal books. She flips through several pages of new arrivals and asks for science fiction and adventure stories, then moves on to the next stall. Ria, as her friends and family members call her, seems a little nervous. Even though she silently expresses her contentment at the fresh new books she finds of her favourite authors, Ria does not leave her father's side. "We came from Mymensingh just for a day," informs Al-Faruk, Ria's father who is a businessman. Carrying lunch boxes, extra water bottles and lists of books that they wanted to buy, both Ria and her father seemed happy to have finally landed at the Ekushey Book Fair all the way from Mymensingh. "I love books and wait for this time of the year all the time," says Ria. "But it gets a little difficult since we don't live in Dhaka. We can only come in the weekends. In fact, after I get my books, we will be leaving for home and then I am not sure if I will be able to come to the fair this year again."

Video CDs and Audio CDs of children's rhymes are on display at the fair.

Once again this year, the Bangla Academy authorities dedicated the first four hours, from 11 am to 3 pm on February 6, 7 and 27 to children and families. This trend was started last year, which had attracted a lot of attention from families with children, who otherwise found it difficult to fight the crowds after 3 pm on weekdays to buy books for children.

Unfortunately, unlike last year, only a handful of families were seen going through books with their children. To add to it all, many of them were not even aware of the fact that the Academy had declared certain days for children. Families were hanging about with their children merely because it was the first weekend after the commencement of the Book Fair and visiting the bookstalls with children on weekdays is unthinkable. Shantosh Rai from Kishore Bhubon, a publishing house specialising in books for children, says that the Academy authorities did not do enough to spread the word around. Otherwise, he says, the weekend mornings would be filled with children. "Printing a small line in the newspapers will not attract attention," says Rai. "It should be announced every day at least once every two hours at the fair. Only then would the 'children's day' concept become a hit amongst parents."

Three-and-half-year-old Sadib Abdullah follows his older brother around, five-year-old Adib Abdullah, who runs from one stall to another, much to the annoyance of his parents, looking for books with colourful pictures. Sadib, who can hardly read his alphabet, demands to carry books just like his older brother Adib. Ruby and Jamshed Kabir, the parents of these handful boys say that they come to the fair every year with their children. It is never too early, they say, to develop a passion towards books and reading from a young age. "We did not know about the days dedicated to children," says Ruby. "We came today because weekdays are filled with people after 3 pm. In any case, children have school on weekdays and it is not possible to bring them then."

Even though most parents were unaware of the special days allotted for children, February 6 and 7 saw plenty of families with screaming children running all about and young teenagers looking about excitedly for books mostly on science and adventure. Tushi who studies in Grade 8 at the Viqarunnisa Noon School simply loves books. Not only is she passionate about reading, besides her school work of course, Tushi and her cousins Sara (Grade 7) and Sumaiya (Grade 6) who go to the same school attend classes on poetry recitation with Pragya Laboni, drawing classes, dance classes and theatre classes as well. The three girls are seen carrying fresh copies of Humayan Ahmed's latest novels, Mohammad Jafar Iqbal's science fiction for children and Anisul Haque's latest works. Also in their stock of books, they were carrying Shukumar Ray's collection of poetry and Rabindranath Tagore's collection of short stories. "We are here with our families," they inform. "We come here every year and buy books. Sometimes, just sitting somewhere inside the Book Fair and reading the books also give one a nice feeling inside." In fact, many groups of teenagers and young people were seen crowding the staircases of the Book Fair Information Centre - some reading, some simply hanging out with their friends and some trying to organise the books they have just bought, before moving on to buy more.

Last week, plenty of books for children were launched, namely, 'Muktijodhara' by Selina Hussain (cover by Mobasshir Alam Mojumdar) from Pathsutro Publications, 'Piprar Americar Bhromon' (cover by Joutha Monisha and Jukta Monon) from Pathsutro Publications, 'Ek Chokhu Rakhosh' by Maruf Rehman (cover by Ahsan Habib) from Shubhro Publications and many others. Teenagers were seen buying Mohammad Jafar Iqbal's 'Icarus' (cover by Dhrubo Esh), a science fiction novel from Somoy Pubications.

Families and their children throng the bookstalls specialising in children's books.

Many bookstores like Kishore Bhubon, Phulki, Bonolota, Tumtumi and many more were dedicated to children's publications. One such publication house, Patabahar, participated at the Book Fair this year for the very first time. Patabahar was filled with children where they were buying picture books, colouring books, stories based on villages in Bangladesh, talking animals and also translations of famous fairy tales and children's stories like Sindbad's Adventures, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and much more. Starting out officially as a publishing house in 2008, Patabahar has published 70 books in the last one year. The young woman supervising the bookstall mentions that their very first year is an absolute hit with the children and their parents! "I like the idea of dedicating a few days only for children," she says. "But I also think that the Children's Corner that the Ekushey Boi Mela used to flaunt previously should be re-installed. With a corner for children, it is so much safer for them to browse through books on normal weekdays." The bookstalls were not the only ones, which were being thronged by children of all ages. The Bangladesh Computer Samity was playing famous rhymes in Bangla, which were attracting many children and their parents. Many were seen buying Video CDs and Audio CDs of age-old rhymes both in Bangla and English. The stall supervisors at Radio Foorti's stall in the corner were inviting children to recite poetry, which were being broadcast live on the radio station.

13-year-old Sumaiya Rashid is all smiles after she recites 'Lichu Chor' on Radio Footri. Her sisters, 15-year-old Suraiya Rashid and 21-year-old Rokeya Rashid, along with their mother, are seen moving about from one book stall to another as soon as the book fair opened at 11 am that morning. While Suraiya's arms are filled with science fiction books that she bought at the fair that day (Mohammad Jafar Iqbal is her favourite author), her older sister Rokeya prefers translations. "I have always liked the Ekushey Book Fair and am a regular visitor," says Rokeya. "I think it is very thoughtful of the Academy for dedicating a few days to only children. This way, more families will be encouraged to bring their children to the fair. I personally believe that more and more children will actually enjoy reading."

Special days for children at the Boi Mela encourage them to buy and read more books.

Those who have missed out on the special days for children still have a chance to visit the Boi Mela with children on February 27, the last day dedicated to children this year at the Ekushey Book Fair. In any case, the fair opens at 11 am in the morning on weekends, which is a good time to visit the Boi Mela, especially for those who have children tagging along and those who would prefer to avoid crowds.

Copyright (R) 2009
February 13, 2009