Pronomohi Bongomata : Indigenous Cultural Forms of Bangladesh’



Bangladesh, literally ‘land of Bengal,’ rising from Bay of Bengal casts one of the longest unbroken seashores on earth. To its west stands the Indian state of West Bengal in India. The states of Assam and Meghalaya are to the north and again Assam, Tripura, Mijoram states of India and Myanmar to the east . The Sundarbans, a unique habitat of wildlife and one of the most important mangrove forests of the world, lie on the south-west coast of our land.

In spite of its dimension and man-made hazards, some fourteen hundred rivers still flow across this land and it could produce, once upon a time, about fifteen thousand varieties of paddy. Our immense cultural diversity at home is no less remarkable than that of the paddy in the filed. Unfortunately we do not have today a complete survey of such diversity. On the topics of when our people started to sing, when they learnt how to dance and when the dramatic performances were introduced here are barely known. All we know from insufficiently written history books is that peoples of this land were practising Buddhism between 8th to 12th centuries of the christian era.

That is why cultural and religious legacies of Buddhism are still vibrant in the popular imaginary. The Charya composed during the Buddhist period tells us that peoples of Bangladesh considered songs, dance, drama, instrumental music, poetry, storytelling and other art forms as media of expression and means of articulation of their knowledge. Subsequent literature like Srikrisnakirtan, Mangalkavya, the biographical epic of Chaitanya Mahapravu, Muslim Pir Panchali and Punthi literature on the history of Karbala and other variety of epic stories composed between 13th and 18th centuries depict people’s passion for history, fascination of knowledge, customs, building relationship, attraction to dance, drama and other forms of entertainment. Continuation of the same is still goes in rural Bangladesh. Traveling across remote villages in course of the last 20 years, I witnessed diverse forms of culture. This book is a collection of that experience.

My experiences make me think that, culturally speaking, Bangladesh cannot be reduced to a land of only a single religion or even just two. My experience teaches me that Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Vaishnavism, Islam and many other indigenous belief systems and cultures co-exist. Although officially not recognized, almost one hundred ethnic communities live in this country, in fact. During my fieldwork I found proofs of the impact of multiple religious, cultural and linguistic diversity across the country.

Furthermore, ethnic communities of different languages, their habits and customs also influence and constitute forms of Bengali culture. I self-consciously intended to present interesting variations of culture in Bangladesh that I witnessed, throughout the book. I write about my fieldwork in the first part, describe theatrical performances of the Nath belief in the second, narrate on the two forms of performance on mourning plays around the historical events of Islam in the third. A performance on a popular Muslim Pir is taken up in the fourth part; followed by a treatment, in three chapters  of the 5th part, of the Radha-Krisna story. The story of sannyasi Chaitanya, who is considered to be an incarnation of Sri Krisna and propagator of the Vaishnava faith, and performances on social life of Bengal in light of the mythical life stories of Sri Krisna constitute continuations of the same story.

The performance on the Ramayana is placed in the sixth part. Life in Bangladesh relating to the snake goddess Manasa is the subject of two chapters in the seventh part, while the relationship between traditional Bengali life and the three major Hindu gods Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva is to be found in the eight part. In the three chapters of the nineth part are two comedy performances on social life and the narration of the comedy-festival on the occasion of circumcision of Muslim boys. A kind of progressive trend of religious songs is available in the tenth part., whereas puppet dance controlled off screen by the artist-director is placed in the eleventh part. I place the narration of a rural festival called lathi khela (fight of sticks as a sport) and also professional snake dance in the twelfth part. In the three chapters of the thirteen part one will find customary cultural forms of various ethnic communities.

I am confident that the readers will take multifaceted cultural trends of Bangladesh easy and the creativity of our rural people. I must mention that the study of Bangladeshi cultural forms make us realize that oral forms of multifaceted performances maintain a close relationship with written literature. The relationship between oral and written forms is still a problematic that demands further study. Nevertheless it seems that the written texts starting in ancient times and enjoying a position of strength in the middle period still goes in Bangladesh today. I believe researchers will re-discover this inter-relationship between written and oral literature in every chapter and part of this book.

I first wrote all chapters of this book in my native Bangla. They were then translated into English at various moments, most of which for the widely circulated English language daily The Daily Star. However, the writings have been edited in view of readers abroad. The ‘Sompadona’, the organization for manuscript development and copy editing, took the overall responsibility in improving quality of the book. In addition, Dr. Naveeda Khan, assistant professor of The Johns Hopkins University kindly edited ten chapters.

The translator of two pieces titled ‘Method of Fieldwork’ and ‘Mahishashurbadh’ is Ms. Durdana Gias; an architect and translator Ms. Zakia Rahman translated the pieces of ‘Gazir gan’, ‘Shong-Khela’, ‘Musolmanir Shong’ and ‘Mahars’; Zahidul Naim Zakaria is the translator of ‘Jugir gan’ and ‘Krisna lila’; Rafi Hossain translated ‘Putul Nach’; S.K. translated ‘Alkap’ and other pieces were translated by staff writers of The Daily Star. I am grateful to all of them.

At the moment of publication in English I express my heartiest gratitude to the Bengali daily Prothom Alo where my first Bangla versions were published. I also thank The Daily Star as well for publishing the English versions. I will never forget how much Dr. Naveeda Khan contributed to give a suitable title of this book and the suggestions and solutions of my friend researcher Alim Al Razi.

The use of the needlework of my mother by the cover artist Sabyashachi Hazra expresses his deep aesthetic point of view and it will be an example for the future artists. We ever owe to Karunangshu Barua who has taken this challenge of publishing this book to spread the cultural identity of this country to the readers across the world.

Involvement of world famous researcher, a specialist in medieval Bengali literature, Professor Tony K. Stewart forms a remarkable asset of this book. He has affectionately written an illustrious introduction to this book despite an awfully busy schedule. This introduction marks an example of his love for Bangladesh. I express my profoundest gratitude to him on behalf of all us all. May peace be on him and all.


Saymon Zakaria                     

20 February 2011