Vol. 5 Num 58 Sat. July 24, 2004  

Artistic Expression of the Poor

Pranmahi Bangamata by Simon Zakariya; 2004; Uttaran, Dhaka; Cover and Photographs by B. K. Shohag; 176 Pages; Tk. 150

ANTONIO Gramsci once wrote that any signs of conscious effort by the poor is invaluable to the inquisitive and keen historian. In the same breath he also warned that in order to understand these signs one has to study them rigorously. But it is an vastly difficult task to simply collect the sheer amount of material necessary for it. Simon Zakariya's Pranmahi Bangamata is a reminder of Gramsci's dictum. However, we will return to Gramsci shortly; first, we must deal with Simon who is present before us. It must be acknowledged that he did not attempt to narrate the history of the poor in this book. And even if Simon claims that what he collected in this book are the materials for exactly such a history, that claim too can be dismissed with a smile and a gentle wave of the hand. What he has done, however, is bring us the glad news that the soul of the poor of Bengal is alive and well and singing. Though the poor are a class and a category created by the rich, it is evident they have not yet surrendered their hold on forms of artistic representation of themselves, the continual expression of their souls. And essentially this news itself is a kind of poetry.

It is in pursuit of this lively, artistic soul that Simon Zakariya has tirelessly criss-crossed Bangladesh--from Kushtia to Kishoreganj, from Jhenidah to Bheramara. It is not an entirely new territory. Researchers in the past have already informed us that there are roughly seventy separate methodologies of such expressive poetry and song (bhabcharcha) still alive in Bengal at present. Simon has presented us a handful of those. And in them we can see the traces of the ruptures that we have engineered in our history.

What form does the consciousness of the poor take? What art is theirs? To quote Gramsci again, 'scattered stories and tales' -- because the poor have never achieved the status of a 'state'. The opposite has happened: the 'state' has been born on their backs. They are never its masters, but always its subjects. Even in revolt, even when they awaken and rise up. Never do the fragmented pieces of their consciousness cohere into a whole. The poor man feels himself to be forever apart; calling on God seems a mistake. Which is why religious sentiments have long been a dominant part of the consciousness of the poor. It is these sentiments which are at once his ally and yet feed his sense of separateness, form the constant dialectic of his daily life and sense of revolt.

What has been captured in Simon's presentation of their dance-song-thought is in many ways amazing. It is nothing new to discover syncretism, that the mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religions have given rise to new myths, have renewed and reconstructed the older forms of narrative and thought. But it is only the beginning. We keep getting news of this blending and mixing together of religions. And every once in a while there are even startling examples of the fusing together of ancient, blood-spattered historical fissures. Such is the heady trance of the consciousness of the poor, the many conflicting streams of feeling and thought that go into its making.

For instance, one sees it in the songs of Manik Pir. Hindu Kanu Ghosh's mother gets very annoyed on seeing Manik Pir, a Muslim, begging at her doorstep early in the morning. She expresses her annoyance by behaving rudely towards him. This greatly angers Manik Pir, whose curse then makes lakhs of Kanu's cows die. Kanu searches out Manik Pir, and after pleading with the pir, saves his cows. This is how Manik Pir establishes his greatness over Kanu. It doesn't escape anybody's attention that Kanu is none other than Krishna--note the 'Ghosh' title and his profession as a milkman. It's obvious that Islam is the winner in this story. On the other hand, in the kirtan of Ramchandra Mohanta, something new emerges when Islam meets up with ancient traditions. Where a pair of bulbuls fly from the courtyard of Persian Sufis to the world of Ram-Laxman-Sita:

Bhomor o bhomori jugol hoiya koriteche moha-ananda/Cholo jaibo mora aamra dujonay Ayodha nogoray/O mata koushollay'r kolaytay prokash peyechen Ramchand

Where the voice the very next moment can switch to:

Bulbuli tai jugol hoiya koriteche moha-ananda/Cholo jaibo mora amra dujona Madina nogoray/ O mata Amina'r kolaytay prokash peyechen oi na mohanbiji chand

In Simon's book, however, it is the poetic duel between Nazrul Bayati and Abul Sarker which surpasses everything else. Alternate readings facilitate the stripping away of layer from a hidebound, ruling-class religion, and we see new forms of Bengal's thought and feeling gradually becoming clear. Happily so we witness this self-expression, a consciousness bursting the bounds of time and space.

But Simon himself obstructs the permanence of this happiness. It's sometimes difficult to understand his language, where words can drift off into meaninglessness. Here and there the reader stumbles, as interspersed within the narratives are overenthusiastic, romantic commentaries by the author, and which at times threaten to overwhelm the narratives themselves. Good editing would have removed these errors.

The above nevertheless are external problems. The book's problems go deeper. There are many debates on how popular art forms of song-dance-drama disseminate. There are tortuous debates on how to represent the specific consciousness of the poor. These debates have beginnings, but no endings. Gayatri Spivak has taken historians to task on whether it is at all possible for the ruling class to make the poor speak with their language systems and tools. And yet, despite such uncertainties and limitations, research goes on in this area, the art, the life, the history of the wretched of the earth. Footprints found on such journeys are carefully collected. Others attempt to read the voice of the poor captured in the official documentation of the ruling class.

Simon does not involve himself with these gray areas. In fact, one gets the firm impression that he is entirely satisfied with his work.

And here we would want to consult Claude Levi-Strauss's Myth and Meaning, where the anthropologist has warned us that it is impossible to establish the inner meaning of a folk tale from the way we normally read various articles. To quote his words on the subject:

'It is not possible to comprehend a folk-tale the way we read the thesis of a novel or magazine, verse after verse, from left to right. We have to understand it from a holistic point of view; we have to realise that it's not possible to express the meaning of a folk tale through a single event; one has to understand it through numerous events, although these events may be interpolated at various moments of the tale. For this reason, we will have to read folk tales not only from left to right, but also from upwards to downwards.

Of the eight 'turns' or plots (pala) that Simon presents, six are straight narratives. For the benefit of the reader it was essential that there should have been a vertical reading of these. Simon has simply given us these plots in a continuous, linear form. Especially in his long introduction, by simply describing these narratives one after the other, he has failed to provide us with a framework with which to evaluate them, a framework in which the fundamental outlines of the expressive face of Bengal's poor appears. This over-reliance on linear description, frankly, makes his writings lose its point. There is no particular gain from the reader's perspective.

Still, we do want to embrace Simon Zakariya for his effort, for his relentless travels through our markets, bazaars, fields and roads in search of the consciousness and art of the poor. As I have said before, the very act of even bringing such news constitutes a kind of poetry. Only through a 'permanent' victory would it be possible for the poor to free themselves from their practical slavery. With this will come the full flowering, the liberation, of their consciousness. To reach that goal, it is first necessary to describe their fragmented sense of self. The future lies that way.

Sajjad Sharif is literary editor, Prothom Alo newspaper. Farhad Ahmed is a free-lance translator/writer.