Published: Friday, May 17, 2013

Cover Story

A Giant in Our Cultural History

He loved to go fishing when he was a child. His childhood hero was a hazam, one who performs the circumcision of males following Islamic practices, an eccentric character who wore his hair like Krishna's — a bun on top of his head. Yasin Hazam, was dark and tall; he had teeth made of gold. When Yasin sang and danced wearing a ghungroo, the little boy, would watch with awe. He wanted to become someone like Yasin when he grew up.

He has more than seventy books to his credit on topics ranging from folklore to children's literature. Photo: Prabir Das

He has more than seventy books to his credit on topics ranging from folklore to children’s literature. Photo: Prabir Das

He didn’t become anything like Yasin but his fascination for the unusual legends of the villages turned into a life-long passion.

Shamsuzzaman Khan, Photo: Prabir Das

Shamsuzzaman Khan, Photo: Prabir Das

Now the world knows Shamsuzzaman Khan as a prominent folklorist and scholar, introducing to the world, the magic of this tradition. He has more than 70 books to his credit on topics such as folklore, literature, Dhakai humour, rural humour and children’s literature. A recipient of many national and international awards, he was awarded the Ekushey Padak, the second highest national award of the country in 2009.

His exceptional knowledge about the country’s folklore tradition has earned him worldwide appreciation. In an email to this writer Nobel laureate Amartya Sen writes, “I have been an admirer of Shamsuzzaman Khan’s work for a very long time. The critical judgment, historical insights and remarkable scholarship that Shamsuzzaman brings to his analyses and writings are altogether exceptional. He has made us think afresh on many important subjects (particularly on the understanding of folk literature as well as literary texts), and we have reason to be grateful for Shamsuzzaman Khan’s well-established intellectual leadership.”

Overlooking a spacious balcony and a Krishnachura tree in full bloom, his room at Bangla Academy of which he is the Director General, is full of books. The décor reflects his minimalist nature. The only decorative piece in the room is a statuette of DL Roy by the telephone. A middle aged man walks in carrying three books he has written. He requests Khan to read them. A TV crew is waiting outside to interview him. A high official from the ministry calls him on his cell. Khan, unfazed by all the attention, talks to all of them with a kind of modesty that no one is born with but has to be cultivated. When he tells a Dhakaiya joke, everyone bursts into laughter.

With Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

With Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

Born in 1937 in Manikganj, Shamsuzzaman Khan lost his father when he was two. He grew up under the care of his mother and maternal grandmother. His father was a translator at the government house of Calcutta, his great grandfather an eminent educator who established a school in Faridpur in 1861 in collaboration with Bhagaban Chandra Basu, father of Jagadish Chandra Basu.

He was a prize winning debater and athlete in his college days.

He was a prize winning debater and athlete in his college days.

“I developed a keen interest in folk culture at an early age. I loved to watch performances and events of various genres of folklore including Jatra (folk theatre), folk songs, Danguly Khela, Sardabari Khela, Hadudu Khela (native sports), Puthi Path, story-telling, boat race, Muharram Michil, Rathajatra, Garshi, Snan, Manat at Paril and Mirpur Mazar and many other rituals and festivals,” reminisces.

His teachers had a great influence on him. He particularly remembers Khalilur Rahman, a teacher of Bangla and his wife Roquiya Sultana (later adopted by Dr Govinda Chandra Dev) who had guided him in shaping his progressive worldview. He loved to buy books, reading being an obsession for the budding scholar.

Professor Khan (R) giving a hand to the national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (third from right) at the first Bangladesh National Literary Festival, 1974.

Professor Khan (R) giving a hand to the national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam
(third from right) at the first Bangladesh National Literary Festival, 1974.

During Moharram, his mother used to recite from the Bishad Shindhu by Mir Mosharraf Hossain. Spell-bound by the beauty of its rhythm and content, he would sit in the courtyard for hours listening to it. ‘How sweet is the sound of freedom!’ (Shwadhinata ki modhumakha kotha), a line from this great epic left a lasting impression on him.

He was a bright student. No one would guess that a man as soft spoken as he, was also a fierce debater and a prize winning athlete.

He started teaching at Haraganga College of Munshiganj before he finished his M A  Later on he taught at Bangladesh Agricultural University (1968-73) and National University (1998-01).

With a photographic memory Khan has always been a teacher at heart, and truly embodied the philosophy of this land.

Sharani Zaman, his eldest daughter in a tribute to her father writes, “My father ardently believes in equal rights of women and made us aware of this through his guidance and the choices he let us make.”

Khan’s modesty and compassion for others charms everyone who gets to know him.

Frank J Korom, Professor of Religion and Anthropology at Boston University, USA first met Shamsuzzaman Khan in 1990, when he was working as a contracted cultural consultant for the Ford Foundation. Khan was the director of the folklore department at the Bangla Academy at that time. Korom writes via email, “We travelled together to Kushtia and Rajshahi while I was there, and I was extremely impressed by his work both as an organiser and administrator, as well as his deep passion for folklore and his love of country. I had a very profound experience of Bangladesh’s rich cultural heritage under his tutelage, and I shall always remember fondly the time we spent together, his gracious hospitality, and the lengthy intellectual conversations we shared deep into the night on regular occasions. He is truly one of the great figures in the cultural history of Bangladesh.”

(From R-L) Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, Dr Mazaharul Islam, Shamsuzzaman Khan, M Zillur Rahman and Rahat Khan.  Photos courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

(From R-L) Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, Dr Mazaharul Islam,
Shamsuzzaman Khan, M Zillur Rahman and Rahat Khan. Photos courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

In fact Shamsuzzaman Khan has travelled to many parts of this world representing Bangladesh and its rich folklore. He has attended seminars and workshops in thirty four countries including Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Russia, Finland, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Nepal, South Korea, UK, France, Canada, Switzerland, Kenya and USA.

Dr David Cashin, Professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University, USA writes via email, “It was my great pleasure and honour to study under Dr Khan at the Bangla Academy in the late 1980′s. Dr Khan and his staff in the research room were instrumental in enabling me to complete my PhD research on the subject of medieval Bengali Muslim mystic literature. I remember the many pleasant afternoons we spent over a cup of tea pouring over old manuscripts and discussing the interpretation of old texts. I have many fond memories of my friend and I send my warmest greetings to him at this time.”

This year in April Bangla Academy, organised an international conference on folklore in Dhaka. Khan invited Henry Glassie, professor of folklore at Indiana University, USA, professor Ülo Valk, the then president of International Society for Folk Narrative Research, Margaret Mills, professor of Folklore studies at Ohio State University and Frank J. Korom professor of folklore at Boston University (who did his PhD in Bengali). Around seventy participants from within the country and eight from foreign countries attended the conference.

He has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards. Photo: Prabir Das

He has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards. Photo: Prabir Das

Glassie, who visited Bangladesh several times has written in his book, “Bangladesh may be one of the poorest countries in the world but so far as folklore is concerned, it is one of the richest” (‘Art and Life in Bangladesh’).

Dr Firoz Mahmud, eminent historian, museologist and folklorist and formerly affiliated faculty of Indiana University, USA via email writes, “Folklore got a new lease of life in Bangladesh with Shamsuzzaman Khan at the helm of the Folklore Department in Bangla Academy in 1981. Since then folklore has been his field of investigation, research and study. In the 1980s he became the pioneer of contextual and innovative folklore scholarship in Bangladesh. It is Shamsuzzaman Khan who has introduced sophisticated techniques in folklore studies and brought it into the international circle of development and debate in this part of the world. As the Director General of Bangla Academy he has been extremely successful in creating and consolidating an awareness of methodical folklore work among grass-root level collectors and mid-level researchers, in undertaking folklore-related programmes in our national cultural arena, and in building up folklore studies as a discipline.”

It was not always smooth sailing for such an acclaimed folklorist.

With Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

With Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

“In 1977, right after Bangla academy launched the Ekushey programmes, the daily Ittefaq wrote: “his progammes are not in sync with the government’s policy on culture and he must be removed from his position,” says Khan. Soon after, he was transferred to the department of folklore which was considered as a punishment posting. Khan turned it into an opportunity. “A drudge will drudge even in heaven,” he says with a chuckle.

Although the collection at the folklore department was quite rich, it was not done in a systematic and a contextual method. Between 1985-86, he organised a workshop and invited Alan Dundes, a professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley and Lauri Honko, the head of Nordic Institute of Folklore, both world leaders in this field at that time. He also invited Dr Jawaharla Handoo, head of folklore at the Central Institute of Languages of India.

Khan is the only person in the country who has served as the head of Shilpakala academy, National Museum and Bangla Academy.

Khan pauses to think for a second when asked how our national identity has evolved over time.

“Since ancient times people lived in harmony and believed in humanism in this land. This was reflected in the songs of Lalon who sang, “He who believes in humanism attains the Truth. (Shorbo shadhon shiddho hoi tar, bhobe manab guru nishtha jar),” says Khan with his flawless pronunciation.

Khan believes that the reason the Europeans could build modern states was because their renaissance was based on the edifice of rationalism, secular thinking, economic and cultural progress and communication with the outside world. It was supported by scientific and geographic discoveries, industrial revolution, reformation and enlightenment. “Our renaissance, on the other hand was based on spiritualism and humanism” says Khan. “Sayed Sultan in the sixteen century said, ‘One can find the Truth by praying in the language he is given by the Almighty.’ (Jare je Bhashe Probhu korilo Srijan, shei bhashe hoi tar amulya roton.) In the next century, Abdul Hakim wrote, “He who hates Bangla even after being born in Bengal has no roots” (Je jon bongete jonmi hingshe bongobani, shejon kahar jonmo ta niornoy na jani.

According to professor Khan, that was the beginning of Bengali nationalism and the concept of geographic nationhood. “Therefore, when Urdu was imposed on Bengalis, they protested in 1952. We see the same reflection of this love for our language and national identity in the slogan of 1971 ‘Joy Bangla’ which was first used by our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam in 1922 in a poem composed in honour of a Swadeshi revolutionary of Madaripur.

With professor Henry Glassie who has visited Bangladesh several times and conducted research on the folklore of Bangladesh. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

With professor Henry Glassie who has visited Bangladesh several times and conducted research on the folklore of Bangladesh. Photo courtesy: Shamsuzzaman Khan

“This slogan epitomises the aspirations of Bengali people over a thousand years. Right after Bangabandhu’s six point demand, another slogan became popular: Tomar amar thikana, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna. (The land that is criss-crossed by these rivers is ours.) This is also the reflection of the communal harmony that has always been the cardinal principle of Bengali culture.” “For the first time in 1971, the aspirations of people of all religions and social classes found a common platform,” Khan points out.

Professor Khan is optimistic that the youth will lead the nation and fulfill the aspirations of the common people. Currently, he is writing about the historical background of the liberation war.

“There is no virtue greater than loving one’s fellow human beings. We must have inquisitiveness, a scientific attitude and rational thinking,” says Khan, sitting in his modest apartment where he lives with Helen Zaman, his wife. He is blessed with three brilliant daughters. Twice he excuses himself to watch live coverage of Reshma the grament worker who was found alive after 17 days in Rana Plaza after it had collapsed.

Shamsuzzaman Khan is an uncommon common man. We may draw sustenance from this stoic teacher who, armed with the principle of love for humanity, has dared to take up the job of leading us into the future by educating us about our past. Yasin Hazam would have been proud.