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     Volume 5 Issue 114 | September 29, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Waking Shilpakala Academy from its Stupor

Ershad Kamol

As a public institution Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is considered to be the principal cultural centre with the goal of promoting and nurturing all art forms including fine arts, theatre and film. The Academy is supposed to patronise artists, sanction grants to government-approved cultural organisations and institutions, conduct research on the country's culture and heritage, hold art exhibitions and organise festivals on dance, music and drama within the country and abroad.
Cultural activists are, however, sceptical about the Academy's effectiveness in fulfilling these objectives. Lack of funds, unchecked politicisation, too much red tape and the incompetence of officials are obstacles that hamper the BSA's proper functioning.

Set up in Segunbagicha in 1974, Shilpakala Academy is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Unfortunately, successive governments have used this ministry to influence all the major functions of the Academy such as staff recruitment, selection of cultural teams to go abroad and even the arrangement of regular programmes. Frustrated and disillusioned, many genuine artistes of the country have turned their faces away from an institution that was built for their benefit.

A high official on condition of anonymity says, “I was in the viva board during the (latest) recruitment of trainers of the Central Shilpakala. But, I saw that the candidates who have been referred by the ministry had been recruited instead of many qualified candidates.” The same is true in the case of the recruitment of the district cultural officers. Politicisation is at its most blatant when it comes to sending cultural teams to foreign countries. Even, helping and honouring the artists, sanctioning grants to government-approved cultural institutions and organisations are in the grip of politics. “It's not the talent rather political backing that is the key factor of the evaluation,” laments a cultural activist.

Shilpakala Academy's lobby is adorned with sculptures of local artists

Prominent dancer and choreographer Sharmila Bandyopadhyay says, “I believe, BSA is not transparent enough when sending dance troupes to foreign countries.” Cultural activists allege that on most occasions, they select many people who are not involved with cultural activities for foreign tours.

“We have an agreement to send cultural teams in 35 countries of the world,” explains the current Director General (DG) of BSA, Ahmed Nazir. “For that the ministry of cultural affairs asks for a list for the team. Finally, the ministry makes the selection.”

But it is not just the ministry that interferes in the Academy's activities. It is alleged that secretaries at the district levels using political power, take illegal advantages through the activities of BSA.

While the academy arranges an impressive number of art exhibitions at the national and international level no such grand arrangement has been seen in the case of dance, drama and music for the last two decades. Though it arranges events on dance, drama and music; cultural activists claim them to be mere 'eyewash' endeavours.

The DG however, points out to what he feels is significant infra-structural development of BSA in the last few years. “National Theatre Hall, National Art Gallery, National Music and Dance Centre, Rajbari Acrobatic Centre, Lalon Academy Complex and 20 modern auditoriums cum complexes with a capacity of 400 seats at 20 district towns have been completed.”

The DG further adds that under his initiative the second phase infra-structural development at the National Theatre Hall, the 'Training Institute' covering acrobatics, music and dance at Rajbari would begin soon providing all the required modern facilities. Renovation work moreover, he says, is being carried out at the greater district towns to provide the old auditoriums with modern facilities. A project for the promotion of indigenous culture at the three districts of Chittagong Hill-tracts--Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban -- has been completed. An archive on the works of SM Sultran, at Narail, has also been completed.

Shilpakala authorities are proud of the infra-structural development the Academy has undergone but cultural activists are still sceptical about its efficiency as the country's principle cultural centre

Experts however, have different views regarding the infra-structural facilities. Annettee Ter Meulen, a German light designer and lecturer of Hamburg University, Germany, came to Dhaka in February 2005 to conduct a workshop. She found a lot of technical flaws in the Shilpakala National Theatre Stage. She even gave written suggestions to the authority of BSA. So far her suggestions have remained unheeded and no renovation has been done. But it does not take expert opinion to see what the flaws are. The audience at the first floor of the National Theatre Stage, for example, cannot watch one fourth of the stage because of the faulty opening of the proscenium arch.

Undoubtedly many infrastructural developments have been initiated. The problem is that these buildings are yet to provide the facilities delineated by the master plan as expert hands have not yet been recruited. Without qualified technicians, the highly sophisticated sound system of the National Dance and Music Centre is still waiting to be used. So far, only staff for the National Theatre Stage and National Art Gallery has been recruited. But these employees have not yet been included in the revenue budget. The DG claims it as the bad impact of bureaucratic tangles in the government. “We are giving them salaries from a special fund,” he says.

In any case, these technicians do not have the proper training to operate a modern sound and light system. Moniruzzaman Monir, the director of the Department of Drama and Film says, “It's the responsibility of the contractors, as training of the technicians is one of the clauses of the contract. If they do not take any programme to train-up the technicians what can BSA do?”

Many foreign troupes performed at the National Theatre Stage, which still needs qualified technicians to operate its high-tech sound system

Cultural activists such as Mamunur Rashid, are quite cynical about the over emphasis on infrastructure without the accompanying enthusiasm for patronising cultural activities. “I admit that it is the responsibility of BSA to organise competitions on dance drama and music at the national level," says Nazir, "However, we cannot arrange them because of fund crisis. With the limited budget that we get for organising programmes and training, we can't arrange competitions at the national level, on dance, drama and music”, he adds.

BSA gets over taka 5-crore as annual budget to run all of its activities. The principal share of this budget is spent for employees' salaries -- around 3.09 crore taka. A chunk of the budget goes to run the programmes of six divisions, to pay salaries of the trainers at 59 districts as well as establishment costs. Around 20-30 lakh taka is allotted for arranging programmes on dance, drama, jatra, music and others. But, none of the departments get more than seven lakh taka for arranging programmes. The Academy moreover, has branches at the district levels, which get a nominal amount of money to run cultural activities throughout the year. The Shilpakala Academies at the greater districts get 35 thousand taka while the rest of the districts get 20 thousand taka annually.

Shortage of funds therefore, is a major obstacle. “If BSA could arrange festivals on dance drama and music at the national level in the 70s, why can't it do the same now?” demands Sharmila Bandapadhyay. Sources at BSA inform that because of lack of skill as well transparency of the directors of the departments many funds have been returned without being utilised.

The Department of Fine Arts is considered the most vibrant of the seven departments of Shilpakala Academy. Since 1974, it has been regularly arranging art competitions and giving awards to both prominent and upcoming artists. The department also arranges biennale art festivals and competitions as well as exhibitions of foreign artists.

“In a poor country like Bangladesh where the artists cannot afford to buy colours, arranging a biennale on a regular basis including the foreign artists by BSA is appreciable,” says eminent artist Murtaja Baseer. He further adds that 'Asian Art Biennale, Bangladesh' has a positive impact for the development of the fine arts in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi art has undergone a dynamic development during the last two decades. The biennale has given scope for the artists to see the art works of foreign artistes, which enriches their ideas and views.

The talent-hunting project of the department by arranging competitions and exhibitions at the national level, has promoted many quality painters in the country. Since 1996 the department has been jointly operating award projects with private companies. On the activities of Department of Fine Arts, M Salahuddin, the director of the department informs, "We have introduced two new projects-- restoration of paintings and preservation of paintings. The Royal Norwegian government is the sponsor of the preservation and renovation project. As part of the project, two Bangladeshis are taking training in the UK and two more taking training in India. So far 150 paintings have been restored.” One recurring complaint against the department is why Shilpakala is not preserving the art works of Shilpacharaya Zainul Abedin? The director has no clear answer to the question.

The department of Fine Arts gets a special fund of over 45 lakh taka from the government to arrange the Biennale. At the same time it gets sponsorship from the private sectors but the department does not get any fund and private sponsorship for festivals and the talent hunt project.

Prominent singer Abdul Hadi, who was one of the members of the planning-committee formed to develop Music and Dance Centre of BSA in 1996, says, “Arranging music competitions at the national level is not tough, but BSA has failed to do any during the last 15 years. Sometimes they arrange folk festivals but it is a lacklustre effort by the BSA authority, no prominent singer of the country is included in that. It is the responsibility of BSA to find out the talents from different corners of the country as it has branches in every district.”

An incomplete infrastructure at Shilpakala that has remained this way for several years

Ahmed Nazir promptly blames fund shortage for Shilpakala's failure to arrange festivals and competitions on drama, dance and music. Lack of funds says the DG is also the reason why the talent hunt project has not been successful. “Personally I initiated a plan recently and sent letter to the divisional commissioners, (as the district commissioners bear the post of the 'chairman' of the district Shilpakala Academies)” he says, “requesting to help BSA for the primary selection of the talent hunt programme. Unfortunately I did not get any positive response from any commissioners except Khulna and Rajshahi.”

Hadi thinks that it is the duty of BSA to preserve the music trends and forms of the country. But how effectively have they done that? It is a common question raised by the dancers and singers of the country. The common complaint is that departments lack the enthusiasm for the various indigenous dance and music forms. Says Abul Kamal Shafi Ahmed (Shafi Kamal), the director of Department of Dance and Music “When the full operation of the National Dance and Music Centre will begin we will propose to the government to allocate a budget for the preservation and experimentation on different indigenous dance and drama genres.”

On the major activities of the Department of Dance and Music, Shafi Kamal further adds that the department of Dance and music does in fact organise a few events in Dhaka, observes birth anniversaries of musical maestros such as Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Abbasuddin Ahmed, Abdul Alim, Kanai Lal Shill and others. Moreover, it honours 10 singers, instrumentalists and dancers.

“We are basically promoting younger artistes from different corners of the country" he

The Department of Fine Arts with the Norwegian government's support, has opened a new unit to restore and preserve old paintings

says. "We invite them through the district Shilpakala Academy and they perform dance and music in Dhaka. In fact, every year we have huge programmes. As a government organisation can't advertise these programmes like the private organisations do, people have no idea about our activities.”

Sources at the department however on condition of anonymity informs that most of the singers who come from outside Dhaka come here not by merit, but rather by keeping connections with the cultural officers of the district Shilpakala Academy. There are allegations that Shilpakala officials influence the department to include artistes they want to promote, leaving out the real talents.

Dancer Sharmila Bandyopadhyay is quite critical of BSA's treatment of dance as a performing art. “Many private organisations of Bangladesh are more active than BSA in developing forms of dance such as classical, folk and others." She says "But it should be led by BSA But, BSA has failed to use the talents properly to develop dance.”

Training is supposed to be one of the major functions of BSA. The Department of Training has been organising four-year certificate courses on dance, drama, music, instruments and recitation at 56 districts. It also arranges higher training on music, dance, drama and tabla in the Shilpakala Academy centres in 17 districts. Moreover, it holds production-based workshops. Besides, the appointed trainers of BSA, the Department of Training invites local and foreign experts to conduct special training on various art forms at the centre.

Ahmed Nazir, Shilpakala's DG, says that shortage of funds stands in the way of the proper functioning of the Academy

But what is the outcome of all this? Roushan Ara Begum, the director of Department of Training, informs that at the district level, interested people still go to the district Shilpakala Academy for training. She says that because of the huge advertisement of the big private cultural training centres in Dhaka, the inhabitants of the capital do not have a clear idea about the training output of BSA. She further adds that big cultural organisations, which provide training on various art forms in the city, create obstacles to popularising the four year training in Dhaka.

Roushan Ara does admit, however, that the biggest hurdle the department faces is the amount given to trainers as remuneration. “A trainer at the district level gets an honorarium from 400 taka to 600 taka per month. That's why on some occasions we don't get quality trainers at the district level. Another problem is that the participants at the training programmes instead of learning, give priority on the certificate.” She further claims that though they offer courses on close to extinct instruments such as shehnai, santoor, sarad and others, it is very difficult to find any interested people to learn how to play these.

Theatre activists are more critical of the Department of Drama and Film, the responsible for patronising theatre and film related activities in the country. The Department of Drama and Film is known in the cultural arena for renting out the Experimental Theatre Stage. Moniruzzaman Monir, the director of the department, informs that the Department of Drama and Film regularly arrange theatre festivals and jatra festivals. But, which troupes stage their productions in these festivals is quite a mystery. Theatre activists allege that most of the troupes, which perform in the festivals, are created before the festival to embezzle money. In fact, since 1979, BSA has not arranged any theatre festival at the national level including the renowned theatre troupes.

During the last three decades only one research work has been completed at the Shilpakala

Theatre personality Mamunur Rashid, says, “The present role of the Department of Drama is simply a waste of money. In 1992, Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation (BGTF) and BSA jointly arranged a month-long drama festival and the then Prime Minister being present at the inauguration had announced to establish the National Theatre Stage, which was later opened in December, 2004. Why cannot BSA jointly arrange festivals with BGTF at present? I think the problem is within BSA and the Director General should investigate the whole matter.”

On behalf of the theatre activists of the country Mamun calls for the lowering of rental fees of the National Theatre Hall. “The National Theatre Stage is our national property. We should make plans together for the best use of the National Theatre Hall, which is at present being used to arrange other activities such as AGM (annual general meeting) of the corporate companies. For the betterment of theatre practice in Bangladesh the hall rent should be within 5000 taka. Otherwise, it will remain unused.”

Director General Ahmed Nazir replies, “The rental price for the National Theatre Stage is 20,000 taka for the other programmes and 7,500 taka for theatre troupes. It's totally a loss sector. So far we have spent over 1.20 crore taka, however, we have got only 20 lakh taka as rent. I don't understand how much Shilpakala can subsidise from its nominal budget to run a theatre hall.

"But, if we get any proposal it can be discussed at the national council. The theatre leaders deliver speeches to decrease the rental of National Theatre at the meetings, but never come to Shilpakala to discuss", adds Nazir.

Nazir further informs that if BSA gets any proposal from BGTF, it would consider arranging a theatre festival together at the national level.

Incidentally it was only last month, a six-member delegation of BGTF, led by M Hamid, chairperson of BGTF, called on the high officials of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy (BSA) with a 13-point demand related to the theatre activities. These included: the completion of the infrastructure of the National Theatre Stage, limiting the hall rent of the National Theatre Stage to 5,000 taka, renovation of all the BSA auditoriums, inclusion of BGTF members in theatre related activities of BSA and construction of rehearsal rooms at the National Theatre Stage.

Ahmed Nazir claims that the BSA was very open to the concerns of the BGTF leaders. “I'll fulfil the demands within my jurisdiction immediately,” The rest will be referred to the Jatio Parisad, the supreme authority to take decisions on the activities of BSA.”

Maniruzzaman Monir meanwhile insists that the department has been quite active recently. “In my initiative this is for the first time Shilpakala Academy has organised a workshop on film including cinema experts such as Shiblee Sadeq, Sajjad Zahir and others. Earlier the film sector has always been neglected.” In the future says Monir said that after the completion of the second phase of the proposed National Theatre Hall, an archive will be created in which the department will preserve the indigenous performing art forms in digital format.

Monir further informs that the department has introduced awards for the theatre personalities for their outstanding contribution. This year's laurel went to playwright Askar Ibn Shaikh.

After many years, says Monir, BSA has sent a theatre troupe to Egypt. “To send a theatre troupe to a foreign festival is problematic as there is no National Theatre Company in Bangladesh. That is why earlier it has always been avoided,” he says.

While it is appreciable that Shilpakala is making efforts to give artistes greater exposure abroad, even this trip was not without controversy. The involvement of an influential theatre activist in the ministry of cultural affairs and inclusion of a person from the Prime Minister's office as the team leader raised questions amongst the theatre activists. The artistes of the team were also selected by the same theatre leader.

The department of Publication and Research too seems not untouched by politicisation. It has been alleged that the department always publishes books of those intellectuals who are the supporters of the party in power. During the last three decades only one research work has been completed, though it was later published by Bangla Academy. Akhtarunnesa Begum, director of the department blames it on fund constraints, an absence of a, research centre as well as the crisis of quality research scholars. She further informs that the Department of Research and Publication is conducting a huge research work recently. “To preserve the decaying cultural heritage we have taken a programme in 63 districts,” she says. So far we have got 238 articles. The articles of this research project are now being scrutinised by the panel of experts. We will publish the articles in six divisions.”

If it is a lack of funding that is coming in the way of BSA's proper functioning, certainly this should be a major priority for the Ministry of Cultural Affairs under which the Shilpakala operates. But having substantial funds alone is not going to make much difference unless the Shilpakala Academy is cleansed of politicisation and corruption. Every department must be held accountable for the way the funds are managed and for the activities being run. Well-known artistes of the country should be involved in all major activities of BSA whether it is selecting new talents, judging in competitions, arranging exhibitions or organising major festivals. The cultural teams selected to go abroad must be made up of the best talents in the country. The BSA must undergo major reforms and revive itself from decades of bureaucratic stupor.


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