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     Volume 8 Issue 57 | February 13, 2009 |

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Multicoloured Bengal
Ershad Kamol

Generally speaking, any news of Bangladesh in the western media tends to be stories of flood, violence, and poverty. Very little, if at all is reported on the rich cultural heritage of the country, thus giving a skewed impression of Bangladesh to the western audience. Breaking this stereotype is Swedish anthropologist--cum--theatre researcher Dr Nygren Christina, who is one of the few scholars who have done extensive fieldworks on the traditional performing art forms in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. Over the last 10 years, she has documented a remarkable number of traditional and ritualistic performing art forms on Bengal following the ethnographical methodology to explore the social roots of the performances, which are supplement to each other. Based on her fieldwork, she has written a documentary book on the indigenous performing art forms of Bengal in Swedish titled Brokiga Bengalen that can be translated into English as Multicoloured Bengal.

Cover Jacket of Brokiga Bengalen.

Dr Nygren Christina, a theatre teacher at the Stockholm University, has written the book assigned by Swedish Centre of the International Theatre Institute and financed by Stockholm University ”Faculty Resource”. Christina has experience in such research-based fieldworks on Chinese and Japanese cultures. For her recognition of such ethnographical works Dr Christina has won many prestigious awards such as Stiftelsen Ann-Margret Liljeqvists, Uchimura Prize (Japan/International Theatre Institute) and The Swedish Writer's Union.

Dr. Nygren Christina's Brokiga Bengalen features travelling theatre forms, religious festivals and popular contemporary entertainment in Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh. The study describes the performances and importance of popular theatre and dance in Bengal including performative sections of rituals and religious ceremonies. Her study includes the audience as potential co-actors, the context and importance of the surroundings.

Popular culture is defined here in its broadest sense to include interfaces with mass culture and folk culture, and differences between two sub-groups: popular theatre and folk theatre depending on venue and purpose. The geographical area Bengal, as it was shaped before partition in 1947, is regarded in the book as cultural unity in order to examine if differences have developed in the two parts of former Bengal.

Dr Christina became interested in this field while doing researches in the Far East. She says, “I noticed that the philosophy of this part of Asia has great impact on the Far East. Since then I had a long cherished desire to do fieldworks on performing art forms of Bengal. In 1992, I got a chance to watch traditional jatra pala, while I came Dhaka to participate at the conference of International Theatre Institute. I was amazed by the performance and decided to do the documentation.”

Dr Nygren Christina

Between 1995 and 2005, Dr Christina did her research-based works travelling all corners of Bengal. During this period, she had the experience of watching over 200 different forms of traditional jatra pala. She met over 300 bauls, many Baindas (gypsy), a remarkable number of ritualistic performance artistes and others. “My aim was never to write a catalogue over all layers of folk performances in Bengal, rather, to give some obvious and useful examples of--performing art forms and performative rituals with description and analyses of their importance for individuals and for the society in general,” she says.

“My work is inspired by anthropology with fieldwork and participative observation as the main method and the knowledge and understanding I have reached by this time consuming and quite demanding kind of work are my main sources referred to while doing analyses. Everything presented and analysed in my book is self experienced and all photo documentation isalso done by myself,” she adds.

Doing the fieldwork Dr Christina faced several problems in terms of language, contradictory information by several artistes, transportation and others. At the same time she claims that she had such wonderful experiences that she won't ever forget it: “I slept many nights at the greenroom of the jatra pavilions, since there was no alternative places to stay in the remote areas”. She says, “I saw many artistes develop and many who gave up. For this research work, sometimes I had to cross the borders illegally at night. I still remember I was working at the border areas near Jessore. Once I heard that an interesting jatra pala was going to take place on the other side of the border. I crossed the border at the middle of the night, since there was not enough time to collect the visa. Now, I realise the risk I took. I could have been shot by the any time border security forces.”

“My experiences shows that the integration of popular theatre into society and in the everyday lives of populace does not merely provide an aesthetic experience or serve as entertainment. Performances often generate an important sense of communal identity or have cohesive effect on groups in the social structure. By comparing the study with a previous one made from a similar perspective in Japan and in China, I've interestingly enough found considerable intra-Asian similarities at the primary level. As regards popular and folk performances, it can be pointed that the similarities between the regions are far more salient than the differences, in spite of differing economic, political, religious and social situations in the countries,” she adds.

Dr Nygren Christina hopes to translate the documentary book Brokiga Bengalen into English. She believes that her hardworking endeavour to document the traditional performing art forms of Bengal from a foreigner’s point of view would create interest amongst westerners regarding the rich cultural heritage of Bengal.

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