A Roman Column
A Roman Boishakh
If I asked you to imagine a group of Italian boys and girls dancing to a Bengali folk song, you would probably smile indulgently. But if I said that right now, I have in my living room half a dozen Italian university students--- young men and women in their early twenties, dancing away a storm to 'Allah Megh Dey Paani dey' while singing under their breath: 'Asman hoilo tutta tutta, jomeen hoilo phata, megh raja ghumaiya roisey, megh dibo tor kaida?' you would either burst into laughter or not believe the scenario.
But it is absolutely true. And the amazing fact is that in only three sessions of being taught the dance, these first year Italian students from my Bengali class at La Sapienza university, are executing the steps so well and with such gusto that for the last few days our Roman sky has been sending down spring showers and covered in rain clouds.
I am naturally thrilled to see 'my kids' dancing in perfect unison and without missing a single beat. But I am even more excited that a vision I had conceived in an inspired moment, of making non-Bengalis take part in our culture, is becoming a reality.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to help with a Pohela Boishakh cultural programme for a select international audience, organised with the collaboration of the Bangladesh embassy and some of the families of the UN agencies in Rome. I decided right then that my contribution to the programme would be a group of my Italian students whom I would train to dance to a Bengali song.
I have always felt that in the teaching and learning of a language, music, poetry and dance are wonderful catalysts to the learning process. This would be my experiment to prove my point. Three sessions of practice into the dance number, I already think that, touch wood, my project is halfway into success. The rest, of course, is to be seen at the actual performance, to be staged it an auditorium at the end of the month.
14 April is the Bengali new year, but it also happens to be the Easter week-end, and to avoid clashing with this important Christian holiday, when many people leave town, our programme has been pushed back to the last week of April.
We are not unhappy for this delay, since there is little time to choreograph the dances and hold rigorous practices. In my house we are organizing some of the group dances: the rain dance to describe the heat of Summer with which the Bengali year starts, and then after the rainy season has been depicted by a lyrical dance by two Bengali girls, we will collapse the autumn months of Shorot and Hemonto into the season of harvesting and planting and show that with a harvest dance to a catchy version of an old Bengali song 'Ayerey Kati dhan' which I found on the you-tube.
The music for this dance has captured my Italian student's attention. At the end of every session they are humming and singing the song. To take advantage of this high level of receptivity, generated by the energy and universality of melody and rhythm, I have slipped in as much information as possible into the dance sessions. The students have received a copy of the songs in Roman English, so they can pronounce and follow the words of the song, and a list of the key words and verbs with their meanings in Italian. I have also included the full text of the songs in the original Bangla to help them read. But this is all conscious background information, part of my habitual pedagogic function. The rest happens by the alchemy of the human instinct for rhythm and melody. Since the songs are repetitive and simple, I notice that my students' Italian tongue seems to have no trouble parroting at least the repetitive chorus stanzas. This is the same class that in a normal classroom lesson would trip over every second new Bengali word I introduced, only because they were strange and static. But when in the process of dancing, the words become a measure of rhythm or code for a beat and the words enter the consciousness of the learners through the pace and rhythm of the body and are released from the mouth with the exhaled breath. I find it fascinating to note how instinctively the Italian vocal organs process foreign sounds when disguised as music. I am amazed and amused to hear my students humming to themselves entire phrases with emphatic beats: 'SHOnali DHAnero ISHara TEY….aayerey shobey kastey haatey/aayerey kati dhan.KATI dhan, KATI dhan aayerey.'
To help the students understand the action we have choreographed, I shout, 'Remember, kaastey is falce (scythe), haatey is mano (hand)' and promptly I have a row of Italian farmers gracefully chopping down sheafs of 'pianto di riso' from my living room floor. Then for another number I watch six pairs of arms waving half-heartedly, like dying birds in the air and I holler, 'Asmaan is cielo (sky); megh is nuvola (cloud); paani is aqua (water) chaya is ombra (shade) and the land is baking like a hot pizza', and immediately my Roman rainmakers leap up convincingly to pull down water from the heavens.
In fact, I think I will ask them to stop practicing now because the cielo outside is covered in dark nuvole and it is threatening to come down in an out-pouring of pioggia. Sigh! Sorry everyone, I am exhausted; and while my Italian students might be improving their Bangla, my language skills are going haywire. In fact, by the time I write again and we are ready to stage our Boishakh programme, I may have gone totally speechless.
But for now, I wish all of you Auguri per Pohela Boishakh. Buon Anno tutti! Or as my dancing Italian students would say: 'Nobo borsher shubechcha!'
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