The Green Grass of Bangladesh
Torsten Oertel has been a friend and companion to students, cultural activists and journalists during his tenure in Dhaka as the young Director of the Goethe-Institut, Dhaka . His exposure to Chinese and Indonesian studies plus his stay in Japan, Malaysia and Nepal had him exposed to eastern sensibilities before he came to Bangladesh in 2005. Neither the heat nor rain could diminish Torsten Ortel's enthusiasm for travelling to the far corners of Bangladesh to learn about the country, its people, lifestyle and culture. In his gentle and amicable manner, he tried his best to bring an understanding between Bangladeshi ways and German culture, specially music, photography and visual art.
Gentle and self-effacing Torsten Oertel leaves Bangladesh shortly after his work as the Director of Goethe-Institut, Dhaka for almost four years. He was so unassuming that sometimes newcomers took him to be just any other visitor at the cultural centre. Like all his predecessors, he made himself at home here in Dhaka. He gives some of his impressions of the people and place he worked and mingled with.
What was your first impression of Bangladesh?
Green. It was a green country. You saw lots of rickshaws, few cars and skyscrapers: this was back in 1994, when I visited Bangladesh for 10 days and then came back in 2005, when things had changed. The number of rickshaws has now gone down and the number of cars has tripled. When I went to the countryside, once again in 2005, I realised that the country was as green as before. I went to the Sunderbans, Bandarbans, Chittagong Hill Tracks, Cox's Bazar, Chittagong, Bagerhat, Pabna, Rajshahi, up till the Kantaji temples, Kishorjanj and Sylhet. I went both for work and holiday on weekend.
Has your impression of Bangladesh changed, after three years and nine months?
Back in 1994 I associated Bangladesh with the "Biryani" smell, just I associate my carefree childhood holidays in Greece with oregano. It is what you hear, see and smell in a place that you carry in your mind. As you stay in a place the more diverse the image gets. You see the good sides and the negative sides. In your mind's eye there is a balance. Considering the good sides I'd say it's the people. They are very humble and underestimate themselves compared to people from other parts of Asia. It is easy to co-operate with them. There's a lot of intellectual strength in the country. There are lots of artists in many fields, numerous NGOs -- people are aware of their environment and involved in it. The people are hard-working and dynamic : no one sits idle. The country has a beautiful and diverse landscape that include many archaeological sites which gives the place a cultural identity. The country has more potential than what the outside world thinks. The diligence, mentality and eagerness of the people should take them a long way. The fact that the society is secular and open minded will help. Its people have great interest in the outside world.
Were you able to carry out your cultural programmes with ease?
My co-workers and the cultural activists whom I dealt with were extremely helpful. Every director brings in new ideas. But the work could not have been done without the local staff and cultural activists who were associated with the institute before. The Deutche Welle functions and the theatre workshops with the street children and the people from the interior villages will always be memorable for me.
What is that you best liked about Bangladeshi culture?
I found the bands like 'Black' and 'Miles' very interesting. The 'baul' concert and classical ones like that by Mubarak Hussain Khan and his daughter. The environmental and children's theatres and those dealing with social problems like acid-attacks also played a crucial part. As for paintings, it is amazing how much Bangladesh has to offer. The input in architecture, linked with workshops and publications was also fascinating. Architects, who were artists on their own, in a way, were into environmental issues. The artists here do not work for art for art's sake but concrete results which lead to the betterment of society. One workshop with 'Ain-O-Shalish' street theatre was unusually interesting, when people participated from all over the countryside of Bangladesh after which there was a heated discussion on controversial topics.
What was your impression of the countryside?
It is very nice and has a more restive pace. Many inhabitants of the metropolises in Dhaka and Chittagong go there to relax on weekends as the rural area has the essence of Bangladeshi life. I myself went often to the countryside as I found the open skies, the sunsets, the paddy and mustard fields so energising.
What were the important programmes that you organised as the director?
I enjoyed doing the programme on World Cup football when we had about 700 guests for the opening. It brought together not only the actual target of the Goethe-Institut but also the common people. Actually I liked all the events ranging from the workshops to the theatres and book launchings. My main target was to bring people together to discuss and share their ideas.
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