Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 6, Issue 02, Tuesday, January 11, 2011



Autonomy's bright beacon

In an urban landscape, an institute of learning, especially one providing higher education, almost always occupies a space of sanctity. In Dhaka's case, where history tells of foreign occupation and oppression, an establishment that arms future leaders with knowledge and wisdom is understandably revered.

The University of Dhaka, its teachers and students, have been instrumental in us sitting where we are; in a country we can call our own. Hence, even now, when the city seems a dirty place, South of Shahbagh lies a campus canopied with vaulted leaf ceilings, and soaked in the spirit of independence.

Curzon Hall existed before Dhaka University as a town hall named after Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, who laid its foundation in 1904. Following the annulment of the partition of Bengal, Curzon Hall housed Dhaka College, before finally becoming the science section of the Dhaka University when it was established in 1921, a role it occupies to the present day.

Curzon Hall is one of the best examples of Dhaka's architecture. It is a blend of European and Mughal styles, particularly noticeable in the projecting facade in the north which has both horse-shoe and cusped arches.

The style combined traditional art with modern technology and functions and favoured Mughal forms such as arches and domes. The red colour substituted for red sandstone, and the ornate brackets, deep eaves, and domed terrace pavilions (chhatris), especially of the middle section are strikingly reminiscent of the small but well-known Diwan-i-Khas in the palace fortress of Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar's capital between 1570 and 1585. As well as both cities new capitals, the deliberate choice of the Fatehpur Sikri style may be explained by the fact that the British favoured Akbar as the wisest and most tolerant of all the Mughals, feeding into the ideal of their own role in India.

That it sought legitimacy by linkage to the region's Mughal past told of the political climate of the time. British power had been undermined by the Sepoy Revolt initiated by Mangal Pandey in 1857, of which the Bengali people were active and fierce participants. Also, Bengal was badly managed, with the province including Bihar and Orissa since 1765, and so too large for a single province of British India.

This led to a partition of Bengal in 1906, with a Muslim majority forming the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam with Dhaka as its capital. The annulment of this partition six years later, in the face of protests from the Hindu leaders of West Bengal was understandably a slight to the Muslims of East Bengal. In the six years as capital, Dhaka had built up a strong student population, and it was feared that education would suffer as a consequence of the annulment.

Dr PJ Hartog, the first vice-chancellor of the University of Dhaka, described its establishment as a 'splendid imperial compensation' to Muslims for the annulment of the partition of Bengal. And so it was born out of political reasons as a means of soothing the escalating tensions in East Bengal. Hartog was formerly the academic registrar of the University of London, and he went about setting the highest standards.

During its early years, the university was known as the 'Oxford of the East', and it attracted students from across the world, including from China, the Middle East and Easter Europe. It was unique in Asia as one of the few residential institutions of higher learning. The university contributed to the emergence of a generation of leaders who distinguished themselves in different walks of life in East Bengal.

The importance of the institution in East Bengal's, and later East Pakistan's national fabric was highlighted by the fact that the Pakistani regime targeted it during 1971, killing the intellectuals with a view to crippling the region, a day we all remember as Martyred Intellectual Day. The campus was also the site of the Pakistan army's heartless massacre of the protesters in 1952, an event that engendered the war of independence which we won over Pakistan in 1971.

Ever since its inception, Dhaka University has been at the centre of our various struggles for sovereignty. It originated amid struggle, with its flagship building bearing marks of our rich and long history. In all this struggle and heartbreak, it is the beacon of education and independent thinking that we can all be proud of, and should all learn from.

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed


Rebellious East Bengal on the early 20th century

Maheen Khan
Fashion designer,

Here is a story of Bengali nationalism and outstanding acts of heroism. The independence movement against the British and the Chittagong Uprising of 1930-34 was an exceptional development and event during the late British rule.

The Chittagong story forms an integral part of the larger history of revolutionary or militant nationalism in Bengal. Led by Surjya Sen, popularly known as Masterda, the movement scored an extraordinary victory against the vastly superior British military and civilian presence in and around Chittagong in East Bengal.

On 18 April 1930, a group of armed revolutionaries raided the British Armoury and other military installations at Chittagong. They declared an independent national government under the Indian Republican Army and waged a prolonged guerilla war in the next three years in the countryside.

The Chittagong Group raided the AFI armoury, the police station, and the telegraph office simultaneously. Telegraph and communication lines were totally severed. Ananta Singh, Kalipada Chakraborty, Birabhadra, Dwija Dastidar, Surjya Sen, Ganesh Ghose, Ambika Chakraborty, Nirmal Sen, Binode Choudhury, Makhan Ghosal, Loknath Bal and others took part in the raids.

They formed a provisional revolutionary government, hoisted the national flag and Surjya Sen made the following declaration in English as part of a longer proclamation: “The great task of revolution in India has fallen on the Indian Republican Army. We in Chittagong have the honour to achieve the patriot task of revolution for fulfilling the aspiration and urge of our nation.”

Later, they fought a pitched battle in the surrounding hills of Jalalabad against a contingent of the Eastern Frontier Rifles under the command of Lt Col Dallas Smith. They lost several men and inflicted heavy casualties on the soldiers pursuing them. Some of the rebels like Ananta Singh escaped to Calcutta. Others, remained underground and fought a guerilla war for nearly three years.

Several encounters took place, including one at Dhalghat in June 1932. Later, Pritilata Waddedar and her group attacked the European Club at Pahartali. Wounded, she took potassium cyanide and embraced martyrdom heroically in 1932. Surjya Sen was captured on 7th February 1933 and later hanged on 12 January 1934. His body was buried at sea in the Bay of Bengal.

Fashion direction of the time
White a predominant colour: White cottons were probably the most popular colour during the late British era. Bengal was the lush, exuberant and richest state in India. But the lifestyle of the erudite middle class was sensible and serious. Traditionally we have always preferred to wear white in Bengal during the warm, humid days and nights. Purity is in sobriety and restrain. It still stands today as in the past. Red or a red and white combination is a significant combination for festivities and rituals.

Cotton saris for women: Most Bengali women wore saris once they reached adolescence. The cotton saris with narrow satin or twill borders in black, forest green or navy were popular. Wider striped borders were for the more fashionable urban belles, while checked saris with plane borders were solely used for occasional purpose.

The younger girls wore neemas, ghagras or churidar kameez. Muslim girls also wore gararas and shararas but it was only for the fanciful and the extravagant lot not the average girl. Austere, plain and simple styles were fashionable. The smart Bengali women were clearly ascetic in nature. Their understated ensembles were in khaadi and handloom, saris woven in local weaves.

Blouses were quite a fashion statement: Embroidered, lace, crocheted, brocade or in contrast colours with puffed, bells or balloons and short sleeve styles were the rage at that time. The necklines were conventionally round or u-neck. The more fashion forward individuals displayed high or shirt collars.

Winter accessories: Hand-knitted cardigans, little jackets over the saris or even peacoats or long overcoats in the winter catered to more of an elitist style. But in all reality the average Bengali woman would dawn shawl.

Footwear: Handmade leather sandals or kitty heels were worn by the women of the time. The urban woman of the era probably had them custom made by the Chinese shoemakers or traditional Bengali moochis (cobblers).

Men in Bengal
White shirts and cotton pajamas, fatuas and dhotis in plain colours, checks and stripes were commonly worn. Button down or overlapped openings were used. Utility over fashion was the norm for the average man. It was only the genteel who were frivolously dressed.

The working man kept to simply modest unassuming clothing. Sherwanis as jackets or prince coats were worn with tailored trousers, pajamas or dhotis. Suits were worn by upwardly mobile Bengali gentlemen with neckties, bowties or cravats as accessories.

The educated middle class man was always required to and sometimes liked to imitate English fashion. Caps were a very important extension. Scalp caps, folding Indian caps, Turkish caps, Kasmiri caps, bowler hats and so on.

Model: Ahona
Photo: Iqbal Ahmed
Makeup and styling: Farzana Shakil
Photograph Courtesy: Maheen Khan


An enlightened one

During the British Raj, the Muslim community was a laid back segment of society, in terms of education, social and political positions. However, some, although a few in number, made considerable contribution to the contemporary socio-political scenario.

Nawab Sirajul Islam was a lawyer and social-worker. Born at Pearakandi, a flourishing village under Nabinagar Upazila of Brahmanbaria district, his father Kazi Mohammad Kazem was said to have been a Sadr Amin (revenue-judicial officer) under the company government.

Sirajul Islam graduated from Dhaka College in 1867 and started his career as an Assistant Headmaster of Pogose School, a famous Armenian institution in Dhaka. Later, he obtained the BL degree and joined the Calcutta High Court Bar in 1873.

In 1885, he was elected an Assistant Secretary of the Central National Muhammedan Association. Earlier, he had been elected a Commissioner of the Calcutta Municipality in 1875. In 1893 and 1902 he worked as a nominated member of the Bengal Legislative Council.

Sirajul Islam was an honourary member of the Bengal Provincial Educational Conference, in those days an influential forum for moulding public opinion. He was also a nominated member of the Calcutta University Syndicate.

Sirajul Islam was originally against the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and condemned it in a meeting organised by the Central National Mohammedan Association held in 1904 in Calcutta. However, he changed his mind about the partition subsequently.

In appreciation of his services to his community and to the British Raj, he was conferred the title of 'Nawab' in 1911. Earlier, he had received the title of 'Khan Bahadur' in 1887.

Nawab was a designation indicating political rank and power in the Mughal administrative hierarchy. In the British period, the term was used for a state conferred honourary title of rank without any official attachment. The term Nawab got widest currency in the nineteenth century.

In order to motivate the Bengal ruling classes to participate in the community services, the Auckland administration (1836-1842) had introduced a system of conferring honourific titles on the philanthropic and socially leading people. For the Muslim elite, titles of varying ranks and status were introduced, such as Nawab, Khan Saheb, Khan Bahadur, etc.

Nawab Sirajul Islam was also a part of the Nathan Commission and was instrumental in the formation of the University of Dhaka.

Nawab Sirajul Islam died in 1923 in Calcutta and is buried there.

By Golam Kibria Bhuihan


Dhaka Pachhas Baras Pehele

By the time the book hit the stands almost 50 years ago many of the traditions, the collection of essays highlight, were fast waning. 'Dhaka Pachhas Baras Pahele' provides a socio-cultural picture of Dhaka, as it was more than a hundred years ago from now.

Hakim Habibur Rahman wrote the book in Urdu and the first edition was printed in 1949. Rahman was a prominent scholar, a poet, and a stalwart of Unani medicine. The book was later translated into both Bangla and English.

“Dhaka Pachhas Baras Pehele” takes us on a journey through the social fabric of Dhaka, highlighting its social traditions, culinary heritage and to some extent, celebration of religious practices. It speaks of industry, preparation for Ramadan, local breads, wrestling and other exercises, music, fairs or 'parbon', and even mentions mouth fresheners, en vogue more than a century ago.

In the historical background of Dhaka, the writer tried to pinpoint the exact time Dhaka was made a capital, a much-debated issue in the current context. He mentioned various eras, ranging from the Pathan time to the British rule. One cannot help but be astonished by the efforts of the ruler on good governance of this important locale.

Hundred years ago numerous rivers, their tributaries and other water bodies snaked through the city and for that reason it played an important role in the lives of the people. Most of these water channels were also used for transportation.

The book also provides original and reformed names of different places of this centuries-old city. One very important aspect missing from this chapter, however, is a map of that period.

Caps and turbans were once worn en masse in Dhaka. People from different nations flocked the city in different times with their own culture and eating habits, which were gradually absorbed into the local population and culture.

Certain practices that we now attribute to religion were once a secular matter. In that time, both Muslims and Hindus wore turbans. The elite Hindus considered their uncovered headindecent. The general people also used caps (tupi) while visiting someone of social stature. The style of wearing the turban varied, depending on the profession of the wearer, and so did their names.

In describing the culinary heritage of the population, Rahman goes into considerable detail. At that time, people generally used to eat bread and rice was only just introduced as a meal for lunch.

Bakr khwani was the staple breakfast item. Other breads covered in the book are 'shirmal', 'gaojaban', 'geza-e-latif', 'kakcha', 'kulcha', 'nan khatayi', 'chapati', and 'shabrati.' Method of preparation and ingredients used differed for all bread types, which gave them a distinct taste.

Writer Hakim Habibur Rahman devoted a good number of chapters to food, as he himself was a connoisseur. He contributed four chapters on famous cuisines of Dhaka and sweetmeats, described ten variants of “polau”, two types of “khichuri” and numerous variations of kebab, kofta, kalia and korma. Rahman wrote about the origin, method of preparation, evolution, popularity and the eventual extinction of some of these food items from the dining scene.

“Bengal was always famous for its sweetmeats,” wrote Rahman in the chapter on sweets. People of the Hindu community were more renowned for their preparation of sweetmeats. However, morabba (candied fruits) and halwa were popularly served in Muslim households.

Wrestling and other forms of exercise were the fad among the city dwellers. Given the fact that Dhaka had more free space to offer at that time, the information is not surprising. The wonderful relationship between the ustad (the teacher) and his shagred (the apprentice) is described with much fondness. The preparation of the wrestling ground -- or the falka -- was the job of the apprentice. This was a laborious process.

Also popular were 'cock fights', considered a hobby of significant prestige. Also on the sporting scene was wrestling of giant elephants, bulls and other domesticated animals. Rearing pigeons was also a popular leisurely activity.

“Dhaka Pachhas Baras Pehele” presents the somewhat lost glory of life in this bustling metropolis. As many of the practices mentioned in the book are now lost, it is with much fondness that readers can go back, almost 100 years in time; and take a look back at life in Dhaka, We had a rich heritage, and there is no saying that our current practices are devoid of glory. Maybe someone in 2060 will look back into the life frozen in time in 2011. Just maybe!

By Mahtabi Zaman
The book is available in Bangla from Papyrus Prokashoni at all bookshops at Aziz Supermarket, Shahbagh. Price: Tk90


Waiting with shaliks

By Iffat Nawaz

The day was long, she had fallen asleep under the blanket, winter was inside of her melting like an ice cube. It didn't feel so bad really. There was winter outside too, shadows danced around the fog that climbed up to her balcony. The shalik couple that temporary rented the hole behind the air conditioner wrapped each in the other's wings. The echo of their long, heavy, sleeping breaths touched her through the half open window.

She got up quietly so the shaliks wouldn't wake. The kitchen door remained half open while she heated bath water. She walked around the flat, still not her own, but home-like, at least for tonight, last night, last few months.

She tried to remember when he said he would return. She thought about his commute to and back from his destination. She thought about his face and how it might look at this moment, how hard his day was, how long he waited at traffic lights, how many men got on his bad side and how many women got him to steal glances.

She thought about whether he would be hungry when he got home, would he want to eat, should she eat, would they eat together? She thought about whether he was hers, and if not then why she was here. The next moment she thought was she his? And smiled feeling secured in her reservations.

The word marriage danced around the flat; new pictures already collecting winter dust spoke of the present, but the past lived more vividly here, the one that came as her dowry. She thought of the corners and the fingerprints, and the photos she might find of his if she looked, but she wouldn't. She didn't need to know. She saw it all in his face.

The bath water was hot by now. She sat worshipping the bucket of clarity, and poured it slowly over her. Closing her eyes she pictured herself standing in the river Ganges, with a “shidur” (vermillion) dripping forehead, clad in a white sari, while water reached all ends of her body.

Between opening and closing her eyes she cleansed her heart away. The ice cube had now turned into mildly burning firewood. As she wrapped herself in something between bare and warm she heard the shaliks turn sides, she felt them tweeting in their sleep. She felt like praying for something but she couldn't decide what.

He came later than he had told her he would, and this would bother her if she was waiting. But she told herself that she wasn't waiting, waiting is for those who have forgotten to look at themselves, waiting is for those who like emptiness, for those who like their own heartbeats and toes. And she didn't like any of those.

And then he rang the doorbell and she turned the knob to let him in. He apologised for keeping her waiting again, she smiled and felt like telling him her theory on “waiting,” but he didn't see the movement of her lips, and rushed off to freshen up. The shalik birds flew away for a nightcap and she remained left behind just with him, waiting for the next night alone.



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