Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

22Jun/070

The third dimension

As the popularity of new programs like talk-shows on Bangladeshi television soars everyday, it is needless to say, that Zillur Rahman has given a new dimension to the concept and presentation of talk-shows and undoubtedly stands apart as a host and director of what has become the most watched and popular talk-show Tritiyo Matra.

As Tritiyo Matra reaches a mammoth 1418th episode, Rahman is planning to change the face of the show, which has been aired on channel-i every night without fail for the past four years. Be it on special occasions like Eid or even on the night when the state of emergency was announced, Rahman has not taken a break from his show. There is nothing posh or glamorous about his show, yet Rahman’s direct and crispy attitude on screen and his ability to talk and question about controversial and political issues, has earned him an immense amount of popularity.

This week, as I meet him in his news and research agency, CCN, based in Dhaka, he tells me tales of struggle and sheer determination. His stories reflect much of what he is as a person- reserved, direct and focused. Seated in his small room, scanning newspapers, he emanates immense amount of confidence and strength of character.

As I seat myself before the table that is swarming with papers and books, he tells me he was interested in politics from a very young age. ‘I grew up in family where discussion about politics and issues in the country was a regular part of life. Moreover, my father who was a lawyer spoke a lot about current issues and politics.’

Rahman was born in November 21, 1965 in Dhaka. While his father expected him to be a teacher, he was interested in writing on politics. Most part of his school life, unlike his three siblings; he read a lot and practiced writing.

His nag for talk-shows grew during this time. ‘I had no idea I would end up hosting a show but I just enjoyed talk-shows that concerned debates, discussions and analysis of political issues.’

Having passed his HSC, Rahman was sure he wanted to pursue his education in politics and social science. ‘While studying in JahangirNagar, I started contributing my write-ups on political issues in different papers. At the same time, I got into student politics,’ he says smiling shyly. He had become an integral part of student political group Jashod Student League.

‘Back then it was an active group and I spent a lot of time with them. But, soon, I got so much into journalism that I moved away from it.’

The stories of Rahman’s struggle and sheer determination are perhaps far more fascinating than his success stories. In 1986, when Rahman started writing professionally, he also opted to live in the university campus. ‘The reason was simple- I had a terrible schedule, there were days I would stay in the newspaper office all night and come back in the morning and then go to University. This would mean there would be a lot of problem if I stayed home with my family.’ As a staff writer for Bichitra Magazine and later on Shaptahik Khobor, Rahman would travel all the way from Savar and come to Dhaka to work. Later, Rahman became the associate editor of Shaptahik Khobor and wrote intensively on political issues.

He recounts the turning point of his life as the time when he shifted from print media to electronic journalism. ‘My career had started in print media and I had gained a wealth of experience in the field and I knew I was prepared to move to electronic media.’ He agrees that this shift finally fulfilled his interest in being able to question and reveal issues that are often not talked about.

His talk-show Tritiyo Matra, meaning the third dimension, mostly includes guests who are politicians or leaders. Often, they do range from garment workers, sporting personalities to the father of a drug addict. ‘I also started inviting the family members of the politicians to come and discuss in the show. Firstly, people are always inquisitive about their personal lives and most importantly, I feel much of their personal lives reflect their attitude towards their profession.’

Over the years, Rahman who is the director, researcher, host and script writer has been invariably successful in his motive- to communicate directly with the people, and give them the information that is their right to know. ‘My success has also been largely because of the support and faith I received from Faridur Reza Sagar, who had given me this opportunity and freedom.’

‘The idea of the show is to ensure accountability. Throughout these years, I have tried to maintain an unbiased and clear approach where people get to know the truth,’ he says strongly. ‘Despite the casual and simple presentation of the show, the testimony of its success is the fact that it is the most watched show both here and abroad.’

According to Rahman, the show was to fill up the various gaps between general people and the politicians and other important members of society. ‘There has been, however changes made. I have become more direct and question issues that are often awkward,’ he says. ‘At various times, that brought a lot of criticism and disagreement and even trouble for me, but I know that my motive is to be unbiased for the people. In many ways Tritiyo Matra, which is more of a visionary show, has directed the country and the way things should be done.’

Rahman also speaks of his struggle to ensure that the show is aired on TV without fail. ‘Even on the night the state of emergency announced, when all shows were cancelled, I fought and ensured my show is not cancelled,’ he says. He also talks about how the positive feed back of the show has only increased his determination. ‘When we introduced a feed-back show where people write and express their views about the show, we realised we have been able to play a significant role in bringing forbidden issues into open discussion.’

Rahman’s determination and devotion is indeed very strong and he agrees that it was often at the cost of his own personal life. ‘I put in so much time into this work that I barely make the time for my family and it does often create problems. But I guess at the end, my family understands that this is something honest and for a good cause and they are very proud of it.’ Rahman’s wife works with him in his organization CCN- a news and research agency that started in 1998. ‘I met her through this work,’ he says affectionately.

Rahman’s future plans include enhancing his ideas more and change the face of the show in a year. ‘Most importantly, I want to continue an unbiased show that is for the people and that helps direct the country in the right path.’ At various times, Rahman has been criticised as being biased towards specific political groups. ‘Every time such issues were raised, I managed to prove them wrong, because at the end of it all, my aim remains unchanged.’

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22Jun/070

The resurgence of children’s theater

As eight-year-old Shadhin hides himself behind the tree, he hears the piercing wails of Joga Pagla, the crazy old man who lives in their village. Although Joga Pagla creates a lot of chaos and keeps muttering about Shadhinota (independence), Shadhin and his friends love him. At various times, Shadhin wanted to know the very meaning of Shadhinota, but even his teacher never seemed to have the time or patience to explain it to him.

As Pagla is tied with a rope and forcefully taken away, Shahdhin breaks into tears.

The moment of loss, the piercing wails of Joga Pagla and Shahdhin’s relentless effort to understand the true meaning of freedom, is truly captivating. As eight-year-old Shadhin cries aloud for the freedom of a caged bird, Joga Pagla and the villagers, the audiences are glued to their seats.

Despite the heavy plot, like most other children’s theatre plays, Pakhir Danay is vibrant and colorful. The element of humour and innocence shown through some ten other children is simply outstanding.

Children’s plays such as this, is not just a source of entertainment for the throngs of children and families who are coming all the way to the Public Library Auditorium, to watch the 8th Annual Children’s Theatre Festival through out this month. They are rather educational and learning tools. According to the organisers of the month long festival, People’s Theatre Association (PTA), the challenge is to establish this art form for children and also render educational messages.

‘I loved playing the role of Shadhin,’ says Kalyan Kumar Roy ecstatically, as he rushes out of the back stage after the play ends. ‘It did not only teach me about independence and respect towards elders, it also helped me become more responsible.’ Kalyan has come all the way from Dinajpur to perform on this stage.

For fourteen year old Shobuj Hossain, who played the intense role of Joga Pagla, this has given him the opportunity to be a part of a rich form of art. ‘I enjoyed working in the play immensely and this has certainly encouraged me to enhance my skills further.’

‘Drama is no longer a mere entertaining medium of learning and understanding,’ says

Liyaqat Ali Lucky, the ex-secretary general of PTA and the director of Loko Natyadal. ‘Our effort is to keep children in this wonderful art form that has started to decline and to encourage further participation.’

This year, PTA has around 80 children theatre groups from all over Bangladesh and over 3000 children who are participating in this vibrant festival. The unique aspect of this festival is that, it is providing the much needed exposure for children’s theatre groups from various districts and remote areas. ‘I think it is a unique opportunity for some of the competent groups who are not able to play on huge platforms like this,’ points out Lucky. ‘Often, Dhaka groups tend to get more attention, but there are groups from Jessore, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Bogra and many other areas, who are very promising and competent.’

PTA has already completed seven similar festivals and each year, it has seen an increasing trend of participation and also audience. ‘Such large scale festivals have helped spread theater practices in the schools across the country,’ says Lucky. According to Lucky, the acceptance level has invariably increased. ‘Parents are now willing to let their children participate and they have started to co-operate with rehearsal schedules, knowing that children’s studies are not being hampered by this.’

PTA’s efforts have gone beyond this large scale annual festival. The children’s theatre workshop has made a significant mark in the country and the movement of children’s theatre is now spreading across the country. ‘‘Theatre for children’ activities are being carried out among school-level children. Even the workshops for children’s theatre directors are giving a guideline to the children’s theatre movement. We also have more and more people coming to watch these plays,’ says Lucky.

Children’s theatre movement has indeed come a long way. The history of children’s theatre started back in 1970 as an endeavor of Kochikachar Mela. It was during 1973 that their activities were recognised and it started to spread. By 1976, a children theatre group named Shishu Natyam was formed.

‘Theatre in Bangladesh has struggled through time and this is true in case of children’s theatre as well,’ says Morshedul Islam, a renowned theatre personality and one of the pioneers of children theatre in Bangladesh.

‘When children’s theatre started to vanish due to lack of fund and acceptance, some of us decided to form an establishment and restore this art form,’ remembers Morshed.

It was during 1978 that Dhaka Little theatre was established by a group of artists including Morshed. ‘In just a year, our first production Taser Desh that consisted of 50 chidlren became an instant success. Thanks to Nazma Jesmin who simplified Tagore’s original for children.’

Some of the renowned productions of Dhaka Little Theatre were Bajranal (Thunder ball), Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the land of King Hirok), Sada Patharer Deshe (In the land of white stone), Chandan Bayatir Gaon (Singer Chandan’s village), Abar Arunoday (Again sunrise), Bhay Karlei Bhay (Scared, only if you are scared), Venice Saodagar (Merchant of Venice), Gomar Fansh (Secret disclosed), Jujubudi (Witch) and many others.

‘Despite the successful movement, during the mid-eighties, children’s theatre saw a decline,’ remembers Lucky. In 1990, Lucky took the initiative and worked relentlessly to organise more workshops and arrange platforms where young talents could demonstrate their skills. Since then, Bangladesh has participated in international children’s festival in countries like Germany, India, England, Japan and HongKong.

As children’s theatre sees a progressive movement, Lucky hopes to see more theatre audience and children participating in plays. ‘I think the challenge remains to break away from the mere concept of “over-night” stars and establish the true essence of theatre performance, that is experienced only through learning,’ says Morshed. ‘The positive sign is that parents are now co-operating and this art form is being accepted by a larger number of people.’

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22Jun/070

A catastrophe not too far away

The low land spotted with more than 250 shanties looks like a sinking village. Relentless downpour over the recent weeks has left telltale signs on the Barkat Mian slum, located near the Beribandh (embankment). At the entrance, pieces of wood and wooden benches have been stacked to create an elevated platform in the waterlogged area. ‘The rain has washed away everything — food, clothes and most of the shanties,’ says Rokeya Begum. Last week, for three days, Rokeya spent the night on a bench with her three children.

Even though the rain has eased up and the water level started to decline, the pungent smell of garbage and sewage mixed with the rainwater has made life miserable, especially for children. There has already been an outbreak of fever and diarrhoea. ‘On the one hand there is no let-up in the downpour and on the other the water pump seems to have broken down,’ complained Abu Barkat.

Barkat’s shanty gave in to heavy rain last week. He has been trying ever since to get some money to build another shanty for himself and his five children. ‘The problem is the water takes long to go down because there is nowhere that the water can go. Even on the roads, just three hours of rain leads to heavy water-logging,’ he says.

Last week’s downpour virtually forced life in Dhaka into a grinding halt. Vehicles of all shapes and kind remained stranded in waterlogged roads for hours on end. Commuters had to wade through knee-to-waist-deep water. And, of course, the slums bore the brunt of it, virtually submerged in rainwater hours after the rain had stopped. The city-dwellers now continue to be threatened by yet another rainfall that will result in dreadful water-logging and paralyse city life.

According to experts, there is nothing abnormal about this year’s heavy rainfall. ‘There is nothing wrong with the rainfall. It is absolutely normal. If it had not rained, it would have been of concern. It would have been a matter of climate change had a month’s rainfall been cut down to a week,’ says Professor Ain-un Nishat, country representative of the IUCN. This, therefore, points directly to the problems in the city system and plan that is leading to severe water-logging and further problems.

‘The monsoon, it seems, is here to paralyse the entire city,’ says Mahbub Jahangir, whose compressed natural gas-run auto-rickshaw conked out after being stranded in a waterlogged road for an hour or so. ‘The government has to do something about water-logging, immediately.’

Majority of experts blame water-logging on poor city planning and ineptitude of officials in charge of drainage and water control. In other words, they hold Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha and the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority responsible.

‘The irony is that despite several flood episodes, the city planners and the government have not yet taken any concrete steps,’ says Nurul Islam Nazem, a professor of geography at Dhaka University. ‘Water logging is primarily due to water clogging. The water cannot go anywhere nor do we have a comprehensive plan or a proper drainage system to pump out the water. It is the responsibility of the major bodies in-charge of this system to take action.’

The city had a proper plan back in 1969 which was to be valid for 20 years, Nazem says. ‘After that, the city never had a ‘valid and concrete plan’, which could be effectively implemented. How do we expect a plan prepared decades back to be suitable now?’

Ain-un Nishat, however, begs to differ. ‘It is absurd to suggest that the city has no plans. It does have plans and much has been done to combat natural calamities. It is just the technical aspects such as control and maintenance of the system that could be flawed.’

According to experts and urban planners Rajuk’s delay and insincerity in presenting the Dhaka’s detailed area plan has resulted in the filling up of low lands in the city, hence increased water-logging and the danger of flood.

The plan is crucial for planned urbanisation and development of the city and conservation of environment through proper implementation of the Dhaka Metropolitan Development Plan, which is better known as the master plan. ‘Rajuk does have a detailed area plan but whether or not it is combining the aspects of the master plan is a matter of grave concern,’ says Bahreen Khan, a Supreme Court lawyers and senior member of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

The master plan which was initiated in 1992 was completed in 1995 and officially gazetted in 1997. But, experts constantly criticise Rajuk for taking more than a decade to complete the detailed area plan. According to sources, the plan has details of every structure, lake, canal, wetland, retention pond, road, open space and all other topographical features of the city. It also takes into account environmentally critical aspects in the areas of infrastructural development. Once it is completed, town planners will have a ready reference for development planning.

While the plan is due this month, some feel it is ineffective and others feel the plan should be done by consulting city planners and architects. ‘The plan is broad and vague,’ says Salma Shafi, an urban planner and architect at the Centre for Urban Studies. ‘They have not consulted anyone properly, nor have they completed half the plan, which has been pending for ages.’

Rajuk denies such allegations. ‘We are in the third phase of planning at the moment and it should be done by next month,’ sources in Rajuk say. ‘In fact, Rajuk has a detailed are plan and has hired four consulting firms — Sheltech Private Limited, Development Design Consultants Limited, Engineering and Planning Consultants Limited and Ganibangla Limited — for the two-year DAP project involving Tk 23.22 crore. Each of these firms will handle specific areas.’

The study area, which covers 1,158 square kilometres, was initially divided into five separate groups — Group A was to cover north-eastern, Group B south-eastern, Group C central, Group D south-western and Group E north-western parts of the city.

According to sources, while five firms were inadequate for the huge task in the first place, the number was reduced to four dividing the work of Group D among the four firms. ‘The idea of rashly dividing one group to four firms may not have been a logical decision,’ admits an official of Rajuk preferring anonymity.

Most environmentalists are concerned whether the detailed area plan will contain original and detailed positions of flood-flow zones, retention ponds, lakes, rivers, canals and strategic planning zones, as earmarked in the master plan.

Moreover, Rajuk faces repeated allegations of preparing the document while keeping the general people in the dark. In a meeting organised by Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnyan Jote and Dhanmondi Abashik Malik Kalayan Samiti at Drik Gallery this month, it was stressed that the plan should be made public before it reached the final stage and professionals needed to be consulted.

While experts and urban planners continue to question the credibility and efficiency of Rajuk, it is yet to make the plan public and take steps that could combat the problem of water-logging immediately. It is clearly due to the delay of Rajuk that the city is being exposed to the hazards of flood and water-logging, they say.

‘The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority needs replacement of one-fourth of its total water supply pipeline network as it has been ancient and unusable,’ A Q M Mahbub, chairman, department of geography and environment, university of Dhaka, points out. According to experts, most of the city’s 43 canals have been filled over the years due to lack of authorities’ attention, exposing the city to severe water-logging during monsoon.

‘When it rains, the roads are blocked with water simply because the water cannot go anywhere — for one, the drains and canals are not being maintained and secondly, the low-lands and wetlands have been occupied,’ says Salma Shafi.

Savar, Ashulia and areas on the eastern fringe of the city are continuously being filled up in the name of city development, say architects.

‘Box culverts, which were constructed at different places, have also remained clogged for lack of proper cleaning activities,’ says Amanat Ullah Khan, a professor of geography and environment at Dhaka University. ‘We must understand that it is just not one reason that has led to the present circumstances. Often a simplified explanation for water logging or flood is the poor planning and drainage system. But in reality, factors are at work in different ways in different regions. The reasons for water-logging on the eastern side are not essentially similar to those of the central side.’

As the city expands, there has been a dire need for more skilled workforce and engineers, he adds. ‘It’s not that development must be stopped and urbanisation should just take a backseat. It’s just that there is a need to do things in a more culturally advanced way, taking into account various issues.’

Reportedly, some canals reclaimed from encroachers during recent drives, were partly re-excavated and those would be able to drain out stagnant rainwater from many parts of the area, a WASA engineer said.

‘If something significant is to be done then the illegal encroachment of surface drains needs to be stopped immediately and more ways of water pump need to be made available,’ stresses Mahbub. ‘Unplanned urbanisation coupled with encroachments on the outlet canals has destroyed the city sewerage network. Most outlets have either died or become clogged up as the canals have been occupied by private developers and public and autonomous bodies like Rajuk and WASA.’

According to experts, construction of sluice gates by the Water Development Board and sealing of manhole covers during road carpeting are also responsible for water logging.

While WASA faces serious blames in not taking any action concerning the drainage and water pump system, it announced last week that it would start operation of 28 pumps at Janapad to remove clogged water during heavy rainfall.

According to officials, the utility agency will also undertake a project to improve the city’s drainage system with funding from the World Bank.

Zahurul Alam, a WASA superintending engineer, tells New Age that they initiated installation of 25 pumps, each with a capacity of 5cusec, and 3 booster pumps with a capacity of 25 cusec each at Janapad at Kamalapur last month.

Officials have been asked to complete the installation work in two days so that all the 28 pumps can start working at a time.

As the controversy continues, WASA is expected to take immediate action and Rajuk complete its plan by the end of this month. Majority of the experts, however, believe the situation will remain as bad as it is. ‘Unless drastic steps like making developers, planners and engineers bound to make a proper plan, where there will be availability of space for water to recede, there is not going to be any respite for the people,’ says Mahbub.

‘What is important right now is the strict implementation of the laws — the wetlands cannot be filled up and the authorities need to take immediate actions against encroachers,’ says Bahreen Khan. ‘Moreover, the water-logging can only be combated through proper and planned urbanisation- which also takes into account of issues like proper canals and sewage system.’

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15Jun/070

Women on television

More and more women are making their way to the top in the electronic media. Some of the most popular talk-show hosts, newscasters, producers and actors are women. The stairway to success has not been smooth for them; they had to and continue to work hard to establish their rights.

This week, we speak to some of the most popular women on television. They relate their struggles, disappointments, success and hopes. They are all constantly struggling to prove their worth and these are the women who have survived sexist comments, lack of recognition and finally come out with flying colours.

Emanating confidence and strength
Samia Zaman
, news anchor and producer
Smart, classy and determined are just a few words to describe newscaster and producer Samia Zaman, who has become a household name.
Samia is a rarity who claims to have faced no obstacle in establishing her career as a woman. ‘I never let it arise. I always ensured my voice is heard and every single time I was able to prove myself.’
Samia started her career as a producer at the BBC International World Service in London in 1989. ‘I learnt a lot from those ten years of live work. So, when I came to Bangladesh and joined Ekushey in 1999, I had a lot of ideas and was really excited about my work.’
According to Samia, Bangladesh is a land of opportunity and what makes work more exciting here is the fact that it is new and on the process of developing. ‘I guess the greatest challenge for a woman here is to be able to prove herself and speak up for herself — something I have always done.’
Although women’s abilities are constantly questioned, Samia feels the attitude has changed to a great extent over the past few years. ‘I think electronic media in Bangladesh has gone through a revolution. If you compare with other countries, we have more women staff entering, and being accepted in, the electronic media,’ she says. ‘Bangladesh is a country that has a peculiar acceptance level. In fact, Bangladesh is one of those countries that allowed women to be on screen decades ago. Historically, we do accept women but the attitude is to question their abilities constantly.’
Samia feels women’s struggle on television has been worth it, because the attitude toward women reporters has started to change. Apart from being a newscaster for Ekushey TV, Samia is also a successful film producer. ‘I think it’s a wonderful experience. I think at one point of time it’s important for a woman to be her own boss and this really allows you to do that. But then again, I think a producer must be gender unbiased.’
Samia’s new current affairs talk show ‘Ekushey Shomoy’ is one of the very few talk shows conducted by a woman. ‘What is more encouraging is that the public response has been amazing,’ she says.
Samia plans to bring in more female guests on the show. ‘Although we do have so many women at the top level, there are rarely called to these shows.’
Mother of three children, Samia believes in sincerity and confidence. ‘As long as you are yourself and put in your best, there is nothing that can stop you.’

Making herself heard
Munni Shaha
, journalist
When she started her career as a journalist, Munni Shaha did not realise that she would have to work harder just because she is a woman. ‘But it didn’t take me long to realise that I had to make my way through and become what I wanted to be. And that took me probably nine years or more,’ she says ruefully.
As a woman journalist at the Bangla daily Bhorer Kagoj, Munni was constantly discriminated against. After nine years of constant struggle, she has today become the most popular reporter on television. Her style of reporting and sheer determination brought about a significant change in society’s attitude towards women reporters.
Munni’s childhood mentor was her brother Dipak Shaha, who was also a renowned journalist. ‘Because bhaiya was a journalist, I did not really have to fight on the family front. My challenge was rather at work and places outside, where people were yet to accept women as reporters and they never hesitated to make sexist comments,’ she recalls.
Munni earned considerable recognition for her works on women’s and children’s issue at Bhorer Kagoj. However, her focus on these issues was more out of default than design. ‘I knew people who were much less qualified than I was. Just because I was a woman, I was forced to limit my topics to issues related to women and children.’
Today she is one of the very few women reporters who cover such serious issues as organised crimes and Islamist fundamentalism. ‘I had fought for years for such opportunities and now I know that the struggle was worth the while. It was not only for me but also for women journalists of the days to come. Society’s attitude towards women reporters has changed a lot.’
Memories of those days inspire her to continue her work with firm determination. ‘I still remember the times when I was insulted and humiliated at work. In 1995, when I went to cover a programme of the prime minister, I was not allowed because I was a woman reporter.’
Munni feels the discrimination is still there, maybe not as acute as it would be. However, the popularity that she has earned for covering a range of issues in the past few years far outweigh the problem.
‘I think the move to electronic journalism in 1999 was a great turning point. It was there that I spoke up and ensured I was not told what to do,’ she says.
Despite the bitter experiences, she believes her nine years in the newspaper industry provided a strong foundation for her to build on.

The star on television
Shumaya Shimu
, actress
Shumaya Shimu started her career six years back and has become one of the most popular television actors of the present time. Shumaya does not believe in the trend of becoming an ‘overnight’ superstar; she rather believes in learning and working hard — and that exactly how she has become so successful. Today, after six years of struggle, it’s not just her on-screen persona but also her acting ability that has won millions of hearts.
As a student of politics at Jahangirnagar University, Shumaya had never imagined herself to become an actress. ‘Although at various times, I was asked to join television, I was not at all confident. I thought I would not be able to act,’ she says.
While still being a student, she did a few photo shoots for adverts and did modelling just for fun. However, with time, she realised she could try acting, she says. Her appearance on the telefilm Ekhane Ator Pawajay, helped her make a niche.
‘It was then that I decided to start my career as an actor. I was always passionate and sincere about my work and these are the things that helped me overcome whatever problems that I faced and still face, and continue my career,’ she says.
‘I never wanted a whole lot of publicity. Somehow, I just wanted to make my way up slowly and that allowed me to gain a wealth of experience.’
As a woman, Shumaya feels she did not have to face too many problems. ‘I think it was because I never gave anyone the chance to complain. I always made it a point to be punctual, serious and sincere. I think that’s part of the reason why people at work accepted me easily.’
Some of her acclaimed work includes Dhula Ora Din, Proto Nari, Klanto Shomoy. ‘I want to maintain the variation in my work. I do not want to be known as Shumaya; rather, I want to be the characters that I play.’
Her success is also due to the constant support of her family, says Shumaya. ‘It would have been impossible to work day and night, like I do, if my family had not been supportive.’

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8Jun/070

‘It’s the music that binds us’

Bangla has undoubtedly come a long way — from a group of youngsters singing for fun to forming one of the most popular folk-fusion bands in the country to becoming internationally acclaimed artistes.

In 2002 when Bangla, then featuring Anusheh, Buno and Arnab, released its maiden album Kingkartabyabimurha (confounded), the response was tremendous. Unique tunes, soulful lyrics, masterful combination of folk and fusion made every number of the album hugely popular and earned the band the acclaim of being a leading folk-fusion exponent in the country.

Then came its second studio album Pratyutpannamatitva (ready wit) last year, after a break of almost two years. Another instant hit, the album not only consolidated the band’s position at home but also earned it international acclaim.

Bangla will perform in Rostock, Germany this week in a concert, titled Your Voice against Poverty, organised by an anti-poverty movement with the support of one of the biggest icons in world music, Bono, the lead singer of U2. Bangla will be the only band from Bangladesh in the concert and share the stage with bands from eight other countries, including South Africa.

Last week, amidst last-minute preparations and daylong practice sessions, we caught up with Bangla. Even in the late hours of night, the well-furnished and neat studio on the top floor of Jatra, a crafts shop owned by Anusheh, was abuzz with well-wishers, fans and artistes who had thronged there to celebrate the band’s success.

‘It is still difficult to digest that we will be sharing the stage with so many great artistes,’ said Buno, the bass guitarist and vocal of the band.

Amidst the tension and nervousness, the spark of enthusiasm in their eyes was unmistakable. ‘Just being part of a musical concert such as this is a great honour,’ he said.

Bangla’s journey began sometime in 1999; its founder members were then students of Santiniketan. ‘Our music came from our sour-searching addas,’ Buno said.

The initial challenge was to raise enough money to get the band going and release its first album, he said. ‘We had very little money. The three of us worked tirelessly to raise the funds and give life to our aspirations.’

Now, the challenge is to make the time to be together, Arnab said. ‘Now that we have all grown up and have separate lives, it is difficult to make the time to get together and perform. But, at the end of it all, I guess, it is the music that binds us together.’

‘I think we understood each other musically and that’s what brought us closer,’ Buno said.

Despite the challenges, the band has managed to stay strong and, over the years, has developed and expanded. It now has two members — Kartik, a renowned guitarist of the country, and Ismahil, who has played for internationally acclaimed bands like Shakti.

The Rostock concert is not the first time that Bangla will be performing overseas. It has performed in England, France and India. ‘We have travelled so much and performed at so many places, both in and outside the country. All of that was a wonderful experience,’ Buno said.

‘In England, France and India, more than just being able to perform, the honour was to meet great artistes like Vikku Vinayakram, Sam Mills, Illa Pandey, Tonmoy Ghosh, members of Shakti and so many others. We obtained a wealth of knowledge from these people who are undoubtedly some of the greatest musicians in the world,’ Buno added.

Ishmail, who is primarily working with Jazz and also Shakti, is now a strong part of the band’s development. ‘Getting an opportunity to do something different and that too a unique tone is an amazing experience itself,’ he says. ‘I think Bangla has a different flavour to its music — the kind that’s just not something you hear all the time.’

Ishmail played with them for their recent album. ‘Playing with them is a unique experience.’

Their second album Pratyutpannamatitva is perhaps the continuation and development of their first album. ‘Our music in many ways comes from our personal experiences and life and much of what we do is reflected through what we produce,’ Buno said. ‘This album took us a long while, because we are developing, discovering, learning and trying to make another unique tune.’

Indeed, the music this time is very ‘off the mainstream’, reflecting perhaps how the band has matured over time. The songs in this album are vivid as they portray true feelings regarding the recent atrocities in the country in the name of religion and God. Some of the famous age-old compositions have been fashioned by the group with a mixture of instruments like tabla, mrindangam, ektara, dhol, bangla dhol, trumpet, guitars, drums, etc.

While countless fans, celebrate its success, the band is more enthusiastic about being able to represent Bangladesh in a big event such as this. They have already performed at Halle (near Leipzig) on June 1. The concert at Halle was sponsored by Netz Bangladesh, a German NGO dedicated to reducing poverty in Bangladesh.

Bangla’s journey of unique and heritage sound of Bengal has taken them onto many international stages, continues to motivate the young generation to listen to our traditional music and visit our roots. As Bangla hits the stage today in Germany, for a great cause, fans here and abroad know that the band has taken yet another quantum leap.

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1Jun/070

Middle-class feels the pinch

As soon as the door opens, ten-year-old Saadman lumbers in with his schoolbag. Exhausted and drenched with sweat, he drags himself into the house. The spark in his eyes soon fades, as he realises there is no electricity. He lies straight on the floor near the window, where the sunlight is streaming in. The moment his mother walks in, he gives a faint smile, but she knows that he has walked all the way from school in Dhanmondi again, just to save fifteen taka for household shopping.
‘The last six months have been dreadful,’ says Mrs Alam, the mother of four children, as she sits beside her exhausted son, in their Zakir Hossain Road residence in Mohammadpur. ‘Many may find it difficult to accept that the incessant rise in the price of commodities can affect families so much. But the truth is that it has affected families like us who have a fixed income. Every day the prices of necessary goods like rice, oil, sugar are increasing and if we have to pay so much for just food, how will we manage other costs?’
‘There are fights at home about money every day,’ says Saadman. ‘I am just trying to save up so that things get a little better and so that we can pay my school fees and also get to go out as we did before!’
Shafiqul Alam, who has a small-scale fish business, earns around Tk 20,000 every month. The family consists of three sons and a daughter. ‘Before, this was sufficient for our family, given that we live in our own house,’ he says. ‘But now that the cost on just food has doubled, I have not been able to pay Saadman’s school fees for five months. I took a loan from a friend to pay my son Syman’s fees because he won’t be allowed to sit for his final exams.’
According to Mrs Alam, their overall expenditure has exceeded their income for the past three months. ‘I am teaching students and trying to pay my fees and transport cost, because I know we are in a crisis,’ says their 21-year-old daughter, Surabhi, who is studying pharmacy at a private university in Dhaka.
Like many middle-class families, their family have felt the pressure of price increase in the past six months. More recently, with the interim government’s anti-hoarding drive, spiralling price of essentials like rice, oil, sugar and others, and overall market instability, households across the country are finding it more difficult to afford the rising costs and their standard of living has been deteriorating. This is because their salaries have remained unchanged and now with the value of money falling fast their income is no longer adequate to afford the same goods and services they could well-afford just a year ago.
That the spiralling prices and hence rising inflation is getting out of control is no longer new. A recent New Age investigation reveals that the prices of essentials have increased from 5 to 50 per cent since January. A number of economists and international organisations fear that we are already having a double-digit inflation and the consequences will be dire for the market and households.
‘Just the other day the price of rice was Tk 27 and today it is Tk 30,’ says Mrs Rahman, a housewife residing in Azimpur. ‘Over the past five to six months, our costs have doubled and I have been struggling to cut back on costs, but now we are starting to feel the pressure. I am scared that we are spending all our savings in a bid to afford the prices and soon we will run out of cash.’
‘Most of the households are feeling the pressure due to the fact that their expenditure only on food has increased so much, that they barely cover the other costs,’ says Barkaat-e-Khoda, a professor at Dhaka University. ‘For a normal family, with fixed income, it is impossible to cope with the incessant rise in the price of essentials.’
In an attempt to cut back the costs that have ‘doubled’ in the past few months, some families are, in fact, looking to consume less of some food. But according to nutritionists, the minimum essential intake of 2400 kilocalories of food per person — which marks the poverty line — requires a combination of rice, meats, fish and vegetables. In current market prices, accounting for the cheapest options of rice and fish available as well as the commonly consumed vegetables such as potato and spinach, a New Age calculation (see table) reveals that a four member family would still end up spending a staggering Tk 4,188. Which means, even if the family’s monthly income is double of that, they would have only about Tk 4,000 left to deal with all their other expenses.
According to the commodity price comparison compiled by the Consumers’ Association of Bangladesh, the price of rice has increased by around 1.65 per cent every month since January. The price of oil has increased from Tk 70 to Tk 76 in just a month in April. In between January and April, the prices of basic commodities such as onion, ginger, potatoes and several other vegetable items have increased by around Tk 10.
‘We have cut back on beef which now costs around Tk 200 per kilogram, double the amount it was just a few months ago,’ says Selina Khalid, a mother of two and a part-time schoolteacher. ‘The price of lentils increased to Tk 70 in April and just this month it has gone up to Tk 80. On one hand, it is important to eat the minimum required food items and on the other, the prices of these items are soaring up literary every day!’
Selina and her husband’s total income totals Tk 40,000 and the expenditure is exceeding their income for the past two months. ‘It is not just the food, but also the transport cost that has doubled. Add to that there is the house rent, education expenses and other costs. Just last month, I gave up and took money out of the fixed deposit of my husband and I had opened a year ago. There is just no other way out!’
‘Last month our landlord hinted at increasing the rent that is already Tk 10,000 now,’ says Khurshed Abdullah, a banker who lives in Green Road. ‘I know landlords have nothing else to do because they are also victims of the price rise but then again how are we going to survive?’
Among the families interviewed, a significant number complained about similar problems. Moreover, a large number household, feel that the rising price of essentials including transport is taking a toll on their children.
‘I stopped private tuition for my son last month, because I could not afford it any more,’ says Mrs Rahman. ‘My daughter who is just twenty-two has started working three months ago, so that she can support her brother’s O’level fees.’
Mrs Alam, who is also struggling to afford her son’s expense, fears that she might have to change Saadman’s school because, as she says, ‘prices never decrease and if we are to survive, we have to take steps immediately.’

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1Jun/070

‘I never learnt painting- I feel it, like it’s inside me, a part of me’

If the memoirs of the world renowned painter, Monirul Islam, were ever written, it would be more about the tales of struggle, passion, zeal and sheer determination, than his international recognition and the thirty five year’s journey in Spain. It would be about a childhood spent in trying to discover art in a little world of his own; a tale of distress and struggle to become an artist in a conservative family that expected more from him. More than anything else, perhaps, it would be about life away from home, in Spain and the continuous struggle and failure to be what he is today. A lot of it, would certainly include his emotions and strength that transformed into his paintings.

Indeed, Monirul Islam, better known to the world as Monir, has stories of life, emotions and discovering art that is undoubtedly, far more fascinating than his fame all across the globe.

For the last thirty-five years, Monir has been living in Spain, earning his livelihood as a professional painter. He is primarily engaged in print-making, and is internationally acclaimed as a graphic artist, selling in trans-Atlantic galleries and art fairs. For over a decade now, Monir has also been maintaining an apartment-cum-studio in Dhaka, visiting Dhaka almost twice or thrice a year. It was in one of his frequent visits to Dhaka, that I had the opportunity to meet the man behind some of the most legendary paintings made in Bangladesh.

The first thing that captures anyone’s attention, in his apartment is the immense table filled with painting materials and not to forget, the sprawling space full of prolific paintings. As he rushes to make a cup of Italian coffee for me, he complains about the water and the kitchen that is in a mess. He seems to be at ease all the time and willing to share the countless stories that he can go on telling the whole day.

Finally, we seat ourselves before his table, where the sunlight streams in through the adjoining window. His salt-pepper hair and casual attire suits his personality- someone who is at peace and passionate about whatever he does. As he tells me about his childhood that was spent in Chandpur, he starts painting on a piece of paper at the same time. ‘I can go on talking to you and paint millions of things that form into different shapes and compositions,’ he tells me laughing.

Born in August 17, 1943, Monir never liked to study and had grown an interest in art since early childhood. ‘Unlike places abroad, we do not have museums and fairs were children are naturally educated about painting and art. So, I learnt it in my own way- through my little observations of the world. At one point, I started painting the things I saw at the back of rickshaws and objects around me.’

For Monir, every action that we all do involves some form of art. ‘The way we walk, speak or even move is an art itself- it depends on how you look at it. In my case I never learnt it, I feel it, like it’s inside me- a part of me.’ His eyes glimmer with an unmistaken spark every time he speaks of art and painting. It is evident that he has spent a whole life-time understanding and living what he is today.

‘I was never a good student, so when I passed my SSC in 1958, I was so relieved!’ he laughs. Later, in 1961, against his father’s will, who was a simple service holder, he got in to the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka. ‘We were nine people in the family and my father found it difficult to run it. However, back then, our needs were so little, that we never felt the difficulty.’

In the Arts College, he found his own world, Monir tells me. ‘Back then, it had nothing to do with theories, rather it was all about going to places- from the posh town to the villages in remote areas and paint with all your heart and that is exactly what I did.’ He worked incessantly producing innumerable watercolour studies. Soon, after completing his Bachelors degree, Monir started teaching there, being the youngest among his colleagues.

‘It was one of my colleagues who encouraged me to apply abroad but I had no money and I knew it would be difficult. I applied for a scholarship in Spain, which was back then a comparatively low-profile country.’

While everyone had expected him to go to big places like England or Germany, Monir, like all the simple things in his life, went to Spain in October 1969, with a scholarship from the government of Spain. ‘I went to Madrid to study at the Madrid Academy of Fine Arts (Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando).’

While Monir was lost in a whole new land, where language and people around him were completely different from him, he realised how magically art could be transformed into a universal language. ‘It was a struggle but all of it was worth it, because I learnt to express myself through the simple and magical language of art that has no barriers.’

A few years after his departure, the liberation war broke out in 1971. ‘I could not come back home or do anything and remained anxious and tense about my family for a long while,’ he remembers. It is evident that it was a painful experience that remains a part of his life. ‘While staying there and in an attempt to keep myself away from all the unbearable thoughts of life back home, I learnt the art of etching, something very few painters excelled in.’

Monir produced a series of twelve large images under the title of Homage to Bangladesh which was shown in an exhibition in Madrid. ‘It was my own way paying homage to my country where I could not go back,’ he tells me softly.

It was also during this time that he started working. ‘At that time, there was an art studio called Grupo-15, where artists of international stature and fame like Antonio Saura and Antoni Tapies used to come to work. I joined my roommate and visited the studio and started working with these great artists to roll out prints of their works. This was a great way of learning for me,’ he says.

As soon as the war ended, Monir’s life saw a drastic change. ‘My scholarship came to an end in 1972 because I was a Bangladeshi,’ he says ruefully. ‘The Pakistani in-charge cancelled my scholarship and I had no way but to go back.’

But Monir did not give up. He was moved out of the university hostel and he found a cheap house in one of Madrid’s slums. ‘It was a rat-infested house with no bathroom or running water. I lived in that house for a number of years and struggled to establish myself.’

Despite, the miserable housing conditions and almost no food to eat, he worked relentlessly, producing oil paintings, etchings (graphic art on copper plates), watercolour paintings, sketches, participating in group exhibitions in countries like Japan, USA, Hungary, Korea, France, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, Morocco, Egypt, and Spain. ‘As I said before, I felt it, and when you feel the beauty of art you have no way of going away from it,’ he says fondly.

Besides participating in many workshops, he also organised individual exhibitions in Holland, Kuwait, Canada, USA, Bangladesh, etc. He was also invited to serve as a member of the jury at various international exhibitions. During this period he produced a series of rare city images, The City, in which rats figured prominently.

In 1977, he won a prize at the 12th International Graphic Biennale held in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, which caught the attention of art galleries in Spain. ‘Life then became something, people like calling famous and successful. But I always knew fame and money are temporary and all that lasts is what you feel- the passion.’

During this time, around 1987, he married a Spanish artist Carmien Ferrer (Mela). ‘She was a rare woman- the kind who was beautiful and intelligent,’ he says affectionately. Their son who is fifteen, is someone who is more passionate about tennis then art. As for his wife, they are now separated and Monir seems to be overcome by emotions, every time he speaks of her.

Monir’s success kept increasing. In 1993, he won the highly-coveted Accesit Prize in Spain. In 1997, he won the National Award of Spain (Calcografia Nacional), which established him as a great artist. In 1999, Monir was awarded the Ekushey Padak, Bangladesh’s national award.

Monir walks me around his empty apartment that is filled with only painting done in different mediums. ‘I use cardboards made from recycled paper, acrylic glue, sand, ground eggshells, textile-dyes commonly used by weavers and other local pigments. I have also used marble dust and fibre glass. I collect varieties of collage materials from the immediate surroundings,’ he says excitedly. We spend the rest of the morning, speaking about art and painting, which is his life.

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