Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

22Aug/080

Ready to go the distance

If going through a lengthy process and setting up a research unit on art and culture can bring the government to include art and culture as important issues like health, education and others in their agenda, then Israfil Shaheen would gladly go through it all.
‘As much as religious studies is important in school education, so is art and culture, we must work in reshaping the whole system, where the next generation knows the richness and beauty of our art and culture,’ he says on a sunny afternoon, sitting in his office in Dhaka University. ‘There are many gaps in our system and it is time to reshape it, its time to assemble this important topic into the system.’
The chairman of the Department of Theatre and Music, Israfil Shaheen has many dreams. He envisions the department, the art and cultural scenario as a tool that can move on to shaping the country- socially and politically. He does not blame electronic media, or the many mediums of entertainment that has made theatre, less visited by the younger generation. ‘I do not have anything against the progress that the entertainment industry has made, but it is inherent that we must have an institutional system through which rich art forms such as theatre can move along,’ he says.
Israfil is better known for his longtime involvement in Arayanak Mukto Natak (Arayanak’s Open Theatre), where he acted, directed and worked tireless since the beginning. In the past decade, Israfil has conducted numerous workshops and training programmes and given a new dimension to improvised plays. Some of his celebrated directions include ‘Three sisters’, ‘Macbeth’ (2005), ‘The Would be Gentleman’, ‘The Mousetrap’ (2003), ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘A Doll’s House’, Mrrichhakotika (Indian Classical Play), ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Uru bhangam’ and many more.
Born in 1964 in Poncha ga, Thakurgaon, Israfil had an idyllic childhood in the small village. His father was a farmer and they lived a simple life. The three siblings would swim in the river, steal mangoes and run around the open field. While at the government school, Israfil showed keen interest in public speaking and annual dramas. ‘Little did I know that I would grow a passion for theatre later on,’ he laughs.
After completing his HSC from Rajshahi government school, Israfil moved to Dhaka in 1983 and started his honours degree in University of Dhaka - it was then that he truly discovered his niche.
‘Being at the university was a life changing experience. Becoming a part of Aronok Natya Dal was like finding what I wanted to do,’ he remembers. ‘After that there was no looking back, I did almost everything in the group, from being a helping hand, to be an actor and a director.’
Working with Mamun-ur-Rashid was an experience in itself, says Israfil. ‘His work related a lot to the social and political scenario and that instilled within me a lot of passion to work along similar lines - to be able to depict everyday life and struggles and issues that needed emphasis.’
His first works were in fact directed by Mamun-ur Rashid - Guinea pig and Naan kar pala.
Aside from that, Israfil worked with the liberated theatre team and played in various remote villages.
After his graduation, in 1988 Israfil received a scholarship from the Indian Government to study at the National School of Drama, New Delhi. ‘Going to India and studying this art was a learning experience. It was a great exposure as we had the opportunity to work with experts from abroad, and learn different forms, styles and methods.’
As soon as he finished his Masters, Israfil saw new doors of opportunity through a fellowship he received on non-verbal/gesture theatre in India at the National School of Drama. After completing his fellowship, he pursued his doctoral programme at Rabindra Bharati University again with a scholarship. ‘At Bharati, I had the opportunity to teach what I had learnt and at the same time research and learn more.’
Coming back to Dhaka around 1996, Israfil was left with hunting for jobs and exploring ways he could contribute what he had learnt. ‘Right after coming back, I conducted 40-day long workshops in Dhaka, Kurigram and Nilphamari with the play Romeo and Juliet,’ he remembers. ‘The opportunity to teach at Dhaka University came after that, besides that I also started teaching at North South University and University of Stafford as a part-time professor, where I had the wonderful experience of directing numerous plays with a group of young and vibrant students.’
Israfil says there is a need for the media and the institutions to have better knowledge concerning art and theatre. ‘Most often the culture pages that we have in newspapers do not do justice to these forms. Which is why, I go back to my stress on the need of a research unit on art and culture- which will actually show the lack of knowledge and its importance, and at the same time pave ways for art, theatre, drama and cultural aspects to be a part of our lifestyle.’
At the moment, Israfil is busy with the Theatre festival, where fourteen plays, featuring world classics and contemporary ones, directed by students of batch six of the department are to be staged.
‘There are many obstacles and challenges, but despite that we continue to run the plays throughout the year and our struggle will continue till the very end,’ he ends.

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22Aug/080

Reeling into the cycle (with Sharmin Chowdhury)

There is a damp and bleak air within the hall that houses hundreds of female students at the Dhaka University. The long corridors lead to a row of rooms – each about 22 square metres in size and four seated. Apart from four beds the rooms are equipped with four desks and four closets. Most of the rooms are overcrowded, scantily furnished and damp. Outside, female students laze around at the open space throughout the afternoon some chatting away about the recent fashion and films, some hide themselves within the textbooks, and others chat on their cell phone. Inside the hall, at the far end of the corridor, is the room where about three months ago, a student hanged herself from the ceiling fan. ‘It’s still difficult to walk past that room where Sandhya hung herself,’ says a student. ‘It’s still difficult to deal with the feeling that something that might have subjected her to take away her own life will spare me or so many of us around. When I take a step forward, my body seems to stand still and invade me with these sinking thoughts.’ While University authorities have rested on the recent appointment of four counsellors to help these students- the students and teachers seem to be still reeling in the aftermath of what appears to be the fourth student suicide in about eighteen months at Dhaka University female halls. ‘Even though months have passed by, its still gives me nightmares,’ says a student of Rokeya hall, one of the four female hostels at Dhaka University. The suicides of these girls continue to haunt their room-mates and after every suicide the rooms are usually abandoned and then re-allotted to new students who have no connection with the incidents. ‘That is exactly how life revolves around the suicide incidents in the halls of DU,’ she adds. On April 15 this year, Sandhya Rani Sarker hung herself from a ceiling fan inside her room at the Begum Rokeya Hall. She was a fourth year student of the Institute of Education and Research (IER). ‘She was so bright and wonderful, I do not know where she went wrong,’ says her friend, still disoriented. Sandhya, who hailed from Khulna, was found hanging from the ceiling fan at 2:30pm inside her room No 80 of the extension building of Rokeya hall. According to her friends, the door of the room was locked from inside and the reasons for her death was unknown and till date a mystery. Following her death, on June 25, Zohra Khan Progya, also a resident of Rokeya Hall, committed suicide. She was a second year student of law at the university. She was the daughter of Nazimuddin Khan, a teacher of Berua Alia Madrassah and resident of Azmatpur village in Kaliganj upazila of Gazipur, hall authorities said. Reports suggest that Zohra had a brilliant academic record with GPA 5 in both SSC and HSC examinations. A number of residents of the dormitory said that she was quiet and unassuming and did not exhibit any troubles. They said she used to talk a lot over the cell phone with someone for some days and suspected that she might have a love affair with a Hindu boy and troubles with that affair may have led her to suicide. ‘She returned to the dormitory from home on Saturday and was looking normal and the next morning she was found dead,’ whispers one of the students. The trend of suicides has been alarmingly on the rise specifically among Dhaka University students, the largest and the top public university in the country that houses more than 32,000 students. The impact of such frequent deaths has been felt deeply by the students and staff members. In the past five year, reports suggest that more than 11 students have committed suicide, nine of whom where women. This past month, following the suicide of four Dhaka University students in the Rokeya hall in just one and a half year, the University authorities stepped up to take a much needed and long overdue step – appointing psychiatric consultants to each of the four female dormitories of the university to counsel the students. According to the university vice-chancellor, SMA Faiz, the increasing cases of such suicides among the Dhaka University students, especially female students, had prompted them to appoint psychologists in the dormitories. ‘Considering the gravity of the situation, we needed to take immediate action and appoint psychologists in dormitories,’ said Prof SMA Faiz. ‘Usually any form of appointment requires approval from the University Grants Commission, but in this case we did not wait for the approval. We have already posted advertisement while the commission is working on the approval.’ Nine psychologists will be appointed for five residential halls, two each at Rokeya Hall, Shamsunnahar Hall, Kuwait Maitree Hall, Fazilatunnisa Mujib Hall – and one in Nawab Faizunnisa Hall. Over the past years, for these students, there has been only one psychologist working at the students counselling and guidance centre of the university. Recent steps suggest that there will regular counselling undertaken by peer groups trained by the team of counsellors. The university walls are now pasted with adverts and notices concerning this new initiation that is hoped to reduce the alarming rates of suicides in the recent years. While, this remains to be an issue of much discussion and anticipation, many doubt the effectiveness of such a step. ‘There are many dimensions to counselling,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, professor, department of sociology. ‘For one this sessions need to be effective and each student need to be given separate time and attention. To what extent can peer groups really make a difference in such cases is a major question.’ The environment and ambience of the hall itself has a major role to play in the well-being of these women, adds Hannan. Professor Nazma Shaheen, shares her experience of the first suicide case she handled as a house-tutor of Rokeya Hall of the university. ‘The first suicide case I handled was, most probably, two and a half years ago, during the month of Ramadan. A female student committed suicide by taking Marshal, an insecticide. She was admitted to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (DMCH). I and the provost rushed there immediately and the doctors said that they wanted to shift her in ventilation. We were trying to arrange everything but by the time I returned, she had died.’ Professor Nazma Shaheen has seen some more deaths like this which have left her upset and disturbed. She points out one of the factors for such occurrences as the way in which a woman is reared since childhood in Bangladeshi society. ‘So far, I observed most of the families rear their female children in a way that their main aim is to get an established or wealthy husband. But there is a lack of proper guidance. Most of the female students don’t know how to handle the relations with their boyfriends; they give away everything and continue to do so before getting betrayed. Finally, they become so emotional that they think their life is finished; they don’t even share their problems with any one, and get into depression and end up committing suicide.’ ‘Most young women in Bangladesh suffer from low self-esteem. From childhood they are brought up in such a way that they become dependent on others,’ says Prof Shaheen Islam of DU psychology department and director of the Students Counselling and Guidance Centre. ‘So, when a relationship breaks, they feel ignored and insignificant. They take desperate action thinking that they have no other purpose in life. Other young people with similar problems often imitate such action leading to a suicidal tendency.’ Mehtab Khanam, professor, department of psychology, University of Dhaka thinks that the majority of the cases involve relationship issues, which seem to affect these students tremendously. She says, ‘One of the major problems with these cases is that they get involved in undefined relationships meaning they seem to confuse their needs. They hardly give any thought as to whether they can actually afford it in the long run. So, on one hand one partner gets deeply involved and the other backs of, it hits them. They cannot seem to accept such betrayal and chose to commit suicide as they see it as the end of their life.’ In August 2007, Sabera Yasmin Papri committed suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in less than two months after another suicide incident. She was a third year student of the Institute of Fine Art and a resident of room no 112 of Bangladesh-Kuwait Maitree Hall, who died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. According to the provost of the dormitory, Professor Tahmina Akter, she had found out from her friends that Papri had phoned one of her friends from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) campus at around 1:30pm, requesting her to save her life as she had swallowed more than 50 sleeping pills. Following this phone call, her friends rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was washed, a few minutes after which she died. According to her friends, Papri was in love with an MBA marketing student of the university and their relationship was getting bad for a few days. The incidents leave a detrimental impact on the other residents of the hall. The friends and neighbours fail to believe that their friends have taken their own lives. Dipa, a friend of Sandhya Rani Sarker, said Shandhya died the day after Pahela Boishakh, ‘she wore a saree on April 14 and looked happy all day during the celebration, it was so shocking for us when we heard she was no more the very next day.’ There is also the problem of adjusting to a new environment; as the residents of halls do not belong to the city, they find it very strange here and fail to adjust. At home they are under strict monitoring, which is not possible here, so they do whatever they want and get into trouble, points out a house tutor. Getting into wired relationships is seen as a major reason of girl’s suffering from depression. ‘Since the girls stay away from their families they do not get proper guidance, they end up having wired relationships, like Hindu girl with Muslim boy, rich with poor, young with old, and then start having problems in their families, and finding nowhere to go they become frustrated and commit suicide,’ says Mosammet Asma Jahan, part-time house tutor, Rokeya hall, DU. While majority of the cases, do point towards failure in relationships and being cheated by boyfriends as one of the prime reason for such suicide incidents, many also point towards the setting of the halls and the University itself. Over the years, there have been countless cases, where students had committed suicide due to academic reasons, financial problems and often unknown depression. For some, a part of the reason comes from the fact that being a student of Dhaka University means that the students take up their academic achievement way seriously. ‘Being a part of the top university means that you are one of the thousands who had strived to be a part of it and when you fail to live up to the expectations and standards its depressing,’ says a student of Department of Economics. On June 4, a Masters student of Economics Antu hanged herself in their residence in Paribagh after she failed to get a first class for four marks. ‘She had been extremely depressed over this issue and repeatedly mentioned how we would never understand why it meant so much to her.’ Sometimes, financial problems also lead the students towards frustration. Khadija, a resident of Rokeya hall hung herself supposedly because of financial crisis. She had an affair with a private university student; her family did not accept it and stopped supporting her financially. She then started doing tuitions. For some reason she could not continue her job and was suffering from financial problems. It is suspected that money-crisis led her towards frustration and committing suicide. ‘The setting of the university halls is also an important factor. The halls need to be improved environment and hygiene is a major issue to be considered,’ says Ferdous Hannan. There are also stringent rules in the halls. The gates open at 6 am and close at 9.30 at most. If someone has to come late, she needs to have late permission, if someone wants to stay out she needs to inform beforehand, but it is not very effective as there are too many students in the halls. The house tutors time to time counsel the students if they find them upset or see anything wrong. They have observed that the group counselling has not been very fruitful as it does not reach the students on an individual level. Recently, they have brought in Prof Sadeka Halim, Dr Mehtab Khanam, Dr Shaheen Islam (counsellor) and many more to have discussions with the students. Most of the suicides seem to have taken place in Rokeya hall. Being the largest one with around 1500 students this hall has more risk of such mishaps than other halls. Though according to other hall’s residents this is the hall with all facilities; there are single beds, attached baths and individual lockers, students of this hall has a greater tendency to commit suicide. ‘Maybe it is because of the influences of other suicide incidents that happened around them,’ says a tutor of Moitree Hall. ‘The mental wellbeing of these students can be greatly ensured through the improvements made in the hall and identifying the problems that they go through- independent lifestyle, politics, academic pressure, family problems and much more,’ says Hannan. Many feel that the sudden freedom that these women get is also a major factor. It is understood that the innocent village girls struggle to cope with the city life here, sometimes get entangled in problems, make mistakes and do not share and this in turn push them to harm themselves at the end of the day. ‘Communicating, with friends and family no matter where you live is very important,’ says a student. The students also think that it is important to have control over your desires. Imu a resident of Shamsunnahar hall said, ‘Friendship is something that can help you out of all sorts of trouble. If we see any of our friends upset, we’ll make her smile by hook or crook, but those who stay aloof, cannot really fight with the odds around here.’ Dipa said, ‘A father whose daughter committed suicide after being pregnant wrote a letter to us saying that her daughter could have shared that with her parents, because she meant a lot to them, but his daughter did not dare to share her mistake since she thought she made the ultimate mistake of her life. Her father also suggested us not to do any of the stuff like his daughter did.’ Whatever the issues maybe, the situation calls for desperate help. While counselling is a step forward to improving the situation there is also a need for proper examination, individual attention given in making psychological well-being a part of the over all system.

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8Aug/080

And the bells ring on, in my feet

If her passion for dance could be justified by words and even brought to close proximity to how she feels about dancing, the celebrated dancer Minu Haque would perhaps gladly write many many books on them.

‘It seemed like we were meant to be- dancing and I,’ she says smiling, as the afternoon sunlight streams in through the colourful curtains of her apartment in Dhaka. Her big, doe shaped eyes sparkle with this inexplicable joy at having to speak about her work and her future plans in restoring the heritage of pure classical dance in Bangladesh.

Right she is, she is perhaps a born dancer, and you can see it in the way her fingers move, the way she steps up or sits- her every posture is characteristic of the aesthetic dancing queen. ‘I was always inclined to colours and shades and I always incorporated it in my every dance, every choreography, every beat to which we danced with bells on our feet,’ she tells me.

Born on June 1, 1953, Minu Haque grew up in a family that valued art and culture immensely. Passion was something that was natural in her family, she says. And why not? Minu is the daughter of her father, her sister is the celebrated thespian Shimul Yousuff, her late brother-in-law Altaf Mahmood, the legendary music composer whom we lost during the liberation war, needs no introduction at all.

‘My father insisted had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning. They both believed in religion but at the same time, they also stood strong in holding on to art and culture.

My father we learn singing and dancing, that too at a time when such practices were not approved by many,’ she says proudly.

Minu and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood- singing, dancing, studying, and growing up in a cultural environment. ‘Those were the best parts of our lives,’ she remembers fondly.

Minu started dancing from the age of six- and like her sister, she was a regular participant in radio programmes. ‘Back at the time, these radio programs were organised so well, and even though it was only audio, we would still dance- and the whole element of commercialism was absent back then. And perhaps that’s what exactly kept us on the dance stage so firmly. We did not bother about the money. And even though it was difficult to carry on with that limited income, we were happy.’

Minu speaks of her first tutor Dulal Talukdar, an exceptional dancer who was in the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in those days. It was from there that Minu graduated with a diploma in classical dance.

But her dancing career had seen many halts, the most prominent being the events in 1971, that left her family shattered, the scars of which linger on till date. ‘I do not think I can ever explain those events in words or be able to justify any of it today,’ she says softly. ‘It is so difficult to explain how jarring it was to be a woman and hide away for safety. As I was a dancer, the Pakistan Army had come to our house asking me to perform in cantonment, but I refused outright. On their third request, when I refused, they threatened me but that really did not change my perception of Pakistani Army or my decision, but at the same time I knew I had to run away.’

It was during that time that she hid in places for safety. ‘Back then groups used to be formed for escaping and I was going to be sent with Altaf bhai and others, but it was afterwards decided that he would join us later as he needed to record his songs, and it was sheer fate that I left, and right after that he was killed,’ she says looking away.

Thirty-eight years on, it still aches the same, yet she feels that period only made her stronger as a person, and her passion for dance only increased. ‘I continued dancing and worked with young dancers in restoring core classical dance. That is something that is fading away today sadly,’ she says.

In an attempt to keep the dancing culture alive, Minu had to struggle a lot and the struggle continues till date.

In 2001, Minu along with her family formed ‘Nrityashara In search of Heritage in Dance of Bengal’ a platform under which different dancing schools are run by artists like Tamanna Rahman, Munmun Ahmed, Kabirul Islam Ratan, Anisul Islam Hiru and others who focus on specific areas of dance- Kathak, Monipuri, modern and folk, Bharatnatyam and more.

Minu’s school Odyssey that is now running for years focuses on classical dance.

‘I feel, for a dance, every move, every step, posture, outfit- everything must present that aesthetic look and aura of the dancing spirit,’ she says passionately. ‘It is that essence that I would want the younger generation to take forward.’

The absence of sponsorship and support from the corporate sector, halls and organisations, make such initiations more difficult than ever, she says with a hint of disappointment.

‘We keep fighting, keep taking funds from our own and try to move forward. One of the most disappointing issues remains to be the fact that there are no halls for dance performances as such, and it must be a dance drama for you to be able to run it. And while the National Museum is available, the cost is too high. Moreover, there is whole issue of how can we keep this young and talented group here without supplementing them financially?’

Most of these young dancers that Minu and others work with come from remote villages or areas, and they must be given a little amount so that they can afford to continue dancing. ‘Despite the many challenges, we have made it a point to run our programs- our initiative to restore this rare art is not going to stop,’ she says.

Every month on the 16th (indicating the date of freedom), Minu and the group run their program at the Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University for a ticket of taka 10.

The theme for each month is in line with the cultural relationship- in February- the theme being language movement, in March, the theme was independence, later Pahela Boishakh, Rabindra and Nazrul and in July it was Monsoon.

‘It is difficult to find halls, or to fund each one of these events that are run by the whole group, but at the same time we know, that the dance must go on- and this art needs to be kept alive.’

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