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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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