One of the ace dancers of the country, Laila Hasan has been an active proponent of a form of art whose patronage is in decline in today’s Bangladesh. Mahfuz Mizan of New Age peers into her world to throw into relief some highpoints of her life and thoughts
Laila Hasan is one of the most revered personalities in the Bangladesh’s professional dance scene. The classical dance icon, who is also a choreographer and actress, has a host of accolades under her name which includes the much coveted second-highest civilian honour the Ekushey Padak, awarded by the Government of Bangladesh in 2the number of voters.
Released on bail on January 3, Hedait continued appearing before the district court every month although a viral video footage indicated that the journalists reported correctly.
In December 2018, Reuters published a report revealing the compression of media freedom and constricted roles and responsibilities of journalists in Bangladesh after the Digital Security Act had taken effect.
Reuters interviewed 32 Bangladeshi journalists and editors. ‘The vast majority said the recent strengthening of defamation laws with new act has spread a climate of fear in the industry,’ it said.
Bangladesh slipped 4 steps in the freedom of press index and became the lowest among the South Asian countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Sans Frontiers on April 18.
Bangladesh was ranked 150th among 180 countries in the index.
Bangladeshi journalists have been among the leading collateral victims of the tough methods adopted by the ruling Awami League on its way to be re-elected in late 2018, according to the Paris-based press advocacy group.
It condemned the serious press freedom violations that have accompanied December 30 general elections, in which journalists were attacked or jailed and a TV news channel was taken off the air.
Daily Star photographer Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo was attacked by ruling AL activists while taking photos of a Dhaka polling station while Manab Zamin reporter Kafi Kamal was hospitalised after a similar attack in Dhaka on December 30, 2018. Kafi said he was still frightened.
The internationally recognised photojournalist Shahidul Alam was held for more than 100 days on completely spurious grounds in an example of how the judicial system is used to silence those who annoy the government, the report noted.
From 2013, the press freedom in Bangladesh was deteriorating except in 2016 when the county advanced 2 steps to the 144th position, said the report.
The police headquarters did not share how many cases were filed under the Digital Security Act but the Cyber Tribunal’s prosecutor Nazrul Islam Shamim said that about 100 cases were filed.
The information minister and ruling AL publicity secretary Muhammad Hasan Mahmud told a programme at the National Press Club on Thursday that journalists should be more responsible.
He said that the government would ensure that the Digital Security Act was not misused and no journalists were harassed.
The minister claimed that lowering down Bangladesh four steps in press freedom index was ‘unacceptable’.
A number of reporters left journalism in past few years while a number of journalists from private television channels and dailies went abroad for higher studies while many award winning journalists switched their profession to the non-government organisations.
Gazi Television and sarabangla.net editor-in-chief Syed Ishtiaque Reza said that the overall media situation was ‘fragile’ due to division among the journalists based on their political ideology.
Alongside the pressure from various quarters, he said major media outlets were suffering from financial crisis which was hampering professionalism of the journalists.
Before the December 2018 elections, the government blocked 54 websites on the grounds of preventing the spread of ‘fake news’.
Against such backdrops, the World Press Freedom Day will be observed in Bangladesh today. The day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, following the recommendation of the 26th session of UNESCO General Conference in 1991.010 for her contribution in arts. Apart from being one of the most notable terpsichorean and media personalities in the country, she also hosted a show during the 80’s in Bangladesh Television (BTV) called ‘Rumjhum’ where she gave dancing lessons.
She founded ‘Nataraj’, a dance institution, in 1990, which later started to delve into theatrical performances from 1996 and she is currently the president of the organisation.
Laila is also involved with various social activities and holds senior positions in several renowned organisations. She is the president of the female committee of Sector Commander’s Forum and Bangladesh Nritya Shilpi Shangstha, also a lifetime member of Bangla Academy, West Bengal Dance Federation and member of Asiatic Society, among many other similar associations.
Her husband is the legendary actor and cultural personality Syed Hasan Imam, who was also a part of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro during the Liberation War of 1971. The duo nowadays is usually busy with their respective line of work and appears frequently on TV shows and other productions.
Dance has always been an integral part of Laila’s life as she fondly recalls, ‘I often say that dance is in my lifeline. I remember hearing from my elders that I used to dance whenever I heard any tune. I was three or four years old. My family members used to adoringly call me a Chinese Dancing Doll.’
Laila’s family members were cultural enthusiasts and she was the third child among four sisters and two brothers, one of her sisters Daisy Ahmed is also an actress.
‘Most journalists ask me if I had difficulties with my family while pursuing a dancing career, but quite unsurprisingly they were quite supportive and our house was a meeting place of theatre artists and musicians. My father the late MA Awwal, who was a math teacher by profession, had keen interest in music and the arts. He could play the tabla and harmonium very well as well as acted in several plays. On full moon nights, he would take me and my elder sister Daisy on the rooftop and play the harmonium while we danced. Daisy would get tired but I danced till the very end,’ she recalled.
She went on to relate about how helpful her mother was, ‘My mother, the late Latifa Awwal, also deserves huge credit. After a few years in customs, she became one of the first central excise inspector of her time. In spite of being a working woman, she would always take me to school and dancing lessons.’
Having had a sound upbringing in family that came with a cultural and liberal background, Laila’s family was politically active as well. The strong, wholesome personality that she attained has its source in the family environment.
‘We lived in Wari which was a posh area during those times — a neighborhood that housed Dhaka cognoscenti. My maternal grandfather late Ali Ahmed Khan was an MLA from the United Front of East Pakistan and he used to go out for morning walks with Sher-E-Bangla AK Fazlul Haque. My maternal grandmother was also friends with the poet and political activist Sufia Kamal. Famous politicians and personalities used to visit our house, hence we were brought up in an enlightening environment,’ she said.
As is the case with such a forward-looking family, Laila received good education. She started her schooling from Nari Siksha Mandir, later went to Kamrunnesa School from the fourth grade. After matriculation exams, she took admission in Badrunnesa College for her intermediate and later completed her degree from Central Women’s College and then her Masters in Philosophy from Dhaka University.
‘At Nari Siksha Mandir, I remember doing plays and at Kamrunnesa I joined the girl scouts and in various other activities. My childhood was spent in the playgrounds and on stages,’ she fondly recalled.
Alongside her studies, Laila continued her dancing lessons. She started from a very early age from an organisation called Mahashetar Jagoron which was mostly comprised of physicians and later, the renowned Bulbul Academy.
‘A physician called Dr Sajedur Rahman came to our house and saw me dance, immediately he told my mother to enrol me in the institution. That is when I started performing on stage and we toured throughout the country in Comilla, Sylhet and many other places. I also participated in many dance programmes during my days in school,’ Laila recalled.
‘In 1955, I got admitted to Bulbul Academy, which was founded by one of the pioneers of Bengali dance, Bulbul Chowdhury. There I was taught by great mentors such as Ajit Sanyal, Manibardhan Mahashay, Babu Ram Singh, GA Mannan and Ustad Manjur Hossain among others,’ she continued.
She further addressed some notable events of her life. ‘In 1962, it was the first time I toured abroad to perform in Pakistan. It was the first time I travelled via an airplane. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to go for performing in the Middle East, Russia and China as cultural delegates. In the year 1971, I had the opportunity to perform at Santiniketan under Kanuchar Mohapatra in one of his composition, ’
Laila Hasan with his vast experience in this field also did a dance show in BTV called Rumjhum where her students were Eshita, Tarin, Tamalika, Chayanika and Srabonti before they became TV stars. She continues the show till date, although it lacks support. ‘Previously the show was repeated and was held four days a week, very unlike the fate it has met today. The episodes were supposed to be lessons, so they needed to be sequenced in a way so that the thread wasn’t lost. The kids won’t remember what you said 15 days ago. Furthermore, the show will be stopped from airing for the entire month of Ramadan. I really don’t get it. You can sing songs and show everything else but not dance lessons, it’s a bit absurd,’ she commented.
Laila’s institution Nataraj was one of the first to celebrate victory day at Shaheed Minar by showcasing their dance performance, breaking a sort of ban.
‘I don’t know what is wrong with dancing at the Shaheed Minar. It is a memorial, not a graveyard and my art form is dance, hence I will express my grief using my medium,’ she said.
The institution performed several notable dance dramas based on works of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Some are also based on the War of Liberation, the language movement, women and children’s rights and human rights. The institution also carries out social welfare events such as providing fund for flood relief and other disasters.
Laila’s list of works includes ‘Neel Darpan’, ‘Konkabotir Ghatey’ and ‘Keranir Jeebon’ — stage dramas which she performed in her childhood. She also directed some dance dramas such as ‘Shyama ‘, ‘Chitrangoda ‘, ‘Shaap Mochon’, ‘Roktokorobi’ and ‘Chondalika’ which received praises.
‘I was one of the first to direct the stage drama Shaap Mochon,’ she added. Another memorable dance drama which was directed by her mentor GA Mannan was ‘Nakshi Kathar Math’, among many other performances in a career spanning almost four decades.
The septuagenarian dancer, at the time of the interview was preparing her students for the closing of a seven day festival celebrating — the International Dance Day held between 23- 29 of April.
‘The event is by the International Dance Committee, which is a part of International Theatre Institute. They have different representatives from countries all over the world in order to connect with different dance forms and performers from far corners of the world. I am representing Dhaka and the president of the organisation here. So every year, we celebrate the International Dance Day with events up till April 29, which is also the birthday of the western dance reformer Jean Georges Novera. We carry out rallies, dance dramas, stage performances and hold TV discussions on dance during this seven-day long event,’ she explains.
Amidst all the busy schedules consisting of dancing lessons and rehearsals, shooting for TV shows or dramas and organisational work, Laila still manages time for her household chores.
‘I organised my life so that they do not hamper my work. I always took care of my husband and children. He often compliments by saying that I always complete the household tasks before anyone can ask for anything,’ she said.
Laila has two daughters Syeda Sangeeta Imam and Syeda Rumnaz Imam Rumjhum, and one son Syed Tasvir Imam Shakkhar. She states that her children have grown up to be brilliant human beings, ‘My elder daughter Sangeeta is a teacher of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College, joint secretary of Udichi Shilpigoshti and was a part of Gonojagoron Manch (Shahbagh Protests of 2013) but she doesn’t want to come to limelight. My other daughter Rumjhum graduated from Monash University in Sociology, taught for few years at Dhaka University and now residing in Canada.
My son did his MBA from a university in California, USA and is currently teaching at a university there. Although he never wanted to leave the country, but due to circumstances here, the death threats my daughters received and various other problems we advised him to stay back. I am a very lucky mother and rather proud of my children because all of them are in the teaching profession. It is a very important sector, they are the light givers of society and that is a noble job.’
When asked about her marriage to Syed Hasan Imam, she smiled and said, ‘I don’t want to talk about that, everyone knows how we got married as well as what happened afterwards. He has been a supportive companion all these years. However, I do want to add that my mother-in-law was also an amazing human being. She supported my dancing career and was very friendly towards me. I pray all women get a mother-in-law like mine.’
Laila advises the new generation who are interested in a dance career that they should concentrate on the subject and respect this art form wholeheartedly in order to attain greatness. ‘It is a kind of meditation and it requires a lot of physical and mental preparation. Dance is a learning process as well. Nowadays I see people try to do fusion with contemporary and classical which is neither of the two. I don’t have any problem with fusion or contemporary but at least have some knowledge about what you’re doing,’ she pointed out.
‘Another thing is that I have noticed the parents of the young performers often apply excessive make-up and decorate them with ornaments. I would like to request parents and performers to stop this. Dance is not about showing off, but an art form,’ she asserted.
She further added that, ‘I want to be in professional dancing scene as long as I’m alive but I want to bring about positive social changes via dance and other art forms. Nowadays, empathy and humanity is hard to find. I often wonder is this the reason our freedom fighters gave their lives. As artists we have a responsibility and we must make sure the future generation grows up with a healthy and productive mind-set.’
‘Another common practice which I disapprove of is the mixture of Bengali and English while talking. None of it makes sense, you either talk in English or in Bengali, why both at the same time? I have seen people who misuse language this way, knows none of the languages properly. This has spread among presenters as well, which is a tragic situation and must be addressed,’ she pointed out.
Having said all this, Laila also emphasised that the power of dance and creativity is far greater than one could imagine, ‘Dance has therapeutic qualities, I have seen many autistic children recover through dance and also physical ailments got cured. It belongs to no religion, race or culture and can be practiced by anyone. In fact, it helps strengthen bonds between fellow human beings and some relationships can last a lifetime. Not only dance but any kind of creative art is a ray of hope for children who do not have any playgrounds or other activities to enjoy,’ she says.
‘As we all have heard the saying “a lazy mind is the devil’s workshop”, art helps to keep negativity away and helps you think instead of getting brainwashed or falling into bad company,’ Laila concludes.
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