Born into a culturally-inclined family, Minu Haque has been an enduring name in the dance scene of the country. The ace dance artiste recently spoke to Mahfuz Mizan of New Age providing glimpses into her life across time.
Minu Haque is one of the woman freedom fighters and a renowned dancer specialising in classical dance, Odissi, Manipuri and other dance forms. An artiste who has experienced a lot of ups and downs in her life, the ace dancer and choreographer is now the president of Bangladesh Nrityashilpi Sangstha which helped re-form Bangladesh’s dance scene. During the nine-month-long Liberation War, Minu played an active role as a nurse. Later, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation, she has made it her aim in life to use arts and creativity to allay the effect of extremism and communalism, which ravaged her country in 1971 and the region even before that.
She was born in a culturally affluent family to Mahater Billah, a businessman, and Amina Billah, a homemaker. Minu was the seventh child of the couple. Her other siblings were five brothers and three sisters, who were also involved in arts and culture.
‘All my brothers know how to sing. They received training from Chhayanaut in the 60’s and my younger sister Shimul Yousuf also joined later,’ recalls Minu.
Most of Minu’s siblings have made a name in the cultural arena, despite growing up in a middle class Muslim family as Minu states, ‘My elder brother Linu Billah is a prominent singer and youngest sister Shimul Yusuf is a well-known theatre activists and thespian of the country. Apart from this, my elder sister Sarah Mahmud’s husband, the late Shaheed Altaf Mahmud composed the song which fuelled the imagination of Bnegalis in the then east wing of Pakistan during the language movement — “Aamar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano.”’
Although Minu’s father was a very pious man, he never stopped his children from pursuing arts and culture. ‘Although my father was a religious man who prayed five times a day, read the Quran and taught us how to become practicing Muslims, he always encouraged us to learn music and dance,’ she said.
Minu was very active as a kid and from her early childhood always fancied dance. When Minu was six years old, she figured out that she wanted to learn how to dance, ‘All of us siblings were learning how to sing. I initially started with learning classical songs from PC Gomes, however I was very interested in sports and physical activities so I was interested in dance. If I did not pursue dancing I would’ve become an athlete,’ she stated.
The noted dancer had the opportunity to receive training under various dance masters belonging to different forms throughout her life, which helped her become a better dancer in terms of technique and prowess. She started her journey in dance under the guidance of the famous dancer Dulal Takudar as she recalls, ‘I started learning dance from our family friend and neighbour Dulal Talukdar, who used to teach dance at Bulbul Academy at that time. Dulal Talukdar was my first guru and I’m forever grateful to him.’
Besides cultural involvement, the singer addressed the religious harmony that existed in her childhood days. ‘In our days we were one community. We used to live beside the Buddha Mandir and our lives revolved around that,’ she says. We used to have a lot of fun and had a lot of Hindu and Christian neighbours and friends. There was not an iota of animosity between us unlike nowadays. When the war broke out, the Pakistani military burned down all the beautiful Hindu temples but you’ll see Hindu temples in Karachi, Lahore and many other places in Pakistan still today, she adds.
Days of Liberation War
Minu joined Dhaka University after completing her matriculation in 1968 from Motijheel Girl’s High School. ‘It was somewhere around March that I joined Dhaka University and I could see history unfold right before my eyes. In those times there were no protocol like nowadays and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was not as crowded and filled with high-rise buildings like today. We could see Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s speech from our veranda,’ recalls Minu. She took admission at Dhaka University’s Psychology department and on March 7, 1971 her first year ended.
On the night of March 25, Minu and her siblings, along with Altaf Mahmud and his friends, like any other day were playing indoor games such as carom and cards during the days of curfew at the veranda of their Rajarbagh house when they came to know that Dhaka University’s Iqbal Hall was being raided. Their house, which was close to the Rajarbagh police line, was hit by large shells when the police personnel were holding out against the army throughout the night from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings.
After things started getting worse and the freedom struggle commenced, Minu and her family could not remain stationed in one place — they began to take shelter at various places. Tikka Khan announced the educational institutions to remain open and ordered students to attend classes as a sign of normalcy. Hence, television artistes and entertainers were also called up to perform for the cause. Minu, who was a young artiste during those times also was called upon.
When the Pakistani Army came to enquire about Minu, her mother had to face them. ‘My mother was a very brave lady. One must note that during the liberation war, not only did the mother’s send their sons to war but also their daughters. My mother raised us brothers and sisters single handedly after our father’s demise and she was the one who told me to go to war later. When the Pakistanis came looking for me, she said I went on a vacation to which they replied that they will come again. They did come back multiple times looking for me,’ she recalls.
When it was finally decided that Minu was going to join the freedom struggle, Minu’s mother sent her to Sufia Kamal’s house whose daughters Sultana and Saeeda Kamal were already in the front awaiting for Minu. Her brother-in-law Altaf Mahmud, who was discreetly involved with the freedom struggle, also got ready to take his recordings to Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra and that is when Minu’s mother pleaded Altaf to take her along with him.
‘Just before we were about to set out, Altaf bhai told my mother that he cannot go and he was sending me with freedom fighters Habibul Alam (Bir Pratik) and Shahadat Chowdhury who later became editor of Bichitra. I regret this decision to this day as later dulabhai along with Jewel, Bodi, Rumi and Azad got caught by the Pak army. If only dulabhai came with us, he would’ve survived.’ Minu remembers.
Minu’s journey from Dhaka to Agartala was a perilous one. ‘I could write a book about the whole journey, in fact if it was made into a film it would beat even the best war films. We did not know where we were going. We were crossing rivers with other refugees whilst bullets ran over our heads. There were Pakistani searchlights at the CNB road of Comilla,’ she harks back to the past.
After reaching safely, Minu was relieved to find captain Akhter and his hospital which was under Sector-2 of Khaled Mosharraf.
‘It was as if he was specifically sent by God for us! We felt so relieved. The hospital was entirely built of bamboo but had all the facilities including the medical ward, the patient’s ward, surgical ward, and women’s dormitory. The owner was a rich businessman Habul Banerjee who gave up his entire business property which included gardens of cashew nuts, pineapple, guava and banana orchards,’ Minu recalls. She further added, ‘We received trainings on how to use the injection, measure pulse and blood pressure from captain Akhter and others. When trained nurses were required right after the official war between India and Pakistan broke out, we left. I stayed there till December,’ says Minu.
Career and future plan
Normal life commenced and Minu took admission at Bulbul Lalita Kala Academy Bangladesh and received her certificate in 1972. She also finished her master’s on psychology from the University of Dhaka in 1977. In 1997, she founded the Pallavi Dance Center and she continued her dancing knowledge and is now currently associated with the Bangladesh Nrityashilpa Sangstha.
In order raise her two sons Shayan Haque and Amal Haque successfully, Minu went on a self-imposed hiatus from the dance arena. Later, however, she came back and continued with ease. She soon proved her worth as a leading exponent of the classical dance scene.
Minu’s dance school Pallavi Dance Center that caters to underprivileged children learning dance, combines Odissi and Bharatanatyam together with contemporary and folk styles which can easily be picked up by pupils of all ages. She also introduced the Manipuri dance form into the school.
Minu’s mentors included Habibul Chowdhury, Babu Ram Singh, and Rahiza Khanam Jhunu. She also got the opportunity to learn Manipuri dance form Shantibala Devi, and the dance form Odissi, for which she became quiet renowned, from the noted dancers Sani Mohapatra and Ipshita Behura.
‘Both the dancers are highly respected. When we met for the first time, Sani Mohapatra was amazed to see me. They had this pre-conceived notion that Bangladesh was very conservative and the woman are all burqa-clad, but my being there completely changed their mindset and we got to work together well,’ she recalls.
Minu Haque says that in the coming months BNSS will be organising a dance competition for youngsters in September and Nrityanatya festival in November.
Dance scene and advice to youngsters
Reflecting on the dance scene Minu stressed that while there were many upcoming talents in the dance arena, ‘Nowadays, unlike the simple carefree days we had, children are busy with studies and technology all the time. However, one needs to find out time to practice. Discipline, determination and appreciation are the key elements newcomers should possess,’ she points out.
According to the renowned dancer, the Bangladeshi dance scene has gone a long way but there are more scopes for getting better. ‘The dance troupes in the country cannot afford the expenses of making a new dance production. That is why not many new dance drama productions are made these days,’ says Minu.
‘Moreover, due to lack of support from the government or private sponsors, dance troupes struggle to engage their troupes round the year. Therefore, producing new dance dramas or organise programmes always seem difficult to pull off,’ added the veteran dancer.
Yet, Minu believes with all her heart, that better days are right around the corner and cultural practices such as dance will help offset the negative influences on young minds and the society in general.
Photos by Abdullah Apu
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