The symphony of our times

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley | Published: 00:05, Aug 28,2017


Cultural troupe from Azerbaijan

A CULTURAL troupe from the then Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan visited Dhaka during the spring of 1969. It contained performing artistes, including singers, dancers and instrumentalists who impressed the Dhaka audience with their charming performance. Their music was a blend of Turkish, Arabian and Central Asian tones and tunes. The district administration of greater Dhaka was given the responsibility of hosting the foreign entertainers in a day trip on the River Buriganga. Mary Anderson, the luxury steam boat in use from the twilight of the British colonial era, was used for the trip. The boat had on board the troupe with some 20 members, the hosts representing the provincial government and district administration and a large number of servers. It sailed from the Pagla ghat on a crispy April morning under the blue canopy of a cloudless sky. It moved along the river like a graceful swan.

Amina Dilbazi
AS AN assistant commissioner of Dhaka, I was on duty in the pleasure trip. My wife Sufia was among the invited guests. As the steamer propelled ahead with its side wheels churning the mild waves, members of the visiting cultural team entertained all aboard with songs, dances and music. During the intervals for tea and snacks and later for lunch, the Azeri artistes became friendly to the locals. Thus, one of the spirited artistes befriended Sufia despite the barrier of language. Amina Dilbazi, a skilful dancer from Azerbaijan, made up her deficiency in English by lively and fraternal gestures and postures. Her eyes glittered with enthusiastic humour and the rhythm of the movement of her lean figure was eloquent. Sufia was taken aback as Amina started singing the national anthem of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. She did not know that each constituent unit of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics had its own national flag and national anthem. I later told her, recollecting my teaching of the constitution of the Soviet Union in the BA (honours) class of Dhaka University in 1964–1967 that the Soviet constitution was composed on the premise that every constituent republic was theoretically free to secede from the union as it was an autonomous entity. The constitution also permitted the republics to have their own national standards and national anthems. This was why in the spring of 1969, Amina Dilbazi led a chorus with her fellow artistes singing the Azeri national anthem on board the Mary Anderson. Not only that she also took Sufia aside and loudly whispered in her ear, ‘Azerbaijan good, Russ no good’. Though amazed at this open declaration of national pride, we realised the strength and endurance of the sentiment years later as the Soviet Union broke up in 1992 and its Central Asian republics, including Azerbaijan, became independent and sovereign states.

Erstwhile USSR: a multinational entity
IT IS interesting to note here that the erstwhile Soviet Union looked upon itself, at least in theory, as a multinational entity. No wonder, therefore, that its constitution, at least in form, allowed its constituent republics to have their own national flags and anthems. It was another matter that in reality the unbreakable cementing bond of the union-wide Communist Party held the USSR together. It is equally interesting to note that the People’s Republic of China, another Socialist giant with as many as 51 minority nationalities, has a different view of the nationality question. Thus, it forcefully maintains: ‘Many countries in the world have nationality problems, which need be solved properly and reasonably in conformity with the desire and interest of the people, but these are the internal affairs of the respective countries, which can be solved only by their own government and people, and in which no foreign country has the right to interfere’ (‘Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China’, Hsinhua Dispatch No 121607, December 16, 1971).

Provincial cultural competition
THE Azeri cultural troupe left Dhaka on completion of its tour. Soon afterwards, we, the younger officers of the greater Dhaka district administration, were given the responsibility of holding the East Pakistan cultural competition. It was a week-long exercise involving many institutions and numerous contestants from all districts of the province. Needless to say we were not left alone to shoulder this heavy responsibility. We were supervised and helped by the senior officers such as the additional deputy commissioners and the deputy commissioner. As was the practice the competitors were divided into groups in different age brackets such as the children, the adolescents and the youth. There were a large number of female participants from schools colleges and cultural institutions. The venue was the music college of which Barin Mojumder, a reputed musician, was the principal. He and his colleagues extended whole-hearted help and cooperation to us. Thus, we found it easier and more delightful to carry on the assigned duties. The few days of the colourful and elaborate competition seemed to pass with joyful rapidity.

Opportunities past and present
IT IS important to remember that East Bengal of the late 1960s did not have today’s plenitude of facilities in the cultural sphere. For instance, there was only one television channel and it was state-owned. Academies and institutions for training the younger generation in fine arts were few in number and access to them was limited.

Successful talent hunting
AGAINST this backdrop, it was no wonder that state-organised events such as provincial cultural competitions generated widespread and enthusiastic participation. It helped to identify promising artistes from among the children and the youth. One of the adolescents who created a stir in the cultural arena through this competition was Sharmin Hassan. She emerged as a potentially skilful dancer. She was the daughter of the well-known couple of Dhaka, Syedul Hassan and Farida Hassan. Syedul Hassan, a top figure in the business world, was a left-leaning personality close to Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani. He had a tragic end as the Pakistani army picked him up and killed him in 1971. Farida Hassan later joined politics in the liberated Bangladesh and became a leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. As for Sharmin, after a brief carrier as top young dancer, she left the stage and got married to Adil Hossain. Adil, a jovial person and business executive of Chittagong, is the son of Zakir Hossain, a former governor of the erstwhile East Pakistan.
To be continued.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, is a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).

More about:

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email