Key to national progress lies in our folk traditions – Saymon Zakaria

The Daily Star

The decision to research and explore Bangladeshi folklore wasn’t instigated by some vested interest — I wasn’t seeking academic recognition or financial gains from it,” says playwright and researcher Saymon Zakaria.

Zakaria, who is also the manuscript editor, Folklore Department, Bangla Academy, received the HSBC-Kali O Kolom Award 2008 (for young writers and poets) for his book “Bangladesh-er Lokonatok: Bishoy O Aangik Baichitro”.

Sitting in his office on the second floor of Bardhaman House, Zakaria went over his roots and explained how his 15-year spanning research started off as an effort to trace and understand his identity. The setting was certainly interesting: at the heart of Ekushey Boi Mela, devoid of the usual crowd, the hustle and bustle (it was before 3pm when the mela starts).

“I was born in Kumarkhali, Kushtia — where Lalon and Tagore’s influences are strong. Kushtia is also the home district of litterateur Mir Mosharraf Hossain and revolutionary “Bagha Jatin” (Jatindranath Mukherjee). Kustia has always been spiritually, culturally and politically aware. The maternal side of my family is from Shailokupa, Jhenaidah — renowned for Gazir Gaan,” Zakaria says.

“I grew up listening to Gazir Gaan. I remember shapurey (snake charmers) coming to my grandparents’ home on the occasion of ‘Behula (the snake goddess) Puja’. My grandmother named two of my cousins after Gazi Pir and his brother Kalu. Gazir Gaan narrates the story of the saint, Gazi, and his brother Kalu. This folklore is a great example of religious harmony in rural Bengal. Gazi is identified as a Muslim saint and his brother is Hindu (Kalu or Kalachan is a synonym of Krishna). Gazi marries a Hindu princess, Champaboti…the whole legend centres on inter-religious relationships.

“Seeds of inter-religious understanding were sown through these cultural experiences and I believe the forte of our cultural traditions are these practices that originated from diverse religious beliefs. One has to keep in mind that prior to the mass Islamisation, Bengal was predominantly Buddhist and then Hindu. And I also believe that one’s religion may change but culture doesn’t. Through evolution, culture — heavily inspired by everyday customs — remains the key aspect of one’s identity.

“Unfortunately, when I went to school [and college], I found no reference of my rural cultural heritage in the textbooks. I didn’t sever ties with my roots; I kept going back. Eventually, I started to consider documenting these experiences. That’s how my research on folklore and indigenous performing art forms started,” says the scholar.

“As I got more into my research, I realised that in-depth studies on our folklore had pretty much stalled since Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah. There was no groundbreaking discovery, no remarkable fieldwork. So, I concentrated on the latter. Certain realisations were awe-inspiring.

“I realised that as a nation, our progress — economic, educational, social and religious — lies in our folk traditions and roots. People, who want to label Bangladesh as a ‘fundamentalist Muslim country,’ should be exposed to our indigenous theatre forms, music and dances. Outside sources indicate that around the advent of Islam (600 AD), Bengal was a prosperous kingdom boasting a sophisticated culture.

“Cultural exchange between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal has been immense. Versions of the ‘Ramayan’, mostly folklore-based performances, are still enacted in rural Bangladesh. ‘Ramayan’ is interpreted as a social comment exploring the ideal relationship between husband, wife and other members of the family,” Zakaria says.

“Sita’r Agniporikkha” — a monodrama in the ‘Kushan Gaan’ (a tradition indigenous to northern Bangladesh) style — written by Zakaria, has been staged by Shadhona in Bangladesh and India and has won the playwright much acclaim. The play sees the epic heroine, Sita, in a new light.

Sita’s “Agniporikkha” (fire ordeal), in the rural Bangladeshi context, is interpreted as the tribulations of the average woman, who is subjected to tests both at her father’s home, in-laws’ house and in the conservative social setting of the villages that still frowns upon gender equality and freedom, explains the playwright.

Zakaria’s other notable works are: “Na Noyramoni” (a Dhaka Theatre production) featuring songs from “Charyapada” (the earliest known example of Bengali poetry); “Jugantoro Ropalo Nachi” on adibashi (indigenous) issues and “Mohamanob Shonghita” on leftism in culture.

Zakaria, along with dancers Lubna Mariam and Warda Rihab, recently went to Nepal to study an ancient Buddhist dance form that is mentioned in “Charyapada”. According to the researcher, this dance form “went from Bengal to Tibet and Nepal.” An upcoming dance-drama titled “Bodhidrum” (a Shadhona production) will highlight this style.

In the process of tracing his identity, Zakaria has seemingly tapped into a major source of national pride and inspiration

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