By Faisal Mahmud;
The Pope’s visit to any country is a global event. In Dhaka- the sprawling capital of Bangladesh – cancellation of a local event due to Pope Francis’s visit has made the city’s educated middle and upper classes seemingly ‘less excited’ about the unfolding of that global event on their own turf in the next month.
The sixth edition of the annual Bengal Classical Music Festival has been officially cancelled this year apparently because of a schedule conflicting with Pope Francis’s first-ever visit to Bangladesh.
The usual venue for this event – the Army Stadium-was allotted to Bengal Foundation from November 20-28 (with the Music Fest set for November 23-27). However after the Vatican announced in August 28 that the Pontiff will make a three day visit to Bangladesh on November 30, the Army Sports Control Board (ASCB)- custodian of the Army Stadium- on August 31 denied pre-scheduled allotment to Bengal Foundation.
Pope Francis will come to Bangladesh this year for a landmark visit that is likely to focus international attention on the plight of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, about 800,000 of whom are crowded in squalid camps at the South-Eastern part of Bangladesh after the Myanmar military conducted a “textbook ethnic cleansing” to oust them from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state.
The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will first visit Myanmar from 27 to 30 November to be followed by to neighbouring Bangladesh from 30 November to 2 December. This is the second-ever visit of a Pope to this country. Pope John Paul II visited Bangladesh in 1986.
When it was known that the Pope was arriving on November 30 and his main programme would not be held at the Army Stadium, Bengal Foundation reapplied for the venue on September 9 but ASCB did apparently not pay heed to the appeal.
Almost a month and a half later, on October 23, at a crowded press conference in a city hotel, Abul Khair, the Chairman of the Bengal Foundation, disclosed that this year’s Classical Fest was cancelled.
This came as a shock and disappointment to the Dhakaits who have developed an ear and a taste for classical music because of this event in the last six years.
Since its inception in 2012, Bengal Classical Music Festival has been able to sit at the helm of Dhaka’s cultural calendar. The festival has been able to grab the attention of people from different walks of city life – From Ministers to industrialists, public intellectuals to young middle-class music enthusiasts.
Interest in classical music – once considered as a very few man’s cup of tea – is rejuvenated the Dhaka’s educated middle and upper-middle class because of this festival.
During the 90’s and the early 2000’s Dhaka’s music scenes were being dominated by six to seven major bands and concerts-both closed door and open air – by those were a regular feature at that time. But with the advent of internet, popularization of YouTube and waning of Dhaka’s music recording industry, these bands as well as their concerts had started losing their places.
Besides, those concerts were mostly being attended by the city’s youths; people in their post-thirty were hardly seen there. Among the crowds, women had always been less than ten percent as the state of security was never perceived to up to the mark in those concerts.
Bengal Classical Music Festival however has been of different meld from the very onset. With great management, open air setting, security and amenities available inside the venue, this festival has been able to garner praise from all quarters.
Part of the reason the Bengal Classical Festivals has become the live music experience du jour of Dhaka is that they also offer a bevy of music alternatives. Each day features stylistically diverse performances that usually don’t last longer than an hour each.
The five editions of the festivals have already featured diverse artistes from across the entire South Asia like – Vidushi Girija Devi, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Birju Maharaj, Balamurali Krishna, Kishori A Monkar, Ustad Rashid Khan, Pt Ajoy Chakravarty, Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussein, Parveen Sultana, Pt Swapan Chaudhury, Pt Anindo Chatterjee, Vidushi Prabha Atre, Kaushiki Chakravarty, Vidushi Alarmel Valli, Bombay Jayashree, Aruna Sairam, Guru Karaikudi Mani and countless other gems.
Numbers alone speak of the increasing popularity and importance of this ‘one-of-a-kind’ festival among the Dhaka’s crowd. When the first edition of Bengal Classical Music fest unfolded in 2012, it attracted about 50,000 people attended the four-day long festival. Within five years, the number rose to nearly 200,000. Since 2014, the festival was extended to five nights because of its popularity.
Incidentally, ‘this large number of crowd’ has proven to be the death knell for this festival this year. Rescheduling the Music Festival to some other venue (than the Army Stadium) is impossible as Dhaka – a city of about 17 million people – has no large community space in where more than 100,000 people can be provided with proper arrangements to enjoy an event like the classical music fest.
Besides, organization of a mega festival like Bengal Classical Fest is no easy task as was informed by Abul Khair at the press conference. “It takes about eight months to plan and prepare for the festival and therefore it was not possible to shift the dates,” said Khair.
He also said that another venue was not an option because of the stature of the festival and the security requirements of the performing artistes and the large number of audience members.
An illustrious line-up of artistes were scheduled to perform at this year’s festival, including Pt. Jasraj (vocals), Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (Mohan Veena), first South Indian Grammy winner Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram (Carnatic percussion), a Western Classical Symphonic Orchestra (to perform with violin maestro Pt. L Subramaniam) for the first time, along with festival regulars Pt. Ajoy Chakravarty (vocals), Ustad Rashid Khan (vocals), Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar (vocals), Ustad Shahid Parvez Khan (sitar), Kaushiki Chakravarty (vocal), Purbayan Chatterjee (sitar) and Pt. Tejendra Narayan Majumdar (sarod).
Within hours of the press conference, the cancellation news of the Classical Fest went viral on social media. People have expressed frustration and anger. Rumana Habib, an alumnus of John Hopkins University of the US wrote, -“This event was one of the reasons I moved back to Dhaka. Don’t take this away from us!” Andalib Rahman, an owner of tech startup in Dhaka posted, “Unbelievable. What will the Pope do inside Army Stadium?”
Not just in social media, in uptown cafes, restaurants and even offices, this news has been the ‘talk of the town’ for the past few days. Asruf-ul-Jubair, a business development manager of a software company said that November will not be same without Classical Fest. November is usually considered as the most ‘celebratory’ month among Dhaka’s educated middle class. Events like Dhaka Lit Fest, Folk Music Fest and TEDx, also take place during the month
Mahfujul Haque, an architect blames Dhaka’s lack of large community space for this. “It’s disappointing that a scheduled event like Classical Fest is cancelled because of venue crisis,” said the architect whose specialization lays in landscape architecture.
“Dhaka is not a planned city and there is no public square here,” said Haque, “If you look at the Shahbagh movement of 2013 you would understand what I mean.” In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people had gathered in Shahbagh – a busy intersection at the heart Dhaka – to demand execution of the war criminals of 1971 liberation war. Haque said that movement was juxtaposed with Egypt’s Tahrir Square movement of 2011 (Arab Spring) because of the nature of large number of people’s gathering in one particular point of the city.
“Tahrir Square is a square in Cairo whereas Shahbagh is an intersection of four busy roads. It shows that there is no place in Dhaka in where a large number of people can gather for a purpose,” said Haque.
As urbanization leads to denser cities and higher demand for available land, the pressure is on to create and maintain public spaces. “There’s no one size fits all solution,” Haque said, “but a public square could be a good solution.”
He said a square has always been synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public. “So I think, the policymakers should start thinking about creating a large Public Square in Dhaka where large number of people could be accommodated for events like Classical Fest.”