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Ravaged land, scarred psyche
Photos courtesy: Sudarshan Chakravorty

June 22, 2018

Looking southwards from the Cherapunji heights - known once as the rainiest place on earth - located on the cloud kissed Khasia-Jayantia hills of Meghalaya, one is bemused to gaze at the terrain of Sylhet spread on the vast southern plains. Now a division in Bangladesh, the landscape is seen from the hilltop as one of sprawling meadows, flanked on the southern horizon with contours of a flourishing habitat. In today's blissful environs, it is hard to believe that Sylhet - this peace loving land of many poets and litterateurs, colorful folklores, lilting melodies of Murshedi and Marfati folksongs, and scores of folk dances - lacerated once in 1947, when the Radcliff Award created Partition of India and led to a grave sense of insecurity in the minds of the minority community in East Pakistan. Overnight, wave after wave of humanity started pouring across the porous borders. Clutching whatever belongings they could, miserable streams of men, women and children - all in great distress - made frantic efforts to cross the frontiers. A lot perished on the way, while those who managed to cross over had lost all sense of identity and were "refugees" shorn of hearth and home.

Years - and much repression under the West Pakistan's dictatorial regime - later, Sylhet, like the rest of the erstwhile East Pakistan, felt the upsurge of rebellion and an inspired band of Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force) formed by the land's militant youth, began guerrilla fights against the occupying power, aided and abetted by the highly disciplined Indian armed forces. Sporadic efforts soon gathered strength and, having opened other fronts, the Indian troops mounted their first ever helicopter borne armed attack against the Pakistani brigade guarding the Sylhet district on 6 December 1971. The stormy Surama River was crossed in dark night in a clandestine manner and a ding-dong battle continued for more than a week against the Khan troops till 16 December 1971, when the latter finally surrendered and the world saw the creation of a liberated 'Bangladesh.'

KI-TA-RE-BA presented on 6 June in Kolkata by Sapphire Creations, was a tribute to the rich cultural mosaic of Sylhet in a filigree of dance, theatre, music and narrative. The title of the program came from Sylhet's customary term of addressing each other to mean 'How do you do?', especially for the youth, and had a strange resonance with 'Kitareba' that is used in distant Japan endearingly to mean: 'to arrive, to be forthcoming, to come'! The occasion was the launch of 'Subijoya Dance Foundation' in remembrance of the late parents - both belonging to Sylhet - - of Sapphire's director Sudarshan Chakravorty, who also conceived and choreographed the present program.

At the outset, in a far corner of a dimly-lit stage - with surrounding sounds of moving trains and cacophonous radio announcements - - sits the hapless refugee Hindu girl Mouli, clutching at a ramshackle bird's nest and ruminating: "What marks a country? Are they strings of barbed wire, separate religions or just political agendas? My country is my beautiful neighbourhood where I grew up... The little yard outside my house where I used to spend time looking at the busy ants... Did I have a home? If it was mine, how would I lose it... This little nest that you see is Tuktuki's... I wonder where she flew to, in which sky... Do skies have borders, too?"

Two male-female pair of folk dancers executes vigorous pas de deux with the female offering betel leaves to the male with great affection. Mouli (and her alter-ego Paro) continue their retrospection: "On that birthday, Granny gave me a beautiful set of anklets ... But stupid me, I lost them while playing somewhere... Mizan used to come and watch us play ...He was such a pest, so naughty... my Mizan... I came back home crying for my anklets... and there he was, standing right there with the anklets in his hand... Overjoyed, I never realised that I had hugged him... what a sight!"

The betel leaf dance continues with fresh delicate movements and the rush to the border begins with anxiety and increasing chaos. Mizan, Mouli's young Muslim neighbor, enters at one end and repeats coyly: "... She was a great girl, with a nose ring... How lively, and what a constant chatterbox! ... I'd wait for her at the day's end and she'd know it ... She'd bring her betel leaf for me...If she couldn't do it one way or the other, she'd appear with swollen lips and eyes brimming with tears..."

There is a blaring siren, with continued refrain of the erstwhile folksong, Oh listen, my missing friend... by the male singer Joy Shankar. The refrain is taken over by the female singer Dipannita Acharya in her plaintive voice, I am the sinning maid, thrown out of the clan... Bombs explode, crowds surge to and fro in confusion and radio announcements blare. Enthusiastic boys enter and raise lusty cheers to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's rousing speech heard on the radio. Bells toll endlessly, bombs burst again and boys disappear.

From two opposite corners of the proscenium, Mouli and Mizanur accost each other, like two lost souls:
Mouli: You're deceiving me; your land and my land have altered for ever...
Mizan: But not so our love. Do you think the barbed wires have the power to closet out our love?
Mouli: I still love to dream...I still feel you would discover our lost land, like you found my anklets when I was a child...
Mizan: I would bring you back, my precious nose ring girl! At a new dawn, we'd walk hand-in-hand into a new land. We'd have a new nest there, with butterflies flitting by and your myna bird Tuktuki chirping for you!
Mouli: Are you really speaking the truth that you'd take me to a new land, where I could love you, could touch you and there'd be no barbed wires ever?
Mizan: Oh yes, once you're in that land, all our worries will vanish and words will blossom like flowers...
(Does Mouli-Mizan's tragic cooing to each other ring a bell among the countless Dhola-Marus, Laila-Maznus and Sirin-Farhads of our sub-continental world?)

The statuesque singer Surajit Chatterjee enters, humming on guitar the farewell lyric, Why does my mind wail and wail endlessly?...

Enter the bevy of dancers Paramita Saha, Promita Karfa, Ujjayee Banerjee, Ankita Duttagupta, Koushik Das, Pintu Das and Rajesh Sahu - - pirouetting and forming rings and lines among the gathering crowds. Mouli (Pubali Banerjee) and Mizan (Nilaksha Choudhury) enter the crowd to edge towards each other, but are soon hopelessly lost. ...

The short performative memorabilia was quite poignant and evocative of the memory of a land that lost its innocence. Interestingly, the evening's overture was an unusual rendering of two of Tagore's musical librettos: You'd reside in silence in my heart... and Would you forget the memory of those days gone by ...,both by Meeyung Hall, the talented Korean spouse of the departing Consul General of USA, in her deep, soprano voice. The dancer duo, Paramita and Dibyendu, mimed well to the first song, while the second one was interpreted in group choreography in creative style to set the tone of the entire evening.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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