The Bangali people have a very rich tradition of freely enmeshing the cultural arts and politics. Art has often been used as a voice of protest, while the drama, music and paintings created by Bangali people habitually carry a healthy dose of political awareness.
Take the establishment of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, presently Faculty of Fine Art, University of Dhaka, in 1948. The first batch of students created the backbone of a slowly expanding Dhaka intelligentsia that would play a pivotal role in creating the cultural momentum of our independence movement. They would go on to become vocal members of a community that protested against various forms of West Pakistani injustice. Musicians, writers, poets and filmmakers also played a similar, if not more important role, in carrying the torch of our liberation struggle.
It is therefore not surprising that culture would go on to play an important role in our Liberation War as well.
Although nothing can compare to the bravery and sacrifice of the freedom fighters taking up arms, the artistes – many of them working for the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra at the time - helped spread the word of the rebellion against the West Pakistani government, and helped sustain the soldier's morale. They did however lack resources and means of communicating with the rest of the world. The works produced at the time, more often than not, remained within the borders of the country, and at best, the region. They would require some help to draw the attention of the world to our cause.
That help came from none other than the iconic Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar. Born in Uttar Pradesh, his ancestral roots are in Narail, Jessore. As he learnt of the slaughter of his people in his ancestral home, Shankar reached out to his friend and Beatles legend George Harrison with the intention of organising a concert, primarily to raise relief funds for refugees, but also to bring to light the atrocities committed by the West Pakistani regime.
The event was the first-ever benefit concert of such a magnitude, and featured a line-up of performers which also included Ali Akbar Khan, former Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and Badfinger.
Entitled "A Concert for Bangladesh", the event commenced on the August of 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. For the first time in history, the show introduced the name Bangladesh to the wider western audience, at a time when the Liberation War was viewed as a civil war in Pakistan.
Asif Bin Ali, a Faculty Member of North South University, believes the Concert for Bangladesh is an aspect of the Liberation War which is not widely discussed. In his attempt to re-kindle the Bangladeshi youth's interest, and the interest of "life-long learners", he released his debut documentary film, "The Concert for Bangladesh: Music to Introduce Bangladesh to the World", on 29 January 2022.
Asif's film briefly explores the political unrest which led to the birth of Bangladesh and goes on to focus on the friendship between Ravi Shankar and George Harrison.
It explores Concert for Bangladesh's impact on the wider western audience, and how aspects of cultural activism and humanitarian diplomacy aided the Liberation War through awareness.
A self-funded passion project (funds saved from his Erasmus Mundus Scholarship, Swansea University, UK), the 14-minute film was designed to be viewed on social media platforms, and takes a similar approach to short documentaries released by YouTube channels such as VICE.
The film was released at a virtual event organised on Zoom and Facebook, on 29 January 2022. The event launched with the film screening of the documentary, followed by a panel discussion.
"The new generations need to know about their past. We can revive their interest through similar projects," said Dr Habibul Haque Khondker, Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed University, speaking at the event.
Shamim Azad, Bangladeshi-born British bilingual poet and writer, felt the documentary brought a much-needed focus on the Concert for Bangladesh, adding, "but the neatly woven story about the birth of Bangladesh was a brilliant addition".
Shafiqul Alam, Dhaka Bureau Chief, AFP; Dr. Selim Jahan, former Director, Human Development Report Office, UNDP; Riaz Hamidullah, Bangladesh Ambassador to Netherlands, and Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former State Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, participated in the panel discussion.
Special guest Professor Imtiaz Ahmed, Director, Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka; Professor Amena Mohsin, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka; and Dr. M. Emdadul Haq, Professor & Chair, Department of History and Philosophy, North South University, also spoke on the occasion.
The Concert for Bangladesh: Music to Introduce Bangladesh to the World and the virtual event can both be viewed on Asif Bin Ali's public Facebook profile: facebook.com/asifbinali91.