On August 1, 1971, Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar took to the stage in New York to launch a humanitarian appeal for Bangladesh. The nation was then in the midst of war with Pakistan, having declared independence just four months previously, and was facing a refugee crisis sparked by genocide and a series of devastating natural disasters. Urgent and well-intentioned, the Concert for Bangladesh raised general public awareness to approximately $ 12 million. But perhaps its most enduring by-product was the image of a nation emaciated by conflict and with little chance of success.
Yet today, as Bangladesh celebrates half a century of independence, it seems anything but helpless. Located at the top of the largest river delta in the world, it regularly suffers from severe flooding and sometimes violent cyclones. Meanwhile, politics, while relatively stable in the South Asian region, is still marked by corruption, bigotry, and a growing repression of dissent. Despite this, since the mid-2000s, the nation has been viewed as a model of development, consistently outperforming Pakistan and its other neighbors in most growth indicators. Her 72-year life expectancy is now higher than parts of Mississippi, United States.
In response to the 1971 concert, Anglo-South Asian artist Shezad Dawood in collaboration with New York-based Bangladeshi music producer Enayet Kabir will launch Concert of Bangladesh 2021 on August 1, a “mixed reality” concert that fuses the video performances of 13 Bangladeshi and South Asian musicians in an eclectic range of styles, from hip-hop to experimental electronics. Each musician will be projected onto a green screen on a virtual reality stage, designed by Dawood, which travels through remarkable architectural and natural sites in Bangladesh and celebrates a country which, against all odds, has become one of the most dynamic creative hubs. from Asia.
Choose your words wisely
“It’s important to distinguish what it means to be ‘of’ something, rather than ‘for’ him,” says Diana Campbell, concert curator and artistic director of the Samdani Art Foundation (SAF), which is part-funding the project. “Effective change is rarely achieved unilaterally. It comes from collaboration, ”she adds. With this simple linguistic shift, Concert from Bangladesh attempts to reverse a problematic power dynamic inherent in its ancestor’s name: that of a former colonial power coming to the rescue.
Campbell, who is also a writer, places a great deal of importance on these syntactic choices. She insists, for example, on the fact that the Dhaka Art Summit, of which she is the chief curator, is not qualified as a biennial, wishing to avoid the connotations of ephemeral and spectacle that surround many annual exhibitions. But this attention to words is also of particular importance for the historical context of the concert: “Language is the very reason Bangladesh was born,” she says, referring to the 1950s Bengali Language Movement, in which citizens of then East Pakistan fought against the suppression of Bengali and other indigenous languages by West Pakistan. The movement, which enshrined the bangla in the national constitution, served as a catalyst for the rise of nationalism that led to independence. To date, the languages of Bangladesh hold a special status in its society and its legislation, and the concert, which is presented in venues around the world that are home to large Bangladeshi diaspora communities, will be available in several of them. them.
Music also has a decisive place in the country’s long struggle for freedom. “During the 1971 Liberation War, songs played a huge role in motivating refugees and freedom fighters,” says Ruxmini Choudhury, assistant curator at SAF and co-organizer of the concert. She specifically refers to the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (Free Bengal Radio Center) singers, known as the “soldier voices”, who roamed the refugee camps and sang Bangladeshi songs to boost morale. “My mother used to sing these songs to me when I was a child. Even today we sing them at our protests – we remember this music as a nation,” adds Choudhury.
Spanning six centuries of musical traditions, Concert from Bangladesh counts among its performers the mystical singer Baul Arif Baul accompanied by instrumentalists Nazrul Islam, Saidur Rahman and Sohel. The show will culminate with Bangladeshi hip-hop duo Tabib Mahmud and 12-year-old Gully Boy Rana, whose socially engaged lyrics address topics around the climate emergency and poverty.
For the visual elements of the concert, Dawood drew on his previous decade of research into 20th-century South Asian architecture and the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, in particular architect Muzharul Islam, a pioneer of the Bangladeshi modernism.
“Islam defines what design looks like ‘from’ a place, rather than ‘for’ it, ” says Dawood. The Islamic view of ‘indigenous modernism’, as Dawood calls it, dates back to around 2,000 years ago. years at sites such as Somapura, a Buddhist monastery built around 700 AD, which is also featured in the virtual reality scene. ”Unlike modernism in many other parts of Southeast Asia, or the non-world Broadly aligned, the Bangladesh movement was extremely local, and it’s important to stress that, ”Dawood adds.
In a careful synthesis, Dawood also says that Somapura’s geometric structure, which resonates through many of the architectural sites depicted, including the National Assembly building designed by Louis Kahn in Dhaka, lends itself to shaped digital building blocks. of trellises he used to create the virtual reality stage, allowing the sites to dissolve and grow into each other.
Equally important to the VR scene are images of Bangladesh’s rich natural landscape and wildlife, such as meandering streams and dense forests. In one section, Dawood transformed the Sundarbans, a vast area of mangrove in the south of the country, with fearsome man-eating tigers stalking their prey among the shallow, verdant pools.
A little confusing, Concert from Bangladesh will not be the only musical event launched this weekend which addresses the concert of 1971. The same day will be a revival of the Concert for Bangladesh 1971, organized under the aegis of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. and featuring the children of Harrison and Shankar: musicians Dhani Harrison and Anoushka Shankar. The two coincident concerts are separate entities – attempts to merge the two were rejected from the start – and in many ways they seem diametrically opposed in their organization.
“I don’t know exactly who Concert for Bangladesh 2021 is for,” says Campbell. “Why is it taking place in India? Do these musicians know what India is currently doing to Muslims? It seems strange to host a concert like this when Dhaka has such a solid cultural scene.
“‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country, I’m pretty sure they know it’s Christmas ”
Diana Campbell, curator
Concert for Bangladesh 1971 was arguably the model for subsequent benefit concerts such as Live Aid in 1985, which in turn played a central role in shaping the global charity industry. But more and more, this model is being redesigned. “When you just have a starving kid as a poster of your initiative, it flattens out so many other things and reduces people’s agency. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country, I’m pretty sure they know it’s Christmas, ”says Campbell.
Indeed, much has changed over the past 50 years, not only for Bangladesh, but also with regard to attitudes towards aid and globalization. Where previously atomized organizations once relied on lateral flows of funds and information, contemporary problem solving increasingly relies on interdependent thinking. This, above all, requires a challenge to the myth of the white savior. And nowhere is this more urgent than in efforts to address the climate crisis, a problem that is unlikely to be solved without centering the voices of countries in the South who are generally more at risk.
Not that those in rich countries remain intact. After flash floods devastated Western Europe and killed hundreds earlier this month, it seems increasingly vital to study how flood-prone countries like Bangladesh have negotiated floods for centuries . Quoting Bangladeshi artist Shawon Akand, Campbell explains that the reason Bangladesh was never successfully colonized is that the British were unable to navigate such perilous terrain. “People here lead amphibious lives. They name their children after the floods. It’s a different way of thinking about nature. But that’s exactly what we need if we are to be able to cope with the emergency. current. ”
• Bangladesh Concert will be broadcast live to the public via the Pioneer Works online platform on 1 August 2021, accompanied by live events at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Wakefield) as part of Yorkshire Sculpture International and Pioneer Works (New York City). Other events will take place with the Chisenhale Gallery (London), Leeds City Varieties Music Hall (Leeds) and Srihatta Samdani Art Center and Sculpture Park (Sylhet). All funds will go to climate change efforts in Bangladesh, as well as to the human rights charity Friendship. To register for the August 1 online event, please click here. Follow #ConcertFromBangladesh on social media for updates.
• Concert From Bangladesh is a project of UBIK Productions and Samdani Art Foundation in collaboration with Shezad Dawood and in partnership with Pioneer Works, Yorkshire Sculpture International, Chisenhale Gallery and Friendship. It is supported by the British Council Digital Collaboration Fund.