When Bangladeshis move abroad, they take with them a little piece of Bangladesh in their hearts.
The results are not always salubrious—expatriate communities are rife with bitter Awami League-BNP feuds that are relitigated ad nauseum.
There is, however, a gentler, more tender and beautiful manifestation of a love of our identity that endures despite geographical displacement of tens of thousands of miles. Bangladeshi communities here in the US mark the Bengali New Year, gather for musical soirees, and enthusiastically go to concerts by visiting performers.
However, Bangladeshi American immigrants have also come to the poignant realisation that all of this will end with the passing of first-generation immigrants. The new generation of Bangladeshi Americans growing up in this country do not share their parents' cultural affinity. The hurdles are simply too daunting. An unfamiliarity with the language, culture and history simply makes culture too inaccessible. I frequently see young kids idling about listlessly, in what I call “whatever” mode, at Bangladeshi events.
Yet cultural identity matters. While it's wonderful that kids growing up in the US are learning how to fit into mainstream America, it adds immensely to their sense of identity to develop some sense of their immigrant heritage as well.
I was dazzled by the results of an attempt by one Bangladeshi family to do just that. Rati Roshni Sarkar, a college-bound youth, presented a spectacular performance of bharatanatyam at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta. Rati's parents Bishwanath and Rishita Sarkar are Atlanta-based entrepreneurs.
Rati's event was an arangetram, a formal premiere public performance of a trainee of South Indian classical dance after years of instruction.
This begs the question: This is not exactly Bangladeshi, is it? Well, yes and no.
Bear with me as I explain.
As immigrants in the US, we quickly become aware that culturally our identity expands into a broader South Asian rubric. Whether it's ghazals of Pakistan's Ghulam Ali or Mehdi Hassan, the craft of Hindustani classical music exponents like vocalist Rashid Khan, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia or sarod player Amjad Ali Khan—all of this is a part of our rich cultural heritage.
In that sense, Rati's foray into bharatanatyam is entirely appropriate.
There is another simple logistical reason. Bishwanath and Rishita didn't want their daughter to simply dabble in cultural activity. They wanted her to engage seriously in a certain aspect of it. In the US, the options for that are limited. You can possibly take training in Hindustani classical music, and then there is South Indian classical dance.
The South Indian, primary Tamil, expatriate community in the US is dead serious about preserving their heritage. Dance schools providing instruction in classical dance here retain the same rigour as in the old country. Students train for years, the regime is demanding, and expectations are high.
It turns out that Rati's bharatanatyam training had a distinct Bengali touch. Her instructor Anupa Guha Thakurta, who runs the Deeksha School of Performing Arts, is a Kolkata-raised Bengali. Her performances, while following the classical format of a traditional arangetram, included performances to an invocation of Durga, the revered deity of Bengalis, as well as a Bengali song on the eternal romance of Radha and Krishna.
What really stood out was the sheer excellence of her performance. Years of rigorous practice gave her performance a degree of depth and assurance that showed. Rati, a little slip of a girl barely out of high school, danced with the enormous skill, grace and panache of a fully developed performer.
She proved that in art, as elsewhere in life, anything worthwhile is the fruit of sustained, conscientious hard work.
And spare a thought for the parents, who went through years of hard work. Rati started her first lessons when she was four. Her father Bishwanath has no regrets. “Because of bharatanatyam from the start, Rati has learned what her culture is and where her roots start from,” he told me.
For Rati, this is a life-long gift. Once you master a craft seriously, it's a cultural asset for life.
“Finishing my arangetram is not the ending, it is just the beginning,” Rati told me. “It has opened many doors for me in the past and I know if I stick with this amazing passion I have for classical dance, I will continue to achieve many opportunities. Aside from my studies, my career, dance will always find its special fit in my life. Not because it wants to, but because I want it to.”
Rati hints that it's not going to end with her, either. She told me that she recently told Rishita: “Mom, when I have a daughter, I want to train her and be her guru for dance and especially her arangetram. I want to be the one on stage with her giving her the taalam (beats) and handing her the certificate not only from a guru's type of love but from a mother's love. I want her to feel the same amazing feelings I felt when I completed mine. That's be so-o-o cool, right? But please don't ask what happens if I have a son, I haven't thought that far out yet!”
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.