Text and images: Sarita Manu
Dhanmondi is a maddeningly crowded part of Dhaka. Home to many commercial establishments, the streets of Dhanmondi are lined with private universities, many with ugly facades. Amongst them, the brick building Chhayanaut Shangskriti Bhaban, built in 2006 provides a refreshing respite to the eyes.
Chhayanaut was established in 1961, the year that witnessed Rabindranath Tagore’s birth centenary (the website is currently accessible only in Bangla and work is on to make it accessible in English). It is well known that Muhammad Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, had banned the playing of Tagore songs on radio and television in erstwhile East Pakistan, but Tagore’s songs and poems inspired a strong linguistic and cultural movement. A few brave people came together to successfully hold events in 1961 celebrating Tagore. Following the celebrations, they reunited to establish Chhayanaut to carry on the struggle for Bangla culture and heritage. Chhayanaut played an important role in enhancing Bangla nationalism though the Bangla culture and heritage and continues to do so, till date. The music and poetry of Tagore and of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh, were often invoked to promote Bangla culture.
At the music school in Chhayanaut thousands of students come to learn and practice music, as an active part of their life; many leading singers of Bangladesh today, have been students at Chhayanaut. The Bhaban holds regular programs every year, a few of them are: the Bangla New Year (Poyela Boishakh); the birth and death anniversaries of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam; 26th March, Independence day; 16th December, Victory Day (Bijoy Dibosh) ; and 21st February, Martyrs Day (Shaheed Dibosh); a Classical Music Festival; a Folk Music Festival; the Rabindra Sangeet Festival; and a dance festival. Recently, Chhayanaut has also established Nalonda, a primary school that provides culture integrated education.
In 2009, the Chhayanaut Resource Center was established with financial assistance from the Norwegian Government. The resource centre aims to collect, document, preserve and make accessible the culture and heritage of Bangla performing arts. The three main parts of the centre are an audio-visual archive, a book library with books on performing arts and cultural studies, and a recording studio. The audio visual archive has records and photographs of all programs of Chhayanaut, as well as a collection of old music materials in the form of LP records and audio cassettes. Around 500-600 songs from the classical music collection have been digitised so far and the process is ongoing. Currently, the collection is freely accessible to all Chhayanaut students, teachers and staff. Others can access it with permission.
Chhayanaut is not just a space that is actively working on building and preserving Bangla cultural identities but also aims to reach out to all, including tying up with similar institutions in other countries. It is noteworthy that although the current Chhayanaut building is built on a piece of land that was donated by the government in 2001, the money used for constructing the building was raised publicly with contributions from individuals and organisations. No funding was accepted from the government or other donor agencies. Chhayanaut is hopeful that its patrons will continue their overwhelming support.