One of the mandates it has is the promotion of the visual and the performing arts ever since EMK Center was established back in 2012. It is not supposed to promote established artist and performers, but people who have proven talents who have not been exposed to the public as a performer or an artist as deserved. The Center established two signature programs for its performances, the ‘EMK Platform’ and the ‘EMK Happy Hour’ under that mandate. The former is solely dedicated to newcomers and the latter is dedicated to slightly better-established artists who have a certain following or fame. Other than the usual genres of Bengali music, performances have included various forms of fusion, jazz and blues, hip-hop and Bangla rap, Electronic Digital Music (EDM), and vocal orchestras.
In terms of exhibitions at the Center, the philosophy of choosing the artists has been the same, except that we also added the categories of arts that are historical, rural, or in need of promotion or preservation. In that regard, the Center promoted the almost extinct traditional metal sculptural art, pot chitro, and rickshaw art. Workshops were also held in conjunction with these exhibitions about the process of these art forms. Innovative concepts such as the promotion of fabrics derived from pineapple waste and how to incorporate them into modern fashion trends have also been held.
The philosophy of the Center is centered around providing a space for anyone for any innovative projects, be it technical, academic, leadership or entrepreneurship, and in the arts as well. Currently, the Center’s footprint is very Dhaka centric. Given the size and scale of Dhaka, an outlet for cultural programming is rather limited. The major one, Shilpakala Academy is based on the southern end of the city, nowadays avoided by the northerners due to the sheer logistical nightmare of the traffic. There are some performance spaces, in the public and private realm, but it is also not enough. Dhaka also deserves festivals year round instead of the crammed schedule of the month of November when all festivals are held. Realistically Dhaka needs at least three more venues like the Academy dispersed on the other three corners of the city and every neighborhood has a neutral space like the EMK, Bengal, Goethe, and IGCC, where small-scale cultural and other activities geared towards the youth can be held and patronized. Corporates can also be nudged through their CSR programs to establish and operate these centers.
Cultural interactions, from the Center’s experience, has been a positive one in that, it also brought in engagement with other youth groups, triggered dialogues about access and the greater cultural outlook, and also forced, up and coming artists to come up with an innovative concept of arts and performances. Especially these days with the society being in a flux with fundamentalism and the newly opened genie of extremism, the lack of outlets of expression in the cultural sphere is rather jarring. More than two decades ago, the enthusiasm we used to have to be a contestant in‘Notun Kuri’, a nationwide competition of all categories of performances is no longer there. Wherever the monopolistic BTV had their coverage, applicants came in from those areas. It did produce some bonafide celebrities, such as Tarana Halim, who, from her classical dance background, evolved into an accomplished lawyer, then an activist, and finally a member of the parliament. We have seen similar ventures from other channels these days, and they did introduce us to some new talents who made it to the mainstream, but the impact and popularity for these participatory programs never seem to have peaked to the levels of yesteryears. It is synonymous with the cultural prevalence of ambivalence and apathy, and the emphasis from the household on academic grades, and mainstream careers. The once existing practice of employing a house tutor for reciting, singing, and painting amongst all middle-class households have mostly disappeared, replaced by tutors for mathematics, physics, biology, and accounting.
In the process, liberal arts and values are ebbing. Such ambiguity in the cultural realm can have long-term repercussions. Once a solid cultural identity is lost, so does a sense of belonging to one’s roots, which is also tied to patriotism and the sense of public service on behalf of one country. Thanks to social media and the internet, we are no longer confined mentally, intellectually, and culturally to one region but to the rest of the world. However, before being unleashed to this worldwide phenomenon, which definitely has its positive side, one must be rooted locally in terms of one’s own foundations. We are seeing an increasing number of young teenagers who cannot fluently express themselves, in either Bangla or English. They do not appreciate a taste of local delicacies. I am not advocating cultural purification here in terms of our linguistic abilities and cultural practices, but rather, given in our interconnected world, we need to be adept of our own first. It is all that of more importance since, we are one of the most homogenous countries of South Asia, without major tensions based on religious or ethnic lines, no black and white segregations, or that of geographical differences. The only division there has been that of a socio-economic one, and even that being fluid. However, we, instead, have created those through an artificial division based on political-religious lines taken to borders of intolerance of each other. One of the major sufferers of this division has been local cultural norms and practices, or rather, its declining practice. This trend did not happen overnight, and nor will the reversal of this process can be achieved overnight. Furthermore, it is not the sole responsibility of just one entity, of the government, or a foundation, but collectively for all of them.
*Photo Credit: Abhijit Nandy