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West Bengal to Washington: Connecting Young Hearts & Minds

Understanding and sharing are the fundamentals for any stable, caring relationship. It holds true even for communities having different mindsets, cultural moorings and socio-economic profiles. An interesting experiment in this context came to an end recently. It involved youths from the United States and the state of West Bengal in India. The participants had diverse backgrounds, varied interests and different aspirations. While some came from marginalized rural families, some had modest to well-to-do backgrounds, often with an upbringing in urban milieus. But, in spite of all their differences, they came together to share stories about their likes, dislikes, passion, profession, roots, aspirations and perceptions, and ended up as more humane and sensitive souls, if not friends!

The aim of the Communities Connecting Heritage (CCH) program was to promote cultural diversity and boost cultural sustainability through cultural exchange. It was supported by the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning, an international non-profit with a focus on international development, education and exchange programmes. As part of CCH, we collaborated with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C. in an initiative titled ‘Learning Together for a Brighter Future’.

Over nearly eight months — from mid-December 2017 to early August 2018 — 20 young cultural professionals from the United States and 31 young tradition-bearers from West Bengal engaged in multiple exchanges through social media platforms, including virtual workshops. This was interspersed with in-person visits by a five-member team from each side to Washington D.C. and West Bengal. The subjects of discussion had a great variety — from art, music and food traditions to lifestyle, globalization and popular culture, to name a few!

They shared photographs and videos explaining their culture to each other and got engaged in informative discussions on issues linked to cultural sustainability. The virtual workshops honed their skills in digital recording, oral history mapping, and effective storytelling. They even paired up to write blogs on their shared interests and experiences, with the topics varying from common concerns on raising a child to how to manage heritage sites!

Several similarities in traditions were discovered as well, the best part of it being food! If the Americans found West Bengal’s Luchi to be a close cousin of their familiar Sopapilla, the youths from West Bengal discovered Retablo as a tradition largely resembling their own scroll painting genre of Patachitra!

A folklore graduate from Arkansas State University in the US and a participant, Kennedy Lyn Soden, summed it up when he said, “By sharing our cultures and traditions, we opened up possibilities of others being fascinated by our traditions. We celebrated our cultures and showed everyone how wonderful different beliefs could be.”

The participants from India were a rather interesting mix. There were traditional, rural scroll painters, called Patuas, who use natural colours to paint stories and sing them before audiences. There also were artists practicing Dokra, an ancient, nearly 3,000-year-old, metal craft; Bauls, traditional folk singers preaching love, tolerance and peace, theatre practitioners; and urban artists and musicians.The American side included students coming from across the length and breadth of the country, right from the east coast (Massachusetts, New York City, Virginia) to the west (Oakland, Mountain View), the central region (Indiana and Texas) and the south (New Mexico), with varied socio-economic and racial profiles.

Once the ball started rolling, the exchange picked up pace and the myriad colors and tones of the participants’ personal lives and creative selves started being visible. They uploaded short videos of their homes and neighborhoods.Laura Cassard, a student of anthropology in Massachusetts, showed her university campus to Sadhu Das and Kangal Das, Baul singers and brothers from Birbhum who, in turn, showed Laura the venue of the famous Joydeb-Kenduli Baul music festival near their home. Charish captured her Spanish neighbouhood in Mexico City in a video. In short, it was a celebration of the diversity of cultures that ranged from a small tea stall at Naya village in Pingla to Spanish shops in Mexico City!CJ Guadarrama developed an instant connect with Arpan Thakur Chakraborty, thanks to their common love for music. Arpan posted about listening to bands like Scorpions, Pink Floyd, John Denver and Bob Marley, even as Guadarrama said, “High school was also a time when my friends and I listened to the same artists and tried to play their songs… It was a wonderful, humbling experience to know that it was not something that we alone did, or even something only high school students in America do, but that it transcends all borders and touches the hearts of many youths like Arpan across the world.”

America has for long been a melting pot of cultures. The pre-historic art form of Pyrography, also known as pokerwork or wood burning, the Japanese calligraphy Shodo, and the Mexican folk art Retablo are just a few of the art forms having a significant presence in the United States. Sharmi Basu, an Indian-American, is now making waves in the experimental music circuit of America. There are also many similarities among some art forms found in the US and India, such as the sewing style of Betty Belanus and the Kantha embroidery of Nanoor! The posts and videos triggered a great amount of curiosity and appreciation among the participants. Here were windows to worlds unknown and they showed what was happening in rather unknown and distant parts of the world. Laura, for example, was quite overwhelmed after watching a video of the Patachitra of Majramura, in Purulia district of West Bengal. She fired a volley of questions that went somewhat like this:“How do artists decide on the subject of their Patachitra? Are there recurring images having certain meanings? Do the Patachira scrolls depict daily life, religion, and history, or all of them, or none of them? I have never seen this type of art before, so I really appreciate your post! Have you found other artists to help train and/or work with members of the Patachitra community?”

Any discussion on this unique exchange experience that was CCH would remain utterly incomplete without the gastronomical delights that they brought to the fore! As the youngsters shared recipes of their traditional dishes, complete with detailed anecdotes, the rejuvenating discourse lent a refreshing taste to the entire narrative of cultural exchange!The reaction of Kennedy Soden, a virtual intern in the project, was as eloquent as it could be: “Foodways can be the simplest way to bring diverse cultures together. People love food… and as far as I am concerned, I try anything unquestionably!” Baul singer Girish Mondal prepared a vegetarian dish every Thursday, sticking to his belief, and routine, of refraining from eating anything non-vegetarian on the auspicious day that is Thursday! A traditional fish curry cooked by Rupsona Chitrakar gave an exclusive glimpse of the Bengali kitchen. After all, no meal for Bengalis is complete without fish!Betty Belanus shared the recipe of a special cake that her family specializes in making. Her mother discovered the recipe in a magazine several years ago and, since then, it has been a constant during every celebration at her home!Reacting to a traditional meal of fish, honey, olives, and mozzarella salad, prepared by Charish Christy Bishop, Madison Luken said, “Eating fish and honey together, seems like it would be delicious! Thank you for sharing your recipes and the religious beliefs behind the meals. I love to cook and I will soon make something like this for my family!”Pam Frei and Kennedy Lyn Soden connected over Pam’s recipe of Apple pie. “We have our own recipe for apple pie, which is similar to your family tradition! Nothing like an apple pie eaten a day after it is made… even better for breakfast, in my opinion! Homemade apple pie on thanksgiving with vanilla ice cream! Nothing like it!” said Kennedy.To have a better understanding of each other’s “foodways,” the Indian participants took a Food Tour on H Street during their in-person visit to Washington D.C. The varied platter on offer at the umpteen restaurants down the street was quite an experience, an unforgettable one, for sure! Similarly, the American team dipped into the Bengali cuisine, snacks and delicacies during their visit to Kolkata and the villages of West Bengal! During her visit to the theatre village of Tepantar, Violeta Palchik, a folklore graduate, joined Manas Acharya, a multidisciplinary artist, in the kitchen and prepared a dish using traditional Bengali utensils! Manas also showed her how to cook chicken in Bengali style! Culture shapes our identities and influences our behavior, while an understanding of cultural diversity prompts us to accept and, even to some extent, integrate with and assimilate other cultures.

During their in-person visit to India, the American team attended the Sur Jahan world peace music festival in Kolkata where they had their first face-to-face interactions with West Bengal’s rural musicians and artists. During their reciprocal visit to Washington D.C., the Indian team members attended Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington D.C. The Folklife Festival honors contemporary living cultural traditions and celebrates those who practice and sustain them. The guest countries in 2018 were Catalonia and Armenia.

As village festivals are an integral part of rural life and culture in West Bengal, the Indian participants interviewed their own communities’ veteran artists to help the Americans have a better understanding of the phenomenon. For example, a leading Patachitra artist like Swarna Chitrakar was interviewed by her daughter Mamoni, and Swarna spoke at length about the POT Maya Patachitra festival held in Pingla every year in that interview! Cultural perceptions, popular culture, and media are all inter-connected because they are all involved with the masses. Each of them, individually, has an undeniable influence on how society perceives itself and others. However, they come with their own baggage too!

Betty shared the story of her bonding with her 92-year-old mother over an American soap opera. Betty observed that despite the story being “stupid” and “far from the reality of daily American life,” their mother-daughter duo always found something to laugh over in the episodes! Erum Khan Hadi, a New York-based doctoral student of world history, expressed her opinion about the cultural misunderstanding and misrepresentations generated by the media. She resented the fact that people from other parts of the world were “driven by media” and that the ‘American Dream’ might fail to see the “real values and struggles of American life”. Julián Antonio, a folkloristic anthropologist, said, “In the U.S. media and popular imagination, there is unfortunately a great deal of misrepresentation, stereotyping, and flattening out of Latin Americans.”The rural youths from West Bengal, though, had a different take on the subject. Baul singer Sadhu Das said, “The new media has a positive effect in terms of archiving and sharing traditional music.” Mamoni Chitrakar said that there was no denying the power of the new media and she was finding it useful for her profession also. “Television plays a big role in reflecting contemporary events in our Patachitra tradition,” she said. The video of Mamoni Chitrakar where she explains her work elicited much appreciation from Erum Khan Hadi. “These are wonderful! I love it. I would love to own one of these. If there is any way I can get it, please let me know,” Erum said. As for popular culture, it was a common realization that it is powerful because it helps in bonding but, at the same time, it does make misrepresentations.

The diversity and commonality of the participants’ wardrobes came to the fore when they wore their traditional outfits and casuals on different occasions!From the regular jeans and T-shirt to salwar kameez and kurta-payjama, both contemporary and period costumes made their way onto the platform.Erum Khan Hadi looked resplendent in a salwar kameez, a dress mainly worn by Asian women. Pam Frei wore a pirate jacket during her local Renaissance fair to “best reflect the spirit”. Renaissance fair is a celebration of the Renaissance in Europe.The colourful Jobba worn by Rabi Das Baul during his performances was made up by stitching together small pieces of cloth. The “bright” outfit had Madison saying, “It’s really interesting to see you wear a specific clothing style while performing! I can imagine that there is a lot of variation in personal styles and expressions with this. Thanks for sharing!!”

Globalization connects cultures and people by opening doors of worlds unseen!Madison Luken thinks globalization has impacted her through internet. She can now easily connect with Korean music, Japanese games and shows, and food from various ethnic restaurants at her hometown. She feels that nothing in her culture “has been destroyed or lost” by the effects of other cultures. Rather, she feels, it has “created a new culture” for her! Soham Mukherjee, an urban artist from Contact Base, concurred with her. “Globalization helps us modernize our thought process. We can learn about different cultures and connect with them to evolve a collaborative approach,” he said.However, there were many who had some reservations and concerns.Globalization and modernization “homogenize cultures” and have an inherent risk of various cultures losing their identity and uniqueness, they said. “Unfortunately, it can be very, very difficult to preserve the entirety of a tradition. Traditions vary between very short distances too, even between two adjacent households in some cases! They can be passed down generations not just with words or instructions, but even with a touch, or a facial expression.” Pam Frei said. No culture can be sustained if it is not communicated and lived through by people. Expressing concern about the vanishing Black culture in Washington D.C., Morganna Black said, “The locality where I’m living has lost its sense of culture and is catering to the taste of upper and middle classes.” It is only the Black community in the D.C. area that has stepped up its activities to create awareness about Black culture, she said.Pam Frei shared a presentation on Witness Tress of Coppell in Dallas. A historical society in the area encourages people to identify trees with certain diameters and, once identified, these trees are researched and evaluated for historical connections. Morganna Black praised Witness Tress and said, “That is the kind of history that I love. The trees really give a sense of the place and it is history”.Manas Acharya mentioned the Patachitra art form of Majramura that has found a way to sustain itself because the painters are now increasingly taking it up as the main source of their livelihood, instead of continuing it as a ritual, as they did in the past. The survival of Retablo is also interesting. It was the traditional Spanish market that largely contributed towards its sustenance.In his presentation on cultural sustainability, Jillian Love highlighted the plight of several languages that are near, or on the verge of, extinction. Tribalingual, an organization working to protect rare and endangered cultures, is offering online courses to sustain such languages.Soham Mukherjee shared a presentation on how the Bangla Dhol (an indigenous drum) was revived by Balaram Hazra, an expert Dhol player.During their in-person visit to India, the five-member American team visited Sovabazar Rajbati, Simla House, Bethune College, Scottish Church College, Swami Vivekananda’s house, and quite a few other heritage buildings and old temples in and around Kolkata. They also savored traditional Bengali cuisine, snacks and sweets, including delicacies.

The team also visited Bishnupur town in Bankura district, famous for its Terracotta temples. They went to Shantiniketan as well, a place of great cultural importance in India. At Shantiniketan, they met a few professors at Visva Bharati University, an institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.The five-member team from India visiting Washington D.C. visited the DC Alley Museum, Renwick Museum, and National Museum of American History.Erum Hadi Khan came to know about the existence of Bangla Qawali only during her virtual interaction with Samrat Khan, with whom she shared her last name. Erum said, “I was familiar with Pakistani Qawwali, which is sung in Urdu and Punjabi, but I was completely unaware of West Bengal’s Bangla Qawwali tradition until my exchange with Samrat.”Pamela Frei and Sonali Chitrakar bonded over the art form they practice, Zentangle and Patachitra, respectively. Like Sonali, Pamela also learned the art she practices from her mother. To describe the urge for expression among artists and the inherent qualities of the art forms, Pamela wrote, “Each artist has a tale to tell, and the audience resonates with the stories that unfold through their medium. Both art forms use bright colors, textures, and images to capture the attention of audiences and captivate viewers. While they are different, they come from the same source of creativity and the urge to share the stories.”

It was interesting to note that despite such diversities, there were connections between people who lived in two completely different worlds. Mamoni and Charish shared their parenting experience and how they were raised by their parents on the blog. While members of Mamoni’s family lived in the same village, Charish’s lived miles apart. However, the similarity was in the effort put in by both Charish and Mamoni’s mothers to give their children a better experience than what they themselves had.In another blog post chain, Morgan Shultz, Basudev Goswami and Tapas Bauri connected with each other over theatre. The two plays, Mahakabyer Pore and Hamilton, showcase the politics of oppression though the plays originate in two different continents!The exchange had several accomplishments in terms of cultural activity. The main ones among them were — use of social media by rural youths, in-person interactions between the US team and the rural artists of West Bengal, strengthening of community pride as a result of the cultural exchange visits and workshops, greater flexibility and understanding of each other’s culture.As the program drew to a close, several illuminating realizations dawned upon the participants. First, it had succeeded in bridging the young hearts and minds from worlds apart, and seeded in them a sense of curiosity, affection and understanding about the arts and sensibilities of otherwise unfamiliar people and communities. This, in effect, vindicated multiculturalism as a safe and sure bet in building a peaceful, creative world.The exchange also revealed that in spite of definite differences between cultures, it can be easily discovered on close scrutiny that there are often several similarities in the underlying feelings and themes, whether it is music, painting techniques or storytelling styles.The experience underscored technology’s importance too, especially in protecting indigenous art forms from misrepresentation, using ICT to map oral history of communities, and taking recourse to social media to promote arts and crafts. As one participant said, if traditional artists became regular on YouTube, it might be a bulwark in safeguarding the authenticity of their creative genres, and sensitizing audiences about the differences between the art’s pure and adulterated versions.The discourse triggered thoughts on replicating the model of cultural exchange as well, with one participant of Mexican origin saying that he wanted to organize a similar initiative along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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