Bengal Foundation has, once again, treated us to a magnificent festival—of the best there is in Indian classical music—and this time in spite of some unexpected obstacles. We never understood why the usual venue, the Army Stadium, was denied nor why the ultimate venue selection had to wait till so late in the day necessitating the postponing of the festival to December from its usual time in November.
It is a testimony to the prestige that the Bengal Classical Festival has gained over the last five years that these globetrotting maestros, whose schedules are fixed at least a year in advance, agreed to accommodate the new dates as a tribute to this festival which has now gained prominence as the biggest Indian classical music festival in the world. Who would have thought that Bangladesh would have such a unique place of pride in this genre of specialised music?
A word of thanks must be given to the management of Abahani KriraChakra, but for whose wholehearted collaboration this festival could not have taken place. The law enforcers performed an onerous task of providing security and traffic management which, everyone feared, would be hellish. Of course a word of thanks to the Prime Minister but for whose final nod nothing of this scale and complexity can take place.
But as the saying goes, all is well that ends well, and we couldn't have been happier.
There is far more to a festival than meets the eye. First of course is the quality of the performers. To repeat the obvious the artists who graced the occasion were some of the world's best. Bengal Foundation's decision to introduce western classical music to the Bangladeshi audience was a masterstroke as, save for a lucky few who may have listened to western classical music in foreign capitals, for the rest, it was perhaps their very first exposure to a symphony by a philharmonic orchestra.
To our further amazement the collaborative performance of Dr L Subramaniam, the violin virtuoso, and the 58-member Astana Symphony Philharmonic Orchestra from Kazakhstan, gave the festival the best possible opening imaginable. The blending of the western and eastern classical music forms in such incredible harmony must have mesmerised the more than 30,000 first-day audience. Those who have had the rare privilege of listing to a philharmonic orchestra in highly acoustically sophisticated concert halls must have wondered how on earth the same effect was created in an open field of a sports club. Most of us who loved the festival may not perhaps be aware of the technical sophistication that was principally responsible for the quality of music that we were treated to. It was a match for anything similar in the world and, again, we have the Bengal Foundation to thank for it and its technical team.
Another significant change in latest classical festival was the introduction of a big contingent of Bangladeshi performers. In earlier instances, we saw students of Bengal Parampara Sangeetalaya perform but this time around, the performances of students of Government Music College and a dance troupe comprising several groups were quite impressive. Of special note were the dance numbers whose quality was definitely something to feel confident about. Classical dance needs greater patronisation in Bangladesh and this festival clearly showed what results we can get if we do.
To say the obvious, it was a team effort. From the very sophisticated to the utter mundane, the organisers factored in everything—from toilets (more than 40 temporary ones were installed and I overheard several women thanking the Foundation's chair for providing adequate ones for ladies which they said is not often the case), to food stalls, to the ever-vigilant garbage collectors who saw to it that every leftover coffee cup and discarded tissue paper from VIP seats was removed and mosquito-repellent coils from under every other seat replaced timely, practically nothing seems to have escaped the organiser's detailed planning and the beauty of it was that all of this work was done with charm, patience and a disarming smile.
But of course it was the crowd that must receive our biggest praise. An average turnout of 34,000-40,000 persons per night for five nights with the final performance by Chaurasia topping 45,000 at 3:30 in a wintry morning is something no other festival can match and one that made ours the world's biggest. By far, the majority of this audience were young, naturally devoted to this finest form of our music tradition, disciplined and highly attentive to the renditions of the maestros as evidenced by their timely appreciative applause that often appeared to take those seating in the VIP section by surprise. Of course there were many exceptions.
As we praise the team, so also we must credit the leadership of Bengal Foundation for giving us this annual journey to excellence in music. A round of special thanks has to be given to the Foundation's chair, Abul Khair Litu to all, for his incredible perseverance. The delay and the running from pillar to post, and the humiliation that it entailed would have sapped any other normal mortal's energy and enthusiasm. But Abul Khair slogged on saying that he did not want Bangladesh to lose the accolade of hosting the biggest classical music festival in the world and that such festivals must be held every year; otherwise world-class musicians lose confidence and hesitate to commit their time. Seeing up-close how he dealt with perennial obstacles that continued to come his way, maintained his equanimity, and held on to his familiar smile, there has to be a special word of praise for him.
Luva Nahid Choudhury, the incredible, never-tiring, ever-efficient organiser of the rarest kind, did an unbelievable job of getting all these world-class artists to recommit to come to the Bengal Festival even after we messed up their schedules, sometimes at considerable financial losses to them. We all need to compliment her and her team for this magnificent festival, with special thanks to Farhadul Islam for the technical excellence, Zeenat Chowdhury for immaculate organisation and Tahmida Afroze for the amazing architectural design of the festival premises.
Through this festival and some others, like the Folk Festival, we have proven to the skeptics that extremism, parochialism, and cultural exclusivism have no place in Bangladesh based on the values of our Liberation War.