Nostalgia…Being Taught to Draw: Classroom Art

 These sample art work from students at Rajuk Uttara Model School (RUMS) illustrate that a common theme to showcase in classroom art work are scenes of the Bangladeshi village. Huts, rice patties, hills, rivers, boats, and figures in traditonal clothing are some of the most common subjects present in art by students from all grade levels. They are usually drawn with crayons or water colors, and are usually very bright and vibrant on paper. The second most popular theme is the revolutionary war of 1971. Abstract art was not included in any of the samples I had a chance to see.


The village theme’s popularity in children’s art is interesting because almost all of the students at RUMS were born and raised in the city. Additionally, increasinly it can be observed that the parents of 1990s children were also raised in Dhaka. Thus one must wonder why villages become a repeated topic in art since the village scene is so different from that of Dhaka city.

One student told me that they are asked to draw “something beautiful” in their art class and that usually resonates the village scene. He explained that the village is more calm, quiet, and shows “natural beauty” that is present in most of Bangladesh but not in the city. Thus, being told to draw something beautiful meant drawing something outside the city.

Another student told me that often art class means drawing what the teacher tells you to, and what the teacher wants to see. These teachers will often assign the drawing of village scenes, and this initial teaching sticks to the children afterwards. In order to get the grade, you have to please the instructor, who has made his or her desire for such themes apparent. These teachers are also more likely to be more connected to the village than their students in Dhaka. This logic follows for art competitions as well where to win, drawing the most splendid scenaries does the trick.

Village scenes represents a certain nostalgia for what is missing in the city- cleaner air, people not in hurry, landscapes void of clumped together buildings, trees without the residue of pollution, and such. These scenes as represented by children of the city in school art classes showcase a divide of the urban and rural. It also works in an interesting way to connectgenerations widely different in history, lifestyle, and mobility.

Pohela Boishak: Bengali New Year on April 14, 2011

Painting the flag.
Women usually wear the colors red and white and adorn their hair with flowers on this day. The idea is to dress as traditionally Bangladeshi as possible.

Women selling bangles can be seen everywhere sitting on the sidewalks.

Asking for directions.

[Conundrums in the day to day public transportation in Dhaka-Part I]

You know the neighborhood, the street number, and the building number of a house you need to go to. You wave down a rickshaw cycling down the street. You tell him these exact numbers and he makes a head nudge before you can even finish towards the back seat. He wants to not convince you, but tell you that he knows what he is doing and to just hop on.

Except that once you are in the vicinity of road 70 when you need to get to 58 (but of course roads around the neighborhood are never designed in linear matter) he doesn’t actually know where to go. He expects you to know though. He does not understand that you are going to a new place even if you live around the area. He will still expect to rip you off on the price at the end though, claiming that you not knowing where you are going deems for a higher rate. And then you have to force him to stop people randomly in the street to ask where my destination could be.

And then the person you ask raises his right arm and points straight. And the next person you ask points straight ahead too making vague eye contact. By the fourth person once you have successfully made a few circles on roads 70, 68, and 74 you realize that your instinct was right- no one knows your destination. Not your rickshawallah, not the cha stand guy, or the guys hanging around the cha stand guy who just want to enjoy the cha and stare at you than to give you directions.

But it’s not that they don’t want to give you directions. They don’t actually have a clue. It’s just that they don’t want to seem like they are incapable and not know their ‘hood. They would rather point you to an unknown world than to have to shake their head and admit defeat.

This is a common problem I run into as I explore my area (the combination of Gulshan, Baridhara, and Banani, hereafter referred to as the ‘tri-state’). This is a personal problem I face in Dhaka since frankly speaking I still don’t know my way around. Whenever my driver/peddler and I ask the victim of my target on the street for directions, my target prefers to point me towards the way I was already going in. After all, probability states that they have a 50/50 chance of being correct- matter of letting me keep moving forward or turn around.

Finding a random location based off of an accurate address (that would normally suffice) is a game in the tri-state. You get on the rickshaw knowing in the back of your head that they probably don’t know where they are going. That is why you allot thirty minutes to go to a place that would more likely take fifteen minutes to go to, plus taking into account human and car traffic. And then you participate in a game of ask and tell- ask other rickshawallahs, guards, cha-wallahs, fruit sellers, children, and suited men briskly walking to their private cars who will only respond if I am the one asking. And eventually, you will get to the right place if probability works in your favor which magically in Dhaka, it usually does.

So, let the game of making it to your destination begin, continue, and never end.

Bangladesh is getting ready for the World Cup

Since I drive to Uttara from Baridhara everyday for work, I have been able to observe the progression of decorations being put up on Airport Road over the last month for the 2011 cricket World Cup. My drive on the way to school and back always gave me something new to look at- colorful lights being put up on the lamp posts, enlarged versions of various flowers and animals randomly placed around the paths, new flowers and trees, balloons, and various billboards with photos of the country’s scenes and catchy slogans. Beximco endorsed a giant cricket bat- deemed as the largest cricket bat in the world– on this road, allowing for people to come by and sign it and to wish Bangladesh’s team luck.

Two nights ago past midnight my cousin and his friends came by to pick me up and we went to airport road to look at the scene around this bat. People kept coming and parking on the highway to sign the bat. There were no police or anyone nearby to monitor the scene. As usual, anything goes in Dhaka. While it was late at night, there were families, children, women and men there taking photos and signing the bat with markers and spray paint. Someone got out a huge speaker from their car and put on Bollywood music nearby that matched the energy of the night. There were names, wishes, even cell phone numbers and love notes on this bat in various colors and in both English and Bengali all over the bat.

My cousin’s friend got a hold of a red spray paint bottle from someone, climbed up to a box with the help of strangers, and reached the bat’s giant handle and spray painted our initials (“Oli” for me) in large letters as onlookers watched. Thus, as you pass by the road now and look at the bat’s handle, there it is, our initials permanently written in red.

It was refreshing to see places such as these where Bangladeshis can come together in one place and enjoy this moment before the World Cup. While I will be in Nepal for the beginning of the tournament, at least I was able to experience some of the hype and excitement. Sporting tournaments such as the various world cups have a way of uniting countries and instituting a new kind of nationalism. They are the one event where people from a nation can unite despite differences social classes, age, or sex. Recognizing with the nation is the minimum and the most important requirement. Most interestingly, you do not even have to be a fan of the sport itself. Identifying with a set region (its language, or history, the culture, and the likes) in this case becomes more important in this relationship- the sport, in this case cricket itself is just the catalyst.

Opening ceremony is set.

Trip to the Shabagh flower market, near Dhaka University

The flower market in Shabagh, near Dhaka University is the largest flower market in the country. It is known for selling an abundance of roses, hibiscus, gada flowers (type of marigold), and some other variations- all beautifully decorated or bundled up for sale. Beyond the street of flower stalls is an area just under the bridge where from six o’clock in the morning until eleven o’clock, flower merchants sell these traditional flowers wholesale. The flower bazaar is open air and an exploration of red, yellow, white, and orange from an otherwise greysih morning. Many are already strung together in thread into necklaces (used in weddings) to bed decorations (chains of flowers used to hang over the wedding bed for the newlyweds). In just these five hours, owners and representatives from flower shops all over the city come early to this location to purchase such flowers in bulk to take back to their stores around the city to see for the day. Those who come early enough will be lucky to score the freshest and brightest of them all.

We reached the market a little before eight in the morning and we were overwhelmed by the smell and noises of the sellers and buyers. Men holding strings of gada would pass by me and stack them in a mountain of orange and yellow, standing over the pile, shouting out prices. Haggling for the best deal resulted in raised voiced and shouts but because the market was open for only a few hours, most just gave in and bought stacks of flowers before a competitor took them away. Nearby, women sat around together on the floor, stringing together giant, bright red roses and stark-white jasmine flowers together. The floor was splattered between dirt from the street and flower petals.

I asked one of the sellers if I could stand in his spot to take a photo with the piles of gada flowers which he happily (and in a confused manner) let me. After the photo though, I fell on the way back because the path was slippery from gada petals.  It was embarrassing but I think the man selling the flowers almost expected it. At least I may have provided some entertainment for the day for the few that saw what happened.

When a bad lunch affects you for more than 24 hours.

Chatting about the unfortunate experience me and Tarfia had at lunch yesterday at Nando’s (Gulshan 1) where my simple order of vegetables and rice and her chicken wrap meal went very wrong. We had a not-very-exotic spicy mouth, a heart burn, chest pains and watery eyes. And we thought it was going to be a safe, simple lunch out in the city at a place that specializes in grilled chicken.

Tarfia: Do you know why that meal thing at Nando’s sucks so much?

me: why

Tarfia: Not just Nando’s, but when that happens in general?

Because you feel like both a failure and a victim at the same time

IT’S SO COMPLEX

me: it is. so complex. omg.

I mean, it is so simple and so sad.

Tarfia: of course

me: And like, you have such high expectations and the venues are so limited. And then it just comes crashing and you don’t want to admit it but then…you have to

and it just…sucks!

Tarfia: I know. And you kind of did it to yourself.

me: (sad face) I don’t even know how to start writing about it.

I don’t know how to undo it.

Tarfia: undo the bad meal?

me: Undo the I-did-it-to-myself part.

Tarfia: That’s the thing

You can’t. You just have to find a way to safeguard yourself from it in the future. Give yourself positive reinforcement.

me: I have nothing positive right now to reinforce myself with. Also, I don’t remember the last time I ate at home. Is this bad?

***

Even this heavenly drink (only positive part of lunch) did not help the matter.

Starting to Talk about Globalization in a 10th grade class at Rajuk Uttara Model School.

Last Thursday, I was leading a tenth grade class where I spoke a bit about globalization. I presented the sentence, “The world is becoming more global”, and asked the students to discuss and talk about this statement and what it means in Bangladesh. First, the students decided that it also made sense to say that the world was becoming smaller, in additional to global. We listed several factors of America, for example, that are present in their country as a result of the world becoming globalized: KFC, Jeans, Burgers, Music (Eminem, Linkin Park, etc.), the microwave, etc. Following this, I asked them to think about what Bangladeshi influences may be seen in the West, which in general was agreed to be none. Rather, we saw how their neighboring country, India had more influences over the world than Bangladesh (they talked about Indian stars being part of Hollywood as an example). This was followed by talking about Bangladesh’s concerns and development. There was a lot of pessimism in the class about their country and how it “can’t go forward” and thus become part of this statement about the world becoming more global.

The discussion turned towards foreign policy and if Bangladesh should be concerned about the outside world, like the United States. I asked them to get into groups to discuss for two minutes and give me an answer. It was overwhelmingly agreed by the students that before Bangladesh can contribute their culture to the globe (as part of globalization), the country needs to develop. People need to be more concerned about their own country and its well being rather than what is going on outside because there are too many pressing issues that needed attention. Some of these issues were listed as corruption, the environment, poverty, children’s education, and the economy. Bangladesh simply could not participate in international relations unless it took care of such domestic issues. The students were very serious in discussing this matter. I was actually a bit surprised that they had such strong opinions about their country and why they are able to take in Western influences, but could not contribute back. One student said that before fuchka (a popular snack in Bangladesh, where flour and spiced shells are filled with chick pea beans, tomatoes, onions, and spicy sauces) can be seen in fast food chains in America, Bangladesh needs to eradiate corruption in general elections.

I also asked the students whether they thought that these Western influences were a good thing. Some hesitated but overall agreed that no, they would rather be Bangladeshi and hold onto their Bangladeshi roots. Everyone agreed that they wanted to go to the U.S. for higher education and come back to their country. This was really interesting since from my personal observations, it seemed like this new youth generation wants to be Western. They are adopting the American English accents, they prefer to eat French fries and burgers these days, and wearing American band t-shirts are cool. They are eager to associate being modern with being more American.

The classes are only forty minutes long so I could not press them more on the subject, but after class, two of the students came into my office to talk about what had happened. They wanted to talk to me in private and seemed to be nervous. They told me that the class sentiment was false- they do want to become Western and love to participate in wearing Western clothes and eat fast food. They want to go to American not just to study but to get out of Bangladesh and experience “freedom”. It is very much part of their culture. One of them said that she was afraid that in a few generations, Bangaldeshi youth will no longer be, “Bangladeshi”, but being Bangladeshi will mean being more “American”.

The class was fascinating because these students- aged around 15 to 16- never get a chance to talk about these topics in school. They are highly intelligent kids that are engrained in a memorization culture where they are following a national curriculum and studying various subjects in a factual format. But they still had strong opinions despite spending so many hours of their daily lives in school studying and putting on a serious face about scoring well on national exams. Critical thinking- a popular sentiment and highlight of the American education system- was something that I thought that I would struggle in installing. It seems like students are eager however to be challenged in this way, while at the same time nervous about being right and not wrong with responses.

Leading the class itself required some special attention. It really is hard to get them to start talking, or get more than just the few energetic ones to talk. I have to remind myself that they are young, but not too young and do have the ability to express opinions. I think a new challenge is trying to convince them that it is okay to have differing thoughts and it is appropriate to debate, disagree, and just talk about what you think openly.

 

Shahrukh Khan in Dhaka Performs

Prices for tickets to watch SRK, one of the most popular (and I am indeed a fan) Bollywood actor and performer were as high as 25,000 taka. Last night amid chaos and starting late and other complains as reported in BDNEWS, SRK took the stage with Rani Mukherjee and Arjun Rampal and performed for five hours to a sold out, over-booked Army Stadium. I was a bit jealous of everyone who go to go [which were actually no one I knew…] but the entire live streaming of the performance on television told me it was probably a good idea I didn’t think too much of it. He just belongs on the television for me, and seeing him live would be a bit too shocking. This morning my facebook was blaring with status updates from my dhakaite friends complaining about how “faltu” (worthless) the show was based on what they saw on the television. Sigh.

Our Thanksgiving Dinner in Dhaka.

Nevertheless, delicious and wonderful prepared by Ms. Tarfia F., another Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh.

Amazing roasted chicken, beans with pichtachio nuts, mashed potatoes, samosas, cheese spreads, and great drinks.
The smallest tangerine ever.

Missing America.

Eid day.

In Bangladesh, Eid-Al-Adha is also known as the “Boro Eid” (Big Eid) because it is feeding the beef-loving population of the country. The noises I hear sitting by window of my aunt’s seventh floor flat are that of black crows and goats, as well as the sound of the Imams in nearby mosques reciting the Eid morning prayers. I sometimes hear the “moos” of the cows, God knows what they are reacting to. My heart jumps a bit when I hear the animals or the sudden male voices yelling who are probably excreting their excitement and strength. I think I would have preferred to sleep in today until noon when everything would be done and cleaned up. Apparently, a good butcher can kill, cut, and clean up an entire cow in just 90 minutes. He chargest 10 to 20 percent of the cow’s price and with his sharp knives he is able to carefully observe and kill, make slender cuts and separate the parts of the cow and cut the meat into slabs, itemized to satisfy out beef palates. But I was awake by six in the morning, jumping into the shower where the cold water made me realize my surroundings.

 

zoomed in from the seventh floor of my aunt's flat.

 

It is almost 8:30 am right now and we are about to head out soon to visit my khalu’s family in Jatrabari, where we were yesterday morning to see the cow that is about to be, if not already slaughtered. My morning will be spent there and then back to Iskaton in the center of the city, where I will stay and maybe visit a few families too. The day will be spent eating, napping, eating more, and eating. Driving through Dhaka to visit family, eat, eat, eat.