Took the bus from Chittagong down South to Cox’s Bazar. Incredibly helpful people as usual. It’s like Japanese courtesy but out in the open. Rather than skirting around you like the Japanese do, Bangladeshis actually speak to you when conveying a helpful tip, like: “it’s time to get back on the bus” or “you should get off here for your hotel.” Even though the Japanese are great at working around clueless tourists in public, their main tactic is to wait things out or avoid conflict altogether. In contrast, Bangladeshi’s love the confrontation. For them, the social intrigue is a comfortable zone, and they thrive in it.
Yesterday, we finished our stint with the local schools. The Upper School invited us to their Annual Cultural Programme (ACP) that afternoon, and, to our dismay, the offer was too direct to politely excuse ourselves. After a three days of figuring out our relationship with the Upper School, we realized how little we could do to help them. The way things were set up in the beginning left us short of time to forge relationships with teachers and students alike, without which our presence at the school became tokenary. We could not engage anyone efficaciously because of the frenzied atmosphere leading up to the ACP, which we were supposed to have a helping hand in.
At the start of the week we were introduced to a class 10? drama group. They had the onerous task of putting on the school production,while all other performers chose their own material. After this drama group showed us ten minutes of their material, we had a little chat with them making clear our offer to help them in any way possible to improve the piece.
To our surprise, the following day, we arrived at the Upper School and were immediately ushered into the hall. There, we were told to observe another drama group. By the end of the first two minutes, I felt confused at our role at the school. Both groups needed help, but what happened to our promise to the first group? This was a Monday, and the ACP's dress rehearsal was scheduled for Wednesday. So if we did work with both groups as requested, we would only have one hour on Tuesday. Amidst the impossible schedule set out for us, the students could not ensure their attendance. Many had to leave in the middle of the allocated hour for other rehearsals and classes.
In addition to the scheduling conundrum, another blow came theatrically. The mechanism used to convey characters’ voices on stage prevented young actors from fully expressing themselves. Because no one had any experience in voice projection, the students lip synced on stage while someone read their lines into a microphone. The mismatched audio and visuals made the entire thing seem like a badly synced movie.
The problem with the plays was not the students’ lack of talent but the microphones they were told to use. So we requested for cordless microphones or hanging mics. To our avail, during the dress rehearsal both of these dramas did not make the cut. Cordless microphones or not, the school was simply too hung up on old ways of performing using mics. As we left on Wednesday following the disappointing dress rehearsal, news came of a nationwide strike the following day in response to Bangladeshi war crime tribunal verdicts. A teacher went around the hallway as students streamed out of their classrooms shouting: "students, tomorrow school is cancelled". And with that, our work was done at the Upper school since Friday was a holiday and Saturday the performance.
So we arrived at the auditorium on Saturday thinking it would be a dismal afternoon, but by the fifth act we realized our introduction to the entire ACP had been one-sided. We only saw a fraction of the entire thing. Throughout the two and a half hour performance, there were only two dramas. The rest was either dance or music. All the regular American-influenced suspects were there- ukes, cup songs, popping, white gloves under blue light, that catchy song where they dance wearing fedoras in the music video, and Pussycat Doll sass. But because this is Bangladesh, along with the typical US-teen selections, we were treated to impeccable traditional dancing, riotous desi dance routines, and a comeback of the 90s boy-band heat.
All the dances had an edginess suited to its genre. Evidently, the students wanted to be up there in front of three hundred screaming classmates and six rows of subdued parents and teachers. Even though all groups had dancers of varying abilities, each person on stage had a life-force behind them that made them watchable. As ensembles, each group looked out for each other, and committed to the choreography. Some had a focus on stage that made them easier to watch, and others did not. No matter my thoughts on the twenty acts we saw, what perplexed me was why, if students could self-direct group dance so well, was drama left-behind. For the record, the two dramas that made the cut had no live dialogue. Everything was either recorded music or narration.
Sitting in the back of a lengthy auditorium surrounded in darkness by a teenage chorus intermittently belting out cheers and song lyrics, we found out the source of our problems that week. Bangladesh is an incredibly social country. Get into a rickshaw or a compressed natural gas taxi (CNG), and you’ll find out soon enough. Drivers stop at any chance to call upon the nearest passer-by if have doubts about your final destination. In social circles, you simply present yourself unabashedly and let others decide what they think about you. The groups on stage that were irresistible to watch were those who brought their raw energy on with them. Contrary to this, when we worked with the drama kids, they had made choices that inhibited their fullest expression. Sorry, but unless you’re a stand-up comic, coming on with a wired microphone in a serious drama instantly diffuses any tension you build.
As compared to the ACP program we saw, the two drama groups that came to us for help had none of the spark that came from embodying the performance. They struggled to carry emotions through speech while the dancers channeled emotions through their body. Indeed, Bangladesh is social, but it is also incredibly visual. The crowd went wild when students could convey specific feelings through rhythmic and stylized movements so much so that the entire experience would have been different had there been a bunch of Japanese sitting in the audience. As an audience member, I felt like I was a part of a community of high school students who support any form of self-expression their classmates come up with. If there is a place the arts thrive naturally because of social set-up, Bangladesh is certainly one of them.