Performing the Bengali nation
Munier Chowdhury's Kabar and Syed Huq's Payer Awaj Pawa Jaye
The success of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo in inaugurating a populist narration of nation in the late nineteenth century South Asia, lay in their ability to coalesce a number of signs of sacred texts (such as the Gita), deities (such as Kali and Shiva), rites of ancient Hindu culture and other complex of myths and memories, as mythomoteur, or constitutive political myth (Smith 1986: 146). Subsequently, as the geo-political landmass today identified as Bangladesh continued to re-weave the narration of nation throughout the twentieth century, religious signs coalesced as mythomoteur were inevitably mobilized to articulate the majoritarian norm of national identity. Following Victor Turner (1982: 10-12; 68-78), the narration may be read as an ongoing script of 'social drama,' in which, the hierarchical 'orders' or groups constituting the social system of Bangladesh, have been engaged, in the effort to further each order's or group's own interest, in clashes between 'indetermination' (ie, the wish, the possibility, that which 'could be' or 'should be') and 'modes of determination' (ie, the normative structure which attempts to bind the society or parts thereof into a harmonious whole).
This paper examines how, in the 'redressive action' stage of social drama, theatre is employed as a means of 'plural reflexivity' and a hypertrophy of jural process in dealing with the deep-seated question of national identity, which, as Schendel (2001: 107) observes, 'has dominated public debate in Bangladesh since its birth in 1971.' The paper proceeds in two parts. The first discusses how Munier Chowdhury's Kabar, investigates and judges the crisis of 21 February 1952 in a 'plural reflexivity;' and the second demonstrates how Syed Huq's Payer Awaj Pawa Jaye functions as a hypertrophy of jural process in probing the Liberation War of 1971. The paper ends by urging that instead of falling in line with the politics of each South Asian nation-state that 'performs' the 'nation' by rendering invisible the region's plurality with the grim prose of power that each can wield, it is necessary for the academics and artistes of the region to devise ways and means towards a post-national identity in South Asia.
Performing the Bengali nation in the Grave
Munier Chowdhury wrote Kabar, a play in one act that bears strong influence of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead (1936), as a political prisoner at the Dhaka Central Jail. On the night of 21 February 1953, the political prisoners detained for their involvement in the Language Movement performed the play at the jail as a mechanism of reflexivity that assessed the situation of the crisis of 21 February 1952 and the human agents involved therein. Since its premiere at the jail, Kabar has remained one of the most important – almost revered theatre pieces in Bangladesh for its effective narration of the Bengali nation.
Kabar (Grave in lit translation) attempts to make sense of the disharmony and crisis of 21st February, by re-imagining the crisis in the fictional world of a graveyard, where, late at night, an influential and highly placed leader claiming to be 'the sole master of the biggest political organization of the country' (Chowdhury 1990: 68), and a police officer (Hafiz) completely faithful to the ruling party and the government, have been drinking to overcome fear – the Leader openly from bottles that he has brought while Hafiz has been helping himself stealthily from the bottle of the Leader. Their interaction underpinned by wry humour exposes the reason for their presence at the graveyard: a number of people were shot brutally by the Police in the preceding afternoon and the two are surreptitiously supervising the burial of the dead before the killing is exposed to the public. By this time, the unspoken ethical framework of the play has clearly marked the two central characters as villainous antagonists.
Thus weaving the exposition, the playwright presents the conflict of the play by posing a 'what-if' question: what would happen if those killed in police action, refuse to be buried and march out in the street to continue their protest? In order to lend a veneer of verisimilitude into the chain of action arising out of the question, the playwright firstly has the gravediggers refuse to bury the dead without a proper funeral; secondly, he introduces a lunatic named Murda Fakir (Ascetic of the Corpses) as a resident of the graveyard, who intervenes to declare that it is actually the Leader and Hafiz who effuse the odour of corpses, and not those for whom the graves are being dug. Asking the two to take their place instead, he exits to call the dead to rise.
Having thus prepared the spectators to expect the fictional world to challenge the logic of everyday reality, the playwright actually has the protagonists – 'ordinary' and innocent men killed in police action – respond to Murda Fakir's call. In a surrealistic haunting scene, they actually rise with their ghastly wounds, call the Leader to account and refuse to be buried. The Leader fails to convince them, and hence the faithful police officer turns resourceful and comes up with a brilliant ploy. He play-acts as the mother of one of the dead and the wife of another, and emotionally pleads that they should sleep. When they appear to be nearly convinced, Murda Fakir intervenes again in the climactic scene, to lead the dead out to the street. By then, it is dawn and the ghosts melt in the first rays of sunlight. One of the guards on duty appears to inform the Leader that their job of burial has been completed. The Leader and
Hafiz are much relieved – for the resolution of the play acknowledges that rising of the dead was only a nightmare, a hallucination under intoxication in a graveyard.
As an act of 'plural reflexivity', that is, 'the ways in which a group tries to scrutinize, portray, understand and then act on itself' (Turner 1982: 75), Kabar engages the spectators in intensified reflection and problematisation that signals reconstruction as well as critique at two levels. In the first of these, it demonstrates that the nation-state of Pakistan failed to perform its foremost prerequisite for its own validation and legitimation, ie, protect its innocent citizens from harm, because the state functionaries are inept and incompetent, and are guided either by personal gain or ideological vacuum. Secondly, it desacralizes the nascent nation-state of Pakistan's most cherished value and belief that Islamic signs coalesced as mythomoteur are the sole authentic markers of national identity, and warns that coercive application of power by the state can only lead to a fateful refusal, as though echoing Foucault's (1982: 790) insistence that '[a]t the very heart of [a] power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.'
If silence gives any work its life, as Macherey (1978: 84) argues admirably, and if '[i]n the space in which the work unfolds, everything is to be said, and is therefore never said' (Macherey 1978: 83), then the unspoken ground of the unsaid on which Kabar traces the performance of Bengali nation is the social drama of national identity, in which the subaltern, intermediate, and nascent bourgeoisie of East Bengal, under the ideological leadership of the petty-bourgeoisie (Riyaja 2003: 306), articulated their 'indetermination' of imagining the nation by the signs of Bengali language and culture, and engaged in a clash of interest with the 'modes of determination' of the dominant elite of Pakistan that insisted on inscribing the majoritarian norm of national identity by mobilizing Islamic signs coalesced as mythomoteur. Importantly, in this performance of the Bengali nation, Kabar does not so much engage the spectators in an ideological debate (except in the Leader's brief and futile argument with the dead figures immediately after they arise, Chowdhury 1990: 68-71), but in a process of interpellation, where the spectators recognize themselves as subjects through ideology articulated by emotive means (as Murda Fakir 'smelling the dead' in the two antagonists, and Haifz attempting to persuade the dead to return to the grave by 'play-acting' the roles of one of the victim's mother and another's wife).
In attempting to crystallize the notion of the Bengali 'nation' around the foci of language and culture, Kabar is nevertheless haunted by 'a particular ambivalence' (Bhabha 1990: 1), a 'conceptual indeterminacy and wavering between vocabularies' (ibid: 2), for it is heavily laden with Islamic worldview. Consider, first of all, the setting: it is a graveyard for the Muslims, not a cremation ground of the Hindus or a cemetery of the Christians. It is understandable that the leader, because he represents the dominant elite of Pakistan, needs to speak the language that reflects the 'modes of determination.' However, the playwright chose to have a character called Murda Fakir (and not, for example a Baul or the Vivek), who also speaks quite a similar language. Only the language of the dead is relatively 'secular.' The fact is, the Bengali nationalism which Kabar performs, can firmly and only be conceived in the post-47 political backdrop of East Bengal, and the social context of the Bengali Muslims. If these determinants are erased, the play loses its razor's edge. One likes it or not, Bengali nationalism of Kabar is the cultural nationalism of the Muslims of East Bengal (and one does need to stress the Muslim aspect). As Rahman Sobhan says, '[w]hatever may have been the origins of Bengali nationalism up to August 14, 1947, after this date Bengali nationalism came to be exclusively defined in terms of the territory which then constituted the province of East Bengal in Pakistan …' (1992: 709-710). Munir Chowdhury may not have liked it, but because Pakistan was a reality, the 'Bengali' identity could never completely ignore its shadow or perhaps, more threateningly, its double – the 'Muslim' identity. The two had to undergo a synthesis and that it did in the guise of Murda Fakir, who accentuates Kabar's ambivalence by leading the dead out to the street. But perhaps the nationalist aspiration is threatened most by slippage into indeterminacy when the playwright dismisses the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom enunciated in the rising of the dead as only a nightmare, a hallucination under intoxication in a graveyard. And hence, 'performing Bengali nationalism in Kabar' literally translates into 'performing Bengali nationalism in the grave.’
Performing the Bengali Nation by the Sound of Marching Feet
But the rising of the dead, which Munier Chowdhury could only imagine as a nightmare and hallucination under intoxication, did materialize as the 'actual' in the category of everyday reality in 1971, but in the process reduced him to the category of the dead. Syed Shamsul Huq seizes upon the crisis of 1971 that inevitably grew manifolds from that of 1952, to perform the notion of cultural nationalism in his verse-drama Payer Awaj Pawa Jaye (translated in English by the author as 'At the Sound of Marching Feet'), which premiered in Dhaka city in 1976, about 15 months after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Huq posits his play as a hypertrophy of jural process that investigates, judges and even seeks retribution for the antagonists in the 1971 episode of the social drama of national identity, in which the subaltern, intermediate, and nascent bourgeoisie of East Pakistan, under the ideological leadership of the petty-bourgeoisie, attempted to imagine the 'nation' by ignoring communalism – the 'kingpin of late-colonial politics' Schendel (2001:108).
Huq's exposition of his play is vaguely reminiscent of the Theban citizens assembled in front of Oedipus's palace, as the villagers in Payer Awaj Pawa Jay gather in front of the house of Matbar (the traditional village elder), seeking (even demanding) assurance from him in the face of the calamity of advancing Mukti Bahini, against whom Matbar has rallied their support in favour of Pakistan and the religion of Islam. Huq loses no time to introduce the ideological conflict between religious and cultural nationalisms, by having Matbar and his close ally the Pir, as social leaders at the grass roots level, to defend the cause of Pakistan, and thus sets in motion a jural process.
When Matbar appears to have convinced all present by his skilful play of words that the Mukti Bahini is doomed to be destroyed, Huq instigates complication by a dramatic reversal: Matbar's daughter appears in the scene to challenge his authority by accusing him of complicity in her rape by an officer serving in the Pakistan Army in the preceding evening. Matbar, devastated by the accusation, is forced to acknowledge that failing to dissuade the officer who had threatened to destroy everything unless he was given Matbar's daughter – even after reminding the officer that he had all along faithfully served the cause of Islam and Pakistan – conceded to the officer's demand with the veneer of a sham marriage ceremony conducted by himself. In the climactic segment of the play, the daughter turns to all assembled (which, by inference, includes the spectators), and after reminding them that she has always been faithful to religious injunctions, demands justice for herself. Failing to elicit an answer or even the promise of a future from all the assembled including the Pir, she commits suicide in their presence.
In the resolution of this hypertophy of jural action, Matbar now stands unmaked, bereft of all authority and power. As he wails grief-stricken, the frenzied villagers attempt to mete out justice by seeking his death. At this point, the lights go off suddenly with crashing sound of exploding shells – the only transition of time in this pseudo-Greek verse tragedy bound by the three unities. When the lights return, the protagonists, ie, the Mukti Bahini overrun the space as a huge flag of Bangladesh is displayed overhead, and Matbar is seen lying dead. After the members of the Mukti Bahini exist searching for the collaborators, the Pir urges the spectators to attend Matbar's funeral prayer, and whispers his last words: 'A stain, a stain remains.'
As a hypertrophy of jural process, Payer Awaj engages the spectators in liminal reflexivity imbued with 'investigative, judgemental, and even punitive character of law-in-action' (Turner 1982: 12), so as to render meaning to the crisis of 1971 in a manner that the spectators may grasp 'the full relation of the part [ie, the crisis of 1971] to the whole of life' (ibid: 76). Because the objective endows unquestioned validity to and assumes as a priori given the cultural nationalist project, the playwright does not even bother to present the argument of the protagonists in the jural process. It is enough, for him, to subvert the argument of the religious nationalists as presented in the initial assurance given by Matbar, by proving the fraudulence and deceitfulness of Matbar and the Pakistan Army officer; and because they are agents of the nation-state, the fraudulence and deceitfulness is thought to drain the very notion of Pakistan of validation. This is accomplished not by presenting a counter-argument but by rape as the ultimate potent trope of masculine dishonour committed by, borrowing from the US military vocabulary, 'friendly fire.' The rape is expected to demonstrate that the nation-state of Pakistan is dishonest and deceitful in claiming Islamic precepts as its guiding principle. By extending the trope of rape into the doctrine of religious nationalism, Payer Awaj also desacralizes the nation-state of Pakistan's raison-d'être predicated on Islamic signs.
However, in spite of the intended meaning of Payer Awaj as a glorification of the War of Liberation and exposition of the hypocrisy of the religious nationalists, on closer scrutiny, the play reveals a fractured terrain caused by unintended slippages and deep-seated ironies.
Consciously or unconsciously, Syed Huq has made use of numerous – far too numerous if you compare it with Kabar – Islamic root paradigms, images and references. Consider the zikr of the Pir with which he enters (Huq, 1976: 10, 14, 25), and references to Hanifa's revenge for the massacre of Karbala (Huq, 1976: 30), Ababil birds' attack on the elephants (Huq, 1976: 33), and the deeds of the brothers Habil and Kabil (Huq, 1976: 49). Consider also that Matbar's daughter's worldview is completely Islamic, as is that of her father's and the Pir's. Consider also innumerable references to the religion of Islam in the speech of all the characters of the play, including the villagers: sawal, hukum, djinn, tajjab, pari, Allah, Mustafa (the Prophet), Medina, Musa Nabi, mokam, kalma, kalam, wazu, sura, dowa, Koran, iman, behesht, sawal, janaza, etc. These signs trace the image of a Bengali nationalism which is imbued more in 'Islamic' ambience than Kabar. The last scene with Matbar lying dead, the flag of Bangladesh unfurled above, and the Pir whispering, 'a stain, a stain remains,' is a potent image of cultural nationalism in Bangladesh. What is striking is that the Pir is not dead and the henchman of Matbar leads the freedom fighters to search for the collaborators. It is the most moving image of the play and has three elements of post-75 Bengali nationalism: the flag, the Pir, and the Matbar. By further extension, Payer Awaj does not stop with the death of Matbar but offers itself as a parable of politics in Bangladesh. Perhaps, 'performing Bengali nationalism in Payer Awaj Pawa Jaye is Sainik-der Payer Awaj Pawa Jay, which literally translates into 'performing Bengali nationalism by the Sound of the Marching Feet' of the Soldiers who marauded the premises of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s house.
Since the days of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sri Aurobindo, religious signs coalesced as mythomoteurs have continued to exert such a pervasive presence in the articulation of national identity in South Asia, that even when, as this examination shows, cultural nationalism sought to reconstruct an alternate identity in Bangladesh by means of theatre, religious signs have inevitably fractured the alternate project by 'conceptual indeterminacy and wavering between vocabularies' (Bhabha 1990: 2). The project of the cultural nationalists in Bangladesh is also fractured because Rabindranath, who has been the silent yet pervasive touchstone and the ideological underpin in substantiating, authenticating and validating their urge to 'imagine' the nation not by the marker of religion but language, was himself a stringent adversary of the nationalist rhetoric. Nearly a century ago he had observed that 'the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation' (Tagore 1918: 29). The cultural nationalists forget to remember that Rabindranath had situated himself away from the notion of the nation and the concomitant realpolitik borrowed from Europe, and aspired to the shifting site of a polyvocal orchestration of cosmopolitanism that acknowledges the necessity of being anchored in inherited tradition and at the same time seeks 'a line of flight' in humanity.
The point is not so much that either one or the other – either cultural or religious nationalism is ethically acceptable, but that the project of all grand narratives of nationalism, typically predicated on negativity and exclusion that insist upon the formula of X ≠ Y, is never accomplished.
For the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories which name and divide us (Finn 1992: 113).
We are always more and less than a woman, a man, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, an Indian, a Taliban, a Bengali, a Bihari, a Chakma, a proletarian, a capitalist, ... more or less than 'anything that can be said about us' (ibid: 113-114). We are always more or less because we inhabit 'the space between experience and expression' (ibid: 112), always submerged in a process of becoming, always on a line of fluctuation, always separated by a gap from this or that axiom constituting the category of a nation. ‘Our lives leave remainders (they say more than they mean) just as our categories leave residues (they mean more than they say)’ (ibid: 114). Hence, we are forever too late or too early in arriving at the normative identity of the nation, always seeking but failing to be because the ideal, the principle or the schema is never actuated although the controlling interest of prevailing political power attempts forever to manage us, contain us with it, and “organizes and obscures; organizes to obscure” that we are inevitably 'fated' to fail in actuating the normative identity (ibid: 115).
Hence, instead of falling in line with the politics of each South Asian nation-state that 'performs' the 'nation' by rendering invisible the region's plurality with the grim prose of power that each can wield, it is necessary for the academics and artistes of the region to devise ways and means towards a post-national identity in South Asia, which is more of a 'process of becoming rather than being' (Hall 1996: 4), 'as a concern with “routes” rather than “roots”' (McCrone: 1998: 34). It is necessary to devise ways and means for seeking 'the face-to-face [that] eludes every category,' the face-to-face '[n]ot only as glance, but as the original unity of glance and speech, eyes and mouth, that speaks, but also pronounces its hunger,' the face-to-face 'which hears the invisible' (Derrida 1978: 100). For this to take place, it is necessary, as Deleuze and Guattari (1986: 27) would say, to '[c]reate the opposite dream' of a postnational global community articulated by a rhizomic network of a thousand plateaus that celebrates multiplicity and heterogeneity, but at the same time resists globalization of multinational corporations and international financial markets. Let us say farewell to national identities. They have made us suffer too much by their fictive passions.
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