Covering Identity: Diversity Festival As A Problematic Location
The Cultural Diversity Festival organized by Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Facility (CHTDF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has experienced its first few hiccups – if one is willing to call it just that – in 2009, when a few young activists contested the very ethos of this mode of celebration interrupting one of the sessions. For three years the festival, jointly organized by CHTDF and UNDP, has been the centre of intense media coverage. It is a event that has been adequately packaged to create a ripple in at least the media or the represented world, though what it constructs is a frame of reference without the referent markers. The initiative reflects more of the mind-set of the organizers rather than the people it professes to showcase.
The festival is a way for the 'centre' – Dhaka-based NGOs and UN officials – to take a hand in defining and showcasing the 'periphery' according to their knowledge and perspectives.
The problem of representation manifests through the very linguistic and epistemic falsification of identities of the so called peripheral nation entities. To see the 'bordered,' 'marginalized,' 'aboriginal,' 'indigenous' whatever categories they are being brought under as a 'dying species' rather than 'subordinated entities and cultures' is to explain their condition as the result of the inevitable operation of natural forces rather than as the product of specific history. Life may be natural but living is more about the historical conditions that forms it; therefore, its showcasing is a historical phenomenon governed by society and its economic design.
The 'bordered' lives of Bangladesh: Rakhaines, Chakmas, Khumis, Marmas, Santals, Mandis, Baums, and the other 35 ethnic communities that make up the people who pursue a traditional lifestyle, has been, to say the least, the point of focus of the Diversity Festivals, the last one of which took place from December 3 to 5, 2009. It is the artists from the above mentioned communities who have been brought under the glare of the media with the aim of promoting cultural diversity.
These artists are the representatives of the people of the 'fourth world' – those who are seen as bordered, marginalized, colonized, deprived and oppressed within the third world. This kind of categorization itself is way for the rest of the world to develop a special gaze, one that clearly reminds one of the gaze of the European colonizers who conquered a major portion of the habitable world and looked at the people living there with 'sympathy,' a word that clearly establishes the hierarchy of 'us' over 'them,' with Europe forming the absolute entity defines as 'us.'
It seems that after a long history of imperialism the third world has inherited some of the 'protocols' that go with the so-called 'governance,' emulating the former colonialist.
It is disheartening that the distorted, neglected and bypassed cultures and peoples are being once again given the false impression of permanence by the narrators who belong to the centre.
Let me provide a glimpse of the zeal with which some people tackle the so-called indigenous life. Get a load of this, 'The scenic splendours of these topographies are attractive, no doubt, but lives, livings and thoughts of the tribal peoples who live in these serene places are singularly enchanting' (Abdus Sattar, Tribal Culture in Bangladesh, pp 1-2). This is the voice of the sympathizer, one who appears to be appreciating the hilly lands and the livelihoods of the people living there. It constructs a false, dreamy narrative, which is nothing but an interpretation of a mind filled with curiosity and enchantment, an emblematic figure making and defining 'otherness.' The denial of identity by textualizing with a historical tongue is basically a marginalizing procedure.
Its' pathetic reflection is found in the following conjecture, 'the tribes are not the natives of the soil. They are all immigrants. Those in Chittagong and Chittagong Hill Tracts had migrated from Burma at different periods. The tribes settled in the districts other than these two originally belonged to neighbouring India' (Abdus Sattar, Tribal Culture in Bangladesh, pp 1-2). In the same way, the given information by Sadat Ullah Khan about the Marmas in Banglapedia (Bangladesh Asiatic Socety) is no more than an oversimplification of their socio-economic formation. And on the other end of the spectrum lies the patronizing minority who are behind the UNDP programme –a group of sympathizers who certainly try to mask the prevalent interpretation through the regular arrangement of the festival.
The festival at Bangabandhu International Convention Centre was a construction of a dream-work for indigenous entities (in my word, nation entities). Though the way things are showcased with an emphasis on media-ready photogenic representation, one may draw the conclusion that through the presence of the proxy organism, colonial Europe is once again exerting its power. As such the intra-colonialism and racism that comes into play does its damage through displacement.
Accordingly, one person or event is represented by another who is in some way linked or associated with it, or by a form of symbolic substitution, and also through condensation, a number of people, events, or meanings are combined and represented by a single image in the 'dream.' Here, the dream-work of the festival is activated by the joint process of a couple of components: one is the location and the other is the way it is being arranged.
The festival is itself the location – the centre of communication through which the signifiers achieve the authority to signify the signified. The arrangement is the representation that enables the organizers in composing different cultural tools. Thus, characters, motivation, and events are represented through the “Dream-Work,” one which is made up of abstract ideas or feelings and reconstructed, manipulated images. These do not usually make explicit the core statement, rather communicate the true intention obliquely or indirectly.
The colonial presence is never absolute, nor is the way power and knowledge connected to it free of ambivalence. Ambivalence cancels out absolutism, which proliferates under the guise of progress, modernization, globalization, and is the most powerful weapon by which the civilizing force defines the Other and establishes its regime.
Lacanian conceptualization of mimicry as camouflage is a concept that may be employed to explain the representation that takes place in the name of 'cultural celebration.' The colonizer produces a mimetic representation – a stage-managed event that is outwardly an effort at representing the 'natives' but actually a way for the mimic men, the local representatives of the colonizer, to feel at ease about the people that form the vanquished Other.
Homi K Bhabha recognizes sophisticated strategies of control and dominance on the part of the colonizer and as Abdennebi Ben Beya explains, while it [colonizer] is aware of its ephemerality, it is also anxious to create the means that guarantee its economic, political and cultural endurance. And the said festival can easily be located within this colonial design to mask the ephemerality, or an ambivalence, of the power structure.
All such cultural interventionist representations are only but misrepresentations not only because they are representations of the colonized by the colonist, but because they camouflage events to allow the consensus reality to remain unaffected. Consequently it makes the colonized more subservient.
The codified representation starts with information such as 97 stalls, representation of food habits, clothing, indigenous knowledge of therapy, art, music etc. That a fashion show neatly fits into this program is an indication that the civilizing forces are appropriating certain traits in order to ensure the discontinuity of the lifestyle they outwardly wants to preserve.
Simultaneously, the codes of validation constructed by the media produces a mode of authority. Authority to decide and make policy to gain an upper hand over the Other. The information codes result in an instant manufacturing of consent; in Bangladesh the print media mostly contributes to such function. The media works as a mediator between the consuming public and the organizers who showcase the nation entities. Turn to the pages of Prothom Alo and The Daily Star, two leading newspapers in the country, between December 3 and 8, 2009, and it can easily be made out that showcasing of the indigenous culture is rich in stereotypical interpretation of ethnicity.
One of the weekly supplements of Prothom Alo, Naksha, on December 8, 2009, and Life Style of The Daily Star of the same date, showcase the Fashion Show with such suaveness that anyone with a basic knowledge of the ethnic cultures can easily come to the conclusion that it is no longer about the representation of nation-entities, nor is it the map of modernization of traditional cultures, rather it is the commercialization or, one may also call it corporatization, of a mode of representation that, in the final thesis, represents nothing more than a fantasy of the organizer.
Look at the photographs for the second time and the re-visioning of the man-made world will be visible – where women are represented as do all commodities for quick consumption.
When the representatives and leaders of the communities, whom the festival showcases, consent to such misrepresentation we may call them mimic men, – as we know that the displacement of identity sometimes escapes the notice of the colonized. Therefore the distortion and dislocation of identity is perpetuated, and the colonial rule also continues for these wretched of the earth.
Through misrepresentation CHTDF and UNDP clearly show that colonization continues in different means at different levels and times. Through the celebration of culture they only succeed in displaying a patronly attitude.
At the core, the aesthetical/philosophical position that makes natural living possible – one which is threatened by the advent of highly-financialized, market-driven social existence – is being destabilized through slow and steady infiltration. Consumerism is always open to cultural traits that help disguise its true purpose, so the appropriation, and the glamorization of the appropriated traits serve only the cause of the expanding market; 'ethnicity,' or, to be precise, a few of its features, is one of the most marketable properties in the 21st century.
AONGGYAJAI MARMA is a writer and activist based in Dhaka.