A cultural festival organised by major newspapers of India and Bangladesh enhances people-to-people contact between the South Asian neighbours.
Bangladesh owes a great deal to India, which helped it win independence from Pakistan 40 years ago. But over the years, ties between the two South Asian neighbours have often been marked by mutual distrust, and official efforts to bridge the gap have not always succeeded.
Fed up with the bickering, major news establishments in each country have joined hands to sponsor a unique festival focusing on what the two sides have in common: music and language.
The Maitree Bandhan (Friendship Ties) Festival organised by The Times of India and the Daily Prothom Alo – the two largest newspapers of India and Bangladesh – kicked off in Kolkata on Thursday (February 23rd).
The event opened with performances by two renowned singers: Rezwana Chowdhury Bonna of Bangladesh and Indian-born singer-songwriter Lopamudra Mitra. Both are performers of Rabindra Sangeet – the body of songs written and composed by Bengali literary giant Rabindranath Tagore.
Bengali is the language of Bangladesh and of three Indian states –West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. In fact, Tagore is the author and composer of the national anthems of both countries.
"Kolkata is like a second home," Bonna told Khabar South Asia. "There is a bond that runs deep between the two countries – a cultural bond that has become strongly entrenched because of the common language – Bengali – that both the countries have."
Popular Rabindra Sangeet artist Manoj Murali Nair agreed. "I am overwhelmed by the response I get in [Bangladesh]. Music can bring the two countries together," he told Khabar.
The weeklong festival is being held in Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi.
On the weekend, festivalgoers remembered the classics with ghazal singer Pankaj Udhas and crooned with pop singers Usha Uthup and Runa Laila. Kolkata band Cactus and Bangladesh's Nagar Baul will rock out the festival on its closing, February 29th.
India and Bangladesh have a long history and, inevitably, have squabbled over issues including water sharing, illegal migration, and cross-border violence. But, as the festival demonstrates, the urge to share positive cultural ties is strong.
In fact, the Bhasha Andolan (Bengali Language Movement) is still celebrated annually on February 21st, marking the day in 1952 when several Bengali students were killed in a rally in Dhaka against Pakistan demanding Bengali, not Urdu, be the official state language.
This celebration continues to bring together Bengalis across the border and this year, for the first time, Indian and Bangladeshi citizens who share the common language of Bengali officially celebrated in the no-man's land between the two countries' borders.
"This day should be celebrated with vigour. After all, a common language can set the ground for fresh initiatives between the two governments, leaving all other vexed issues on the backburner," linguist Pabitro Sarkar told Khabar.
But the Maitree Bandhan serves to celebrate more than just shared language. Featuring top Indian and Bangladeshi artists on one platform, the festival aims to remind people of their commonalities while also providing a venue to lay back, relax, and enjoy.