Pohela Boishakh- Bangla New Year

Ramna Park, Dhaka

Last week Bangladesh celebrated their New Year. The historical importance of Pohela Boishakh in the Bangladeshi context began in 1965. In an attempt to suppress Bengali culture, the Pakistani Government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous poet and writer in Bengali literature. Protesting this move, Chhayanat opened their Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park with Tagore’s song welcoming the month. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan as a symbol of Bengali culture. After 1972 it became a national festival, a symbol of the Bangladesh nationalist movement.

Shooting Pohela Boishakh

Sometimes it’s an advantage to be a foreigner. I had left my press pass at home but the SWAT team like special forces assigned to the event (center) let me use the platform to video tape from. A few years back there was a bomb blast in Ramna Park during Pohela Boishakh so security was heightened.


Scenes from the Rupsha River Ghat in Khulna

In Khulna I gravitated towards the docks along the Rupsha river. Over-sized motorized row boats ferry passengers across the river in a couple of minutes. For those of you not from Bangladesh that boat hanging in mid air is the symbol for the Awami League, Sheik Hasina’s political party. Their slogan from last December’s election was “Vote for the Boat.”

Near the muddy banks of the river there are many shrimp processing plants and timber mills. At first I assumed the man with his head chopped  off  in the above photo was the girls father but by the way he held her that apparently was not the case. Although he was playful and laughing the situation was disturbing. I photographed it the way I felt it.  Lost childhood…most everyone in this country grows up before their time.

It was a Friday and most of the men were dressed in freshly washed white Punjabis on their way to the Mosque. It struck me that there is a stronger Islamic presence in Khulna- so many of the women who ventured out on the streets were covered from head to toe in black.

On the Road in Bangladesh

On the road in Khulna

Bangladesh must have one of the highest rates of vehicle accidents in the world.  I  was traveling in Khulna last week and read the article below in the newspaper. It occurred on the same road I was traveling on only one hour later.

Khulna, Bangladesh – Two speeding passenger buses crashed into each other in southern Bangladesh on Thursday, killing at least 11 people and injuring another 50. Rescuers recovered the bodies of nine people from the wreckage after the collision in Bagerhat district, south of the capital, Dhaka, United News of Bangladesh said. About 50 injured people, some in serious condition, have been taken to hospitals, the report said, quoting unnamed police sources. The report provided no further details. Fatal road accidents, blamed on rash driving and faulty vehicles, claim some 12,000 lives each year in Bangladesh, according to government figures.

The  bus that I was on was completely chaotic. The teenager who collected the fares was physically abusing some of the passengers. I gave him a piece of my mind after he pushed a woman passenger with her child to the back in order to squeeze more people in. It was good that I did. The next time he passed me he kept saying “sorry.” What was more disconcerting was the driver who intermittently kept turning his head around for a few seconds while driving.

IUB Photography Workshop

Photo © Mohammad Zakir Hossain

I just wrapped up a four day Photography workshop at IUB and wasn’t so sure that it was going to come together until the last minute. On the last day as I was showing the students how to construct a multimedia presentation we had power cuts- they call it load shedding here- almost every other hour on the hour. For some reason the IPS back up power supply didn’t work either. Some guy, or maybe a woman, decides which neighborhood get turned off.  IUB is located in  Baridhara, the wealthiest part of the country. Lack of electricity and water are much more severe in other parts of the city.

Photo © Asif Khan

Bangladeshis are extremely resourceful and pull together when they have to. When the power finally returned, we made a final edit, sequenced the photos and made a couple of title images. With only a few minutes left we changed locations and presented our work to an enthusiastic audience. I better post this now before the power goes out again.

The Promised Land

Sadarghat ferry terminal, Old Dhaka

One of the places that I’m most drawn to is Sadarghat- the ferry terminal in old Dhaka. It’s one of the largest ports in the world. Over 30,000 people- it seems like many more-  use the terminal each day. The shrill of sirens sound like an air raid as boats depart and arrive from the countryside. Wide-eyed families look as though they came from another planet. What are they thinking? Have their dreams of beginning a new life already been shattered the instant they arrive. The children are often dressed in their finest outfits- little girls in pink and red frilly dresses.

The first thing they must do is haggle with the rickshaw pullers and CNG drivers. Where are these people going? Maybe the father has the name of a family member or friend from back home? They will probably soon end up in one of the many slums throughout the city. The men will become rickshaw pullers and in a few years if she is lucky that little girl in the pink dress will become a garment worker.

Bangla Brazil

One of the many Brazilian flags on the walls of Dhaka

I noticed it as soon as I arrived here. Brazilian flags painted on the walls in various neighborhoods around Dhaka. It struck me since I lived in Rio for two years. Here in Bangladesh people love Brazilian football with Argentina as a distant second. It’s not only Dhaka. Ronaldo is a hero all over the world. Now I know that Brazil and Bangladesh have certain differences. Brazil after all is the largest Catholic country in the world but yet the people in both places exude a certain enthusiasm and energy. Maybe it’s the climate?

The Biharis

The  Biharis or “Stranded Pakistanis” are the descendants of Muslims from the Bihar province prior to the partition of India in 1947, and then migrated to East Pakistan. They live in what looks like refugee camps in Bangladesh. During the 1971 liberation war most of them remained loyal to Pakistan but now the situation is much more complicated. They are a stateless people stuck between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Below is a clip from the Plan, an NGO about Geneva Camp.

The largest Bihari community in the country is in Dhaka. I went there recently with Stijn Pieters, a Belgium photographer who was working on a project there. Geneva Camp is one square kilometer and home to almost thirty thousand people.  It’s a small city off the grid with it’s own schools  and small cottage industries. Families live in crowded tiny rooms, the great majority of them without running water. There are only fifty public toilets for the entire population. I’ve never seen so many people packed into such a small area. When Stijn gets his website together I’ll post his work and a link on Verve Photo.

Poets and Politicians

Poster of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, founding father of Bangladesh & father of current Prime Minister

“We are extremely mournful for this black night. We esteem the great heroes who died for our country and saved all happiness by giving blood on the street. Happy Independence Day.”

—Text message received from a friend moments after I made this exposure

This years official Independence Day ceremonies were cancelled, the first time in the country’s history, because of what happened on Feburary 25th. I was in Old Dhaka and saw a larger number of security forces present.  The only other thing I noticed that was different were the bull horns strung up on utility poles blasting patriotic speeches (pre-recorded?) with what sounded like the national athem in the background.