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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Preserve the past, please!

While trying to live for the moment, while looking at the future, a mistake was made: We wiped away the past

Update : 08 Jun 2022, 12:41 PM

Correct me if I am wrong but there is a collective sense of apathy across social sections to protect, cherish and preserve the past. As Bangladesh stands at fifty, brushing aside detractors, looking into the future does not conjure up the image of a long dark tunnel anymore. Well, for someone who is just as old the country, there was a time when society lived with the mantra of addressing the challenges at hand, keeping future thoughts out of mind. Actually, with high unemployment among the educated, food shortages, recurring natural disasters, political conflagrations plus a pervasive feeling of malaise, looking ahead was too much of a luxury. 

Live now, tackle the immediate problems and think about the future later, was the rule of the day. That rather dismal picture of Bangladesh, wracked by problems, is more like a faded chapter, although standing at fifty, it’s often the past that comes back in moments of nostalgia. Or, shall we say, delectable dive into the days gone by? 

While trying to live for the moment, a mistake was made: We wiped away the past. 

Dhaka, once a sleepy city, now operates as a bustling capital offering the best and certainly the worst of other capitals. 

We all know the problems but apart from the glaring ones like traffic jams and congestion, the other, often neglected issue is the way Dhaka’s heritage is being systematically expunged. 

From buildings to customs to music to food to architecture, the past is being obliterated in the face of a leviathan called predatory urban ideals. I know, modernity has its ‘kick’ although its allure is ephemeral. Deny that and you will be perpetuating a delusion!

Dhaka’s ponds and old architecture: 

It’s hard to believe that once this city was interspersed with small water bodies or ponds. Almost every area had several houses with ponds at the back. To talk about Elephant Road, where I spent my teenage days in the early 80s, several homes had ponds. There isn’t a single one now! The same applies for old buildings. Caught in the apartment culture, all individual buildings were demolished. Of course, the apartment was inevitable since land was limited and the number of people living in the city rose phenomenally. However, the city does not have a photo archive of buildings that were torn down. Hence, it’s almost impossible to reconstruct an image of Dhaka in the first decades after independence. In the Old part of the city, structures dating back to the 19th century are either left in a dilapidated condition or demolished to make space for new ones. 

Old Dhaka is replete with history although a coordinated approach to safeguard the past is absent. Accepted, some of the privately owned buildings will be knocked down at the decision of the owners but a government run initiative can preserve images plus a wide variety of historical objects from furniture to utensils as objects of historical and cultural significance.

Recent urban history is scant: 

Dhaka has experienced radical change since 1990. In the last thirty-two years, the cultural and social creed of Dhaka of the periods just after liberation was obliterated in a mad rush to accommodate new outlooks. 

Just to give an example, portraying the city of the 70s and 80s in celluloid will be an uphill task because the social zeitgeist of the period, exhibited through a variety of items including, cars, clothes, books, posters has not be preserved. 

In the 70s and 80s, the main past time for teenagers and the elderly alike was reading popular fiction like Masud Rana, Kuasha, Dasyu Bonhur, Dasyu Panja, Bionic Mehedi. In the afternoons, people listened to film trailers on radio followed by world music. Today, copies of these books are extremely rare.  Once in a blue moon, some old Masud Rana copies emerge at the Nilkhet second hand market to be quickly taken by someone in what can be called a serendipitous find. 

Copies of these books were not preserved. During last Eid, a collector of old Bichitra magazines sold his copies dating from the early 80s and late 70s for Tk500 a piece. The magazines, covering the heyday of footballing glory, the rise of the British Bangladeshi diaspora in the wake of the race related protests in 1978, floods in 1980, the obsession to head for the Middle East for highly paid employment to Bangladesh’s first ever football world cup qualification adventure in 1985, opened the door to a forgotten era. 

Unfortunately, no library in Dhaka can offer an archive of newspapers from the 80s, the turbulent years marked by the anti autocratic movement, leaving the young of today to be left at the hands of partisan narrators to form an idea about Bangladesh’s political past. 

For music lovers, a regular haunt was the Elephant Road ‘Rainbow’r Gali’ which housed recording centres, Soor Bichitra, Rhythm and Rainbow. Hardly any image or video recorded clips of these placed can be found.    

Dhaka’s first air-conditioned fast food restaurant was Coffee House in Elephant Road, which is also lost in the abyss of time since images, video recordings of the place do not exist. 

Recently, the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC) through Alliance Francaise, British Council and Goethe Institute and BUET, launched a project ‘Learning from Puran Dhaka’ aimed at protecting, preserving and cherishing the cultural heritage, architecture, river and creed of Old Dhaka. 

Focusing on how the River Buriganga shaped livelihood and zeitgeist of Old Dhaka, this project will involve teachers, architects, researchers from Bangladesh, France and India. 

To encourage the residents of Old Dhaka about the significance of the project, a series of visually stimulating cultural events will be organised in the future from colourful rallies to processions by French street performers using stilts known commonly as Les Grande Personnes.

At the launching event of the project, the EU Ambassador to Bangladesh, Charles Whiteley, acknowledged the historical, cultural and gastronomic heritage of Old Dhaka, saying: ‘the vibrant and indomitable spirit of Old Dhaka is represented through its crafts, mouth-watering dishes and architecture dating back to the Mughal period. Cultural heritage is also a driver of sustainability in an economic, social and environmental perspective. On the socio-economic side, it is an important asset to enhance sustainable development by providing employment opportunities and supporting economic livelihoods.’

A museum on Dhaka: 

Since independence, this city, often termed the microcosm of towns and districts across the country, has undergone astonishing transformations. As the capital of the war ravaged country, Dhaka endured post liberation socio-economic malaise, political maelstrom, austerity and hardship moving slowly but inexorably towards prosperity and modernism. This journey and everything that symbolise the undaunted spirit, encapsulates the perseverance of this nation. On the 50th year, standing as old as the country and having experienced all of her highs and lows, I earnestly feel that there should be a concerted effort to safeguard historic buildings plus the recent urban history, covering the social metamorphosis since 1972. 

To end with a quote from Richard Moe, the historic preservation advocate: ‘there may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here and there, but those days are gone. Preservation is the business of saving communities and the values they embody.’

Towheed Feroze is an avid admirer of the kaleidoscopic charm of Old Dhaka. 

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