Bangladesh: May - August, 2009

         L. Detail of Plaque with the goddess Durga and attendants, Shunga period (ca. 2nd - 1st century B.C.), 1st century B.C., Chandraketugarh, (now West Bengal, India), Terracotta 10 1/2 x 7 7/8 in. (26.7 x 20 cm) (1990.281) Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (1990.28)

         R. Plaque with a Royal Family, Shunga period, 1st century B.C., Chandraketugarh, (now West Bengal, India). Terracotta. c. 10 x 7 in. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1992.129)

         It's a place of ancient civilization: the delta where the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Jamuna and the Meghna rivers spill out of the Himalayas and merge to pour themselves into the Indian Ocean at the Bay of Bengal. When our earliest ancestors walked out of Africa, they trod along this fringe of coast where seas are now rising, mangroves are threatened, ships rot and trash spills into the sea. More than sixty thousand years ago, on their way to Asia and Australia, the first humans walked here.

         Terracotta plaques of contented couples relaxing together with plump children and parrots, voluptuous, long-limbed dancing girls, and rattles in the shape of fierce, bald, scowling and squatting, pot-bellied guardians tell silently of a lush sophistication here in this place, Bengal, some two thousand ago.

         The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battutah (1304 - 1369 C.E.), visited Chittagong on his long voyage from Tangier to Beijing and back, traveling through and writing about Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mecca, Sri Lanka, Byzantium, Afghanistan, India, Sumatra, China and later, Andalusia and along the Niger River. Twenty years on the road, he traveled some 75,000 miles. A port on the trade routes from North Africa to the Spice Islands, Chittagong has a history as long as the trade in pepper, cinnamon and cloves. Arab traders, Indian and Italian merchants, the Portuguese and the British traversed this route in quest of exotic goods and substantial profits.

         Following the long struggle to end centuries of colonial rule, East Bengal, as part of the new nation of Pakistan, declared independence with India from the British Raj in 1947. Again in 1971, wrenching its autonomy and independence from Pakistan, East Bengal became the nation of Bangladesh. The tangled history of the British exit from India had resulted in the creation in 1947 of two nations, India and Pakistan, at the urging of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) and to the dismay of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), Jawaharial Nehru (1889-1964) and others who had struggled for so many years to attain the independence for all the people of the Indian subcontinent. The splitting of Hindu and Muslim populations, a flawed and tragic effort, resulted in a divided Pakistan with border lines drawn at the West, where Urdu speakers bordered Srinigar and Afghanistan and at the East, where Bengal was severed into an Indian West and a Pakistani East. The two divided and isolated sections of Pakistan, separated by one thousand miles of Indian territory, shared neither culture nor language nor ethnicity. It was a blueprint for conflict. By 1971, irreconcilable differences and skewed power precipitated a deadly struggle for independence from West Pakistan.

         A devastating famine following a cyclone during the brutal war of independence riveted world attention on the fledgling nation and inspired Ravi Shankar to invite George Harrison to host The Concert for Bangladesh, with Ali Akbar Khan, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and others. In August 1971, at New York's Madison Square Garden, musicians partnered with UNICEF to bring the world's attention to the crisis. This was the first major concert to raise funds for an international crisis and the inspiration for similar efforts since. Still one of the poorest nations, overpopulated and on the frontlines of the threat from climate change, rising sea levels and food scarcity, Bangladeshis celebrate their rich heritage of intellectual, spiritual and artistic achievement. Bangladeshi artists, intellectuals, scientists and citizens today are by necessity the observers, the actors and the voice of a nation threatened with climate change, rising seas, challenges in every realm: political, social, environmental. Its site, between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, with much of its land at or below sea level has put it on the front lines of the global concern for rising sea levels and climate change. In a neighborhood with Nepal, India, Pakistan, Burma, Sikkim and Bhutan, Bangladesh is at the fulcrum of complex change, development and innovation. Such a small nation is nonetheless seventh in world population with a median age of about twenty-three.

         I was in Chittagong from May through August 2009 teaching at the Asian University for Women. My students, from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Pakistan and Nepal were enthusiastic, sophisticated and accomplished. I had a fabulous time teaching an introductory course on Asian Art History: in six weeks we considered 12,000 years of history, from Jomon Japan, the Harappan Valley and Shang China to Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Tibetan and Nepali thankas, Bengali terracottas and Islamic architecture. Using photographs I had taken in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, N.Y., the American Museum of Natural History, NY and others, we explored together the astonishing heritage of Asian culture, the emergence and spread of the world's great religions and the fascinating routes of travel and trade connecting the Mediterranean to the Himalayas, the Mongolian steppes and the Spice Islands. Projected images of artifacts and architecture inspired discussion of history, politics, religions, the thrust and transit of ideas, the potential impact of an image, the waves of creation and destruction. As one of my students commented, we had all the gods under our roof! Inshallah, these capable young women will be running their countries in another decade.

         Almost all of these photographs were taken in a few days in Chittagong and in the older neighborhoods of Dhaka, by the river, on Das Road, on the Dhaka University campus, at the Musa Khan Masjid (mosque), at the Kella Lalbagh (fort). I was searching for the architecture, history and heritage. I found, as Anthony Tung has noted about other cities throughout the world, the pervasive destruction of the architectural fabric of previous generations by modern society, the destruction of our past and the chaos of development. In Bangladesh the pressures of intense economic, environmental and social problems push architectural preservation out of the picture. The urban chaos of contemporary Dhaka and Chittagong is an assault on the senses. Walking, watching, I wondered about the nature of the medieval Chittagong that Ibn Batuttah had experienced. I wondered about the quality of daily life, houses, courtyards and gardens of East Bengal a few thousand years ago when artists were creating clay tiles depicting long-limbed, dancing deities and song birds. Invited to the home of friends in Dhaka, I finally found that sense of harmony, deep inside, at the heart of the old house, complete with laughing children, song birds and a central courtyard with a view of the night sky. The house, as Gaston Bachelard said, is our corner of the world, our first universe and cosmos.

Works Cited:

Gaston Bachelard. The Poetics of Space, 1964.
Ibn Battutah. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, ed., The Travels of Ibn Battutah, NY: Picador, 2003.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 -. (October 2004)
Colin Renfrew. Prehistory The Making of the Human Mind, NY, The Modern Library, 2008.
Anthony M. Tung, Preserving the World's Great Cities, The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Bangladesh Photo Gallery