Ananya Bhattacharya
Director and Vice President, Banglanatak dot com

Banglanatak dot com is a social enterprise working with a mission to foster pro-poor growth using culture-based approaches. The Art for Life (AFL) initiative of the organization has led to socio-economic empowerment of 4500 folk artists in two eastern Indian states, West Bengal and Bihar. AFL aims at revitalizing traditional skills in arts and crafts by using these skills to augment livelihood opportunities and develop creative enterprise. The organization has worked with traditional folk singers, dancers, theater groups, painters, and artisans to revitalize their skills. Textual and audio-visual documentation aimed at safeguarding and promoting living heritage have also been undertaken.

Art needs expression, and expression needs appreciation, to thrive. Unless the consumer and producer of art are brought to a common platform, viability and sustenance of art becomes uncertain. In fact, many traditional arts are not known beyond the communities practicing them. And Banglanatak dot com has been organizing festivals to address this issue. The festivals are held in urban areas to create awareness about different art forms that have been suffering from inattention for years. The festivals are also platforms that give rural artists exposure to new market, creating a new audience. As the artist and audience interact, the former gets to know their listeners and are encouraged to transform their passion into a livelihood skill.

Sufi Sutra, an international peace music festival, held at Kolkata in February (next schedule: 31 January to 2 February 2014), creates a dialogue and exchange between global cultural experiences, facilitating wider knowledge and exposure. The rural artists from India get to interact in an ambience of pluralism. The artists not only perform on stage but also interact in workshops, leading to cultural awareness. The past three years have seen participation of nineteen international and nine national teams where the Bauls and Fakirs of Bengal have been brought to the fore, giving them a global audience. The artists have gained recognition and have been visiting countries all over the world. The festival has remarkably broadened their scope of performance.

Banglanatak dot com also organizes annual village festivals in areas where the artist communities reside, thus taking the audience to the artist community. With this end in mind, folk art centers were developed as seats of cultural experience and artists were trained to interact with urban audiences to entertain them as guests. The centers offer workshops, performances, exhibitions, and rehearsal spaces, thereby promoting village tourism. The local people share their heritage, and the tourists take back a piece of human history. Today the musicians jam with the folk singers or learn about mythology and traditional wisdom. The festivals highlight how intangible cultural heritage is a way of life of the people and not a one-off event for a single audience. Village youth and women earn a livelihood by offering hospitality and guide services.

POT Maya is an annual festival held at the once obscure village, Naya, which is in Paschim Medinipore, a hub of scroll painters of Bengal, called Patuas. Patachitra, an age-old tradition of the Patuas, is a unique form of heritage where oral tradition meets the visual structures of a narrative. The artists have now painted their path to glory, drawing both national and international audiences into the Patuas’ now-famed dwelling. POT Maya will next be held from 22 to 24 November 2013, and it will once again witness hundreds of visiting tourists who will interact with the artists. The workshop is held by the artists to disseminate information on natural color extraction while women painters paint, sing, and diversify their products to seize culture-led empowerment. Another instance of women’s empowerment would be the case of the Mithila painting tradition, eponymously known as the Madhubani, after the district where it is most practiced. The art reflects aesthetic tastes, religious leanings, a love for nature and feminine beauty, and a panoramic view of everyday life. Most of the four hundred painters in Simri Village, where festival is held, are women who have braved their way through years of subjugation, poverty, and gender discrimination before finally achieving new heights through their artistic skills. The Madhubani Festival, to be held from 4 to 6 October 2013, will celebrate their achievements.

Fakiri Utsav in Gorbhanga Village in the Nadia district, West Bengal, is the celebration of mellifluous music-makers. Every third weekend of January, Gorbhangha transforms into a Mecca for Baul, Fakiri, and Qawwaali music as it hosts the Fakiri Utsav. From 17 to 19 January 2014, visitors can experience tranquility, simplicity, and warm hospitality of the villagers. The festival promotes music tourism as a gateway to cultural exchange and collaboration.

Basanta Utsav, the celebration of color and spring, is a wonderful occasion for the annual Holi Festival, which will be next held from 16 to 18 March 2014. Purulia has developed into a cultural heritage tourism hub, offering an authentic folk experience of the indigenous tribes of Purulia. The vibrant dance form of Chau and the built heritages together with nature’s bounty make this destination a new co-ordinate on the cultural map of Bengal.

These festivals have brought the otherwise nondescript rural landscapes into sharp focus against the new cultural geography of the state. Interaction with outsiders expanded the horizon, outlook on life and art, and perceived status in the society the artists live in. The pride of the community led to a remarkable difference in the perception of their own social identities. Social cohesion increased with plurality and the youth who were losing interest in the forms are reinvigorating these forms of heritage.

As a cascading effect, another two thousand artists have benefited. Furthermore, marginalized communities now feel included in the development process as they gradually witness their own transformation from art laborers to art entrepreneurs. The need to leave the villages to work as wage laborers in the cities is no longer felt, thus ensuring less migration and alleviation of poverty through culture-based industries. State governments are now showing interest and extending support to cultural enterprises and tourism, thus augmenting the process.