Akram Khan and taking pride in British Bangladeshi identity

The writer (left) with Akram Khan (2nd from right). Photo: courtesy
I moved to London with my family in the early 1990s. As my English became more fluent and I did not mind cornflakes instead of ata’r ruti and alu bhaji, what I call the two-culture conundrum started settling in. It was a term I gave to my constant state of feeling pulled by two cultures — a constant internal pressure to decide or choose in which I belong. Then I saw Akram Khan’s Zero Degrees with Cidi Larbi, an award-winning performance inspired by their own dual identities and I felt an immediate relief and connection. It dawned on me that my feelings are very common in children brought up in two cultures, in my case it was the British at school and Bangladeshi at home. Result? My conflicted British Bangladeshi identity.

As Akram started growing and finding his path as a performer, his artistic journey reflected and explored this feeling of being “split”. We all witnessed his explorations and followed him on his search to find the answer. The answer is of course in acceptance and taking pride in both. But before the conflict could be resolved, there was the need to rediscover and re-learn the culture you were born into. This is when I met Akram for the second time, when in 2010 he decided to create his first solo piece with Bangladesh in its centre.

In 2010, I was working for the British Council Bangladesh as its Arts Manager. My colleague from the UK assigned me as the local contact for Akram and his 11-member Recce team. I was asked to create a weeklong program for the team to get to know Bangladesh. Since I relocated to Bangladesh the year before in 2009, I took great pride in using my own experience and learning to create the programme that took the team outside of Dhaka — from ship-breaking yards of Chittagong to honey hunters in Khulna. The team met with the best in film, photography, fashion and music by meeting Tareque Masud, Shahidul Alam, Ramendu Majumdar, Rubi Ghuznavi, Shafi Mandal and Anusheh. A year later Akram’s first ever solo, the 80-minute-long, interval free dance performance “DESH” was born.
Akram Khan in Ghorashal, Bangladesh during a research visit for “DESH”. Photo: Eeshita Azad
In 2014, I was the Head of Arts for British Council, Bangladesh and “DESH” had already toured 22 countries. But to bring it to Bangladesh was next to impossible. It was not only about the cost but the logistics. Akram Khan Company (AKC) staff already recced five cities of India and returned empty handed as none of the venues matched the requirements. But I wrote to AKC for a visit to Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka, without worrying too much about the probability. AKC’s technical Head found Shilpakala adequate. This seemed like a sign. And I started my quest to raise the money needed to bring “DESH” locally.

The fact that hundred miles away, Akram was fully on board to make it happen, to bring “DESH” back to Bangladesh, gave us the impetus to forge ahead. His willingness to cut costs and accept crazy ideas like making the technically complex stage completely in Bangladesh showed to us his commitment to connect with Bangladesh.

On September 25, 2014, “DESH” was brought to the proud Bangladeshi audience. In the press release we called it: “The homecoming!” Even after Akram and his team left, we kept receiving emails from people imploring us to host more shows.

August 2019, I had relocated back to the UK after a decade in Bangladesh, full from knowing and loving the country of my birth. Despite the traffic, politics and air pollution in the city, Bangladesh formed the adult me who loves the delicate power of the arts to connect her two worlds. Artists’ exchange, institutional links, collaborative creations between the UK and Bangladesh were not mere jargon heavy words, but meaningful tools for me to showcase the best of the human interconnectedness.

Early October 2019, I got a call from Bangladesh to help facilitate an invitation for Akram to take part in the biggest event the Bangladesh Government would host on the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 17, 2020.

AKC has had a 20-year-old reputation of excellence with groundbreaking works in storytelling and performance. Typically, from initial research to the premiere, AKC takes minimum two to three years of preparation per production. And the current calendar was fully booked until 2023. So to be approached for a production with barely five months to prepare, create and perform? The company declined. This is where I came in.

Farhadul Islam, CEO of Blues Communications and an ex-colleague, asked me to reach out to Akram on behalf of the national committee. Akram agreed. It was unprecedented. With seven productions touring worldwide, his own work premiering with the English National Opera, the only time slot available was his five-day Christmas holiday. But because of his feelings for Bangladesh and his respect for Bangabandhu, he agreed.

My hats would be multiple, as the “Bangladesh Project Consultant”, which I accepted with excitement. My first job was to help the AKC team create a process that involves Bangladeshi talents and resources. Cutting down his own fee hugely, Akram did not want to be just another “international act” that is in and out of the country in 24 hours. Instead, he developed a production process that would long-term nurture Bangladeshi talents and was a learning experience for both the UK and the Bangladeshi team.

So, respecting his wish, the team devised the production plan. I gladly utilised my UK diaspora network to recommend Bangladeshi folk dancers based in London for the creation week in December. And as for the Bangladeshi talents, I recommended young designer Faiza Rahman for costumes, Goopi Bagha production company for behind the scene mini-documentary and 25 classical dancers were auditioned and selected for the final performance. AKC’s Creative Associate Mavin Khoo auditioned Bangladeshi dancers with classical training for the final performance. Even the music has had the magical voice of my friend Sohini Alam. Thus, we managed to integrate the Bangladeshi and the British-Bangladeshi talents in design, music, film, performance and creation of the piece.

The performance piece is based on Bangabandhu’s historic March 7 speech, the dancers would symbolically show how one man’s call for independence inspired a whole nation to come forward in 1971. It is a powerful and an emotional piece that would touch the audience nationwide. The music was created by the very talented Vincenzo Lamagna, an Italian musician, composer and producer.

The whole piece was created with the focus on Bangabandhu’s love for his country and his countrymen, and their love and respect for him. It is a celebration of being a Bangladeshi.

We are now at the last leg of “Father: A Vision of the Floating World”. The dedication of all involved, especially the 28 dancers comprising three of AKC’s own, makes me proud and humbled. It was only possible because of Akram. To the Bangladeshi creative community, Akram represents the world stage and to the world he is the nuanced storyteller, who walks between the worlds, erasing geographical borders effortlessly. And to British-Bangladeshis like me, he offers an answer, an invitation to learn and take pride in our dual heritage. That is the only way we shall thrive and be of any use to the places we belong.

With the current global political climate of isolation as the backdrop, it is as if Akram is saying to the world through his process and his creation — Bangladesh, Bangladeshi heritage is very much alive and thriving despite the world hurtling towards cultural isolation and eventual oblivion.

Due to current situation related to the global coronavirus phenomenon, the March 17 programme will be televised nationwide, avoiding a large gathering of live audience.
Eeshita Azad is a London-based arts producer currently working for Akram Khan Company as the Bangladesh Project Consultant.