Making Space:Sensing Place

In October 2009, along with artist Thurle Wright, I was awarded a Making Space:Sensing Place Fellowship; part of the HAT: Here and There International Exchange Programme, managed by A Fine Line:Cultural Practice. The Fellowship includes residencies with Britto Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Arts Reverie in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with The V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, London and with The Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. Working and collaborating with artists and craftspeople from the UK, Bangladesh and India, responding to the collections and spaces we encounter and sharing these experiences through a touring exhibition and educational workshops.

This blog, which is still developing and being added to, is a record of my experiences during the MS:SP Fellowship. Steven Follen.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


The Partition of India in 1947 led to the formation of a new independant Muslim state, Pakistan. This new state, developed from the 'two nation theory' of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was split into two regions; West Pakistan to the north west of India and East Pakistan or East Bengal, some 1600km away to the east of India. Jinnahs' vision was that the two separate regions would be one nation of peoples, linked by their religion. Each region had its own rich and different cultural and linguistic traditions.
For ease of administration, in 1948 the government of Pakistan decreed that Urdu would be the state language of the nations two regions, to be used in governance, on official documents, the national currency and in schools. This sparked extensive opposition and protests amongst the majority Bangla speaking population of East Pakistan. This opposition developed into what has become known as the Language Movement and became a forerunner to the Independence Movement and the Liberation War of 1971.

Civil unrest followed the 1948 declaration, with the Pakistan police and army imposing curfews and a new law, Section 144 - the banning of rallies and public meetings. The opposition reached a peak on the 21st February 1952 when a large group gathered at the University of Dhaka in defiance of section 144. The group planned to march to the State Assembly Building to place their demand for Bangla as the state language. Police opened fire on the protesters and killed a number of individuals including Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdus Salam and Abdul Jabbar. These individuals have become known as the language martyrs.
Within days of the shootings at Dhaka University a monument to commemorate the lives of those who had died. - The Shaheed Minar - was constructed on the site. 4 days later this was quickly demolished by the Pakistani army.
The foundation stone for a newly designed monument was laid in 1956. Construction work was interrupted during periods of marshal law and the work, still lacking elements of the original design, was 'completed' in 1963. This second design was subsequently destroyed, again by the Pakistani army, during the Liberation War in 1971.
A replica of the Shaheed minar has been constructed in Altab Ali Park, near Whitechapel, London for the Bangladeshi population living in the south of the UK, another has been built in Manchester. Learn more about the Shaheed Minar here: Shaheed Minar.
The Language movement, Ekushey February and the Shaheed Minar have come to represent Bengali nationalism and the battle for independence. The events of 1952 served not to stop the movement but to accelerate and focus the demands for greater autonomy and equality in the governance of East Pakistan and ultimately to the creation of an independent Bangladesh. In 1956 Bangla was recognised as a state language of Pakistan alongside Urdu.
The 21st of Feburary is a national holiday in Bangladesh and Bengalis, bare foot and dressed in black and white clothing process to the Shaheed Minar to present flowers and sing songs in remembrance and respect of those who died during the events of 1952.
In 1999, in recognition of the events in Bangladesh, UNESCO declared February 21st, National Mother Language day. Ekushy in Bangla means 21st .
Learn more about the language movement and Ekushey here: Bengali Language Movement
We left the house early and made our way to Shahbag by rickshaw, then walked the remaining distance to the Shaheed Minar. The roads were closed and so the usual wealth of traffic, horns and fumes had gone, there was a stillness to the day which echoed the significance of the events people were marking. Groups walked silently, with purpose, towards the site of the monument, to pay their respects.
People were wrapped against the early morning chill, and wore head bands with images of the national flag or the Shaheed Minar.
Events had been happening since the start of the day and the roads leading out from the Minar were covered with giant paintings, alpana type images of stylised plants and patterns. These would form a plan or map, to be covered with the flowers which were presented by the thousands of visitors to the site.
The street sellers were up early to catch people walking to the Minar; selling flags, head banners, snacks and tea.
Although not everyone had awoken from their sleep yet.
As we approached the monument the crowds formed a long line leading up to the point where the flowers were placed. We took off our shoes, people sang the songs which played out over the tannoy.People asked if we knew what Ekushey was about and were pleased that we were taking part and knew the history and significance of the event.
Thurle was stopped, what seemd like every ten paces, and had a camera and microphone pushed in front of her. (Keya phoned to say she had seen her on TV) I somehow dodged being put in such a nerve-racking situation.
Flowers and wreaths were placed in front of the Minar.
Members of the armed forces took the flowers and placed them in designs in front of the monument, following the patterns of the painted lines. Individuals offerings were being joined to form a huge collaborative event which spilled over the steps and out over the surrounding square, acknowledging their engagement in their heritage.
In celebration of the Bangla language, the Ekushey Book Fair takes place every year throughout February in the grounds of the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. The fair includes lectures, readings and bangla literature events as well as a giant book fair selling a manner of books in Bangla.
There is a festival feel around the city with traders coming into the city to sell their wares. This man walked along the streets selling toy snakes. The design was made from a folded paper tail, a card head with a heavy cylinder of unfired clay underneath. the cylinder rotated on an elastic band with a length of string wound around it. Pulling the string made the snake slither along the ground.
Small parties and fairs were taking place in and around the city, (and across the country) with activities and events focusesd around Bengal culture and the Bangla language. Some of the Britto artists had built a series of activities at a fair in the city. Lipi's letter cubes were a hit.There is an extensive exhibition in the National Museum in Dhaka which covers the history of the language movement, the struggle for autonomy and the events of the 1971 war of independence. More information can be found here: Virtual Bangladesh and here: Liberation War