Bulbul Chowdhury was a Bengali Muslim dancer who rose to fame in the 1930s and was later claimed and celebrated, first by Pakistan and posthumously by Bangladesh, as a pioneer of modern dance. Even today he is praised for his striking choreographies (none of which are available in the public domain) and celebrated at the various cultural centres established in his name – most notably the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in Dhaka. Missing from these official accolades is any mention of his politics. But the few who knew him well and have since written about him, including his wife Afroza Bulbul, note that Bulbul’s creative endeavours were always inspired by a compulsion to challenge identity politics and bring to light injustices. Even though various national projects have depoliticised his life and work by focusing solely on his creative side, Bulbul’s politics arguably drove much of his creative expression.
Bulbul’s role in the language movement, his political views and his acts of subversion have been all but forgotten.
Before he became Bulbul, he was Rashid Ahmed Chowdhury, born on 1 January 1919 into a Muslim family in the village of Chunati (in what is now Lohagara Upazila, Chittagong, Bangladesh) Rashid developed a penchant for dancing very early in his life – though it was unheard of at the time for children of the ‘respectable’ upper classes or bhadralok to partake in activities such as music and dance – even choreographing and performing a Chatak dance at a school function. Rashid knew that the conservative restraints of society would be detrimental to his family if he continued to perform, but moving to Calcutta in 1934 to study at Presidency College gave fresh impetus to his passion. He became acquainted with dancers such as Uday Shankar and Sadhana Bose, who, impressed by his talent, invited him to perform with them. In 1936, ‘Bulbul’ Chowdhury shot to fame following a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kach O Devajani with Sadhana Bose. The new moniker was adopted avoid any backlash from conservative Muslim groups and as a means of keeping his identity religiously ambiguous. Thus began an illustrious career during which Bulbul choreographed and performed many iconic dance dramas in India, Pakistan and a number of countries in Europe. He also wrote stories, established several dance troupes and the Calcutta Cultural Centre.
Dance and societal acceptance
The early to mid-twentieth century saw rapid changes in the sphere of dance in India. Through the work of revivalists such as Kelucharan Mohapatra and Rukmini
Devi Arundale, dances previously considered to be ‘vulgar’, such as Odissi and Bharatanatyam, were being ‘sanitised’ and popularised in the subcontinental culture. Previously, the British administration had banned performance and practice of these dance forms in temples – where they were traditionally performed – as the temple dancers (devadasis) who performed these art forms were considered to be prostitutes. There continues to be debate over whether or not these dance forms were revitalised or ‘appropriated’ to suit middle-and upper class/caste sensibilities, nonetheless, the efforts of the revivalists did create a space for greater practice, acceptance and sustenance of these dance forms. Further, dancers like Uday Shankar were also exploring collaborations between Indian-classical dance forms and Western ballets; Uday Shankar collaborated with several western dancers, most notably Anna Pavlova, with whom he choreographed ballet fusion pieces, such as the famed Radha-Krishna, inspired by stories from Hindu mythology. These factors facilitated a sudden explosion of Indian classical dance on both Indian and global mainstream platforms.
Yet, all these innovations that opened up a space for dance – through their inclusion of an air of respectability – were taking place within a predominantly Hindu framework from which the Muslim society remained excluded. Indeed, as Sitara Thobani discusses in her book Indian Classical Dance and the Making of Postcolonial National Identities: Dancing on Empire’s Stage, the projection of these classical dance forms as a part of ‘Hindu’ heritage further pushed the Muslim society to reject them altogether. This posed a particular dilemma for Bengali Muslims, who struggled to reconcile the two components of their identity that were being framed as contradictory. As Joya Chatterji notes: the “Bengali Muslim identity [was] thus commonly perceived as being riven by a fault line, with Bengaliness and Muslimness co-existing uneasily on the opposite sides of a deep and fundamental divide”.
Bulbul expresses his concern that Pakistan’s efforts to homogenise its citizens and erase their cultural differences was detrimental and would only lead to further dissent and resistance.
Bulbul’s choreography blended Bengali folk stories and Hindu mythology, and because of such renditions, he quickly gained popularity in the secular, liberal bourgeoisie circles of Calcutta. However, he felt it was also necessary to undo the negative perceptions of dance prevalent among conservative Bengali Muslims. He began to argue that dance was also a part of Muslim heritage, citing its importance in the Mughal courts. He also adapted elements of Sufi dance and stories from Islamic traditions into his dance dramas; most notable of these dramas was Anarkali, based on the legendary love story of Salim and Anarkali. This drama echoed the themes of Radha-Krishna and even drew inspiration from it, but Bulbul adapted it to suit to a Muslim audience. He gradually began to gain the respect of Bengali Muslims and his dances started to become more popular across religious and cultural divides. Shamsuddoza Sajen of the Daily Star, in his 2017 article, ‘The poet of physical rhymes’ notes that Bulbul “appealed to the secular imagination of his contemporaries that dance has the potential to transcend the narrow religious divide.” This made him the perfect embodiment of the secular, someone who could successfully bring the Hindus and Muslims together.
Kindling a revolutionary spirit
In the early 1940s, Bengal was on the one hand suffering from famine, and on the other, erupting with revolutionary spirit. It was a time when artists of all kinds were trying to visualise what a free India might look like.
During these years, Bulbul spent some time in his hometown of Chunati with his wife and daughter. Chunati’s proximity to Burma at the time meant that Bulbul was very aware of the proxy wars being fought by the Allied Forces across the border. This, paired with the Japanese bombing of Bengal and the famine, led to Bulbul pondering about the human cost of empire and war. He saw that colonial officials and collaborators weren’t suffering the austerities and atrocities of war like the common people were. In response, Bulbul began writing with the desire to expose the crimes of the colonial empire and unite the citizens of India. His writing targeted the common Bengali in a bid to raise awareness and give cause to a united movement. His most popular written work (and quite possibly his only preserved work) is Prachi, a novel that takes place on the southeastern corners of Bengal, near the Burma border, and highlights the ways in which its residents experienced famine and war.
Bulbul also choreographed two of his most iconic dance dramas during this period: Lest We Forget, which portrayed the Bengal Famine of 1943, caused in part by the policies of the British colonial administration; and Quit India, which staged the struggle for Independence and highlighted not only the big players in the movement, but also the other people who fought for a free India. He performed these pieces throughout India and, later, in Pakistan (after Partition), as well as on his tours in Europe.
A Bengali Dancer in Pakistan
When East Bengal (now Bangladesh), where Chowdhury was from, came under Pakistani rule after the Partition in 1947 Bulbul chose to remain in Pakistan. Pakistan also honoured Bulbul’s efforts. In 1948, Bulbul was invited by Liaquat Ali Khan to meet with and perform for Jawaharlal Nehru in Karachi, and in 1949, he was named the National Dancer of Pakistan. But even as he was being celebrated, he began to face new challenges and greater pushback from conservative Muslim communities at a time polices of Islamicisation were being pushed in Pakistan privileging Muslim identity over Bengali identity. Bulbul was criticised for his performances, for wearing ‘Hindu clothes’ and for encouraging young Muslim girls to do the same.
An article written by his student Ajit Sanyal, tells how Bulbul faced threats from certain groups: in 1951 he was held at gunpoint and told that if he did not vacate the Shashi Lodge and cease teaching girls dance, he would be shot. Despite this, Bulbul, his wife and daughter, together with his troupe, marched to the performance venue. Bulbul’s vision that societal restraints should not stop one from dancing was shared by his disciples, most of whom were young girls, who would march with him for their right to dance. On another occasion when an audience member questioned Bulbul about the ‘Hinduness’ of his form and style after a performance, he answered, “Dance has no religion”.
Bulbul’s vision that societal restraints should not stop one from dancing was shared by his disciples, most of whom were young girls, who would march with him for their right to dance.
At the same time, protests were also starting in East Pakistan over Urdu being made the official state language and the requirement that Arabic be taught in schools. This movement ultimately led to Bengali being made a state language in East Pakistan in 1954. Bulbul played an active role in this campaign and used his platform to bolster the cause and bring it to the attention of his audiences in West Pakistan. He also began to introduce his shows in West Pakistan in English and Bengali, and would only respond to questions and comments in these two languages. Perhaps the most iconic stance Bulbul ever took on this matter was at a press conference in Karachi in 1953. In his statement – translated from Bengali and published in The Bangladesh Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Meghna Guhathakurta and Willem van Schendel, Bulbul expresses his concern that Pakistan’s efforts to homogenise its citizens and erase their cultural differences was detrimental and would only lead to further dissent and resistance. He argued that the multiplicity of cultures that followed Islam (the state religion) and understood it in their own local vernacular is what made a nation unique: “It is a fact of life that there exists in Pakistan different nationalities – the Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pathan, Baluchi – each with their own intrinsic regional features shaped by their respective ecological and geographic characteristics.” He went on to add that it should not be the state’s mission to “dissolve” these “specific characteristics” but promote their development, saying:
If we agree that the various regional features are fundamental for our national culture, then we must also agree that anything that creates obstacles to the development of regional languages must also create obstacles for our national culture because it is through these regional languages that we express our literature, art, and culture. If the voice of the Bengali language is constricted, it will only lead to bitterness, protest, and rebellion, creating crisis in our national expression.
Bulbul passed away of cancer on 17 May 1954 in Calcutta just ten days after the declaration to recognise Bengali as an official language of Pakistan. In his short life of 35 years and a career spanning 20 of those years, he performed a number of original choreographies (the exact number remains contested) to a multitude of audiences and spread not only the spirit of dance, but also a spirit of revolution. He received several posthumous awards from the government of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and lives on in cultural memory. However, his role in the language movement, his political views and his acts of subversion have been all but forgotten.
Bulbul reminds us not only of how an artist can use their platform to speak on politics, but how political vindication can inspire art itself. Bulbul’s anti-colonial, anti-communal and anti-war politics cannot be separated from his art and his own oeuvre shows that he never intended them to be. His legacy has been passed down to dancers in Bangladesh through the efforts of his wife Afroza Bulbul who established the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in Dhaka.
There is perhaps much more to be said about the dancer Bulbul Chowdhury, but how does one reconstruct a remarkable yet largely undocumented life? Despite touching the lives of many, official records of Bulbul’s life and work are limited. Much of what is known about his life comes from tributes written by his students, admirers and his wife Afroza Bulbul (in her memoir titled Shundor Ei Prithibi Amar). There is something to be said about a dancer so vivacious that none of his choreographies were recorded by his disciples – or perhaps they were, only to be lost in the years that followed.
Alif Shahed is a writer and researcher with degrees in History and Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto