An interview like discussion with Foundar Amitava Bhattacharya, banglanatak.com
[The interview owes its origin to two additional entities other than the speaker and the compiler. First one is the house of one of the members of the Tagore family in South Calcutta where my friend Sushobhan took me for a আখড়া performance in one evening. The open stage, informal but committed performance by singers, a sense of brevity and measure, simple elegance of the whole thing impressed me very much. There, I met founder Mr. Amitava Bhattacharya and requested for an interview. He kindly granted and I met him after 2 weeks in his office in South Calcutta where I was witnessing an interview like discussion]
Editor: How did it all get started? I mean your journey into being a social entrepreneur and now leading a movement that is well spread into rural art, village tourism, cam-era, musical, folk songs, village melas and training traditional artists.
Founder: I have always been a city boy. It is not some romantic streak or a sudden decision to start this. IIT training moulds you and having worked in the software industry from 1989-99, I was getting somewhat saturated, suffering from a kind of boredom, to be most precise and truthful. I was getting more into organizational management, which was becoming routine. In 1999, when I decided to leave software (there was no IT then) industry, situation was quite different, existing media reach was only about 34% of the population. Then the question I asked was how the rest 60%+ get connected with the world of development and change. This was a question of an engineer and not of an artist, you see. I started travelling and for seven months, I traveled and stayed in the villages of seven Indian states, covering some 18 districts over a period of 7 months. It has been a great experience. I learnt things first hand there and started building a rapport with the community there.
Editor: So, what did you do next?
Founder: I started campaigns generating awareness on malaria, HIV/AIDS, sanitation and I found that for a campaign to be effective for a particular community, one needs to understand and bust many myths. This made me use theatre as a media, because theatre is a fantastic tool to generate involved contact, addressing the myth and create a platform for dialogue with the audience. In search for an effective media of communication with my end-users, I discovered that culture is the key to convert the monologue to two way communication. For example, for Purulia, it is ছৌ, for Nadia, it is বাউল, I mean you get an idea.
Editor: Yes, I can understand. Myths are the raw materials that propel history and in a sense is the destiny of a community. So, a successful but bored IIT-alumnus, after a decade long stint in the software industry, returned to Calcutta, not with any pastoral calling as such. In the Calcutta of late nineties, the engineer discovered that cultural aspect is the key to communicate. Then what happened?
Founder: I started the Art for Life movement in 2004, where I went to the villages and connected with the artists and craftsmen there, trained them, invested on them. EZCC and European Union helped us in investing in Bengal and Govt of Bihar supported us in doing the pilot in Bihar. The investment was on capacity building of artists, providing direct market linkage and doing exchange & collaboration and we saw a significant improvement in all possible social parameters and in creating meaningful livelihood. One such village was earlier called by the villagers as ‘ভিখিরির গ্রাম’ (village of beggars) and now called ‘শিল্পীর গ্রাম’ (village of artists). We could witness that their confidence was growing, they felt connected and invested on themselves – in various aspects like sanitation, hyegine etc. You can find the evidence of improvement when a very high level navy officer of Calcutta goes to the village and lives in the artist’s home as a guest and finds it functional and pleasant to live.
Editor : I shall docket the word ‘functional’. It appears to be a change of consciousness – a new look on life and living as a human being.
Founder : Yes, I agree. We have also found that out of these 3200 people, no one invested in the chit fund. Another important aspect is that these artists do not tend to migrate to the cities. I see something interesting here in the behaviour. In the village he is part of a brand – like ‘artist’s village’. Normally, we associate with a brand – in terms of a product, service or association. A village was considered to be migrating to a city-brand for various reasons. However, once the artist gets an affiliation with a brand in his native environment and he being an organic part of it, he will have less incentive, at least psychologically to get out of it. We have started resource centres in the villages which is run by the artists and craftsmen themselves and this works as a facilitator and connector. Intially we ran these centres but these are run by the artsists themselves.
Editor : So, it is the old village chandimantap of Bengal but with a re-branding and image.
Founder : Yes, it is. For each person, we invested around INR 32,000 and we have calculated that on an average a person is able to generate an addition revenue stream of INR 3500-7500 per month after a gestation period of about 12 months. So, you see, this is a viable model and can be scaled. ROI is quite good, 300%+ in a span of 36 months project. Also, what you get in culture as livelihood, is the the factor of recognition, which generates pride and aspiration and that creates role model, attracts local youth to come forward to safeguard their herirage.
Editor : I am very amazed and how strange is the world. The work you are doing in the urban myths is considered to be the domain of wild dreamers, revolutionaries of innocent romantic variety. But here I see a highly analytical and market driven approach undertaken by a man who has seen and experienced the world of business and world at large. I am very impressed by this synthesis of apparent opposites of life : Art and businss viability. So, what is next ?
Founder: I think what I have told so far is the first wave. In the second wave, I would like to have such 1,00,000 artists and craftsmen to be involved into it. For that we need many things but one of things is to get the attention of the younger generation in terms of involvement. We have actually started a project called CamEra. The whole idea of the project is that every youth has a camera now and they shoot photos. Some do not know that they shoot well but galleries are not open for them, they do not have access to market. We are trying to shift their interest to heritage. I knew a young man in Odisha, he gave us the photo of a local ashram which he earlier never visited but the visit gave a an award winning photo. You see, the culture is the key. He had never visited the ashram earlier, only heard about it. But when heritage was mentioned and he had a way to communicate, the cultural compass unmistakably signaled him to a place which he now check-boxed and clicked as his heritage.
Editor: Very very interesting. Tell me something about Akhra – the musical evening I attended. How did it come to take shape?
Founder: Akhra’s model is simple. We arrange stage, a place with sound system, sitting for the visitors, print and distribute the posters. Singers come and perform and we pay them a honourarium, whenever possible (sometimes, they sing for free also) and I am pleased to say that many get calls to perform in other places. Akhra makes a freelance singer connecting directly with the market and we just provide a platform. My idea was that if we listen to music of African or Caribbean origin, what is preventing people of other cultures enjoy Bengali music as music and my focus is to work towards taking Bengali folk music to reach World Music platform, rather than existing pattern of maximum possible dream is to perform for ‘Non-resident Bengalis’. Music is music and good music will be enjoyed by any music lover.
Editor: I agree. I remember one self-exiled writer of Bengali origin told that with some few exceptions, most of the non-resident Bengalis are deracinated and counterfeit, culturally speaking. Now, how does a performer connect to the larger world of music? On a lighter side, you forgot to mention the cha and samosa offered at the end of the performance. It was timely and very pleasant.
Founder: We had sent the recordings of performing singers/ performers of Akhra to World Music festivals and one such festival in Copenhagen selected one singer and she did go and present there. I think this is a great success for Akhra where we are not catering to a limited segment, based on language and race but to music lovers of the world without any prefix.
Editor: I wish all the best to your ventures. I am tempted to think – some four decades back, brilliant and romantic young men of Calcutta used to go to village on another calling. The calling of permanent revolution and cultural Revolution and many ideas were of distant geographies. Even though you see yourself doing this more like an analytical man but I think you have a proto-romantic Bengali inside you. Without this emotional and romantic Bengali’s reason of the heart, you could not have reasoned with your analytical and rational reason so vigorously and so successfully.
Founder: (Smiles) I am an engineer, who loves alternative economics and trying to see if something can be done to show to planners that culture is a skill and investment here can develop enterprises and the same can address poverty and also help in generating aspiration, which may help people to participate in the development process. So, honestly, there is hardly any romanticism in it, it is a social experiment of a social enterprise banglanatak dot com, which is led by me, that’s it.
Founder of banglanatak.com, Mr. Amitava Bhattacharya can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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