Sharing folk heritage

From West Bengal to Washington, D.C., young artists and professionals learn from each other through a heritage-themed exchange programme, discovers Michael Gallant, founder of Gallant Music in New York

American participants learn about Indian folk art in a West Bengal craft village

The Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future project is a rich cultural exchange programme aimed at forging bonds through computers and cooking, arts and airplanes, as well as once-in-a-lifetime creative collaborations. It is the brainchild of  Kolkata-based social enterprise Contact Base and Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, two organisations devoted to promoting, protecting and sharing knowledge of cultures.

Since 2017, 31 Indians and 20 Americans have participated in a first-of-its-kind programme, supported by the U.S. State Department Communities Connecting Heritage partnership. This initiative is spread around the world, all administered by the World Learning organisation.

Cultural sustainability

“Both our organisations believe that culture can make a tremendous contribution towards peace, and that cultural sustainability leads to community empowerment,” says Ananya Bhattacharya, director and vice president, projects, at ‘banglanatak.com’, the umbrella brand which includes Contact Base. “We wanted to find ways to connect young people in India and the United States so that they could learn about each other’s heritage.”

“We also wanted to focus on creative enterprises,” she continues, “and how traditional skills, arts and knowledge can contribute to understanding and peace.”

In practice, this meant selecting young participants from both countries who possess deep interest, experience or expertise in arts and culture. Participants from West Bengal included patua scroll painters and singers, dhokra metalworkers, Baul folk singers, and more. American participants had academic backgrounds in fields like anthropology, sociology, linguistics and folklore.

The exchange began online, with two staff members and three participants from each country sharing glimpses of their cultures and social backgrounds through photos, videos and more. In February 2018, the American team came to India to meet its Indian counterpart and experience the unforgettable Sur Jahan World Peace Music Festival in Kolkata. Four months later, the Indian contingent visited the United States and participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual exposition of living cultural heritage, held in Washington, D.C. In between the trips, though, the exchange broadened to include virtual participants, in addition to those travelling for in-person visits. The participants from both countries shared pictures and videos of their homes and daily lives via the programme’s official blog and Facebook page. For example, CJ Guadarrama and Arpan Thakur Chakraborty bonded over a shared love for music, after Chakraborty wrote a post about enjoying listening to artistes and bands like John Denver, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and the Scorpions.

The virtual and in-person exchanges sparked not just a mutual appreciation of cultures and arts, but also the creation of new works. For instance, young Indian artist Anwar Chitrakar crafted and posted online a replica of a traditional Mexican retablo painting on patachitra. The retablo had been shared by American participant Ashley Martinez during her visit to India.

It’s all curated

Betty Belanus, a curator and education specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, took the lead on the US side of the exchange. She describes how, during the Indian contingent’s visit to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, one of the most memorable manifestations of Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future’s success was unveiled.

It began during the American team’s visit to India, Belanus says, when they sat with a large group of patua practitioners in West Bengal’s Naya village, learning about the nuances and intricacies of their art form. The American group had been asked to bring its own story, which would be interpreted as both a scroll and a song.

“We came up with the idea of sharing the historical story behind the National Mall, which is the site in capital Washington, where the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is held every year,” says Belanus. “The Indian artists created three amazing scrolls based on that story. One of the artists, Mamoni Chitrakar, came on the exchange to the United States.” Her scroll was unveiled in late June at the Library of Congress, and she performed the accompanying song in person.

This visual and performative work of art, which started with the US group meeting the traditional Indian artists, who then came to the National Mall, was amazing, describes Belanus. “Thinking about Mamoni visiting us in America and singing her song to a Washington, D.C., the audience still gives me chills,” she says.

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