BIMSTEC and the narrative of artsIt would be a rewarding experience for the regional organisation to open up visions for artistic and literary sharing
The perceived economic, scientific, and technological considerations often animate the purpose of any regional organisation. They are united first and foremost by ‘region’, a semi-amorphous sense of physical geography explained in terms of political geography as it stands at the moment of the countries seeking to navigate into what is called a ‘common interest’. Members of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) a regional grouping comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand recently held a two day summit in Kathmandu. The summit identified and discussed on 14 areas of cooperation. Except for tourism and culture, nothing smacked of art and literature. Culture is an amorphous term that could be explained and defined in any way the member states would like to dwell on. A visit to Lumbini by delegates of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Bhutan was a step in that direction.
A common history
The overall focus is naturally on economic and technical cooperation. The term ‘connectivity’ is also bandied about in the context. What is sorely lacking in such regional organisations and clusters is the subject of art, literature, performance arts like music, theatre, dance, publications of books in native languages through translations and English, and facilitating their market. This subject may come under cultural studies today. But this matter does not receive much priority in today’s countries fighting with what poet Wordsworth says, the ‘fret and fever’ of economic and technological questions. But that is not entirely true.
Editors of a very interesting book, Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia, with the subtitle “what difference a region makes”, published by Hong Kong University press in 2009, assert, “at the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, popular culture, media, and communications, as well as the creative, intellectual, and consumer product industries of the region are moving beyond national boundaries with ever-increasing strength.” That moving beyond boundaries is a very interesting matter. More interesting is the realisation that ‘a region makes a real difference’. As the above book is about the north-eastern countries of Asia, I am alluding to its artistic and cultural spirit in the context of the BIMSTEC meeting.
The question is, can these countries move smoothly through arts and imaginative literature notwithstanding
the dominance of economic and technical matters? It would be too much to expect here though the countries involved are united with a resolve to use the ‘regional resources’ and ‘geographical advantages’. What appears increasingly true is the common experience in history. The postcolonial and globalising modes of contemporary times seem to operate as factors in such organisations.
The experience of Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand may be different from that point of view but their non-colonial past has never triggered any sense of bonding among them because their location and geographical positioning would have made it impossible and irrelevant. The only realistic approach is sharing the experiences of the different countries within the organisation with different historical pasts. For Nepal, any organisation with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan as its active members may not be very different from SAARC. But what makes it interesting is the identification of ‘sectors’ by these countries in an organisation established in 1997. But I could not find any readings that speak of this organisation making any remarkable headway.
Create artistic bonds
Nevertheless, talking about the regional literary, artistic sharing and familiarity there is no dearth of materials. We get access to the kinds of literature and arts of these countries through direct contacts or through books published in India and Europe. At the university, we use these materials for graduate-level area studies in culture and arts. Based on the evidence of my nearly 20 years of experience about the literary and cultural activities associated with the SAARC literary organisation and meetings of writers and artists, I can say, the countries and governments of such regional organisations are not interested in the promotion of arts, literature and cultural studies though increasingly, their importance for creating bonds among people, healing wounds and finding spaces for creative visions to play is being realised more than ever before. A crusade started by a woman, a flaneur almost, in her own words, “a mad woman” named Ajeet Cour of Delhi, who 25 years ago, braved her way through the bureaucratic, political and diplomatic networks to set up this organisation known today as FOSWAL, did bring the writers of the region together at different turbulent moments of regional history. I do not have space to write more about this historicity.
I want to sum it up by making some optimistic notes about BIMSTEC’s potentialities in a matter of creating artistic bonds among the countries. First, a fresh start could be made by learning from the past mistakes. Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri-Lanka can easily relive their experiences of sharing through publications, translations of literature, and promotions of visits by artists, academics and writers. Second, Thailand and Myanmar could contribute through openings and sharing up of scholarship and arts.
The governments should change the attitude that literature and arts do not help shape our perception of the world in a new and refreshing way. If not, these countries coming together under BIMSTEC would lose one important gift that the cultural and creative traditions of this region have given, which is, people’s sharing of the creative traditions of each other through various vicissitudes of history. We should look at the traditions of arts, folk literature and scholarship that these countries have shared for centuries. I have noticed that ‘culture’ and ‘tourism’ feature in some areas of prioritised sectors. Poverty alleviation and culture or tourism are not unrelated priorities. But tourism and culture invite more serious attention and study than we are giving them today.
Each member of a regional organisation has its own problems to tackle at home both at the political and psychological levels. For BIMSTEC, therefore, to open up visions for artistic and literary sharing would be a liberating, educational and rewarding experience.