Saving the Song
banglanatak dot com and the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation help preserve vital folk music forms of West Bengal and support communities in the process.
Effortless, worldwide communication and endless media streaming, single-click global commerce and instant access to libraries-worth of information. These are just a few of the momentous benefits brought about by the technological evolution of the 21st century.
But hand-in-hand with such wonderful gains, daunting challenges have also emerged for nations around the world. Within India, for example, many vital, centuries-old folk art forms threaten to disappear entirely as the country becomes more urban, globalized and high-tech. When it comes to the traditional folk music of West Bengal, this is a trend Amitava Bhattacharya, founder director of banglanatak dot com, wants to reverse. Based in Kolkata, his 17-year-old social enterprise works not just to preserve the traditional art forms of rural communities, but also to help them leverage those art forms into engines of economic power and humanitarian enrichment.
Through Art for Life, a methodology developed by the organization, Bhattacharya and his colleagues seek to highlight the value of traditional folk arts in rural communities, helping local practitioners learn and build their capacity to make compelling and marketable creations. The organization also connects rural artists with collaborators and partners who can help them practice their art, preserve their traditional culture and thrive economically, all at the same time.
The results have been stunning, with the organization lifting over 15,000 people in West Bengal and Bihar out of poverty since 2014. This is just one example. banglanatak dot com’s efforts have also earned it global recognition from organizations like the United Nations. It’s a formula for success Bhattacharya and his team continue to pursue with passion.
“We have seen when people come forward, they start participating in the development process, and they safeguard their own art forms,” says Bhattacharya. “So, our goal is to use folk traditions and art to mobilize. The rest is magic.”
Magic may or may not have been involved in banglanatak dot com’s decision to reach out to the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) several years ago. Regardless, it has already begun to help transform communities across West Bengal. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, AFCP supports efforts to enrich and preserve traditional cultural heritage in over 100 countries around the world, making it a natural partner for banglanatak dot com. Bhattacharya and his colleagues applied to the program and, in 2014, won an AFCP grant to help them scale up their efforts.
“We used the money for documenting three art forms in Bengal—Bhawaiya in north Bengal, Bhatiyali in Sunderbans and Bangla qawwali in the middle part,” says Bhattacharya. “The AFCP money was a big help in allowing us to start interacting with the communities and bring pride to them. We recorded and released albums of the three genres of music and also published a book on Bangla qawwali.”
“Bengal’s folk culture is very rich and has the capability of engaging people,” continues Bhattacharya. “People love their traditions, and money is not the only parameter of life in this part of the world. Using this spirit, we have also helped marginalized villages evolve into cultural tourism destinations.”
For Bhattacharya and his team, folk traditions in West Bengal and beyond are not just relics of the past, but are also vibrant reflections of the present. Creating community connections surrounding those traditions is vital on several levels. “Preserving folk music traditions is important,” says Bhattacharya, “but who preserves these is the most important. If the work provides no benefit to communities, then just doing documentation will not achieve anything.”
“Traditions in a country like India celebrate diversity, which is key in uniting India and a possible model for the world to explore in achieving global peace.”
Since creating banglanatak dot com, Bhattacharya has grown confident in his organization’s ability to engage rural communities with their own cultures, strengthen their abilities to sustain themselves based on their art and, in the process, reduce migration from rural areas and help prevent human trafficking. “Just to give an example, no one migrated from any of these villages we worked with in the last 12 years,” he says.
With 82 members on its team; operations in Kolkata, Goa and New Delhi; and active engagement with over 15,000 folk artists, banglanatak dot com is poised to make an even greater impact in the years to come.
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.