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Mongol Shubha Jatra, a mass procession on the first day of Boishakh © Bulbul Ahmed

ICH, Urban Public Spaces, and Social Cohesion

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is the most populated city in the country. It is also one of the most populated cities in the world with a density of 23,234 people per square kilometer within a total area of 300 square kilometers. The Greater Dhaka Area has a population of over 18 million as of 2016 (World Population Review, 2017). According to the UN World Urbanization Prospects (2014), the population of Dhaka was only 336,000 in 1950. Dhaka has always been a center of cultural vibrancy and has a long history and tradition of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The cultural vibrancy and heritage that have given glory to Dhaka for centuries often get buried under different modern-day civic problems. As an ever-expanding mega city, Dhaka is losing its cultural spaces to religious and ruling coteries. Many of the city’s prime spaces are now earmarked for various public and private business, commercial, or military purposes. The situation was not so deplorable even during the Pakistan era from 1947 to 1971.

The increasing population migration from various parts of the country has been putting tremendous stress on the city, as evidenced by its high poverty rates and increasing congestion as well as higher rates of unemployment and inadequate infrastructure and cultural spaces. Conflicts of interest among different groups such as land grabbers, businesses, industrialists, urban administrators, builders, and others are also posing threats to the public cultural spaces. Many public spaces where city people gather, interact, and build relations such as gardens, playgrounds, lakes, historical sites, and archaeological heritage sites considered as tangible have been taken over or grabbed by various interest groups and are now used for commercial purposes. Various political changes have occurred in the country over the last few decades, and some have changed the meaning and functions of many cultural spaces of the city. Many of the intangible cultural heritage elements based on physical spaces (tangible) of the city have even lost their meaning.

Despite the decrease in urban cultural spaces, Dhaka still has areas that have created intangible cultural spaces to build social cohesion among inhabitants. Inclusiveness and integration of people through various cultural and social activities are normally based in some physically built environments, such as buildings, townscapes, archaeological remains, monuments, parks, or lakes; culturally built environments, such as cultural activity centers and eateries; and spontaneously chosen sacred, religious, or public social spaces in Dhaka. A variety of seemingly binary dimensions are also observed in different patterns of the city’s cultural and social spaces. These dimensions include belonging and isolation, inclusion and exclusion, participation and non-involvement, recognition and rejection, and legitimacy and illegitimacy. Many public physical or cultural spaces built or developed in last few decades in Dhaka have mediated these oppositions and developed certain forms of social cohesion. Some of the built public, physical, cultural, and social spaces are good examples of intangible manifestation of tangible cultural heritage, such as parks, lakes, monuments, cultural academies, playgrounds, stadiums, eateries, and theaters.

The very recently built Hatirjheel project is an example of creating new urban cultural space to build cohesion among different types of city dwellers. It is also an example of rehabilitating neighborhoods and building a sense of neighborhood with a healthy environment and breathing space for relaxing and spending time with families and friends. The huge gathering of city people in these types of public spaces, including lakes, squares, gardens, monuments, parks, leisure centers, and eateries, reflects the changing culture of consumption and negotiation practices of city dwellers in different social and cultural environments. It also helps the city people to adjust to the changing political atmosphere and to shape civic culture. Recent tensions among people of different religious and ethnic communities have accentuated the country’s responsibility to embrace diversity by building and regenerating new social and cultural spaces and promoting intangible cultural heritage in different cities as a way of bringing people together and building a culturally and socially inclusive city.

Though limited, several regular and occasion-based gatherings in public spaces of Dhaka still play significant roles in generating and regenerating a sense of ownership among urban communities and in practicing intangible cultural heritage for social cohesion. They also reflect the commonality of practices, participation, and celebration, irrespective of religious, ethnic, or social identity. For example, the Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year, bears testimony to the history of diversity and inclusiveness for most people. Beside the regular public spaces in Dhaka, there are also many occasional special-day events in large public cultural and social spaces.

  • Mongol Shubha Jatra, a large public rally with masks and decoration by the Art Institute of Dhaka University, is on the first day of Baishakh
  • Sharodio Durga Puja or Sharodio Utsob is an important annual religious festival of the Hindu community held during the autumn, where people of different faiths visit puja mondop (veneration centers) and take part in the festivities held throughout Dhaka
  • Saraswati Puja or Shree Panchami, an annual temple-based veneration festival, is in January or February to honor Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge, Music, and Art
  • Ekushey, which is observed to commemorate the martyrs of 1952 language movement in Bangladesh, is on 21 February, International Mother Language Day
  • Pohela Falgun, the first day of the Bengali month of Falgun (February)
  • Ekusher Boi Mela, a month-long book festival at Bangla Academy in February
  • Pohela Boishakh, Bengali New Year, is in April
  • Shadhinata Dibos, Independence Day, is on 26 March
  • Bijoy Dibos, Victory Day, is on 16 December
  • Bishwa Bhalobasha Dibos, Valentine’s Day, is on 14 February
  • Muharram (Ashura), a special day for Shia Muslims, is celebrated on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram with a street procession called Tajia Michhil (last year it was in October)
  • New Year’s Eve is on 31 December.

These and other joyous occasions unite the city because some of these occasions also showcase shared histories and shared beliefs in hope, love, and peace that transcend religion and class. Besides these cultural elements, there are also many old cultural and social spaces that have created their own traditional culture. They include TSC (Teacher-Student Centre at the University of Dhaka), which has been working as a center for cultural activities and social and political movements since its establishment in 1961; Shilpakala Academy, a cultural activity center where many cultural performances are held every day; Ramna Park, a large park where hundreds of thousands of people gather early in the morning on the first day of the Bengali new year; Sohorawardy Uddyan, a park where the Shikha Onirban, a memorial of the 1971 Independence movement, is located and the declaration of independence movement was given on the 7 March 1971; Ahsan Monjil, an historic site of the Moghol’s period; and Central Shahid Minar, the martyrs monuments.

Some other recently developed social and cultural spaces include Rabindra Shorobor on the bank of Dhanmondi Lake for cultural activities and public gathering for eating and relaxing; Shahbag Square next to Dhaka University; National Museum and Central Library for social and political movements and cultural activities; and the DRIK Art Gallery in Dhanmondi. It is important to mention that some of the cultural activities, festivals, and sacred rituals performed during different occasions and in different places of Dhaka are centered on religion or culture, and in some cases, they are class based while some other festivals developed a wider inter-cultural and inter-religious relation and an undeclared social context where diversified groups take part.

Today, in Bangladesh’s changing political situation, cultural and social public spaces can play a significant role in shifting people’s engagement and involvement to a more cultural and social activities. It is said that if more urban public spaces like Hatirjheel can be built in different areas of the city and are properly organized, they can offer more potential for developing social empathy among city dwellers. The scheme to restore and regenerate urban intangible cultural heritage is required to create a socially inclusive multicultural urban community with a sense of rights and obligations. It is believed that increasing facilities such as lake cruising, arranging daily cultural performances, selling souvenirs, and providing more dining facilities as well as building statues, museums, parks, and other infrastructure in different areas of the city will attract not only city dwellers but also domestic and international tourists. Urban planning in Dhaka must embrace cultural enrichment and urban planners need to explore intangible cultural heritage as an indicator and facilitator of social development and as an agent of social transformation. The participation of different stakeholders in the sustainable management of intangible cultural heritage has emerged as an important issue for City Corporation and the administrative body of the city. Forming community clubs for heritage safeguarding and raising awareness among the different communities who interact with the tangible and intangible heritage of Dhaka can be methods for sustainable community-based urban heritage and cultural space management. n

References

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. 2014. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. New York: United Nations.

World Population Review. 2017. “Dhaka Population 2017.” Accessed 28 May 2017. http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/dhaka-population/

Dr. Saifur Rashid (Professor of Anthropology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh)

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