Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bongo Sanmelan 2012, Las Vegas--the North American Bengali Conference

Rukkho (parched) is a word that the Bengali must have specially crafted for masters of ceremonies to use in Las Vegas in 105 F weather—and they used it often.  The dry desert sparked them like a tinderbox, and in introducing the many performers at the recently concluded North American Bengali Conference,  a series of brightly clad  Bengali MCs thundered through with overdriven hyperbole, and an organic urge to unite—via their words-- this harsh landscape ablaze with lights that they had alighted upon, with the dreaminess of Bengal that they had on their minds.  And thus began the opening ceremonies for NABC 2012 on a Friday at the Paris Hotel in Vegas, in an ocean of a ballroom, with a larger than life master-of-ceremonies, who held back no compliments in describing her performers, at times lapsing into over-the-top English that meandered wildly.  It is the tradition of average Bengali rhetoric to deploy a cascade of descriptive similes in praise when one would have sufficed.  And these words came gurgling out in torrents as the announcers put on a clinic: beautiful gemlike phrases, polished over multiple deliveries till they shone, meaning little but emphasizing much.  Every performer was deemed a maestro, every aspiring singer marked as making the transition from a household Bengali name to a “global” talent.

It is always evening in the Paris Hotel arcade, with cobbled streets, cafes, and a cloudy sky beneath the ceiling in stereotypical verisimilitude to the city that is its namesake.  Under sophisticated mood lighting that brought to mind a Paris evening (sans Vietnamese restaurants or North African neighborhoods), and in between the throngs of weekend tourists, there was the swish of saris and the rustle of silk as 5000 Bengalis descended and clogged the restaurants and byways in celebration of the NABC.
The NABC program kicked off with a grand dance involving a large number of participants dancing to various Bengali tunes on an aesthetically decorated stage.  Once you got past the announcer’s harangue, things were quite straightforward and, indeed simplistic enough, such that when a song began describing the mahouts (elephant handlers) of North Bengal, there appeared an enormous (real) African elephant in the ballroom, right in front of the stage, steered by its American mahout. This was Vegas, there was a real elephant around, and if you are going to sing a song about mahouts, why screw around? It set the tone for the next three days.
This was a quality program over 3 days that covered a range of cultural events catering to many tastes.  There was North and South Indian classical music by Pandit Jasraj and L. Subramanian.  There was Baul music—Bengali folk songs by wandering minstrels who believe in free love and the overcoming of earthly aspirations.  The singer Lakhan Das Baul played the part with his rich earnest voice, long hair, and the orange robes of a Baul, though this did not stop him from falling to the temptations of signal processing on his voice mike.  There was even a Bengali rock band, Fossil, fronted by an intense singer with shaggy hair that he violently and occasionally shook while striking different postures. Though infected with the same verbal bombast that seems an ethnic affliction,  he did manage to get the audience on its feet in a rousing performance.  Here was a band playing in Vegas that was an example of globalization: a bunch of Bengalis playing American chord patterns and melodies, singing songs that only someone born in Bengal would appreciate, and a talented lead guitarist named Allan Ao who could shred with the best of them. 
A reason to attend the NABC is to be able to attend the numerous Bengali plays that are staged.  One of them came from Kolkata, and was centered on Bomkesh, the legendary sleuth.  It was a stylized rendition that—in the end—could not rise above its own vanity.  The rest of the plays were from amateur theater groups across North America—I was impressed at the number of IIT Kharagpur alumni in many of these groups.  Yours truly, a participant in one of these plays, suspects the hand of Piskunov behind this correlation.

The closing ceremonies on Sunday involved an ambitious dance on the enormous ballroom stage that included almost every major Indian dance form represented right alongside local Las Vegas dancers.  This fusion was largely successful and then, a few minutes before the end, the lights went off in the room.  I wondered whether the elephant would now reappear. “5000 Indians traumatized in the dark by marauding African elephant in Las Vegas” the headlines would have read.

But, as is the case with the complicated Bengali mind, the closing ceremonies were not the closing program for the event.  That honor belonged to Shankar Mahadevan, the nationally known singer and the event’s big draw.  He came on a couple of hours after the closing ceremony, however he sang Hindi film songs.  And therefore, in order to keep the order of things the way they ought to be, the NABC observed its formal closing ceremony earlier in the evening, signing off on all things Bengali.

M while taping my play made the acquaintance of an interesting gentleman, a connoisseur of drama.  He had read our play, knew the number of characters in it.  No, he would not watch a play in the large ballroom.  He would only watch it in the smaller theater that we were in, for it had the right ambience.  He was fussy, but he was my man—the right kind of person who would watch theater.  He seemed like he wanted to talk.  And to unburden himself.  He had lost his wife a few years ago and was here at the NABC with his young daughter.  He had stopped doing plays now.  I met him the next day, at another event.  After M introduced us, he went back to the subject of my play.  He had plans of doing this play some time.  “Chhok’ey pheley diyechi” he told me.

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