Undoubtedly, the North America Bengali Conference (NABC) or Bongosammelan, has become the key annual cultural event of the Bengalis not only belonging to the North America but also to the Bengalis all over the world. The amount of interest amongst the Bengalis back home in West Bengal is phenomenal. Artists of all genre’s (musicians, actors, writers) consider an invitation to perform at the NABC as a major achievement in their career. It was quite evident the other day when in one of the Bengali tele-serials/films, one of the characters (a musician) was expressing with pride about her recent invitation to perform at the Bongosammelan and highlighting the fact as a key measure of her success as a musician. Besides, any person who has been even loosely associated with any NABC organizing committee would know how they get deluged with requests from performers to get an invitation. However, the organizers of NABC are very careful and they place their bets only on the time tested popular artists with very few promising performers in the list.
Now, this is all very good because the presence of these wonderful artists help to pull in the crowd (which is very important for the financial health of the NABC org) as well as improve the overall quality of the event. People who attend the conference paying a fat registration fee, expect to be entertained by their favorite professional artists and not by some local amateurs who can hardly set up their feet on the stage. It is the presence of these professionals that has helped NABC to grow to its current size and prestige.
Not only the artists, NABC is now pulling in sponsors from India too who pay big bucks to have their name plastered across the conference walls, the big publishing houses of Kolkata, the jewelers and garment sellers, travel agents and others. The booming economy in India and the weak dollar is now helping these vendors to come closer to their customers living in this part of the world. Again, this is all very good. We now have special NABC edition of our favorite Anandabazar Patrika in our hands fresh off the press every day during the conference. It is all that we had always dreamed about for our sammelan, the North America Bengali Conference.
But where does the Bengalis of North America fit into this cultural “maha yagna”? First of all, some of them are the organizers of the event who can hardly sleep for the last couple of months leading to the event. Second, they participate as delegates – they roam around the halls with their badges hanging from their necks, meet friends, have “adda” sessions, sit through the performances of their favorite artists while continuing the “adda”, and keep complaining about the mis-management and the quality of the “so-called Bengali food” served by the preferred vendors. Then comes the handful of performers belonging to a category known as “North American Bengali Performers”. These people pay a hefty sum as a performance registration fee from their organizations besides their own registration fee just to have an opportunity to showcase their talents in front of the greater North American Bengali Community. They rehearse for months, spend huge sums of money to travel to the venue, stay in hotels paying from their own pockets and even pay for their food. They are the second class performers. No one, except their own clan, wants to watch their show. They are given the opportunity to stage their performance just as a favor, to maintain a tradition that is withering away, and of course to get their money (which is again becoming less of an issue).
As far as what I know from the seniors, NABC started with the objective of creating a festival where Bengalis from all parts of North America would gather together, share their thoughts, feelings and talents through music, drama, literature and other art forms. Having few performers from India to enhance the event was a part of the proceedings but I don’t think it was the primary objective. These days, the professional entertainers steal the show. Please note, that I have nothing against the guest artists from India. We need them for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. My request is, please do treat the local North American Bengali performers with some respect too. It is true that, typically, the performances by the domestic artists do not match up with that of the guest performers. Neither do they have the fame and charisma to pull huge crowds. But over the last decade, with the boost in new immigrants from India, the quality of domestic talent has improved significantly. Many of them are actively engaged in pursuing their careers in performing arts and some of them perform at the same level (if not better) as the artists we bring in from India. Besides, many of our second generation young men and women are extremely talented and some of them selected performing arts as their career. Some have already received recognition on stage and screen. They need to be treated as artists too, they need to be encouraged and told that the North American Bengali community recognizes their talent and supports their artistic endeavors.
I would like to take this opportunity to make a request to the organizers of NABC (the local organizer as well as CAB). These days, NABC brings in lot of funds and several times the organizers have excess funds in their coffers which lie idle for years. I would like to request them to set up a grant or scholarship to be awarded to those who would pursue studies in performing arts (preferably related to Bengali/Indian arts) or to those who are engaged in artistic endeavors of exceptional quality. This will not only encourage the domestic artists to improve their skills, it will also inspire our children to take a more serious look at our cultural heritage as an option.