Cultural Work in Developing Countries: It Starts With Music
Institute director Mirschberger: “Our house is more liberal than many other places in the city” (Photos: David Weyand)
18 June 2012
Worldwide, there are 149 Goethe-Instituts, in cultural hubs like New York and Paris as well as in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. But what is cultural work in one of Asia’s poorest nations? We looked at a day in the working life of an institute director. By David Weyand
Judith Mirschberger slips off her shoes and walks barefoot across the parquet past the ceiling-high mirrors. The ballroom is darkened by black curtains. Mirschberger, director of the Goethe-Institut in Bangladesh since early 2011, is not daunted by the gloomy atmosphere. The 30-year old geographer and Islamic studies scholar traverses the spacious room on the top floor of the whitewashed mansion followed silently by Olivier Litvine. He is the director of the French cultural institute Alliance Francaise in Dhaka.
“Is anybody here?” Mirschberger calls in the silence. A quiet “Yes” is heard from an office. The Franco-German cultural delegation enters the room. Photos of dancers in traditional Bengal robes are attached to the filing cabinet. Behind the desk is Lubna Marium. The dancer, instructor and choreographer is the secretary-general of the Shadhona Dance Centre in the district of Banani. Her guests are welcomed with tea and an introduction in the history of classical Bengal dance.
Judith Mirschberger sips at her tea and listens to the expert with a smile, then comes to her request. She and Litvine would like to speak with Lubna Marium about collaboration. The heads of the European cultural institutes met in Dhaka in September 2011 and resolved to organize a joint project. Conveniently, there is a Franco-German fund for cultural work in third countries. The suggested a dance project. “We wanted to do something that works without language and for which we wouldn’t need three translations – German, French and Bengali,” the German says.
“Hip-hop has a bad reputation here”The ideal partner for the project is Samir Akika, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, who studied dance at the Folkwang Academy in Essen and today works as a choreographer and director with artists all over the world. In late June he will hold a ten-day dance workshop in Dhaka followed by performances in the capital city and in Chittagong, the harbour city in the south. The participants are twelve professional dancers and on one day street kids will also be able to take part. Lubna Marium glows and is happy about the collaboration. But, she has one question: “They won’t only be dancing hip-hop?” Mirschberger reassures her and explains afterwards, “Hip-hop has a bad reputation in Bangladesh; it’s considered American gangster music.”
In the library of the Goethe-Institut Dhaka guests read newspapers and revise for their German lessonsIt is the first cooperation of this kind in Dhaka. But, the two initiators hope it won’t be the last. “We want to network the dance scene in Bangladesh more with that in Europe and present new forms of expression to each,” the German director says on the return journey to the institute. Dialogue with local partners is her daily business.
Music is often the focus of the work. Since the Muslim country is under prohibition and there is no club scene, the institute regularly holds concerts. “Rock is extremely popular, but electronic music is also gaining fans.” Only recently a Berlin electro DJ was featured.
Rolling!Every month two to three German artists are guests at the Goethe-Institut Dhaka. The spectrum ranges from modern literature to classical music in addition to the electro DJ. Once every month the institute holds a German/Bangla Movie Night together with the film club of the University of Dhaka.
After a break at the institute it’s time for the next appointment: the Pathshala Media Academy. At the foot of two high-rises, a number of flat-roofed buildings with classrooms cluster about a snug courtyard. In the middle of it, six students surround and handle a film camera on a tripod. When Judith Mirschberger turns the corner, the manager of the school navigates her right to the group and proudly announces, “That’s your camera!” Mirschberger joins the circle, speaks a few words with the students and follows the manager into his office.
In addition to the equipment, the Goethe-Institut is funding a journalist from the Deutsche Welle who will cooperate with the school directors to draw up a new curriculum in which disciplines like multimedia journalism and television reporting can be renewed. At their repeated request, Mirschberger and her colleague Tanvir Alim from the programme department are given the first draft of the school’s curriculum. They are happy to have something on paper. “Our partners are very focused on their international contacts and their reputation, but sometimes forget their routine tasks at home,” explains Mirschberger.
Freedom and its LimitsWhen they return to the Goethe-Institut, girls and boys are sitting together in the ground floor café. They are chatting and laughing, women are smoking and a few couples are flirting. “Our house is more liberal than many other places in the city,” says Mirschberger. Nonetheless, there are limits due to the social and religious customs, due to the neighbours and possibly also due to state surveillance. “We recently dragged a couple from the lavatory; we can’t put up with that, of course,” she says and adds almost apologetically, “Young people aren’t allowed to have sex in a German school lavatory either.”
In front of the Goethe-Institut in Dhaka in the district of Dhanmondi a rickshaw driver waits for customersNonetheless, sexuality is an important theme for the Goethe-Institut in Bangladesh. It has already organized the Rainbow Festival three times to support the homosexual and transgender scene. “I receive some critical, but also very favourable comments,” says Mirschberger. To better understand what moves the young people who regularly come to the institute but hardly attend any events there, there will be an interdisciplinary festival in the autumn. Under the motto Speak your mind – Urban Youth teenagers and young adults can submit project suggestions. Here, too, topics such as love, sex and drugs are expressly allowed.
But, can they also reach the rickshaw drivers from the slums with such programmes? They cannot afford that, according to Mirschberger. “Our target group is inevitably mainly the urban middle and upper classes,” she says. “Cultural work in the slums is not our mission. We unfortunately have no capacities for that, and others can do it far better.”