Connecting Communities

From West Bengal to Washington, D.C., young artists and professionals learn from each other through a groundbreaking, heritage-themed exchange program.

By Michael Gallant

January 2019

Connecting Communities

Betty Belanus (left), a curator and education specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and other American participants of the Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future cultural exchange project visited their Indian counterparts in 2018. (Photograph courtesy Contact Base)

Beginning September 2017, 31 Indians and 20 Americans participated in a first-of-its-kind program—a rich cultural exchange aimed to forge bonds through computers and cooking, arts and airplanes, as well as once-in-a-lifetime creative collaborations.

The Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future project was one of the six U.S. State Department Communities Connecting Heritage partnerships around the world, all administered by the World Learning organization. Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future was created by the Kolkata-based social enterprise Contact Base and Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, two organizations devoted to promoting, protecting and sharing knowledge of cultures.

“Both our organizations believe that culture can make a tremendous contribution toward peace, and that cultural sustainability leads to community empowerment,” says Ananya Bhattacharya, director and vice president, projects, at banglanatak dot com, the umbrella brand which includes Contact Base. “We wanted to find ways to connect young people in India and the United States, so that they could learn about each other’s heritage.”

“We also wanted to focus on creative enterprises,” she continues, “and how traditional skills, arts and knowledge can contribute to understanding and peace.”

In practice, this meant selecting young participants from both countries who possess deep interest, experience or expertise in arts and culture. Participants from West Bengal included Patua scroll painters and singers, Dhokra metalworkers, Baul folk singers and more. American participants had academic backgrounds in fields like anthropology, sociology, linguistics and folklore.

The cultural exchange began online, with two staff members and three participants from each country sharing glimpses of their cultures and social backgrounds through photos, videos and more. In February 2018, the American team came to India to meet its Indian counterpart and experience the unforgettable Sur Jahan world peace music festival in Kolkata. Four months later, the Indian contingent visited the United States and participated in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual exposition of living cultural heritage, held in Washington, D.C.

Indian exchange participants observe the work of a stone carving artist at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

Indian exchange participants observe the work of a stone carving artist at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. (Photograph by Rabi Das Baul)

In between the trips, though, the exchange broadened to include virtual participants, in addition to those traveling for in-person visits. The participants from both countries shared pictures and videos of their homes and daily lives via the program’s official blog and Facebook page. For example, CJ Guadarrama and Arpan Thakur Chakraborty bonded over a shared love of music, after Chakraborty wrote a post about enjoying listening to artistes and bands like John Denver, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and the Scorpions.

The virtual and in-person exchanges sparked not just mutual appreciation of cultures and arts, but also the creation of new works. For instance, young Indian artist Anwar Chitrakar crafted and posted online a replica of a traditional Mexican Retablo painting on Patachitra. The Retablo had been shared by American participant Ashley Martinez during her visit to India. As the exchange progressed, participants from both countries shared even more aspects of their lives and cultures, including traditional recipes that their new international friends experimented with in their own kitchens.

Betty Belanus, a curator and education specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, took the lead on the U.S. side of the exchange. She describes how, during the Indian contingent’s visit to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, one of the most memorable manifestations of Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future’s success was unveiled.

It began during the American team’s visit to India, Belanus says, when they sat with a large group of Patua practitioners in West Bengal’s Naya village, learning about the nuances and intricacies of their art form. The American group had been asked to bring its own story, which would be interpreted as both a scroll and a song.

“We came up with the idea of sharing the historical story behind the National Mall, which is the site in Washington, D.C. where the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is held every year,” says Belanus. “The Indian artists created three amazing scrolls based on that story. One of the artists, Mamoni Chitrakar, came on the exchange to the United States.” Her scroll was unveiled in late June at the Library of Congress, and she performed the accompanying song in person.

This visual and performative work of art, which started with the U.S. group meeting the traditional Indian artists, who then came to the National Mall, was amazing, describes Belanus. “Thinking about Mamoni visiting us in America and singing her song to a Washington, D.C., audience still gives me chills,” she says.

Given the breadth of the exchange program, other participants found deep meaning in its varying aspects. For Baul singer Girish Mondal, who traveled to the United States with Mamoni Chitrakar, Rabi Das Baul and two young cultural professionals, the visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture made a huge impression. “I never knew about these stories,” says Mondal. “It was the most surprising thing I learned about the culture of the United States.”

For Mamoni Chitrakar, it was the sharing of cultural traditions that made a lasting impact. “Through this exchange,” she says, “I learned that sharing traditional art with people of other cultures is as important as practicing the art form.”

Virtual exchange participants Kennedy Soden and Debraj Chakraborty summed up the lasting value of the exchange in a post on the program’s blog. “Sharing a common interest with someone [who] is 8,000 miles away from you,” they wrote, “and being able to discuss that interest or compare that interest with them is a gift.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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