Updated: Mar 14, 2022
by Sushrita Acharjee.
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A plethora of ephemera, such as posters, placards, pamphlets, graffiti, cartoons, stickers and tape recordings of public speeches by political leaders, have been collected in the wake of the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh and preserved at archives and museums—namely Bangladesh Liberation War e-archive, Liberation War Museum in Dacca and so on. While music offered an aural experience of dissent against the West Pakistani perpetrators, these ephemera made a visual appeal.
What is Ephemera?
The word ephemera, which is the plural form of ephemeros or ephemeron, has its root in the Greek ‘epi’ which signifies the preposition ‘on’ or ‘for’, and ‘hemera’, meaning ‘day’. Evidently, ephemera denote things that lasts only for a day or for a short time. In literary studies, ephemera signify texts or images—printed and often handwritten or hand-drawn—for a specific purpose, context and occasion, and are not meant to be preserved for posterity. Some of the most widely collectible ephemera include greeting cards, posters, graffiti, pamphlets, menu-cards, newspaper advertisements, notices, product labels and so on. Since the twentieth century, the concept of audio-visual ephemera has become vogue; some of the most popular audio–visual ephemera comprise television and radio broadcasts, tape recordings and so on.
The Significance of Ephemera in 1971 Liberation War
● Under media blackout during the situation of Emergency imposed by the West Pakistani Government, the handwritten and hand-drawn posters, pamphlets, cartoons, graffiti, slogans etc. by Bangladeshi students, artists and intellectuals largely contributed to the dissemination of information, organization of mass protests and the like. The Provisional Pro-Liberation Government formed in Bangladesh in 1971, also known as the Mujibnagar Government in the name of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, encouraged the artists and intellectuals to produce more visually appealing and motivational work so as to incite the country people as well as expose the situation in Bangladesh to people across the globe.
● Because ephemera are context-specific and produced for a certain purpose by the people for the people, these prove to be some of the most authentic relics of a certain moment in history. Years later the posters, pamphlets etc. display the spirit of resistance of the Bangladeshi people against an oppressive authoritarian force and make it impossible for the oppressors to manipulate the lived experience of violence, displacement and subsequent trauma that the colonized people underwent in 1971.
● The posters, pamphlets and cartoons most often produced in the Bangla language were reminders of the 1952 Bangla Language Movement when thousands of young people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) protested the unfair imposition of Urdu language on the people of Bangladesh, thereby rendering their mother tongue Bangla into a second language. These ephemera, which function as non-violent expressions of dissent, also showcase the rootedness of the Bengali peoples in their own rich cultural heritage.
These collectible ephemeral materials preserved in the aftermath of the 1971 War can be categorised in three groups in terms of the sources of their production: materials funded by the Provisional Bangladesh Pro-Liberation Government; materials created by Bangla’r Patua Samaj, headed by artist Quamrul Hassan; and miscellaneous ephemera.
A. Contribution of the Provisional Pro-Liberation Government of Bangladesh
The Mujibnagar Government or the Provisional Government of Bangladesh formed in April 1971 funded the making of many patriotic posters, cartoons and festoons—even in exile—so as to keep the peoples of Bangladesh motivated. Artists such as Nitun Kundu, Pranesh Kumar Mandal and the like made minimalistic yet effective posters to arrest the attention of both—the Bangladeshi people longing for liberation and the oppressive West Pakistani force. Red and black were the colours of choice for many of these artists; besides adding vibrancy to the posters, these colours also signified the invincible willpower of the Liberation Army, even if they were not as equipped with ammunition as the West Pakistani army were. One of the most famous posters was inspired by Mujibur Rahman’s fiery speech on 7 March 1971 at Ramna Race Course, Dacca. Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman in this speech called for a civil disobedience and called for the people of Bangladesh to turn each of their houses into a fort ready for battle.
The above poster, which was patronized by the Bangladesh Government’s information and radio wing, includes an excerpt from Rahman’s speech in bold red calligraphy:
‘[. . . E]barer sangram swadhinata’r sangram, rakta jakhan diyechhi, aro rakta debo’(This time, it is a struggle for our independence, we have already shed much blood, we will shed more); and ‘ghare ghare durga gore tolo’ (turn each house into a fort).[i] Along with the text, the poster displays a sketch possibly inspired by photographs of Mujibur Rahman delivering the speech while raising his hand and pointing towards the mass gathered at the Race Course.
(Courtesy: Muktijuddho e-Archive Trust)
The following poster, designed by artist Debdas Chakraborty, is based on the song ‘Bangla’r Hindu, Bangla’r Boudhha, Bangla’r Christan, Bangla’r Musalman, amra shobai Bangali’ (Bengal’s Hindu, Bengal’s Budhhist, Bengal’s Christian, Bengal’s Muslim, we all belong to Bengal) written by Gauriproshonno Majumdar and composed by Shamar Roy. The minimalist poster in its background has silhouettes of the places of worship for all the religions mentioned in the song—a temple, a monastery, a church and a mosque. The lyrics of the song are written on the orange foreground of the poster, symbolizing a new sunrise—a new dawn of independence that is about to arrive.
The bold calligraphy of ‘amra shobai Bangali’ (We all belong to Bengal) highlights the unitive nature of the movement that transcends the petty boundaries of religious identity. It is the Bangla language that binds them together and therefore, all Bangla-speaking people should come forward for the cause of the nation.
The next two posters bring to the fore the brave women and men, the liberation warriors of Bangladesh. The poster on the left, designed by Pranesh Kumar Mandal, shows a Bengali woman clad in a traditional saree and holding a bayonet, breaking the barriers of normative gender roles and taking up weapons to free the people of the land. Accompanying the image, the text on the poster reads, ‘bangla’r mayera meyera shokolei muktijoddha’ (the mothers and daughters of Bengal are all liberation warriors). Using the same colour palette and style, Nitun Kundu made the poster on the right; displayed here is a male warrior holding a bayonet much in the same way the woman is holding a bayonet in the image on the left. The text on Kundu’s poster reads, ‘sada jagrata Bangla’r muktibahini’ (the liberation army of Bengal is ever awake).
(Courtesy: Liberation War Museum, Dacca)
The Provisional Government of Independent Bangladesh, after taking oath on 17 April 1971 published these posters exhibited below. The statements made on the posters, such as, ‘Yahya Hitler keo lojja diyechhe’ (Yayhya has gone beyond even Hitler), ‘Pakistan aaj mrito’ (Pakistan is dead now), ‘Joy Bangladesh, Joy Muktibahini’ (Hail Bangladesh, hail the Liberation Army), ‘Bijoy amader e’ (Victory is ours) display conviction, rage and the indomitable spirit of the Bengali peoples.
With the flourish and democratization of the printing press from the 1960s on, the quality of the posters improved. However, in order to make these posters discreetly during stringent curfew, many artists and intellectuals would often merely use cardboards, papers, poster colours, charcoal and brushes.
B. Contribution of ‘Bangla’r Patua Samaj’
On a Friday in March 1971, author Jahanara Imam, whose diary entries during the war were later turned into a novel titled Ekattorer Dinguli (The Days of 1971), wrote in her diary:
Today, Rumi has brought home a unique sticker—‘ek ekti Bangla akshar, ek ekti Bangali’r jiban’ (One Bangla letter embodies one Bengali life). This is the first time I have seen a sticker made in Bangla. Rumi places the sticker on the back glass of the car with great care. The sticker has been planned and designed by artist Quamrul Hassan. He prefers to call himself patua instead of an artist. He has founded an organisation, called, ‘Bangla’r Patua Samaj’ a few days ago. Last Friday, they even had a meeting [. . . .] In that meeting, water lilies have been considered as the symbol of liberated Bangladesh. In order to spread the liberation movement amongst a larger mass of people, the artists have decided to make cartoons, festoons, posters and so on and to circulate them all around. This sticker seems to be the first step towards fulfilling that agenda.[ii]
Diary entries during the Liberation War are some of the most valuable ephemera used in reconstructing a people’s history. Liberation War Museum has collected the diary entry of Swati Chowdhury who wrote down her experience of the dreadful incidents of 25 March when Operation Searchlight was carried out by West Pakistani military forces. The young girl studying in class 7 at that time narrates the fire, destruction, mass murder and sound of gunfire and frenzied screaming that she experienced on that fateful night from her home at Nakhalpara, Dacca.
Quamrul Hassan’s daughter, Shumona, too reminisces about the days leading to the formation of ‘Bangla’r Patua Samaj’ under the leadership of her father who was a devotee of the cause of liberation.[iii] From early February, 1971 she would witness her father and a group of fine art students work tirelessly through the nights at Hassan’s residence at Central Road, Dacca in order to make hand-drawn posters in favour of the Liberation Army and against the West Pakistani military occupation. Before dawn, the students would disperse across the capital city to paste those posters. The recurrent motifs of the posters included images of a rising sturdy fist breaking shackles, a bright red sun rising from the horizons, an army of people running holding the flag of independent Bangladesh in their hands and so on.
During the week before 21 February 1971—the anniversary of the day when the Bangla Language Movement by the East Pakistanis against the unfair imposition of the Urdu language reached its culmination leading to the death of many Language Martyrs—Hassan and his associates, who would soon be called ‘Bangla’r Patua Samaj’, transformed the road leading to the Central Shahid Minar, commemorating the Language Martyrs by drawing alpanas with their brushes.[iv] In the context of the Liberation Movement, it was a reminder to the authoritarian regime of the event of 1952 when peoples of East Pakistan rose in unison to protect their rich indigenous cultural heritage.
Quamrul’s most iconic work during the Liberation War was arguably the caricature he made, in exile, of the then president Yahya Khan, with the text ‘ANNIHILATE THESE DEMONS’. The horrible, demonic face was symbolic of the grotesque atrocities perpetrated by the West Pakistani Army under the supervision and command of President Yahya Khan.
C. Miscellaneous Ephemera
Apart from the posters, stickers and cartoons, there are also several other ephemeral materials such as political slogans, pamphlets, bills and the like, that may be considered as historical artefacts in light of the 1971 War.
In this image Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (second from the right), along with a group of recently elected MPs of the provisional Government of Bangladesh, is seen to be praying for the Bengalee martyrs who died in a clash with the West Pakistani military force. The photograph was taken in February, 1971 at Dhaka Engineers’ Institute. In the photograph, a few handwritten posters can be seen, bearing political slogans such as: ‘adhinata ar noy, chai swadhinata’ (No more dependency, we want independence) and ‘Joy Bangla’ (Hail Bengal), which became the most uttered catchphrase during the Liberation War.
A leaflet that was immensely popular during 1971 was titled ‘Sonar Bangla Shmashan Keno?’ (Why has the golden Bengal become a cremation ground?). The leaflet was originally circulated by the Awami League during the national elections of 1970. By tallying the economic disparity between the two halves of a single nation, the Awami League highlighted the colonization of East Pakistan by West Pakistani forces—the rising poverty, price hike and unemployment that led to the ruin of East Pakistan. For instance, while 15 per cent of the Bangladeshi population secured central government jobs, the percentage was 85 for West Pakistan; while the price of rice was 50 rupees per maund (a measuring unit previously common in South Asian countries, equivalent to about 37 kgs) in West Pakistan, it was 25 rupees in East Pakistan.
In March 1971, Bangla Charu o Karu Shilpi Sangram Parishad (Bengali Artists’ and Craftspeople’s Union), a collective of Bangladeshi fine artists who took active part in the Liberation Movement organized a rally in protest of the postponement of the National Assembly Meeting by President Yahya Khan. The artists under the leadership of Zainul Abedin walked the streets of Dacca under the banner of their collective, holding hand-drawn posters, cartoons, caricatures, etc. The four Bangla syllables ‘swa’, ‘dhee’, ‘na’, ‘ta’, written in large bold font on the posters and carried by the women in front, create the word ‘swadhinata’ (independence).
The East Pakistan Student League also made considerable benefaction. The following poster was made by the League demanding unconditional independence. They urged the people of the land to take violent means if necessary and earn liberation for themselves and for their beautiful rich motherland. The poster reads, ‘Bangali ra astra dhoro, shyamal Bangla mukta koro’ (Bengalis, take charge of weapons and free the green Bengal).
The handwritten proposal (in above image) was presented at Paltan Maidan, Dacca on 3 March 1971 during the public meeting organized by the Student League. It incorporates: the League’s official condolences to the bereaved families of the martyrs who were killed in the assault of the West Pakistani army; the League’s declaration of considering Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the father of the nation; and marshals a peoples’ pro-liberation movement in his name.
The following leaflet was circulated by the Student League declaring East Pakistan to be a free land post March 1971. It documents their demands and aspirations of establishing Bangladesh as an independent nation—self-sufficient in culture, and of spreading socialistic and democratic values across the nation keeping in mind the interests of the farmers, labourers, etc.
The Student League also listed a few slogans for use during the course of the Liberation Movement to unite the people of Bengal and to instigate them into participating actively in the movement:
● ‘Swadhin o sarbabhaum Bangladesh dirghojibi houk’ (Long live independent Bangladesh)
● ‘Swadhin karo, swadhin karo—Bangladesh swadhin karo’ (Liberate it, liberate it—liberate Bangladesh)
● ‘Swadhin Bangla e mahan neta—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’ (The great leader of free Bengal—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib)
● ‘Grame grame durga garo, muktibahini gathan karo’ (Build fortress in villages, build liberation Armies as well)
● ‘Birbangali astra dharo, Bangladesh swadhin karo’ (Valiant Bengalee, take arms—free Bangladesh)
● ‘Mukti jadi pete chao, Bangali ra ek hao’ (If you want freedom, all Bengali peoples unite).
Later, many posters, placards and banners were made using these slogans. One such can be seen in the image below, in which a young (possibly a school boy) is holding a placard with the text ‘ghare ghare durga garo, Bangladesh mukta karo’ (Turn each house into a fortress to free Bangladesh), and an image of a hand holding a rifle beneath the written words.
Although ephemera are supposed to be transient in nature, the enduring impact of collectible ephemeral materials—preserved by archives or in personal collections and digitized in contemporary times—is significant in etching out a peoples’ history which functions as a valuable counter-narrative to the often one-dimensional, distorted history sanctioned by nation-states.
Notes [i] Mannan Mashhur Zarif, ‘Posters of 1971: A guide to freedom’, The Daily Star (24 March 2020) (available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/lifestyle/news/posters-1971-guide-freedom-1884862; last accessed on 22 March 2021).
[ii] Jahanara Imam, Ekattorer Dinguli (Dacca: Shandhani Prakashan, 1986), p. 32; the translation of the excerpt into English is done by me. [iii] Sadya Afreen Mallick, ‘ “Potua” and freedom’s colours’, The Daily Star ( 25 December 2009) (available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-119256; last accessed on 22 March 2021).
[iv] Alpana is a traditional Bengali art form that makes use of rice paste flour and water to draw sacred motifs and patterns on auspicious occasions.