Starting today, a team from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage embarks on a journey to West Begal, India, as part of a larger exchange program called Communities Connecting Heritage. The program is a new initiative of the U.S. State Department, administered by the organization World Learning, pairing American cultural organizations with similar groups around the world.
We have been matched with Contact Base, an organization in West Bengal that fosters inclusive and sustainable development using culture-based approaches. Five of us—myself as coordinator, project assistant Maya Potter, and three interns chosen particularly for this project—will first travel to the state capital city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and then to rural villages around West Bengal.
In Kolkata, we hit the ground running by attending the Sur Jahan World Peace Music Festival (February 2–4), meeting musicians and craftspeople, and comparing the event to our own Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Since the goal of the Sur Jahan Festival is to “create awareness and understanding of culture and its diversity,” it is likely this event will have good deal of synergy with our own annual exposition, but we hope to also gather new ideas and strategies as well.
In the rural areas, we will interact with folk artists, craftspeople, and musicians and share ideas about mutual strategies for cultural sustainability and cultural heritage enterprise. In two of the villages, we will stay in guest houses run by the communities and share meals with families. We will also visit the famous Visva-Bharati University founded by India’s first Nobel Prize-winner, renowned writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).
At the heart of this project is exploring the ways in which both cultural workers and folk artists use stories. Storytelling is a natural way to communicate with fellow humans, wherever they may live, whatever language they may speak. The artists in West Bengal will share stories through scroll painting, theater arts, music, and dance, and the U.S. team will share stories of their lives and work. We will discuss mutual issues of cultural preservation and sustainability.
At the end of the two weeks, we will present what we have observed and learned, and then shift into a virtual exchange between the Bengali artists and U.S. interns throughout the spring. In June, a delegation of Contact Base staff and the folk artists will come to Washington, D.C., to experience the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
We decided to call our specific project “Learning Together for a Brighter Future.” While idealistic, the name summarizes what we hope to achieve, in a small sphere, which we hope will radiate out into a wider circle of those who care about culture. We are setting out to prove how people half a world away can listen to each other’s stories and use them to share ideas and knowledge toward a brighter future for themselves and their constituents.
Betty Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, coordinating the Communities Connecting Heritage: Learning Together Toward a Brighter Future project. She is looking forward to sampling Bengali foods and learning more about the culture of our partners in West Bengal.