As a developing country which is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, Bangladesh has also seen an influx of people joining social media sites and engaging in social media activism in recent years. While this has proved to be increasingly beneficial, as it has helped people learn tolerance and spread awareness about prominent yet barely talked about issues that still plague us, it has also led to an increase in hatred and intolerance. Because we cannot deny that if given the chance, we would choose the easier option of remaining ignorant and insular than the rather difficult one of active learning, understanding and empathy.
In this new awareness that we find ourselves in, then, our words are important. They have weight and effect. They help us express what is important to us and why we fight for them now more than ever. Words create ripples which create waves which shape us. And, while it is very easy for us to express ourselves with meaning-heavy and complex English words, we find ourselves at a loss to express those same ideas when it comes to our own mother tongue. That is where Banglay Boli comes in.
So, what is Banglay Boli?
Banglay Boli is a collaborative project of three friends: Humairah Shams, Omiya Hassan, and Maliha Mohsin. Omiya is a Graduate student at the University of Missouri, Columbia, USA. She is also an illustrator, designer, and founder of MiyaBhai (@miyabhai.prod). Humairah is an illustrator, designer, calligrapher, and founder of Made With Love (@madewithlove_bd). Maliha is a writer, researcher, DJ, and community organiser, with a focus on queer-feminist political intersections in the arts; also, focusing on the use of arts as a community tool or practice. The three are very good friends.
The origin story of Banglay Boli is one of good intention and collective learning. The three founders being raised in predominantly English-speaking households believe that it is important to be able to communicate in Bangla to have constructive and critical conversations with our immediate communities, especially about matters of social and political importance. And upon realising this, they also discovered how it is quite difficult to stay connected to our Bangla roots in a Bangladesh that is getting increasingly Westernised day by day. People’s preference of the English language and the amount of English media we are consuming along with a decrease in the efforts to teach complex Bangla in most schools require us to be actively aware in an attempt to hold onto our mother tongue. So, lacking the appropriate vocabulary for these important and necessary conversations in Bangla, a desire to learn more and spread the learning was born. It also bears mentioning that the pandemic served as a big transitional period for all of them in terms of acknowledging various socio-political issues around them. Especially, because the last few months have been politically tumultuous, globally. In addition, the pandemic resulting in a quarantine allowed them to reflect and gave them ample time to figure out a way to bring their initiative to life.
When asked about why they chose Instagram as the platform for their initiative, they tell us,
“The resources that served as our inspiration reached us on Instagram, and all of us actively learn from independent artists and community organisers who use Instagram as a medium to disseminate essential information, news, and knowledge visually. Because Humairah and Omiya are artists themselves, we knew from the very beginning that this was going to be a visual project. And Instagram is a very easy and approachable platform for a visual portfolio. However, we do acknowledge that we could have a broader audience on Facebook, but we also realise that reach has become increasingly limited on Facebook for those who do not boost their posts.”
The three, however, agree that it has been fairly easy to manage the project as this is a personal and educational project for them, foremost. They haven’t been operating this platform as a brand. And because they are very good friends and have a great working relationship, they share the workload among each other very well and also respect each other’s workloads and well-being. They are careful to not stress themselves over this.
A major difficulty they still face is the compression of the artwork on Instagram. Oftentimes, the videos they post are compressed and recoloured to a slightly different variation of the original. Another important challenge, they mention, is the actual research on Bangla language and vocabulary, and to decide on the most appropriate word for a given context. They tell us that this is “because we understand that language is not monolithic and has diverse uses and practices, and the same word can be expressed and used in many different contexts and meanings.”
And, it is undeniable that this is definitely a very relevant concern when choosing which words to highlight along with how they should be presented. Especially, when the intention is to spread the Bangla equivalent of words which will undoubtedly allow many of us to hold difficult but necessary conversations with many of our primarily Bangla-speaking elders and acquaintances. It is, then, particularly helpful how Banglay Boli structures each of their artworks. Each word is carefully accentuated with gorgeous typography with the Bangla meaning in a bigger font more ornately designed and the English equivalent in a minimalist font at the bottom. The second slide of the post serves as a GIF-like animation with the word pronounced accompanied by the phonetic pronunciation. The caption of the post also includes all the details of the word along with simple, easy-to-understand sentences in both Bangla and English to allow for easier grasp of the word and its utilisation.
They were also willing to give us an inside look on the word selection and design process:
“We work on sets of 3 words each. Each set is based upon a relevant issue of the time, and we select keywords that we find are most frequently used when the issue is discussed. For example: when Black Lives Matter reached its peak on social media and news, we found that some of the most relevant keywords were ‘racist’ and ‘discrimination’. Then we work together to select the words and appropriate translations and usage. This curatorial process is driven largely by our political contexts, awareness, and conversations. For example, we preferred to use the word ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing’ because of the casteist and classist connotations that the usage of the latter term can have in South Asian contexts. However, this is always a work-in-progress, as we are all constantly learning and unlearning.”
Visually, Humairah and Omiya work together. They have two very distinct lettering styles, and every word is actually hand-written. They fuse their styles together for each set of words. They also set the colour schemes together. Maliha mostly works on the texts and research.
And, though they admit that they have yet not planned anything as far ahead as The International Mother Language Day, they emphasise that one of their most crucial intentions is to stay relevant to the social realities and political events around them, at any given time. Their dedication to remain devoted and contribute to the relevant socio-political issue at all times is a noble endeavour because it will undoubtedly help many of us raise and discuss those issues with family and acquaintances.
So, what would Banglay Boli achieve in the long term?
The answer they gave us was modest in its sincerity, “Gosh; who knows?! We don’t think of ourselves as teachers or trailblazers, so we aren’t looking to achieve anything extraordinary. We really are just trying to learn Bangla together. Turning this into an Instagram profile helps us archive what we are learning and also include others in the process. It’s important for us to be corrected and reviewed by our audience as well, and their suggestions also give us cues and ideas for new words and discussions that we can include in this project. We will keep doing this for as long as we can.”
And, herein we get to see the sheer potential Banglay Boli holds. It is a collective learning project. It is our collective learning process. And, though Humairah, Maliha, and Omiya may not think they are trailblazers, they might just prove to be. Because, when I think about how crucial and impactful Banglay Boli has the potential to be if given enough exposure, I feel proud. Proud that such a thoughtful initiative exists in my country and that it is through Art that the founders of Banglay Boli have chosen to spread their message.
**Adapted from an interview with Banglay Boli
Interviewer: Miftahul Zannat from TDA