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At first glance, Dhaka is an ugly city. A closer look, though, reveals the art that hides in its heart and soul
There’s no avoiding it: Dhaka is an ugly city. Its streets are constantly clogged, the glacial pace of its traffic set by an army of cycle-rickshaws half a million strong. Buildings rise from narrow plots, leaning wearily against one another. The first time I arrived was on one of the big steamers that carry passengers upriver from the south, where I’d been reporting for a week, and disgorges them onto the old city’s haggard, sagging jetties in the dark early hours of the morning. The chaos and noise and heat of the riverside pervade the city. Dhaka makes Mumbai look like Paris — until, that is, you look a bit closer.
Masterpieces of modernist architecture hide among the morass of brick and concrete. In neighbourhoods like bohemian Dhanmondi, young people stroll along the lakefront. Music and literary and arts festivals crowd the calendar. Dhaka is one of the world’s densest and fastest growing metros; it is also emerging as one of South Asia’s most important hubs for art and design.
This emergent Dhaka has been a long time in the making. Dhaka hosted the first Asian Art Biennial — the continent’s first — back in 1981, just ten years after Bangladesh earned its independence, and long before the global explosion that has brought Biennials to cities across the globe. The Chobi Mela, the largest photography festival in Asia, began in 2000 and recently completed its 8th edition. In February, the city will host the third edition of the Dhaka Art Summit, the largest non-commercial art event in South Asia. And the many festivals and events hosted by the 30-year-old Bengal Art Foundation are as vibrant as any on the Subcontinent. “Art is in the heart and soul of Bangladesh,” says Abul Khair, the founder and chairman of the Bengal Foundation. […]