Amader Golpo: Annie Ferdous Bridging Culture and Community
By: Nowshen Pranthi
The Bangladeshi Historical Memory Project sat with Annie Ferdous, a legendary Bangladeshi choreographer and dancer based in New York. Annie Ferdous is one of the founders of the Bangladeshi Institute of Performing Arts, and she’s been sharing her work with the Bangladeshi community for over 25 years.
Where are you from and what work do you do now?
I received my Masters in Social Studies from Dhaka University of Bangladesh. From Dhaka, I first went to London for two years in 1986. I worked in London and got married to a nice Bangladeshi man, and migrated to the United States in 1988. Right now, I’m a paraprofessional teacher’s assistant in a public school, and I choreograph Bangladeshi dance. I perform behind the stage all the time now that I have a lot of students to teach. My family is from Mymensingh, I was born in Chittagong. My dad used to work in Chittagong as a meteorologist in a government office. I ended up being raised in Dhaka when he was transferred. Most of my family’s vacations have been to Bangladesh every two years to visit my family. All our travel money would go to Bangladesh and visiting our families. I remember when my kids were in 5th grade, they used to complain and ask me “Why do we always have to go to Bangladesh? Why can’t we go anywhere else?” We used to tell them that for as long as their grandparents were alive, we are obligated to go and visit, to see how they are doing. My parents are no longer with us anymore and my kids are all grown up. We don’t visit quite as frequently and usually our visits are short.
When we go, I take small projects with me, for performances and costume ideas. My friends circle in Bangladesh are performers as well. Last year, when I went to Bangladesh, we performed at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, which is a highly renowned performance institute.
This joint dance production was a project by The Bangladeshi Institute of Performing Arts from New York and Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy,, and three of our dancers and six from their academy performed. I am still very much connected to Bangladesh because I sing Bangla songs, dance Bangla, teach Bangla dance.
What was it like being a Bangladeshi woman here? What are some of the struggles you witness the Bangladeshi community enduring?
I am very happy because I got all the opportunities and support to do what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, there are dancers, singers, artists, who are all women, who get married and migrated and ended up not being able to continue their passions. They have to struggle in order to settle down first. Some women can’t get jobs because of their husbands or in-laws. I was lucky to have gotten the opportunity to follow my passion. There were problems when I started the organization; there was jealousy, problems with other people and organizations that told me I couldn’t do this kind of work or they would ask me why I’m doing all this. If you’re a married girl, you get a job, then you have a baby. Men have two jobs: earn money and then get the groceries. Mothers spend six to eight hours working. Then they come home and take care of their children. If their husband supports them and agrees to let them go dance, sing and perform, only then they can go. As a Bangladeshi woman, I feel like I used all the opportunities that presented themselves to me. Some women don’t get as many opportunities to fulfill their passions when they come to the United States though.
My husband used to come with me to performances and bring the kids. I learned how to drive and brought my kids with me. I was lucky because my kids didn’t misbehave when I brought them with me. Mothers work very hard and they have a lot of obstacles to overcome. They need a lot of energy, motivation and a lot of support. Our system tells us we are not the same as men. That is why we would need permission to do work but a man would not. This is our culture. The people who come to the U.S from Bangladesh bring this type of culture with them, but the newer generations are not letting it go on like this. That’s why we see more divorces and separations, because women are not taking crap anymore. Before we were not able to do all this, we were economically weak and dependent upon men but now women are studying and working. If we are economically strong we will also be mentally strong. Times are changing a lot for women. Women are doing what they want to do.
What kind of work does the Bangladeshi Institute for Performing Arts (BIPA) do? How do you sustain your community?
We are here to teach the newer generation about our roots and our culture for the past 23 years. People who come to BIPA, no matter how much time they’ve spent there, they are connected to their roots and coming in with little Bangla, singing little bits of Bangla songs and seeing other people in BIPA speaking Bangla, they’re wearing saris or kamis, they’re all eating rice and they feel like they belong. They get pride about Bangladesh and that pride stays with them when they leave. I’m so happy to see BIPA grow since it’s inception in 1993.
I was younger than the other founders when we started BIPA. We wanted to expose our kids to Bangla language and Bangla culture. We also wanted to present our culture within American mainstream culture; we hold events at libraries and cultural centers throughout New York.
For the last two years, we hosted a festival of cultures called Bandhan, meaning to bond. We have different communities of people from different countries come and perform music, dance and poetry. The difference between BIPA and other organizations is that we are collaborative. Bangladeshis don’t engage with other groups dancing or singing, but BIPA started to do it so that they could come and watch a parade of different beautiful cultures perform together. This is how we are serving our community.
How did this organization blossom?
We first started as a Bangladeshi New Year event, called Boishakhi. Bangladeshi New Year is highly celebrated in our communities. When we did rehearsals, we decided that shows are not enough. We decided to have a Bangla school, somewhere we can have regular practice sessions and where our kids could learn language, art and history. We started in Astoria in 1993, in the basement of a grocery store. We started at about 5 students in the small basement then that number gradually increased. We taught a lot of classes, Bangla, dance, tabla and song. We charged very little fees for the people attending BIPA. We didn’t have enough for the rent. Someone eventually told the police about our basement classes. The police and fire department both came and told us to shut it all down because it was a fire hazard. We made many requests but they didn’t budge. They said it wasn’t safe for the kids and that they couldn’t do anything about it.
We would not let what we started close. So we sought out a different place, that ended up being $1300 dollars to do our classes and rehearsals. We made the decision to pay from our own pockets and took the risk. We gained momentum and I started another BIPA branch in Brooklyn. We moved to another building near the Bengali television station NTV in Astoria, which is bigger than our original space. Our newest branch is in Jamaica, Queens. Our motivation comes from the strong desire to spread our culture. Our inspiration comes from the love of what we do and enjoy.
How is your work helping Bangladeshi immigrant people in NYC? What are some hopes you have for your community?
Many other Bangladeshi organizations host cultural melas and festivals to celebrate Bangladeshi holidays. Our events are different from others organizations because our performers are our kids. Since they are the next generation, they do all the performances. We are only here to help them. In BIPA, we spread and celebrate Bangladeshi culture through our own children. The next generation is getting the chance to have the responsibility to preserve our culture. Every show has at least, 20 dancers. My daughter, for example, learned classical Bharatnatyam from another teacher. She also learned hip-hop, and is a trainer in Pure Bar, which is a physical fitness organization. This generation is taking on leadership roles from BIPA, like Nadia Ahmed and Zarrin Maisha who are using their Bangla dance and song to teach the stories of our people. This is our hope. We’re getting old. We can’t teach forever and we hope the leadership of the next generation grows.
During our last show, ‘Tasher Desh’ (Land of Cards) we used classical Rabrindranath Tagore techniques to perform this creative piece. This play was in English so everyone, young and old alike, was invited to the performance and story. My son said, “In 23 years ma, for the first time, from beginning to end, I understood. I was clapping because I understood the whole thing. Before, your events were nice, nicer than any other events, but it was always a piece of classical Bangla dance with Bangla music, that was difficult for me to understand. This time, I understood the entire story.” This is what BIPA is trying to create: a bridge between the new generation with our culture, so that they may one day they may carry on our work.