Every year with the arrival of February we commemorate the sacrifice of our brave language martyrs who created an epic history during the momentous Language Movement in 1952. The feeling of pride of being the only nation of the world to have sacrificed lives for establishing the honour of mother tongue makes us realise the actual worth of Bangla language. On that note nothing could be a better way to recall the valiant struggle of the Language Movement activists during this time of the year than arranging a book fair mainly based on the books of the very language for which they fought. With that spirit in mind the ‘Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela’ was initiated in the mid seventies of the last century on the Bangla Academy premises. Over the years it has turned into the biggest cultural event of this nation. Mass people of Bangladesh just eagerly anticipate for this occasion all year long. The book fair (also known as ‘Ekushey Boi Mela’) becomes a melting pot of ideas and experiences of a wide range of writers and publishers, who find it an effective vehicle for reaching out to the readers. Apart from the prominent writers, publishers search out for fresh and young authors who are aware of the constantly changing times and its modifying influence on readers. Parents take their tender children to the fair to buy new books for them so that they can develop their reading habit. Statistics say that the number of readers is increasing in Bangladesh and the Ekushey Boi Mela is playing a significant role behind this augmentation.
Just like every year the month-long book fair began in the Bangla Academy premises and Suhrawardi Udyan on the first day of the month. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the 36th edition of the Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela on the Bangla Academy premises. In her speech PM called for translating local and international literary works so that people can know about the world literature while others can also get to know about Bangladeshi ones. Prime Minister also distributed ‘Bangla Academy Literary Award-2018’ among four writers and researchers. Indian poet Shankha Ghosh and Egyptian writer and poet Mohsin Al Arishi graced the opening ceremony by their presence and speech. State Minister for Cultural Affairs KM Khalid attended the opening ceremony as a special guest. Bangla Academy Director General poet Habibullah Siraji delivered the welcome speech with its President National Professor Anisuzzaman in the chair.
Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela will remain open from 3:00pm to 9:00pm (Sunday to Thursday) while it will remain open from 11:00am to 9:00pm on holidays. Like the previous years a special arrangement for the children named ‘Shishu Prohor’ will be held in the ‘Shishu Chattar’ where children along with guardians would be able to buy books and enjoy amusing time on every Friday and Saturday mornings. On February 21, the fair will be open from 8:00am to 8:30pm. Seminars will be held at the fair venue at 4:00pm every day from February 2 to 28 followed by cultural events. This year the book fair venue has been extended to nearby Suhrawardy Udyan with huge changes. Renowned architect Enamul Karim Nirjhar was assigned to design the biggest book fair of the country. The fair venue is divided into five separate sections, which are named after five language martyrs Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar, and Shafiur. Covering an area of 3 lakh square feet the fair will provide more free space to its visitors. This year the Independence Monument and its adjacent areas are included in the fair premises. The theme of this year’s book fair is ‘Bijoy: 1952 to 1971, Noboporjay’ (Victory: 1952 to 1971, New Phase).
A stage for holding publication ceremonies and programmes for unveiling covers of the books has been set up at Suhrawardy Udyan, while discussions and seminars will be held at the main stage installed on the Bangla Academy premises. Some 770 units have been allocated to 499 organisations. Among them 150 stalls of 104 organisations are on the Bangla Academy premises and 620 stalls of 395 organisations are at the Suhrawardy Udyan. 24 publishing houses got 24 pavilions and 180 little magazines received 155 stalls. Besides, the small publishing houses and the writers who have published their books through their own initiatives will be able to exhibit and sell their books from the stall of National Book Center.
Kamrul Hasan Shayok, publisher of Panjeree Publications and vice president of Bangladesh Publishers and Book Sellers Association, observed this as a huge development. He stated, “Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela has been expanding in many ways. The fair is an attestation of the improvement of our writers and as well as our publication industry. The way every year the number of our readers is increasing is simply amazing. This indicates a gradual transition in our socio-cultural dynamics.”
This year a special stage titled ‘Lekhok Bolchi’ has been set up where five authors will discuss about their new books every day. When we asked writer Nasreen Jahan about the overall arrangement of this year’s book fair, she said, “This year’s book fair has already created an impression. Especially as an author I do appreciate the idea of creating a stage named ‘Lekhok Bolchi’. It has opened up a window for both the writers and readers to communicate with each other. As the fair premises have been extended this year, visitors can move comfortably. I just loved the inclusion of the Independence Monument in the fair premises. Our new generation will take inspiration from it.”
Some new features have been added in this year’s Ekushey Boi Mela. Apart from the two main entry gates at Teacher-Students’ Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University and Doyel Chattar, a separate gate has been arranged for entrance of writers, litterateurs, poets and senior personalities of different sectors, including civil society members and dignitaries. Besides, there are three paths to enter and exit the Bangla Academy premises, while six entrance and exit routes have been put at Suhrawardy Udyan. A digital monitor has been placed at the entrance of the fair so that the visitors can find their desired publishing house. Besides, Bangla Academy has opened a website (www.ba21bookfair.com) where readers would be able to know about the position of the stalls of different publishing houses and their books.
When asked about the security measures, Dr Jalal Ahmed, member secretary of the fair organising committee, said, “Law enforcement agencies are providing foolproof security for the visitors. Metal-detecting archways have been placed at all the entrances. A total of 300 CCTV cameras have been set up at the fair venue. Adequate illuminations are available from Shahbagh to Doyel Chattar. The whole university campus, Suhrawardy Udyan and Bangla Academy will remain under the surveillance of the detectives. So I hope security will not be an issue for the visitors.”
All the initiatives and efforts of the organisers become fruitful when mass readers visit the fair. The good thing is that they are coming in large numbers. We met Shejuti Muntasir Sriya in the fair premises. A private university student, Sriya was roaming around and visiting different stalls to find her favourite books. She shared, “Finding quality books is not an easy task at all. Thousands of new books are published in every year’s book fair. Any reader can feel misguided. I think all the publishers should focus on publishing quality books. And the readers need to be careful while buying books.”
The quality of books has always been an issue in the Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela. According to the annual report of Bangla Academy, a total of 4,590 new books were published in the last year’s book fair. The academy found only 488 quality books among them! Wordsmith Swakrito Noman observed, “Quality books are always rare. Actually we need to develop professionalism in our publication industry. Many publication houses have no editing panel at all. As a result, low-quality books are diminishing the interests of the readers. There are some publishers who even take money from the writers to publish their books! In such a situation there is no alternative to buying books carefully.”
A crucial problem that we have found while figuring out the influence of such a huge book fair is that our total creative publication industry has become dependent on Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela. Instead our publishers should publish books throughout the year. There are debates about the royalty of our authors. Publishers need to address this issue and provide royalty to the writers in a proper way. While all the famous book fairs of the world are arranged by the publishers, Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela is organised by Bangla Academy. Our publishers only publish books and sell them in the fair. But if they could select new talented poets, short story writers, novelists, dramatists, essayists, translators, illustrators and cover artists by means of collective efforts after every book fair and encourage them to work with an assurance that they will publish their new books next year, it certainly would encourage the new generation and our publication industry could easily find new talents.
Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany is the largest book fair of the world that continues for five days only. London Book Fair in UK, Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy, Tokyo International Book Fair in Japan, and South African Book Fair in South Africa last for three days. The duration of Kolkata Book Fair in India and Cairo International Book Fair in Egypt is twelve days. Hundreds of book fairs take place around the world, but none of those fairs lasts for one month like our book fair. And none of those book fairs is as special as our ones because no other book fair has a great historic background like Amar Ekushey Grantha Mela.