A Tale of sorrow and suffering

Jennifer Reid from Manchester recently performed ballads in Dhaka and pointed out resemblances between the plight of garment workers’ in Bangladesh and the workers in Britain during the early industrial period. Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree writes


People, who love to indulge in musical poetry, sure savour the bliss extracted from ballads. Jennifer Reid, a Manchester-based performer of 19th century industrial revolution broadside ballads and Lancashire dialect work song, recently visited Bangladesh and shared a few hours performing some of those wonderful ballads in front of literature and ballad enthusiasts at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) on May 14. Fascinatingly enough, Reid being a researcher in the field, found out a narrative parallel between the early British industrial period and that of the garment workers in Bangladesh.

The moderator of the programme, Dr Azfar Hussain started off by lauding ‘her (Reid) commitment towards the historical struggle of working class people across the world’. He also mentioned that the Marxian idea of uneven development is focused in her work.

Wearing a saree, the Bengali traditional wear, Reid greeted her audience and went on to enlighten the audience about ballad hawkers who were vendors that bought and sold ballads to people in the street, fairs or any sort of public gatherings. These ballads were about working class people from which illiterate people could learn a great deal by simply listening to the songs.

During the two hour performance, Reid skilfully performed few ballads telling the ‘tale of sorrow and suffering’ of this class. But the lovely performance of the ballads was not all; she also showed the parallel how songs written about the garment workers in Bangladesh resemble those of the ballads written about the cottage industry workers back in the early industrialisation period in Britain. The Manchester-Bangladesh perspective was apparent in her presentation with the transition from village to town, the ballads and Geetika, the ancient and modern work songs.

To the amazement of the audience she sang on a high pitch, an ancient ballad, ‘O men, with sisters dear,/ O men, with mothers and wives,/ It is no better than wearing out,/ Poor human creatures’ lives./ Stitch, stitch, stitch,/ In poverty, hunger and dirt,/ Sewing at once with a double thread,/ A shroud instead of a shirt.’- a ballad that captures the frustration of the cottage industry workers up to the minute; how death was an upgrade for them than living that miserable life.

18516110_10212967944378453_1673053840_nShe also talked about how the rhythms of handlooms and power looms were applied to tune these ballads making it more true to the origin. This is how a distinct culture grew alongside the industries.

Along with this ballad she showed a piece of poetry dedicated to the garment workers of Bangladesh, ‘A factory is a death trap, on a worker’s body feeds,/ Tears of blood flow freely, my sacrifice it needs,/ March of the corpses no longer will I stand,/ Corpses piled high, must end, I demand,/ My heart still pumps, don’t bury me alive./ Mother o mother,/ I still breathe mother, we still have life’.

As Dr Hussain said earlier in his speech, the aesthetic and political form and content has thus been dissected in her works and it was possible because of the people and places she has worked with from different parts of the world.

Reid mentioned another rather noteworthy thing with the audience that such musical presentation of life stories can actually help people with dementia, as a piece of musical poetry can be attached to a particular memory and thus singing that song might trigger that certain memory in the patient’s mind.

In the end Reid shared, ‘I want to collect songs from villages, people who are the closest to the cottage industry in our time. I want to trace the sentiment back to the Lancashire cottage industry workers and their songs… With this information I can approach garment industry workers and ask about their culture – whether they recognise it or not – and discover their musical output.’

New Age Xtra asked Professor and Head of English Department at ULAB, Dr Shamsad Mortuza why they took an interest in organising the programme. He says ‘She approached me because she found online that we have shared interest in ballads. I thought we would arrange something where our local scholars/students would benefit from her research interest. We approached some garment owners – but they were not very keen on listening to songs that might tell tales of sorrows and miseries.’

When asked about her experience and findings so far, Reid tells New Age Xtra, ‘I was terrified before coming here about how I shall represent Lancashire without them knowing the context, but it went well. This is very new for me, I hope to find out a lot more.’


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