Every year, the Bengali community of Toronto holds a festival to celebrate the birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Nobel-laureate poet (1913) of India. Poet Rabindranath wrote songs, novels, dramas, and short stories, and two of his works became the national anthems of India and Bangladesh. The Bengalis also celebrate the birthday of revolutionary poet Nazrul Islam (born in 1899) every year. His charismatic writings and songs energized the efforts of the people of India during their struggle for independence. Even today his works influence them greatly. He wrote patriotic, devotional and classical songs, stories and dramas. Much of Bengali cultural life in Toronto centres around Tagore and his teachings of universal humanism and poet Nazrul for generating self-energy in every day life and for musical recreation.
From the perspectives of culture and heritage language, the Toronto Bengali community is comprised of people from West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh. Politically, India and Bangladesh are two nations. In 1947, British India was divided into India and Pakistan. That division created East Pakistan out of the eastern part of Bengal, while the western part of Bengal became the State of West Bengel in the Indian Union. In 1971, East Pakistan separated itself from Pakistan and became the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. Bengali is the only language spoken in Bangladesh, whereas in India, it is one of 14 languages spoken.
From a very modest group of approximately 100 in the mid-1960s, the Bengali community in Toronto has grown to almost 5,000. Until 1975, most Bengalees came to Canada after spending a number of years in Europe (in particular England and Germany), where they obtained higher education or acquired new skills. Now in the new millennium, many second generation Bengalees are pursuing academic disciplines or performing various professional activities.
Places to Go
Bengalees are known for their cultural leanings to music, literature, drama, and social celebrations. In 1968, Bengali Torontonians staged the first Bengali drama in Canada. Gradually, the theatre troupe evolved into Prabasi. Another organization, Bengali Cultural Association, was formed in 1974. For many years, both organizations catered to the social and cultural needs of the community by organizing a number of regular events featuring vocal and instrumental music, dance dramas, theatrical performances and religious festivities. Both organizations invited many prominent personalities of the cultural circle of West Bengal for special presentations or shows in Toronto.
The two organizations united in 1987 to become the Prabasi Bengali Cultural Association (PBCA), and a year later, the PBCA purchased an old warehouse on Millwick Drive in North York and remodelled it into a community centre. In 1989, the Tagore Centre was inaugurated as a community building. Today, the Tagore Centre is the focus for the community’s cultural and educational activities.
In 1992, the PBCA hosted, with active participation of the Bengladesh Association of Canada (Toronto), the XII North American Bengali Conference in Toronto—an annual event that is held in various cities of North America under the auspices of the Cultural Association of Bengal (New York). The three-day event, held for the first time in Canada, attracted more than 4,000 visitors from all parts of North America. Distinguished personalities from the cultural sphere of West Bengal and Bangladesh were invited to present seminars, workshops, and musical recitals.
Bengalees are well-known for grasping the opportunity to celebrate any happy occasion—social or religious. Bengali Torontonians are no exception. However, because of many other priorities, the celebration of religious festivals is limited.
CELEBRATION OF SARASWATI, GODDESS OF KNOWLEDGE, occurs in January or February.
DURGA PUJA (DUSSEHRA), LAKSHMI PUJA, and KALI PUJA (DIWALI), involve worship of dieties depicting harmony, wealth, and strength. They are celebrated in October or November. Most of the festivities are held at the Tagore Centre on Millwick Drive.
BENGALI RADIO AUHWAN, CJMR 1320 AM, (Tel. 905-271-1320, 284 Church St., Oakville). Airs Sunday, 7:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
BENGALI RADIO, CHIN 1540 AM, (Tel. 416-531-9991, 622 College St.), 91.9 FM, Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Producer: Sujoy Kanunzo.
PRABASI BENGALI CULTURAL ASSOCIATION (PBCA), Tagore Centre, (Tel. 416-740-PBCA/7222, 140 Millwick Dr).
CANADA BANGLADESH BUSINESS COUNCIL, (Tel. 416-833-5206,1110A Wilson Avenue, Suite # 203).