For conservative Muslim-majority Bangladesh, it is a forgotten and often shocking part of history: a time when aristocrats would openly flaunt male teenage singers whom they took as lovers.
Homosexuality remains illegal in Bangladesh, but the practice of rich Muslim landlords in rural areas publicly living with adolescent “Ghetu” males each monsoon season was widely accepted 150 years ago.
Now a new film, “Ghetuputra Komola” (Pleasure-boy Komola), has highlighted how perceptions of adolescence have changed in a country where the typical marriage age for girls used to be about 13, to grooms aged 20 or above.
The film tells of a boy who sings sexually-suggestive songs and who becomes the obsession of a Muslim man, drawing the ire of his jealous wife.
Set in the northeastern district of Habiganj, the film explores what many would today describe as a paedophilia culture that existed in remote communities that were often cut off for four months each year by the annual rains.
For many wealthy Muslim men, it was a time to listen to Ghetu singers and live with them as lovers — a lifestyle that died as orthodox Muslim values grew and as the area became less isolated from the rest of the country.
Faridur Reza Sagar, the movie’s producer, said that the subject was “a story worth telling” despite touching on such sensitive topics as gay and underage sex.
He cautioned against a romantic view of the Ghetu culture.
“When the filmmaker (Humayun Ahmed) came up with the idea, I was a little bit sceptical. It was a controversial issue. As Humayun has said, it’s our good fortune that this tradition is gone,” he said.
Ahmed, Bangladesh’s most popular fiction writer and the country’s leading film director and TV drama-maker, died in July in the United States after a battle against colon cancer aged 64.
He wrote over 200 fiction and non-fiction books, many of them bestsellers in Bangladesh, and his death was marked by tributes from the president and prime minister.
“The man’s wives did not mind, and a form of polygamy evolved,” Ahmed said before he died.
“The blatant infidelity in the name of folk music is no more. With it, a strange ritual is lost.”
Growing up in the low-lying Netrokona district 55 years ago, musician Abdul Quddus Bayati experienced the last days of Ghetu songs and was once part of one such group.
He said that only boys who could sing and were aged between 14-18 were chosen, often bought or recruited from their poor parents for a yearly or multi-year contract.
“The money lured many poor families,” he said.
“I saw how Ghetus were courted by the rich. There was a time when the flutes used by Ghetus were auctioned off with dozens ready to pay as much as they could.”
“Even the pillows they used sold in auction,” he said.
Bayati, who wrote a song for Ahmed’s film, said some young Ghetus became romantically attached to their male hosts. Such relationships would be seen as exploitative and criminal across much of the world today.
“There was competition among the rich people to keep the Ghetus with them,” he said.
“They would have sex and nobody would bother. There was no protest from the Muslim clergy. Their (the clergy’s) gaining of strength is a relatively new thing,” he said.
Homosexual acts are banned by law dating back to 19th century when the country was part of British India and any “unusual carnal intercourse” can still land a person to jail for life.
The age of marriage has increased in the last two decades, especially among the educated, but many underage weddings still occur in defiance of the legal minimum of 18-years-old.
Film critic Ahmad Mazhar believes that the movie only got made — and escaped the censor’s cuts — due to Humayun Ahmed’s fame and reputation.
“The board did not cut a single scene, which is remarkable given its history of censoring even harmless films,” Mazhar told AFP.
“The strange thing was that this practice was exclusively confined among the rich Bengali Muslims. Their wives had no choice but to endure the pain in silence.
“Had Ahmed not made this film, we might never know about Ghetu songs and how they originated centuries ago. It was a hugely popular music and the society at that time accepted both the music and sexuality without any qualms.”
“Ghetuputra Komola”, which has had a limited release in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, was last month selected as the country’s entry for the chance to compete in the best foreign film category at next year’s Oscars.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]