Rashed Ahmed paints the fiery eyes of a python on to a giant piece of white cloth in the grounds of Dhaka University, as a huge crowd of painters, actors and writers cheer the fine arts student on.
Each of those gathered then has a tilt at drawing their own symbols, leaving a personal mark indicative of the Bangladeshi cultural heritage they say hardline Muslims are determined to destroy.
The python is the symbol of radical Islamists, says Ahmed. It has started devouring our rich culture. Unless we can collectively stop it, the survival of our arts, sculptures, writings and dramas will be at stake.
Large groups of Bangladeshi artists – including filmmakers, singers and writers – began daily protests last month after authorities removed two newly commissioned sculptures of local folk singers erected outside Dhaka s airport.
A group of Muslim hardliners calling themselves the Anti-Statues Resistance Committee complained that the sculptures were idols, which are strictly forbidden in Islam, and threatened to attack the artwork with power tools.
Buoyed by their removal, hardline Islamists are now demanding that the government erect a minaret honoring Muslim pilgrims at the same airport site.
One of the group s leaders Mufti Fazlul Haq Amini, a former MP, says that he will demolish all statues if his party wins the December 18 parliamentary elections.
This is not the first time extremists have targeted people in the arts in Muslim-majority but officially secular Bangladesh. In 1994, feminist writer Taslima Nasreen fled the country after she was accused of blasphemy.
Another respected writer, Humayun Azad, died in 2004 after he was attacked with machetes at a book fair by suspected Islamists.
According to leading intellectual and English literature professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, the removal of the sculptures capped the state s growing acquiescence with extremist groups.
Last year, a satirical magazine published by the country s largest media group was closed down and its editor apologized after it printed a cartoon of Prophet Mohamed.
The military-backed government also backed down from a policy to ensure equal property rights to women amid angry protests by Muslim clerics that the move would override Islamic law.
Bangladeshi people are religious but they have always been tolerant, he said, referring to the country s rich heritage in the arts and music.
Islam has in past few years increasingly been used as a political tool here.
He said cultural activists had no choice but to launch protests as successive governments have become indifferent to radical Islamists attacks on arts, culture and writers.
The artist whose work is at the centre of the airport row, Mrinal Haq, says the commission had turned into one of his most dangerous jobs, with some of the hardliners trying to cut them down with grinders and pull them down with ropes.
They became so hostile that it became increasingly dangerous and risky to work there. I ve done a lot of works, including the city s largest sculpture, said Haq, one of the country s best-known sculptors.
But never have I faced such bigotry. -AFP