Historically, Bengal's culture has been shaped by its rivers, and by its prosperity based on agriculture. The region produces many varieties of rice; and together with the fish that are plentiful in its rivers, rice forms the staple food for its people. Fish, lentils and vegetables are prepared in hundreds of different ways: Bengal is famous for its rich and varied cuisine. Sweets made of milk and cottage cheese, sweetened with molasses or date-palm sugar, are also very popular. Each district of the region is known for its own particular varieties of sweets.
Traditionally, local culture revolved around religious festivals and fairs. 'Jatra' - plays performed by travelling groups of actors - were also common forms of entertainment in the countryside. Fishermen and wandering 'Baul' mystics sang songs that explored spiritual questions, but also the pleasures and problems of daily life.
Under the influence of British rule, some Bengalis (mainly those of the highly-educated Hindu castes who had learned English) began to look to ways of reforming and modernising their religion and culture: this has come to be known as the 'Bengal Renaissance'. Printed novels, poems and essays began to be widely read, and the Bengali language itself was modernised and standardised in the process. Magazines serialised short stories and novels which were read by growing numbers of people; women, too, mainly in wealthy families, became keen readers of fiction and religious books. Bengali literature flowered; the poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel prize for his contribution to literature in 1913. Like the poet Nazrul Islam, Tagore drew upon the folk culture of Bengal to explore the questions and concerns of his own time. Modern theatres staged plays that explored modern problems, but often drew on Jatra's techniques and style. Modernist artists – such as Jainul Abedin and Jamini Roy – also experimented with folk styles of painting.
As cinema became popular, Bengalis too began to experiment with this new medium. Satyajit Ray, who is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest film-makers of the twentieth century, received an Academy Award in recognition of his important contribution to world cinema.
The Bangladeshi community in Britain has maintained vibrant cultural links with the subcontinent across the generations, with a very strong emphasis on the teaching of Bengali and Sylheti language. There are many important cultural organisations in the UK that promote Bengali literature, poetry, theatre, music and dance, such as Udichi, a cultural organisation that has links in India, Bangladesh and across Europe. Bengalis of all ages also have a keen interest in Indian cinema, particularly Bollywood.
There are five Bengali satellite television stations available in Britain, including two – Bangla TV and Channel S – that are British owned and produced. There are also a number of Bengali newspapers catering for the British Bangladeshi population, including Bangla Mirror and Bangla Post.
The Bangladeshi community has also made important contributions to the culture of Britain, most importantly, of course, through the 'Indian' restaurant trade. In 2000, then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw noted that Indian food (90% of which is produced by Bengalis) was more popular than fish and chips, and that 'chicken tikka masala' was now Britain’s national dish. 'Banglatown'/Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets with its many restaurants is now world famous as a tourist area, rivalling London’s Chinatown.
Bengali cultural festivals are now found across Britain – the Boishakhi Mela, which celebrates Bengali New Year, has been held for the past 10 years in East London and is the second largest festival in the capital after the Notting Hill Carnival. A large Boishakhi Mela is also held in Birmingham. These festivals attract many Bangladeshi and British Bangladeshi artists and musicians.
Bengalis have also been present in the British arts and media – authors such as Monica Ali and Ed Husain have been widely recognised for their work. There are also many Bengali TV and film personalities, including Konnie Huq, a former presenter on children’s TV programme Blue Peter, newsreaders Nina Hossain and Liza Aziz, Apprentice 'star' Syed Ahmed, and Harry Potter actresses Shefali Chowdhury and Afshan Azad. In music and dance, the Bangladeshi contribution ranges from the groundbreaking band Asian Dub Foundation to dancer and choreographer Akram Khan.