Pahela Baishakh : Festival of hopes and expectations
Professor Dr. Anwarul Karm :
Each country, nation, race, color and religion or creed has a New Year day to celebrate. On this day people, men women and children pray to Allah, Bhogoban or God, for a better future free from sufferings and calamities. All human beings know that there is a Power that controls and regulates life, both human and non-human. This has been in vogue since the beginning of civilization. Life has a beginning and an end. Such things happen in Nature also. Animists too believe that there lives and works a Soul or Power in Nature and it controls, guides and shapes everything in the universe. Nature has seasons, four or six. Every season has its own characteristics. These are fixed according to choice following solar and lunar cycle. From dearth to plenty or from plenty to dearth are the go of Nature. There is thus life and death, beginning and end in everything created on earth. In Bangladesh, Baishakh is taken as the beginning of the year.
The day begins with festivity. There are colorful arrangements for invoking Baishakh, the Bengali New Year. In the cities, the festivals begin generally with songs of Tagore, the Bengali World Poet.
In Dhaka on Pahela Baishakh, the morning of April, 14, tens of thousands of people, men, women and children gather around in Ramna Park, Dhaka at dawn to a large banyan tree from the nook and corner of the city. .At 6 a.m., as the twilight glow of the morning sky starts appearing, a group of singers attired beautifully looking brilliantly radiant join singing melodiously, invoking, 'Esho, hey Baishakh, 'Esho Esho : / "Come, O Baishakh. Wild! Come on us/ Breathing pure and holy, charlottes thou things dying/Drive past remnants like corpses to the year's grave/Let go old memories, let go forgotten melodies/Let teardrops vaporize and fade into the distant skies/Wipe away weariness, eradicate infirmity/Bathed in fire, may the earth gain purity".
The song predominates the environment as the cool breeze blows alongside the Ramna lake. It is people and people all the way.The day is a public holiday across Bangladesh. Rabindranath thus also speaks welcoming Nobo Borsho, Bengali New year : "Like fruit shaken, shaken free by an impatient wind/from the veils of its mother flower,/thou comest, New Year, whirling in a frantic dance/amid the stampede of the wind lashed clouds and infuriate showers,/while trampled by thy turbulence/are scattered away the faded and the frail/in an eddying agony of death.
Thou art no dreamer afloat on a languorous breeze,/lingering among the hesitant whisper and hum/of an uncertain season./Thine is a majestic march,/o terrible Stranger, thundering forth an ominous incantation,/driving the days on to the perils of a pathless dark,/where thou carriest a dumb signal in thy banner,/a decree of destiny undeciphered."
Nazrul, our National Poet and Rebel Poet also invokes Nobo Borsho or the New Year as a destroyer and preserver. In his 'Proloyullash' (Ecstacy of Destruction) he brought in a message that stands as a symbol of power which destroys and preserves.
Pahela Baishakh and rise of Bengali nationalism
Pakistani government backed by the Muslim League considered observance of the Pahela Baishakh as anti State activity and banned its observance. This happened in the year when Chhayanat, a cultural organization planned to celebrate Bengali New Year in mid-sixtys. In an attempt to suppress Bengali culture, the Pakistani government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winner and a World Poet. The Muslim League government in a systematic way planned to destroy Bengali culture after it failed to resist Bangla as one of the State Languages of Pakistan in 1956. It ushered in or heralded the beginning of nationalistic movement after the country won Bangla as one of the national languages in Pakistani period through Language Movement in 1952. Protesting the suppression of Bengali culture Chhayanat opened their Pahela Baishakh celebrations at Ramna Park, Dhaka with Tagore's song welcoming the month. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan as a symbol of Bengali culture. After 1972 it became a national festival, a symbol of the Bangladesh nationalist movement and an integral part of the people's cultural heritage. Later, in the mid-80s the Institute of Fine Arts added color to the day by initiating the Baishakhi parade, which is much like a carnival parade. Of late, UNESCO made 'Mongol Shovajatra' as the world heritage. The spirit of Pahela Baishakh is unity in diversity-we are different in many ways, religiously-Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian. We have different religious faith, but our age-old culture binds us together. Here language plays a great part. Pahela Baishakh enables and emboldens a sense of solidarity and unites us in carrying out our proud tradition of religious harmony. It is the language; the basic culture of Bangladesh earned the Freedom against Pakistan. We make rallies and enjoy good food and hold fairs and festivities. But this is not the inner significance and the spirit of Baishakh. We need to go for good deeds, wishing people for long peaceful and happy life, establishing religious harmony and protecting people from sufferings and unusual death, working unitedly for both urban and rural people developing it equally and not sucking the life- source from rural people to build high rise building and other amenities for cities. Baishakh takes us back to our roots, the periods when the Muslims built strong and Golden Bengal during the Mughols who cared for communal harmony.
Today, Pahela Baishakh celebrations also mark a day of cultural unity without distinction between class or caste and religious affiliations. Pahela Baishakh is thus a day of days in the history of Bengali people all over the world celebrating the rebirth of a nation culturally with a promise to make Bangladesh a strong self-reliant nation, free from hunger and deprivation and fulfilling the objectives and ideals of our Freedom struggle when the nation was united under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
History of Bengali Calendar
The Bengali New Year Calendar of today was in fact introduced by the Mughol emperor, Akbar. More than two decades into his rule, the emperor, third in the Mughal line, had set up the Calendar for people's use in 'Subey Bangala.' It was a date which was fixed by him as the date for realizing agriculture tax or rent from the farmers or the peasants. This Calendar was introduced in the year 1584 AD according to Tarikh-e-Ilahi during the emperor Akbar.
In the 'Historical Dictionary of the Bengalis' Kunal Chakrabarti and Shubhra Chakrabarti write that the Mughal empire was having trouble in collecting land revenue since it followed the Islamic Hijri Calendar. Given that the Islamic Calendar is Lunar, it did not coincide with the seasons, leading to much confusion. Akbar, therefore, asked his Royal Astronomer to devise a new Calendar which merged together the Islamic Calendar, the historical Bengali Calendar (based upon a Sanskrit Astronomy text, the Surya Siddhant) and Akbar's own date of coronation. Its first year, just like the Islamic Calendar, was the date of the Hijra, Prophet Mohammad's emigration from Makka to Madina. From this year 1 to Akbar's coronation (in 1556 AD), the Calendar ticks off the years as a Lunar Calendar. Up till here, the Tarikh-e-Ilahi and the Islamic Calendar are in step for both, Akbar's coronation occurs in the year 963. From this annum onwards though, things change - after all, it's a big year : the emperor's coronation. From the coronation onwards, the years start to tick off as per the old traditional Bengali Calendar, which was a Solar one, and solves the problem of mismatched seasons.'
The 'formula'. as it were, for calculating the Bengali year, therefore is : Islamic year at Akbar's crowning (963) + current Gregorian Solar year (2015)-Gregorian Solar year at Akbar's crowning (1556).This gives us 1426, the Bengali year as it begins today.
It is held that the "Tarikh-e-Ilahi was introduced for the entire Mughal empire and, like the Din-e-Ilahi; the present Bengali Calendar became integral to both agriculture and the Hindu religion. Baishakh forms a key position in Hindu religion.
Under the Mughals, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. However, as the Hijri Calendar is a purely Lunar Calendar, it does not coincide with the harvest. As a result, farmers were hard-pressed to pay taxes out of season. In order to streamline tax collection, the Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered a reform of the Calendar. Accordingly, Fatehullah Shirazi, a renowned scholar and Astronomer, formulated the Bengali year on the basis of the Hijri lunar and Hindu Solar calendars. The new Fosli Shon (agricultural year) was introduced on 10/11 March 1584, but was dated from Akbar's ascension to the throne in 1556. The New Year subsequently became known as 'Bongabdo' or Bengali year.
Celebrations of Pahela Baishakh started from Akbar's reign. It was customary to clear up all dues on the last day of Bengali month Chaitra. On the next day, or the first day of the New Year, landlords would entertain their tenants with sweets. On this occasion there used to be fairs and other festivities. In due course the occasion became part of domestic and social life, and turned into a day of merriment. The main event of the day was to open a Halkhata or new book of accounts.
Pahela Baishakh in British period : Village Fair and Folk festival
Pahela Baishakh was observed in befitting manner during the British period. Bengali New Year festivities were closely linked with rural life in Bengal. Usually on Pahela Baishakh, the home is thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned; people bathe early in the morning and dress in fine clothes. They spend much of the day visiting relatives, friends and neighbours. Special foods are prepared to entertain guests. Baishakhi fairs are arranged in many parts of the country. Various agricultural products, traditional handicrafts, toys, cosmetics, as well as various kinds of food and sweets are sold at these fairs. The fairs also provide entertainment, with singers and dancers staging Jatra (traditional Plays), Pala Gan, Kobigan, Jarigan, Gambhira gan, Gazir gan and Alkap gan. They present Folk songs as well as Baul, Marfati, Murshidi and Bhatiali songs. Narrative plays like Laila-Majnu, Yusuf-Zulekha and Radha-Krishna are staged. Among other attractions of these fairs are Puppet shows and Merry-go-rounds.
Many old festivals connected with the New Year's Day have disappeared, while new festivals have been added. With the abolition of the zamindari system, the Punya connected with the closing of land revenue accounts has disappeared. Kite flying in Dhaka and Bull racing in Munshiganj used to be very colorful events. Other popular village games and sports were Horse races, Bullfights, Cockfights, Flying pigeons, and Boat racing. Some festivals, however, continue to be observed. For example, Boli . (wrestling) in Chittagong and Gombhira in Rajshahi are still popular events.
My first experience : Halkhata
My first understanding of Nobo Borsho or Bengali New Year dates back as far back as 1943. I was then aged 6yr. and had been studying at Jhenida High School, Jhenidah. It was then a sub-division. My father worked in Hoogly, West Bengal, and later transferred to East Bengal in the department of Agriculture.
A very interesting part of Pahela Baishakh is the Halkhata. It is a kind of opening a new account book for the customers or clients. In the past, people used to buy things on credit and cleared all dues on the occasion of Halkhata in Pahela Baishakh . There was a big account book, the cover was red in color. I noticed in my childhood that my father used to sign a blank page on the new red book. I did not know initially why he had to sign the book. I saw him paying money with a smiling face and the shopkeeper also smiled and invited us to enjoy sweets. I found lot of people coming to the shop with their children in a happy go lucky mood. Later as I asked my father about all these. I was told that my father used to borrow food and other things from the shop and a fresh account was made after one year, beginning with Baishakh, the Bengali New Year from that day onward. I remember I was taken to a shop by my father on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh or the first day of Bengali New Year. We were received very cordially and served with various types of sweets. The shop was well decorated by banana tree and leaves or branches of other trees. It was a Hindu shop. Music came out from 'koler gan' named as Gramophone. I remember I heard a record sung by Kanon Bala, "Cchonde/cchonde/duli anonde/ami bono phul go/'Bosonto phul ganthlo amar joyer mala/boilo prane dokhin hawa. It was a kind of an experience. We had gramophone at our house and my father liked music and as such me' too, developed a kind of love for music from then.
My school arranged a program on the occasion and many participated in dance and music program. Our school too was decorated beautifully. Many guardians were invited. It was a gala day. We were dressed in nice clothes. A cultural program was held. Recitations from poetry book of Rabindranath and Nazrul together with dance and music were held. Sweets were also arranged for students.
Arong and Bioscope
In the afternoon of Pahela Baishakh I was taken by my father to a nearby village and I found various kind of things, handicrafts, wood, cane and bamboo crafts, necessary for home-use. There were various types of dolls. I noticed a good number of people old and young, men and women visiting the place. I also noticed a kind of display through a big box called 'Bioscope', a kind of travelling movie video camera used in old days. It was very enjoyable and thrilling experience for me. Various colorful pictures were shown by a person who used to display them through a kind of narration and music sung by him. In those days there was no film show like Cinema of modern times. I remember, I enjoyed the first film. It was a speechless show. I remember, it was an English film, named 'Tarzan'.
Bioscope, the locally made film show was imported from the West as the fore-runner of modern film show. In fact, Bioscope was a kind of device, used by folk people in old days and was orally transmitted through generation. Bioscope was loved by children and it was the best entertainer of the children at fair in old days, when the video games, play zones and computers were not invented. Children were mad after enjoying displayed pictures through Bioscope and Bioscopewalas were the favorite passion for them at fair. Bioscope was taken as kind of honor of the fairs in villages of Bangladesh at old times. With urbanization the device has stopped functioning , an early movie projector of old time.
In old days the village fair, known as 'Aarong' was organized on the last day of Bengali month Chaitra, known as Chaitra Sankranti or Charak Puja by the low caste Hindus and at this time Aarong or a village market was organized as a kind of festivity in which village people participated. Jatra, or Folk play and Circus were organized. Village people used to bring local products in the market. Dolls for children were also available in the market. In fact there were various kinds of products and people had been found buying all those things.
In fact village fair in Baishakh was most enjoyable in those days. All were in festive food. I bought a flute. I found a kind of footwear, called 'khorom'. It was made of wood.
Pahela Baisakh in Dhaka and elsewhere
Observance of Pahela Baishakh has become popular in the cities. Early in the morning, people gather under a big tree or on the bank of a lake to witness the sunrise. Artists present songs to usher in the New Year. People from all walks of life wear traditional Bengali attire : young women wear white saris with red borders, and adorn themselves with (churi)/ bangles, ful/flowers, and tip (bindis). Men wear white paejama (pants) or lungi (/dhuti (long skirt) and kurta (tunic). Many townspeople start the day with the traditional breakfast of panta bhat (rice soaked in water), green chillies, onion, and fried hilsa fish. Panta Ilish-a traditional platter of leftover rice soaked in water with fried Hilsa, supplemented with dried fish (Shutki), pickles (Achar), lentils (dal), green chilies and onion-a popular dish for the Pahela Baishakh festival.
In Bangladesh Pahela Baishakh has become a part of our culture. Every district, upozila, even in villages, Pahela Baishakh is observed with pomp and grandeur. People are now aware of Pahela Baisakh. Colorful program, games and sports are held almost everywhere.
The most colorful New Year's Day festival takes place in Dhaka. Large number of people gather early in the morning under the banyan tree at Ramna Park, Dhaka, where Chhayanat artists open the day with Rabindranath Tagore's famous song, Esho, he Baishakh, Esho Esho (Come, O Baishakh, Come, and Come). A similar ceremony welcoming the New Year is also held at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. Students and teachers of the Institute take out a colorful procession and parade round the campus. Social and cultural organizations celebrate the Day with cultural programs. Newspapers bring out special supplements. There are also special programs on Radio and Television.
The historical importance of Pahela Baishakh in the Bangladeshi context may be dated from the observance of the day by Chhayanat.
Pahela Baishakh celebrations mark a Day of cultural unity without distinction between class and religious affiliations. Of the major holidays celebrated in Bangladesh , only Pahela Baishakh comes without any pre-existing expectations (specific religious identity, culture of gift-giving, etc.). It is really about celebrating the simpler, rural roots of the people. As a result, more people can participate in the festivities together irrespective of class, religion, or financial capacity.
(The writer is a Folklorist, columnist, a former Visiting Scholar, Divinity School, Harvard University, USA (1985) E-mail : email@example.com)