Vol. 4 Num 312 Wed. April 14, 2004  

The metamorphosis of Bangla new year

As an old saying goes: "Bangalees have thirteen festivals in twelve months." This experience-based adage gives an impression of a society which was affluent, cohesive and joyful. It further reveals that the olden society of Bengal had been featured by an intense cultural atmosphere and resulting social euphoria.

The saying actually holds true about Hindu Bangalees. Muslim life in Bengal had differed substantially from that of their Hindu neighbours. Bengali Muslims, had, in fact, no ethnic, indigenous or locally originated (except for a few legend, or cult-based quasi-religious events) national, regional or group-centred secular cultural festivals. All their broad-based, community-oriented and family-centred festivals were religious or semi-religious in nature. But the interaction between the geographical setting and the socio-cultural milieu of their habitat and religious beliefs produced an eclectic mindset. This is how a very significant metamorphosis occurs in Bengali Muslim mind over the years. In this process, they slowly but surely accept pluralistic worldview, western liberal democratic values, and finally, Bengali nationalism.

A reputed social scientist had rightly termed this metamorphosis as, "Bangali Muslims' home-coming." The language movement of 1952, had in fact, played a decisive role is shaping and sharpening the Bengali identity of the younger generations of Bengali Muslims.

This is new generation of Bengali nationalist Muslims were searching for some lively and solid component of their newly found secular nationalism. Bengali era and the age-old tradition of Pahela Baishak (first day of Bengali almanac's first month) celebrations in rural Bengal provided them with a strong basis for their new pursuit.

Bangabda or Bengali era is essentially a hybrid era. Which is why it is a common heritage of almost all sections of people of Bengal. Renowned scientist and Indian almanac reformer Dr Meghnad Saha has written: "After the introduction of Tarik-i-Ilahi (1556 AD) in the year of his accession to the throne by Emperor Akbar, the people of Bengal began to use the Surya Sidhanta reckoning and the solar year. The Bengali San, we take Hijri year, elapsed in 1556 i.e. 963 and add to it the number of solar years." If we follow this rule the reckoning of the Bengali new year today would be 963+2004 AD-1556=1411 Bengali San.

So, it is the considered opinion of Dr Saha that the Bengali San derived from Tarik-i-Ilahi (1556 AD) of Emperor Akbar. And, it is an amalgam of Lunar year Hijri and Indian solar year. Akbar's court astronomer Fatehullah Shirajee innovated this hybrid reckoning system. Bengali Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen's comment in this regard is interesting. He says, "When a Bengali Hindu does his religious ceremonies according to the local calendar, he may not be fully aware that the dates invoked in his Hindu practice is attuned to commemorating Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Madina, albeit in a mixed lunar -- solar representation (An Assessment of the Millennium -- address, 20th August 1998 -- New Delhi). So, Bengali San is a manifestation of engaging cultural integration. In fact, the Bengali culture is a mixed culture and it encompasses the elements of many civilisations, races and religions.

Bangladesh is basically an agrarian country. Agrarian milieu produces many rituals and indigenous practices. Rituals -- even the primordial ones, are abundantly found in rural Bengal. Some of the surviving rituals and local events had nicely been integrated with the later modern construction, namely the presentday Bangla navabarsa utsab (Bengali new year's festival). These primordial agricultural-related rituals include 'Amani' and many other minor local practices. 'Amani' is a domestic ritual performed on the first day of the Bengali new year's morn by individual agricultural families for the well-being of the family members and good harvest throughout the year.

Gamvira is also a local cultural event found mainly in Maldah and Chapainawabganj districts of India and Bangladesh respectively. It is composed of dramatic movements, and social problem-oriented dialogue between the two main performers and along with folk song and dance. Outwardly, a humorous folk art form Gamvira is an event of contemporary social criticism.

Another local event of Baishak is bali khela. It is a wrestlers' game. This Baishakhi festival-game was introduced by Abdul Jabbar, a champion Bali of Chittagong during the early years of last century. Jabbar's bali khela is still very popular and held every year at Laldighi Maidan, Chittagong on 12 Baishak.

Another regional event of Baishak was cattle race. Munshiganj and Manikganj were famous for this colourful fiesta. Netrakona and Brahmanbaria were well-known for bull fight and cock fight respectively.

Some of these regional events are now extinct or on the verge of extinction.

Let us now look at the bigger Baishaki festive occasions. These are Punyaha, halkhata and mela. Punyaha denotes 'a sacred day'. The zamindars of Bengal observed this day during the month of Baishak to collect land tax from their subjects. There were much pomp and grandeur at the zaminder's palace or kachari (office). On this occasion zamindars gave audience to their subjects, exchanged greetings and entertained them with sweets, betel nuts etc. Once an universal Baishaki festival, Punyaha is now extinct with the abolition of zamindary system.

It now exists only in Chittagong hill tracts. Tribal kings observe this occasion with much festivity and fanfare.

'Halkhata' was also a nation-wide celebration of Pahela Baishak. Dr Muhammad Enamul Huq rightly observed that Halkhata is the opposite side of the coin, named Punyaha. Business communities of the country up to the level of village grocers' did arrange Halkhata event almost compulsorily. It was, in fact, a necessary requisite for business in Bangladesh. Our economy was totally agriculture-oriented. In this economy cash sale is almost impossible because 80 percent of population were village-dwellers and dependent on agriculture. For this reason they did not have channels of regular flow of cash money. They did grow jute and paddy and sell them to acquire cash money. With this seasonal cash money they bought their yearly clothes and other necessary items for the whole family. So purchasing daily necessaries on credit was inevitable. That is why the Halkhata was so important. Halkhata is a suitable occasion for the consumers to clear their debts. It gives them pleasure, satisfaction and some sort of pride in the society. Business houses entertain their customers and patrons with sweets. They also decorate their shops with festoons and flowers.

After the independence of Bangladesh, our economy has grown more or less on a capitalist path and a large number of cash money-holding consumers have emerged. This situation reduces the importance of Halkhata.

From earliest times, the Mela (fair) was a main component of Baishaki observances. This component has thrived qualitatively. It is believed that nearly three hundred fifty melas are now organised in Bangladesh during the month of Baishak. Baishaki Mela organised by BSCIC in Dhaka is spatially massive and temporally lengthy.

Baishaki celebrations have played a politically significant and culturally decisive role in Bangladesh. During the semi-colonial Pakistani period, Bangalees faced a stiff resistance in organising the Bengali new year's day. In the face of this negative stance by the then central government, Bengali scholars and cultural activists put forward the argument that Bengali era was introduced by Emperor Akbar and that its Muslim connection was very strong. Pakistani rulers, particularly the military regime of Ayub Khan, did not pay any heed to these arguments. On the contrary, the autocratic regime imposed ban on Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore song) in 1967. This culturally repressive role of the then central Pakistani government infuriated the Bengalees. And it added a political dimension to cultural emancipation. During this year (1967) Chayanaut, a leading cultural organisation of the country, organised the Pahela Baishakh celebration at Ramna garden. It was a neat function attended by a modest-size audience. But this function was to enkindle a new spirit among the Bengalis. In fact, this initiative had sharpened the Bengali identity and added fuel to the growing Bengali nationalism.

After the emergence of Bangladesh, Chayanaut's Bengali new year celebrations at Ramna Batamul have become phenomenal. These have been massive and ever increasing. It is in fact, a great historic festival and only national secular cultural festival of the country. It is interesting to note that Bengali new year day celebrations of olden time were rather small, localised and group-based folk events and observed only in idyllic rural surroundings. Now the tradition has changed. The present-day, urban revival of the new year's celebration is a case in point. The old rituals and local events have had a rebirth as a grand national festival. Its role of protests against religious fundamentalism and autocratic regimes is still very pronounced. The unique Nababarsha parade and its masks are a critique on social injustices and other ills of society. So, it has a perennial significance.

Shamsuzzaman Khan is a former DG of National Museum