Pahela Agrahayan and Nabanna:
The Old Bangla Nababarsha
Photos: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan
Legend has it while the men of the Ganges delta were hunting the women threw some seeds on the fertile plain one day. The rains came. Soon paddy grew. As Hemanta (Late Autumn) fell, the people harvested the paddy in the month of Kartik (mid October). Agriculture started. Each year the rains came, the paddy grew, crops were harvested. Everybody would be happy. Each year with the Aman harvest, people would celebrate on the first day of Agrahayan (First Month) with new food (Nabanna) made from the paddy. The mild wintry Hemanta weather was tailor-made for celebrations. And thus Nabanna- the celebrations of Pahela Agrahayan became Nababarsha in Bengal.
Before the emergence of hybrid paddy and mass irrigation during the dry winter Boro season, the Aman harvest of Kartik was 'the' harvest farmers would look towards like a 'Tirther Kak'. If the Aman harvest went bad in one year, 'Mora Kartik' would set in. Farmers would fail to pay taxes to Zamindars (2/3 of the total crop in many places). A no-exit relationship of bondage with the Mahajan (money lender) would be 'written in stars'. Special blessings would thus be sought. Nabanna became a festival for farmers of all religions. In the Bangla calendar, all months are named after a star/constellation. Agrahayan is the exception. Agrahayan earned its name as the first month of the year with the Aman harvest coming to the farmer. And Nabanna became the Nababarsha for a society that evolved around its agricultural crop season.
Akbar The Great introduced today's Bangla calendar in March 1584. Known as 'Tarikh-E-Elahi', the calendar was introduced to celebrate Akbar's ascendance to the throne in 1556. The practical reason was to switch from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar to make tax paying easy for the bulk of tax payers- the farmers- who harvested crops following a solar calendar. The next month, Baishakh became the first month of the Bangla calendar. Pahela Baishakh became the Nababarsha festival.
Although Pahela Agrahayan lost its throne as Bangla Nababarsha to Pahela Baishakh, it remained the Nababarsha in spirit for centuries. During Hemanta, the green fields become white with Kash flowers making Bengal a paradise on earth. For centuries, poets wrote lyrics, composers composed tunes, and musicians have done justice to the spirit of Pahela Agrahayan and Nabanna. Jibananda Das immortalized Bengal through 'Abar Ashibo Phire' where he yearns to return to the Aman harvest of 'Kartiker Nabanna'. With the Aman harvest in hand, farmers would invite their married daughters for a 'Naiyor'. During times of bad harvest, the daughters would look towards the river for a 'Majhi Malla' from home, hiding their tears and visiting their parents' home only in their dreams. Sachin Korta captured this through the heart-breaking tune in 'Ke Jash Re Bati Gang Baiya'.
As societies move forward in time, their composition changes. Thanks to mass irrigation, the winter Boro harvest soon surpassed the Aman harvest as 'the' paddy harvest of the year. However, nowadays, the cost of irrigation has increased due to rising global fuel prices. A good news is that a new Aman hybrid is now available that can be harvested in around two months. Farmers can grow this paddy and also fit in another quick crop during the Aman season. In the last five years, Aman is regaining its status as 'the' paddy harvest.
One of the notable social changes since independence has been rapid urbanization. With road connectivity being one of the best in South Asia, the landscape of a traditional remote village is slowly evaporating. More and more people are living in urban centres in Bangladesh. The flavour of Nabanna as a rural festival started to die out. This is where in recent times the University of Dhaka has played a pivotal role in keeping the spirit of the Nabanna festival alive. Come to the Fine Arts Institute on Pahela Agrahayan for the Nabanna festival of the 'Jatiya Nabannatshob Udyapan Parshad'. Feel Nabanna as a festival that is as old as the agriculture in the Ganges delta. Feel Nabanna as one of the oldest festivals of the Bengali nation. 'If you know your history, then you would know where you're coming from'.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University)