|Volume 5 Issue 04 | April 2011|
Basant Festival and Nabo Barsho:
Religion and culture need not be in conflict, argues ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY.
In the mid sixties I spent a few years in Lahore, Pakistan, first for my graduate studies and later as a Civil Service trainee. The years in Pakistan, especially those in my student period, evoke memories that are laden with images of the grand old city and its magnificent structure, famous eating places and a generally amiable, friendly people that we mingled with. But the memories also carry some poignant reminders of debates that we as Bengalis would have with our "fellow countrymen" from the Western wing on our "cultural" traditions. The debate was further fueled by a media campaign in the press in Pakistan that period on our love for Tagore and festive observance of Bengali New Year, which according to this press were unbecoming for Muslims. This castigation of our cultural tradition was further enhanced when the then Pakistan Information Minister termed Tagore music as essentially a Hindu heritage. Fed by such propaganda and suffering from a great lack of knowledge about people and culture of the Eastern Part of Pakistan, majority of the population, including student bodies in Western Pakistan at the time were led to believe that what we Bengalis did was essentially un-Islamic.
An irony in this politically motivated debate came fortuitously our way when one late February day during my fist year as a student I was invited to a gathering of my Punjabi friends in the campus to a festival in the city. When I enquired if it was a religious festival I was simply told that it was a festival to welcome spring. We went to the historic Lawrence Gardens (later named Bagh-e-Jinnah) in the heart of the city to see the festival.
To my great amusement and delight I found that the festival -- known as Basant -- was no different in spirit from our Nabo Barsho or Pahela Baishakh celebration back home for which we were reviled and criticised by our then fellow countrymen from the West. Men, women and children draped in colorful shalwar and kameez, were pouring into the Garden wearing colourful dress. Aroma from food stalls selling local delicacies everywhere invited my insides. Women crowded stalls of vendors selling bangles and henna. Other stalls sold locally made crafts. All told it was an awesome sight of people gathering and fun that was a nostalgic reminder of our own Baishakhi melas back home.
The most attractive part of this fanfare that would last several days was kite flying. Day and night there were kites galore, some already flying in the sky, other waiting to be bought. White kites shimmered at night soaring and diving as rivals jousted from their respective areas and observers took sides. People from different cities flocked to Lahore for the kite festival.
After my initial euphoria and elation over this pleasant gathering, I asked my friends if the event had any religious connotation. This gave them a shock. Why should this cultural event rooted in local traditions have any religious connotation, they asked. But did they know its significance, how this tradition developed? Almost all of them had no answer except the assertion that this was a festival that they had known and participated in from their childhood. They had no idea if it was rooted to any other tradition, culture or religion. All they knew was that this was celebrated in spring time. They all have a very good time, wearing colourful clothes (men and women alike), fly kites, have lots of traditional food and never worry about its origin or any conflict with religion.
I would find the answer later through my own research and discussions with more informed sections in the academia that I would meet later. Basant is rooted to the welcoming of spring that coincides with the first month of Sakabda -- the Hindu Calendar dating back to AD 78. The Muslim Sufis adopted this festival in the thirteenth century as a way of participating in the community activities of the area they had settled in. By the Mughal period, Basant was a popular festival at the major Sufi shrines. Spring festivals were reportedly arranged around the shrines of various Muslim saints. Lahore, which housed several Sufi shrines, also acquired these traditions and turned these into popular local traditions. Amir Khasru, the famous Sufi-poet of the thirteenth century, even composed verses on Basant:
Rejoice, my love, rejoice,
In the pre-partitioned Punjab, especially Lahore, people celebrated the Basant mela Panchami with week- long festivals and by flying kites. Muslims of Punjab also celebrated the Basant although it was considered as a local (Hindu or folk) festival. The younger Muslim folk did participate in kite flying as an event. At the time of partition in 1947, the population of Lahore city was almost equally divided between Muslims (52%) and Hindus/Sikhs (48%). After partition of India, almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had left West Punjab/Lahore for India, but their tradition of Basant remained. People in Lahore continued to take pride in Basant mela and fly kites from their rooftops with the same enthusiasm. The celebrations of spring known as 'Jashn-e-baharaan' in Urdu, are carried on in the entire Province. Lahore being the historic capital of Punjab celebrates Basant with a lot of vigour and enthusiasm. Although traditionally it was a festival confined to the old-walled city, it spread all throughout the city.
I enjoyed my day in Lawrence Gardens that afternoon. I came to have a new perspective of the culture of Punjab. But it also passed over the question why the Pakistan establishment disparaged Bengali Nabo Barsho as un-Islamic when Basant, a tradition that had nothing to do with religion as such, was celebrated all over Punjab in such gusto? My young friends in the campus did not have an answer. Either they did not know, or they did not care to know that like the Basant celebration in Punjab the Bengali celebration of Nabo Barsho had also little to do with religion. The officially launched media castigation of the Bengali tradition had to do more with the politics of the time than the reality of the celebration itself. Our political masters in the West believed that the Bengalis needed to be weaned away from their language and culture. We were expected to be reoriented to a culture and tradition based on a common religious platform for the sake of national unity. Instead of hailing Bengali culture they interpreted it as a counterforce to the so-called national unity. Much to the dismay of the political masters this unity would be dismantled in a violent manner only in a few more years later.
Basant in Lahore and the rest of Punjab never ceased to be celebrated by the people of those areas. They observe this with as much fun as before. It is ironic that in the last few years some elements in Pakistan were clamouring for a ban on Basant on grounds of its non-Islamic origin. There were even reports of attacks on the observers of the festival. The authorities did not bow down to this because the popular sentiments favouring the festival were more powerful and overwhelming. The authorities claimed the unreal demands came from the radical elements that did not necessarily represent the broad populace. Basant is a non-religious and secular local tradition. When I read these reports I was reminded of the statements from the then Pakistan authorities maligning Nabo Barsho and Bengali music (Rabindra Sangeet) as un-Islamic. I am glad that some 40 years later the authorities in Pakistan have come to realise that religion and culture need not be in conflict. You do not become less attached to your religion when you observe your own culture.
Diversity of the human race across the globe is not brought by difference in shape and colour alone, but also by culture and traditions. Religion provides a common set of beliefs, but culture provides continuity with our past and heritage. We cling to our Bengali culture just as other ethnic communities cling to theirs for their identity. We fought a war to preserve that. Our former masters and rulers tried to deny us that privilege and paid a great price for it. Religion and culture are not antithetical to each other; they are complementary. I hope the current revisionist forces that are seeking to dismantle hundreds of years of traditions in Pakistan in the name of religion are thwarted by the more sensible sections of the society there. As I also hope that our own culture and traditions are not threatened ever by similar forces that seem to bob their heads from time to time. I hope Pakistan Basant lasts for ever and continues to please the people of Pakistan, as will our Nabo Barsho. Esho He Baisakh!
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in the USA.
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