Atash Bazikers of Dhaka
There is a saying that Rome was not built in a day. It may be true for Rome but not for Dhaka -- a beautiful Moghul town whose original name was Jahangirnagar, when it became the capital of Moghul Bengal. The great Emperor Jehangir, reigning from the Delhi court lent his name to this town, situated on the beautiful river Buriganga in 1608. I feel it may be apt to say that Dhaka was built in half a day. There was a host of city planners and builders, for they had been ordered the completion of the city within a given time. It was the social life and celebrations which the populace and the Nawabs were eagerly looking forward to enjoy from after mid-day, that set the time for the completion of the city. There is no historical truth to this saying but knowing the temperament of the Dhakaiites I feel they would love the adage to be true.
What are the things for which the city has earned a place in the history of this sub-continent, nay, of the world? Who hasn't heard of the Dhaka Muslin, the "woven air", by exporting gold and silver in addition to fame and name. Muslin adorned and draped the mortal remains of the Pharaohs before they were mummified.
The people of Dhaka city loved to enjoy the competitions of kite-flying in wintry afternoons. There were dozens of varieties in shape and colour, and betting was prevalent.
In the evening before the sun was going to set on the western side of the sky, leaving a golden hue on the horizon, the sweet call of the muezzin from hundreds of mosques of innumerable muhallahs called the faithful to prayer. When it was dark, the elite of the city dressed in rich robes adorned with gems and jewels moved about in their hackney carriages through the main city streets which had been lit by the city light-man. The oil lamps were aglow and emitting sufficient light to enable two good friends to wish good evening and go together to their business concerns.
Sharbat during summer was always welcome, it could be made of simple lime juice or with a dash of rose water or almond crushed or pistachio or saffron flavoured iced milk. The common people used to enjoy chilled tukma-seed sharbat, which was in fact a health drink. We must not forget that good sharbat was always served from silver or glass decanters.
At night, the Dhaka cuisine was always a matter of great attraction both to the local populace and guests who came from far away, or even a foreigner who might have been connected with the company sircar. Licking the fingers was not always considered bad manners. It was permissible when the flavour was strong, the taste sharp to leave a trace on the tongue. Murgh pulao, raizle, kalia, sher-birenj, tikiya, burhani, sheer-maal, shab-degh, baker-khani and shutli kabab, and to land up at dinner in a wintry night one would have relished a bowl full of shireen-chai which used to attain a pinkish colour, and was topped with plenty of cream. A day time dessert was sliced mangoes served with layers of cream, a richly saffron flavoured kulfi. Late at night people used to love to listen to poetry or to spiritual songs by Dhaka based eminent singers, qawals, village minstrels, etc. the precursor of this genre of songs was the illustrious Hazrat Amir Khusro.
Firework makers were a special group of people in the city, called atash baziker. The technique of making fireworks was handed down through generations and was a very closely guarded secret. In my childhood I had seen a number of shops in Islampur, Nawabpur, Shutrapur and Chowk Bazar they were obviously in great demand on Shab-i-Barat, Diwali, marriages/births, or any important public event. Kaley Khan and Ghulam Rasul were the acknowledged maestro of the 1930s in Dhaka. Their shops were located in the Ampatti, nearby the Nawab Bari. Unfortunately most of the shops were gutted either during the civil commotion or by some accidents. The last one I saw was in 1945.
Let me recall a chronicle of the company period where the skill of Dhaka fire-works craftsmen was much praised. It ran like this-Lord Clive's bill of 1st January 1766 was passed in the proceedings of the Calcutta Board in February of 1766. Clive had concluded a treaty with Nawab Vizier of Oudh in which the East India Company obtained the Diwani of the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and he had celebrated the occasion and the bill of expenses ran as follows: Charges paid for fire-works Rs. 12,179/8 annas. (This amount was a lot more than any amount spent on food, liquor, feedings beasts, hunting, furniture from assembly building).
The celebration on Oudh attracted fire-work maestro of Dhaka, Murshidabad and Lucknow. The Calcutta Gazette of 1803 gives another account of the elaborate illumination and fireworks which formed a part of the grand fete.
“The first public entertainment in the newly built Government House, given by Lord Wellesly in honour of the peace treaty was concluded. From supper the company was summoned by the discharge of a rocket at 10 O'clock. To view the illumination of fireworks which were executed by artifices sent to Calcutta for the purpose from Lucknow, Murshidabad and Dhaka.
Among the most remarkable objects in the fireworks were four figures of fire representing the fight of elephants admirably conducted, and an ingenious device of a 'globe' which after discharging fire, opened, and discovered a transparency in Persian characters to the following effect. “May your prosperity be perpetual.”
I leave the political aspects for the politicians to ponder and I urge you to appreciate the skill and ingenuity of the local people to present such a spectacle of light and colour.
Dhaka fireworks makers had their day even during the company rule. What a pity we now don't have such master crafts people, nor the luxury of court, for which we now need to import fireworks experts from other countries!
PS: At the grand finale of VI SAF Games in 1993 at the Dhaka stadium fireworks were done by foreign experts.
This article has been printed posthumously. Sayeed Ahmed passed away on January 21, 2010.
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