Bangali is an ethnic identity that may or may not have anything to do with religion. However, many Bangalis follow Islam as a religion and are called Bangali Muslims. They have a language, a way of life that is unique to them. They also have certain cultural festivities that have long-rooted histories. Pahela Baishakh is one of those festivals.
After the division of the subcontinent in 1947 when the Radcliffe Line was drawn by someone who had little idea about the geography of the country, which parts belonged to whom so on and so forth, that is when the religious differences came more acutely into view.
Thousands were killed on both sides of the line. One became Pakistan, a land for the Muslims and the other Hindustan (India), the land for the Hindus. Until then, Hindus and Muslims lived alongside each other for nearly a thousand year.
At that time Bengal also got divided into west and the east, one belonging to Hindustan (India) and the other belonging to Pakistan. While the two parts shared the same language, there were many differences. For this article, we will talk about the Bangalis who live in Bangladesh – erstwhile East Pakistan.
What makes one a Bangali? The first thing that comes to mind is the language. When foreigners want to learn Bangla, inevitably they are bound to learn the cultural values, the days, occasions that Bengalis celebrate and observe.
Pahela Baishakh is one such occasion that defines a Bengali. The day is celebrated all over the world by the Bangalis, Assamese, Punjabis and the Nepalese as well. It is usually celebrated on the 14th of April in Bangladesh. In 2016, it has also been declared a cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco.
It is said that the Gaud King Shashanka who reigned Bengal in the 6th century started this occasion. It began in the year 694 Bangabdo. But later, the tax collection in Bengal went back to the Arabic year Hijri, which is lunar and didn't coincide with the harvest. Mughal King Akbar asked Amir Fataullah Siraji to form a calendar that would make the tax collection easier for the people of Bengal. Siraji was a famous astronomer, polymath, philosopher of the time and he invented a calendar from the time of Akbar's ascension to the throne.
In rural Bengal, people celebrated Baishakh by having bitter vegetables on the last week of Chaitra. They would make a dish with many different vegetables, sometimes as many as hundreds. The celebration is known as Chaitra Sankranti. People had the belief that it cleansed the body from all things that were collected throughout the year. Then on the first day of Baishakh, they would have sweet puffed rice, batasha and other sweet food items.
According to Saymon Zakaria, a folk researcher, the villages have many different kinds of games that are arranged on the occasion of Pahela Baishakh. They were Lathi Khela or stick fight, pot gaan or showing painted photos along with singing. People dress up as mythological figures and go around houses in the villages and perform plays. They are known as Ostak gaan in southern Bangladesh, in districts such as Jashore, Khulna, Jhenaidah and Kustia.
In most villages, the buyers pay the shopkeepers before the year ends and in return the shopkeepers or sellers give them packets of sweets or jalebis. They hold fairs in different areas that sell items like toys, flutes, sweet puffed rice.
A new account is opened by closing up the old one and it is called Halkahata.
It would be wrong to say that Baishakh is only celebrated by the Bangalis. The other ethnic groups living in this country also celebrate Baishakh. The eleven ethnic groups living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts also celebrate Baishakh.
The different ethnic groups call the festival in different names; just to name a few, the Chakmas call it Biju, the Marmas call it Sangrain. The Tripuras call it Baishu or Baishuk. In Sylhet, the Bishnupriya Monipori people celebrate the new year for seven days and they call it Bishu.
In urban Bangladesh, the celebrations are quite different, there are colourful processions brought out by the Fine Arts Department of the universities, these are known as Mongol Shobhajatra.
The students also draw massive colourful motifs on and around the university areas in what is known as alpona. Chhayanat holds a singing programme each year welcoming the new Bangla year at Ramna Botomul.
Eminent scholar and musician Sanjida Khatoon mentions in her memoir, Pakistani Shashon, Pohela Baisakh O Chhayanat that after the language Bangla, it was Pahela Baishakh that identified us as Bengalis, and our dress codes, our songs and our dances.
In Pakistan time, Pahela Baishakh would be celebrated in the drawing rooms with Krishnchura flowers. Chhayanat was established in 1961. They held programmes inside their institute but later in 1967 or 1374 (Bangla) they started arranging musical programmes in the early morning at Ramna Botomul.
After the war between India and Pakistan in 1965, Tagore songs were banned on national TV and radio. Even then BAFA, Bangladesh Academy of Fine Arts, celebrated Rabindranath. They invited performers from Shantiniketon for the drama Shyama. It was only in 1971 that the programme couldn't be held when Sanjida Khatoon had to flee the country.
Last year also we have not seen any celebration due to the pandemic which had made the world an unusually grim planet to live in but we as Bengalis will celebrate Pahela Baishakh in whatever form we are able to. It is a colourful celebration with women wearing red and white saris in earlier times which has been replaced by saris in many different colours these days. The fashion houses also make special attires for the occasion.
We hope the year 1428 will bring a good omen amidst the gloomy time we are passing through. We also hope that we will overcome the misery and illness and will be able to start afresh and look forward to a better tomorrow.
Jackie Kabir is a writer and translator.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.