Pahela Baishakh is the only occasion in Bengal that brings together people of all faiths for a day of spontaneous merriment. There is a colourful thread of commonality that runs through all age groups, class and all religions, thus strengthening the social bond rooted in the Bengali identity. The festive moments, as we have been observing over the decades, are marked by organising fairss and rallies, eating specially prepared food, wearing Baishakh special dresses, singing songs that pay ode to nature and taking the day off to be with family and friends. The morning rallies, mongol shovajatra, in the major cities and towns with large straw figures of peacocks, magpies, elephants, horses and demons add carnival flavor to the whole event.
The show on the day is always stolen by the boys and girls of the Charukala Institute of Dhaka University when they bring out a massive rally with beautifully decorated straw figures. Hundreds of people from all walks of life join this rally to be a part of this celebration. In the university area as well as other parts of the city, people dressed for the occasion throng various stalls to consume panta bhaat and ilish, two traditional dishes of the country. This is something they relish more on this day than any other. The dresses they wear also reflect the spirit of Baishakh made especially for the occasion. People love to buy traditional earthen pots, figures and sweetmeat for their near and dear ones.
But it remains to be said that Pahela Baishakh was not celebrated in such a grand, wide and inclusive manner in this country before the '80s. The advent of the first day of the Bengali month of Baishakh was never as great an occasion of fanfare, gusto and hilarity as it is today. No doubt it has gone through phases of evolution over the years and came to the present state, when it is celebrated as a national event. It would be interesting to take a stroll down memory lane and recall how Pahela Baishakh used to be celebrated in the past.
Since the Mughal era up until the mid '60s, Pahela Baishakh was limited to closing the old accounts book by the traders and opening new ones, known as Halkhata. Everyone settled all loans and outstanding bills of the last year to start business afresh. The day was celebrated by offering sweetmeat to all visitors to the shop and business establishments. Traditionally, Hindu traders opened the new books after performing Puja. It was observed by them almost with a religious fervor. I remember going to some of these shops as a child in Dhaka and Narayanganj with some elderly relations and eating pure sweetmeat to my heart's content.
Small fairs on the roadsides attracted mostly children and women. I remember going every year to a big fair in Azimpur area to enjoy the day. What we youngsters enjoyed most were a ride on the nagordola and charka; watch strange things on the bioscope (Tin box showing pictures while the man chanting along in a strange tone); buy clay figures of animals and birds, particularly of an old man with white beard with a hukkah, whose head on a spring would sway from side to side if touched. Small drums and flutes were the favourites of children slightly older. Women and young girls used to go to the Azimpur fair in search of bangles, beads, earrings, earthen pots, wooden spoons etc. It was in the fairs we used to hunt for delicious pithas, murki, batasha, kodma and small figures made with pure sugar.
Circus parties used to put up tents on open grounds and do brisk business throughout the month. I remember visiting many such circus houses with my uncles to watch the amazing performance of the acrobats. New Kamala Circus is one such name I still remember.
In 1967, Chhayanaut decided to protest the Pakistani government's ban on singing Tagore songs through arranging the Borsho Boron programme at Ramna race course under a huge banyan tree. The initiative was taken by some stalwarts from our cultural arena. The day began with the Tagore song “Esho Hey Baishakh Esho esho…” This eventually has become the famous yearly Botomul programme of the day. Bengalis, in defiance of the Pakistani government's ban, started to go there early in the morning to listen to the beautiful songs of Tagore and other great poets of Bengal like Kazi Nazrul Islam, DL Roy, Atul Prasad and Rajanikant. Many feel that the spirit of Bengali nationalism was rekindled in that programme on 14 April, 1967.
Over the years, the sphere of the celebration got bigger and wider adding new dimensions to it. Today, as thousands of people begin to throng the Ramna and Dhaka University area, small traders come in to sell their Baishakh special wares like toys, flutes etc. Chatpati, fuschka and other food items are also sold there. People with family members begin to pour in since morning to stroll aimlessly down the pavement or the grass of the park to feel the festive mood in the air. What makes many of us happy is the presence of many foreigners joining our rallies and just going along with the crowd. They wear dresses with Baishakh motifs on them and enjoy the secular nature of the festival.
Pahela Baishakh has come to stay in Bangladesh as a great occasion to unify the people in general. It is the largest and loudest cultural event of the country that reminds us of our roots. Maybe it had started on the basis of a decree by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, but it has lost all it antecedents and has become a totally Bengali event. Interestingly, Baishakhi fairs are organized by many Bengali communities living abroad during this time of the year to simulate the celebrations they enjoyed back home.
The talk about Pahela Baishakh would remain incomplete if we do not talk about the great storm called Kalbaishakhi. Strangely enough, the first storm of the season forms in the North-West corner on the day and usually strikes the land in the afternoon. It is often accompanied by hailstorm lashing everything down below with great ferocity. Many such storms visit us during the month of Baishakh.
The writer is Special Supplement Editor, The Daily Star.