Why is Pahela Baishakh an important practice? Why is it still relevant today?
It is necessary to understand the history and background of Pahela Baishakh to appreciate its importance.
While the roots of Pahela Baishakh date far back, the cultural practice as we know it began during the Pakistan rule in 1961. The Pakistan government had objected to Tagore's centennial celebrations, arguing that Tagore wasn't “our” poet. The result was a revolt on the part of Bengalis, who viewed the objection as a blow dealt against our cultural identity. Sanjeeda Khatun and Waheedul Haque, among other intellectuals, decided to make a public show of solidarity to the Bengali culture.
Initially, Pahela Baishakh was celebrated on a small scale in villages. Families would exchange sweets, decorate clay pots, and display them in fairs set up on streets. These practices began to grow and gain popularity after 1963, when Sanjeeda Khatun and Waheedul Haque realised the need to institutionalise musical education in the country, and Chhayanaut was born. Even then, Pahela Baishakh was confined within modest musical programmes organised in people's homes.
In 1967, the noted botanist and photographer Dr Nawazish Ahmed Khan, during one of his meanderings through the Ramna Park, discovered the Pakur gaach. He came to Chhayanaut to tell us that he had found a beautiful place where we could celebrate Pahela Baishakh surrounded by our rich natural beauty. This Pakur gaach, a tree that belongs to the Banyan family, is what we have come to know as Ramna's botomul. Thus started the cultural programmes at the Ramna botomul, attracting a crowd of 100-150 people at that time. Over the years they have grown to gain national, and even international, popularity.
The songs that make up the Pahela Baishakh celebration reflect fundamental elements of the Bengali spirit – our lifestyle, our tastes, the faces of our seasons. These songs and poetry remind us of who we are as Bengalis.
We celebrate our religious occasions – Eid, Puja, Christmas or Buddha Purnima – which mark our respective identities as Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, the year round. Pahela Baishakh unites us under our national and cultural identity. It allows us to tell the world that we are Bengalis, a vibrant group of people who take pride in our distinctive style, taste, and heritage.
There have been objections to the Pahela Baishakh celebration on religious grounds. How valid are these objections?
I don't agree with them. A culture cannot be written today and tomorrow. It is practised over thousands of years in a particular land. Bengali culture has endured a long history, and it is natural that some of its elements will be shared by different parts of the world. But this should not be categorised according to religious boundaries. A person can be religious and cultural at the same time. And I believe that those who raise these arguments, especially if they aim to identify themselves as Bengalis, should first understand their culture properly. If they do, these arguments will no longer pose obstacles.
How has the celebration of Pahela Baishakh changed over the years? Is there really a disconnect between Bengali heritage and the younger generation? How can we bridge this gap?
As I mentioned, Pahela Baishakh used to comprise of simple celebrations in the villages. Today, Chhayanaut's function at the Ramna botomul attracts thousands.
Chhayanaut has been organising Pahela Baishakh celebrations every year since it was first introduced, besides 1971 during the Liberation War. Every year, we plan the programme with a different theme. The cultural spirit remains consistent, but each programme seeks to convey a separate message, taking into account the events of the past year. We express the regrets and protests as well as the joys we may have felt the year-round through our music. This gives every Nababarsha a fresh outlook.
These celebrations also showcase our folk culture. We are able to highlight not only the folk influences on the seminal works of Tagore and Nazrul, but also the fresh and lesser known folk talents hidden in parts of the country. It reminds us how multifaceted the Bengali culture is, be it in music, art, or literature.
But not everyone can visit Ramna Park.
Today's urban life forces us to become very mechanised. We become busy with our work, studies, and our individual responsibilities. Meanwhile globalisation and the spread of the internet allow us to get swept up in elements of foreign cultures. We forget to retain our inherent Bengaliness.
However, I do not believe that these are negative forces. It is through the modern media that Chhayanaut's Pahela Baishakh programme is broadcasted across the country – to those who cannot make it to Ramna and worldwide. BBC World allows the entire world to witness our vibrant new year's celebrations. Bengalis who live abroad are able to watch the programmes. We also get to know about the Pahela Baishakh celebrations taking place in different parts of the world. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised to know about the programmes organised in Sydney, where Bengalis put up colourful fairs and musical performances under the botomul, just like in Bangladesh.
It is through this exchange of experiences that we can keep the spirit of Pahela Baishakh alive. The point is to have fun, to enjoy ourselves in welcoming a new year. If we can encourage our youth to participate in this practice, and continue to remind them of its significance, then Pahela Baishakh will always be relevant. We simply have to remain engaged in this cultural practice.
But the responsibility also lies with the youth. Look at it this way – you introduce yourself by using your parents' names. If you think about your country as your motherland, then you can't deny that identity. It is important to know about the world; but it is only by embracing your own culture first, that you can truly be an internationalist.