The first day of the Bangla New Year is mostly when lathikhela (stick dance and fight) is organised in rural areas. Nowadays, lathikhela is also organised in urban areas. It's worth mentioning that lathikhela has different names in different regions. Based on style, it may take a variation of names in the same geographical location. These are the creative identities of rural Bangladeshi people. The districts of Kushtia, Jhenaidah, Jessore, Narail, Sirajganj, Panchagarh, Jaypurhat, Manikganj, Kishoreganj and Netrakona are famous for lathikhela. The sport has a unique feature in every different area. It is known as Sardar Bari in Manikganj area. At the beginning of the Bangla New Year, the people of this region organise lathikhela on halkhata festival. The event generally starts with the beats of metal plates and jars. In the midst of music, the Sardar Bari players get on the performance venue, and touch the sticks to show traditional respect. They then move around dancing keeping pace with the rhythm of the musical beats. Their choreographic performance reflects the gestures of harvesting paddy, weeding out the crop field, manual processing of paddy plants and spreading paddy for drying and so on. Afterwards one performer from the audience gets in and tells the dancers, “Vaisaabs, why do you dance only! The mothers and sisters are asking – you are not showing any work done by women!” One of the lathials then inquires, “What should we do then?” to which the answer is, “Show some works that are usually done by women, such as, grinding spices for cooking.” Then the performers show how women process spices for cooking after which the war with lathi is performed. The fight of two sticks, four sticks, six sticks and eight sticks go on. The audience witnessing the combat gets a thrilling experience. Next, one lathial stands on the sticks placed on the shoulders of four support players and shows the skill of the moving lathi. In the areas of Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Jhenaidah and Sylhet, the lathials move following the rhythm of dholok.
Various colourful fairs take place on Chaitra Sangkranti (ending celebration of Bangla year) and Bangla New Year in the rural locations. In Narail region, some performers go from home to home to perform potgaan. Potgaan is a kind of performing art in the form of musical drama. Performers use their own paintings or some pieces of paintings on long folded canvases to perform potgaan. This performing art has an ancient history. Bramaboibarta Puran, articles of Patonjali, Bouddhya Jatak, Jaina Religious Book – Kalasutra and Fifth century plays 'Avijyan Shakuntala' and 'Malobikagnimitram' written by Kalidas mentioned these arts. The most surprising thing is that the 7th century book Harshacharita written by Banvatta describes, “Upon receiving the sad news of the King Pravakarbardhan being ill, Harshabardhan returned from hunting and on the way back he found, beside a shop, a zamopattik or zampot vendor showing his pot (canvas) to some boys. He held his pot hanging from a long stick with his left hand and with a jute stalk in his right hand was pointing to some pictures. There were pictures of the ferocious Mahishashur, Pretanatha Prodhan and some other mythical figures. The zamopattik was singing, 'Matapitri sahosrani putradwar shotani/Yuge yuge batitani kasso te kasso ba vaban'.”
The 8th century play Mudra Rakkhash written by Bishakha Dutt has a similar scene of Pot Exhibition as that of Zamopattika's pot. The pictures of Dharmaraj Zam and of punishment of the sinners were presented through potgaan to deter people from committing sinful and unethical acts. Thus the pot artists took the role of social reformer or social teacher. This is why potgaan got immense popularity in some areas. At present, the performances of potgaan still carry the tradition in the districts of Bikrampur (Munshiganj), Narail, Jessore and Khulna. However, Arun Kumar Das, a potgaan artist of Narail district said that in their region, potgaan performance is mostly organised on the occasion of Chaitra Sankranti. They are not painters but they use the paintings of spiritual artist Nikhil Chandra Das. Binay Krisna Biswash and Arun Kumar Das perform potgaan on the basis of diverse rural life and folk stories. Moreover, in Munshiganj district, Mangol Mia and his group perform potgaan on the basis of Gaajir Pot-paintings painted by Shamvu Acharya.
The ritual of halkhata takes place on the Bangla New Year. Small businessmen of rural Bangladesh organise halkhata to motivate customers to pay off their dues. The business proprietors entertain their customers with sweetmeats. They also organise rural sports, folk drama, funny performances to create a festive environment. In Saturia region of Manikganj district, there is an arrangement of buira-buri shong (comedy performance of elderly characters) along with Sardar Bari or lathikhela on the occasion of halkhata. Local masks created by rural artisans of Manikganj are worn by the performers. It is evidence of the skill of rural artisans of this area and their ability to express perfect human gestures. The masks reflect the symptoms of aged faces as well as young faces. The problems an elderly man practising polygamy are depicted in the buira-buri shong performance.
The first wife (elderly) wants her husband to sleep in her bed but the second wife (young) wants the husband to sleep with her. So a conflict arises. The wives start to draw the husband to their side and the elderly husband faints. The grandson of the elderly fetches a doctor and the doctor examines the fainted old man in a very funny manner. The doctor is unable to identify any health problems but he calls in his own wife to solve the problem of the two wives. This comedy performance actually portrays the harmful effects of polygamy. Using masks, the performers intend to provide the villagers with an artistic and entertaining form of education against polygamy.
Another performance on the occasion of Baishakh and Chaitra Sangkranti is astokgaan. It is a kind of ritualistic performance in the districts of Jessore, Khulna, Narail, Magura, Jhenaidah, Kushtia, etc. It is an ambulant performance. A group of performers take on the costumes of Radha-Krishna. They perform different leela of Radha and Krishna through dancing and singing by visiting rural families. After the performance, they receive corn and money from the families. The performance begins with an orchestra of traditional music instruments. Amidst the orchestra, the performers – Radha, Krishna and their eight co-artists – get in the performance spot and make a moving circle. They move by dancing following the rhythm of the orchestra. After the orchestra is over the performers stand face to face and do the Bandana (worshipping song). After singing the first stanza of the worshipping song, performers put their hands above the head and move their hands around in the air. Then at the beginning of the third stanza of the worshipping song the performers again sit face to face and sing the next stanza of the Bandana. The performers sing praises to the goddess Saraswati as well as parents and teachers. After the song, the main part of the astokgaan starts with the narration of the principal singer who does the acting of the character of Krishna.
When urban inhabitants celebrate the Bangla New Year, rural inhabitants celebrate the last day of the previous year by organising Charak Festival as part of Shiva-Parvati rituals. Various mythical characters gather in the Charak festival. The villagers wearing diverse masks play the roles of mythical characters. Some of them have their bodies painted and ornamented to become specific characters. Thus the rural people generate a mixed reflection of reality and myths in the ritualistic performances. The diversity of Bangla New Year celebrations reflects the traditional festivals, rituals and culture of fairs as well as the multidimensional creativity and artistic skills of Bangladeshi people.
The writer is Assistant Director, Folklore Department, Bangla Academy.
Translated by Nurunnabi Shanto