Of Plenty and Pitha | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 14, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:24 AM, November 14, 2017

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Of Plenty and Pitha

While you reap what you sow, the saying is taken to a completely literal meaning on Nobanno. Marking 1st Agrahayan as the day of celebration, according to the Bengali calendar, reaping crops amid November's wintry whispers and condensed dew drops is what this agricultural festival is all about. Being the season of harvest, the true essence of Nobanno is kept alive by the villagers who slave away to reap new crops on this festival. Thus, the real spirit of Nobanno resides in the villages of the country, in each farmer's household, and the smile that each sheaf of a good harvest brings to their toil-tired faces.

Every step of the harvest has 'over the millennia' been woven into the a cultural fabric that is Bangladesh, and this is despite the layers and layers of upgrades that were brought by technology.  

Sure, tractors and combine harvesters have taken over rice fields now. But the festival in question has seen days when individual strands of rice were cut with wooden sickles, one after one after one. Hard labour would drive oxen to tread and thresh stacked husks of rice and the journey of a singular grain of rice would just begin.

Now a rare artifact of Bengali culture, the koola was once used to filter out impurities and the villages' see-sawing dhenki or a domestic rice-mill to remove unwanted layers of bran and hulls. While many of these practices have been let go to make way for better techniques, like the use of pedal threshers, many still choose traditional ways of harvest. Whichever the path, an extensive process of reaping, drying and milling allows the new grain of Nobanno to finally be obtained and stored in jute bags and silos.

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But the new crops don't come empty-handed. They bring with them happiness for farmers and an abundance of food. This invites business and livelihood for traders and merchants and they rejoice in the face of economic solvency, as simply put a good yield of rice means more money for the farmer's coming year. 

While Nobanno was deemed the Bengali New Year till the reign of Emperor Akbar, the enthusiasm behind the festival has waned much since then. Still, many villages host Nobanno fairs and display handicrafts by rural artisans. Newly harvested crops made into puffed or flattened rice also make an appearance, along with the season's delicacy- jaggery.

With half of the country's population comprising farmers, Nobanno aims to celebrate the contribution of agriculture. A greater yield ensures economic stability for farmers and neighbours are invited and gifts are distributed. But the most obsessed-about aspect of Nobanno is probably the special pithas of the season. Prepared in every household with the new grains, sending clothes and cakes to relatives, especially, daughter in-laws is a courtesy steeped in tradition. 

The streets of Dhaka city, however, paint a different picture on this day. Each year, the National Harvest Festival Committee organises a Nobanno celebration in collaboration with the Department of Fine Arts of University of Dhaka. With a goal to hold on to the cultural mark of Nobanno with a clenched fist, pitha-making competitions, folk poetry recitations, dramas and dance performances are organised. Music composed by the mystic minstrels of Bengal such as Lalon Fokir honours the heritage of the country and such 'baul' songs are sung on occasion of Nobanno all around.

The reach of Nobanno doesn't stop there. Instead, it goes on to spark inspirations in the literary world.

Rabindranath Tagore penned verses of the national anthem of Bangladesh depicting the scenic beauty of a golden Bengal in Agrahayan and an obvious reference to the abundant and ripe rice crop standing in the fields. 

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Igniting creative influences in countless pieces of popular literature including poems plays and artistic paintings, Nobanno has shown its reach to be deep into the Bengali psyche. The process of harvesting lying at the heart of Nobanno moved Bengali and English poets alike. Moreover, art exhibitions depicting the theme of the celebration have often be held to entrance the keen folk art collectors among us.

Undoubtedly, Nobanno carves the fate of farmers until the following harvest season. It has inspired both indelible and faded traditions, sparked inspirations in literary talents of Bengal and foreign lands and marks the beginning of business and agriculture in the country. 

And it is all in the shadow of a grain of harvested rice.

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed

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