Is there a Bangalee way to celebrate Pahela Baishakh?
Culture, which is a complex, nuanced and multi-layered concept, is intrinsically related to one's religion, ethnicity, land, and language. Much as we desire it, in a diverse society like ours, cultural homogeneity is not possible as not everyone has the same set of beliefs or follows the same customs. Ours is "a culture of many cultures." Over the centuries, it has been sliced up in so many ways that what's popular with one segment of the population may be quite unpopular with another segment. But certain ideas and occasions have the ability to transcend these differences, like Pahela Baishakh. It gives us a sense of unity amid our differences. At a time when divisions along religious, ethnic, political, and linguistic lines are ripping apart the very fabric of our society, it gives us hope about our future.
The history of Pahela Baishakh is tied with the history of the formulation of the Bangla calendar, the origin of which is unclear. Some historians traced it to the rule of Mughal Emperor Akbar, who wanted to create a "harvest calendar" for local residents in line with his taxation policy; others traced it to a much earlier time. Regardless of who adopted the calendar, the start of the traditional new year has been historically observed as an auspicious day for both farmers celebrating new harvest and traders looking for a fresh start in their business. But it was a simple affair, without the flashy trappings of modern-day celebrations that we see today in cities and urban centres.
In 1967, Chhayanaut initiated the urban tradition of paying musical homage to the Bangla New Year. As the occasion grew in popularity, celebrations began to take new forms, and new elements were introduced. Today, Pahela Baishakh is celebrated in numerous ways. You see village-style fairs, dance and musical events, readings, open-air concerts, kite festivals, special television programmes, DJ parties, corporate-sponsored gigs, and so on. After the Unesco recognition of Mangal Shobhajatra, a sense of pride was added to the celebrations.
Pahela Baishakh has clearly come a long way since its humble, rural beginnings, and has spawned a regionwide multi-billion-taka bonanza. This, in turn, has also ignited some unpleasant questions about whether the way it is being celebrated is indeed the "Bangalee way."
The search for the Bangalee way is, therefore, a misguided one. We need to seek unity through diversity. That being said, modern-day practices are a far cry from how Pahela Baishakh used to be celebrated – through simple feasts, opening of haal khata (new ledger), village fairs, etc. And the fact that it has been turned into an urban affair by people far removed from the reality of peasant folks is an irony of the highest order.
To put it differently, if Pahela Baishakh is a part of Bangalee culture, does the way we celebrate it truly reflect that culture? You can hear murmurs of disapproval in some quarters that say that Islam, the religion of the majority, doesn't support a celebration that they think is inspired by Hindu myths and traditions – or doubt if latter-day inclusions like panta-ilish feasts and Mangal Shobhajatra really represent our centuries-old culture and heritage.
These questions are usually ignored by the media and cultural elite, and binned as products of a "fundamentalist" mindset. Doing so, however, only risks widening the existing schisms within our already deeply polarised society. I think critical thoughts, however biased or intellectually unsound, should be welcomed for the simple reason that they exist as a "reaction" which should give us an opportunity to evaluate our own action. Also, such thoughts stem from long-held concerns that deserve appropriate response, the absence of which may very well mean the absence of a solid basis for said action.
Is there really a Bangalee way to celebrate Pahela Baishakh? Frankly, there isn't. We're too different to be alike. The "Bangalee way" in the sense of a single, linear way is a myth at best, and nationalist propaganda at worst. It is difficult to define because there is no single definition. The vast majority of our population belongs to the Bangalee ethno-linguistic group, but it is hardly ethnically homogeneous because of the different subgroups and deep divisions that exist within that group. And even then, religion plays a big part in how a certain cultural practice will be viewed, meaning that even if it is accepted, its level of acceptance will vary depending on one's interpretation of it.
That brings up the question of the identity of the Bangalee Muslim. As Prof Anisuzzaman once said, "When we identify a group of people as Bangalee Muslim, we highlight only one aspect of their self-identity. But if we observe closely, we'll see that they contain multitudes." He drew on historical documents and literary sources to present a compelling picture of the diversity of Bangalee Muslims of different ages in terms of their preference for language, attire, occupation, customs, and religious and political beliefs, which made them different not only from their Hindu counterparts, but also from each other. Determining the identity of the Bangalee Hindu presents a similar challenge. So, when we single out a certain way and try to pass it off as the Bangalee way, to be followed by everyone, it serves as a denial of people's diversity and, in so doing, attains an autocratic quality.
Culture is a fluid concept. The freedom to navigate the complex situation that arises from one's linguistic, national and religious preferences/differences lies at the heart of any pluralistic society, although cultural hegemons trying to impose their vision of a unidimensional identity will make you think otherwise. They will cry hoarse about the illusive "Bangaliyana," dig out age-old customs, and disparage anyone who doesn't gravitate to them. But they conveniently forget that such rigidity is an affront to those non-Bangalee ethnic groups that also respect the traditional calendar and celebrate harvesting of new paddy in their own ways.
The search for the Bangalee way is, therefore, a misguided one. We need to seek unity through diversity. That being said, modern-day celebrations are a far cry from how Pahela Baishakh used to be observed – through simple feasts, opening of haal khata (new ledger), village fairs, etc. And the fact that it has been turned into an urban affair by people far removed from the reality of peasant folks is an irony of the highest order.
The point I am trying to make is, Pahela Baishakh, while an integral part of the local culture and tradition, shouldn't be a cause for rifts simply because of some people's lofty idea of how to celebrate it. This, in part, also answers the questions about Pahela Baishakh from an Islamic perspective. Some Islamic scholars do no support celebrating it because of Mangal Pradip, panta-ilish feasts, Mangal Shobhajatra, and other apparent Hindu influences. They mistakenly equate the spirit of Pahela Baishakh with its modern-day trappings. But Pahela Baishakh is more than that. Pahela Baishakh is an idea – it will not change, although how we celebrate it will. Pahela Baishakh is a celebration of life, a renewed awareness of what we are, what we used to be, and what we can achieve if we start together. Unlike any Eid or Puja, which comes with a religious tag, Pahela Baishakh is a celebration for all. Anyone can celebrate it in their own unique way. Even a simple, unceremonious prayer for the well-being of the country would mean as much as organising big public galas.
What I find interesting is the story behind the first Mangal Shobhajatra organised in Dhaka in 1989. It was meant to be a creative expression of protest by the writers-artists who organised it, as part of their movement against the autocratic regime that used religion to stay in power. So the organisers wanted to do something that would highlight Bangalee culture, which is for the people of all religions. Hence, the idea of using symbols of different traditions. It was a deliberate attempt to underscore the importance of unity through diversity. That first walk was called "Ananda Shobhajatra." I wonder if those who object to the naming of "Mangal" Shobhajatra today would have objected to "Ananda" Shobhajatra too.
This is an abridged version of an article first published in The Daily Star in 2018.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.