Tradition and protest

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 14, 2014
Tradition and protest

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Celebration and protest go hand in hand in our lands. As a resilient race, our people have always sung songs when in pain, painted when violated, danced when disappointed and risen from ashes in colors when burnt. ‘Pohela Boishakh’ is no exception to this rule.
This land suffered in the hands of the Pakistanis when it came to language, heritage and culture. With time, almost in defense, we yearned for our roots and embraced Pohela Boishakh, Language, Tagore, Jibanananda, and Nazrul. Instead of being suppressed, we found our natural voice in freedom. The Institute of Fine Arts and its ‘Mongol Shobhajatra’, which started way back in 1989, as an expression of protest against the Military dictator Ershad proves the point. Chayanot arranging celebrations in Ramna, starting from 1967 also was a testament of protest against the Pakistani oppressors. Pohela Boishakh had simply become a revolt in art form, a craft in aesthetics, and a journey towards identity.
Yet, for years, there have been accusations of Pohela Boishakh being ultra-secular, of being risqué, and of being unsafe. Many have also equated Pohela Boishakh with idol worship and Hinduism. Many have also tried to foil the Botomul celebration with violence. And yet, in spite of it all explosions Bangali Nari has not been deterred from wearing her whites and reds; none has been able to keep her away from her sense of identity and joy. Even a series of bomb explosions in Ramna has not been able to frighten the free spirits…proving a single point: Bengali does not walk in fear.
Now, when did the celebration of Pohela Boishakh begin? It was either the king of Gour, Shashanka (590-625 AD) or Akbar who started it as his astrologer Aamir Fatehullah Siraji, developed this calendar based on his knowledge of the lunar Hijri and solar calendars. This calendar was developed for the convenience of tax collection, and was primarily known as “Fasli San”.  Later on this evolved to Bangla New Year or Bongabdo.  The royal order was to clear all dues on the last day of Choitro. And since the next day was the first day of the Bengali New Year it was the day of a new beginning and a new opening of accounts for businesses. Landlords distributing sweets among their tenants, and vendors marking  “Halkhata”, a new financial records book have been practices that have traveled to recent times and have assumed a newer look that in no way defies the spirit of the tradition. With the New Year, the tradition of married women visiting their family with their husband and kids became popular.  Sweets like Pitha and Payesh became a trend; circus became an all time favorite; fairs became a practice; women began wearing new clothes during the festivity and farmers started to send gifts to their relatives during Pohela Boishakh.
There are reports of New Year being celebrated way back in 1917 when the colonized were all praying for the victory of the British in the 1st world war through singing Kirtan and worship. After this there are further evidences of Boishakh being celebrated in 1938 and in 1951.  Late 40’s marked a separate ‘phase of re awakening’, as coined by the journalist Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury. This phase in 1951 was marked by the formation of “Lekhok-Shilpi Majlish” consisting of journalists, academics and erudite, a group which celebrated Pohela Boishakh after a long time.  It would not be far fetched to say that 21st February 1952 was a culmination of the Boishakhi vigor in 1951.
Boishakh is not just a Bengali phenomenon. South Asia, as a region comes together and subscribes to Boishakh. Boishakh, in Nepal is also the first month in the Bikram Samwat Nepali calendar. It marks the beginning of the official New Year in Nepal though nine new years are celebrated in the country. In Boishakh, Sri Lanka too upholds its Buddha Purnima, which falls on the full moon night in the month of Vaisakha commemorating the birth anniversary of Buddha. This is also known as the Wesak festival. Even Pakistan has Basant festival where people fly kites and strangely this festival is no different in spirit from our Pohela Boishakh. Draped in colorful clothes, people go on visiting stalls of local delicacies, bangles, henna, craft, etc. South Asia, in Boishakh is truly a story of colorful lights and lanterns spreading hope all over our tiny little villages, roads, streets, and temples.
Truth be told, it is just not the festivities that mark Boishakh. Boishakh is a reminder to our past where it began with the farmers being under pressure. Later on with the evolution of more ownership and ease, this day gradually became a festivity to turn a new leaf. Whether it is the women in the villages buying new saris or whether it is the fashion houses in the elite locality catering to women draping their bodies in the latest of trends; whether it is the posh jewelers selling more gold or whether it is the poor old vendor somewhere unknown trying to make another dime, Pohela Boishakh does stand for a fresh breeze. With the usual Kalboishakhi hitting us right on the first day of Boishakh, one hopes to be free off the dirt that has settled in. With the power of Kalboishakhi, deep down inside, one knows that whether it is only the street vendors attempting to sell a few kacher churi’s at their stalls or whether it is a big banner of an event that promises commerce, modernity and excitement, Boishakh still plays an obstinate tune of resilience in our heads; Boishakh cleans, inspires and delivers the new.
Shubho Noboborsho.

The writer is Managing Director of Mohammadi Group.

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