Published:  01:11 AM, 14 April 2018

The secular spirit of Pahela Baishakh

The secular spirit of Pahela Baishakh

Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year's Day is characterized by its vibrant cultural content and secular social integration agenda of the entire race in view of which, significantly,   the  UNESCO has included  its Mongal Shovajatra in the list of  'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' on 30th November 2016.

It is indeed an occasion for updating our cultural identity with tremendous passion for the past together with welcoming aspiration for the future with fresh look at the present in hand. New Year's Day is celebrated everywhere in the globe, but here it is distinctly different with comprehensive expression of cultural exuberance in various aspects. From every angle of vision it has become a unique and significant celebration.

The traditional celebration of Bengali New Year's Day got different dimension in 1967 when Chhayanaut contemplated to use the occasion for expression of cultural rebellion against tyrannical suppression of Bengali culture and its embodiment Rabindranath Tagore by Pakistan.

The Ramna Batamul celebration under the banyan tree  with Tagore's 'Eso he Baishakh, eso eso- Aloker ei jharnadharay' and other inspiring and enlightening songs was a grand idea for integration of the race beyond class, creed or religion on exclusively secular cultural lines and the spirit was always aflame during long liberation war of nine months in 1971. The history of Ramna Batamul celebration under the banyan tree repeats every year since then with contemporary themes to remind us of our single cultural identity.

This year the theme is to kindle the spirit of Bengali identity and commitment to uphold our cultural values and heritage as driving force to do away with negativities. Darkness is not the last word, as it is followed by sunrise and slumber is temporary, as it is followed by fresh awakening. Hence eternal hope is the dominant refrain.

In Dhaka the focal point of Pahela Baishakh celebration is  Mongal Shovajatra or peace procession in the morning  for well-being of all, which started in 1989 under the arrangement of the Fine Arts Deptt of Dhaka University. It is a colourful procession with different types of masks and colourful pieces of art- display presenting lifestyle of rural and modern Bengal. People of all ages take part in the art and craft procession.

It presents a theme with three representative characters- oppression and evil, peoples outrage and courage against the evil and finally peace and solidarity attained with public integration and effort. Mongal Shovajatra is being organized now almost everywhere in Bangladesh and abroad.

Bengali calendar named Bangabda dates as far back as 594 AD from the time of powerful Bengali king Shashanka. Bangabda was in use for all purpose in Bengal and we find reference of the same in earliest pieces of our literature. The unique feature of Bangabda is that it is based on an amalgamation of solar and lunar year.  However, Mughal emperor Akbar brought it into play  as Fasli San to streamline  agricultural tax collection schedule  in view of its  fixed time frame with harvest season against volatile lunar calendar in 1584. But he officially took it from 1556 in commemoration of the second battle of Panipath where he defeated his rival Himu and secured his throne.

The last day of the previous year Chaitra Sankranti used to be  the end of tax collection and hence Pahela Baishakh was the day of common celebration by all the landlords and tenants with pompous festivity for opening new accounts ledger called halkhata. Thus Pahela Baishakh or Bengali New Year's Day became a day of public and private celebration since the time of Akbar.

To bring various functions uniformly on same dates of Gregorian calendar Bangla Academy took initiative to modify original Bangabda in 1963 with Muhammad Shahidullah as the head of a committee to synchronize it with Gregorian calendar.   It recommended to make first five months with 31 days and the next seven months with 30 days while the month of Phalgun to become of 31 days on every leap year.

From 1988 the said system has been adopted in Bangladesh while West Bengal retained original solar- lunar astrological arrangement as per recommendation of celebrated scientist Dr Meghnad Saha. So the dates for celebration slightly vary between Bangladesh and West Bengal and this year Pahela Baishakh  in West Bengal is on 15 April.

Traditionally,  the ceremony is organized all over the region with regional variations with a common theme- bidding farewell to the past year and welcoming the new year with external decoration, delicacies and internal resolution taken individually or collectively for a better and brighter new year with various socio-cultural rituals and programmes.  In West Bengal it is celebrated more or less in the same manner with regional variations like taking blessings of the Almighty and lavish exchange of sweets.  In various other countries also it is celebrated by the Bengalis particularly in UK, USA, Australia etc.

Pahela Baishakh reminds us of the fact that life is a journey an not a final destination and it flows on like a river facing congenial or hostile surroundings. The forward course of the river is determined by its existing condition. On Pahela Baishakh we take into account the stock of past year's aspirations, achievements, shortfalls and reasons behind success and failure and above all thereby chalk out programme for what more is to achieve facing what more challenges in the coming year and take suitable resolution for pursuing the same. This is a part of the game called life and on this occasion we take the opportunity to specifically do the same with joyful hope for future.

We become collective, united and stronger on such occasion to revisit our strength, courage and collective determination to face the evils threatening peace and well-being. During hectic daily schedule we remain mostly oblivious and are carried away by the stream of  immediate objectives. Thus Pahela Baishakh heralds a new beginning with fresh agenda.

Rabindranath Tagore said that in everyday life we feel ourselves small, weak and alone. During such festivities we feel enhanced, stronger and united in unison with others in community. Festival changes our outlook towards life and makes us broadminded, well mannered and well wishers for all. We take blessings of elders and exchange good wishes with all. Apart from cultural functions various newspapers and magazines bring out special supplements, various movies, music albums, books etc are released and special programmes are organized in television and radio.

 External aspects of the celebration covers decoration of homes or streets with leaves, flowers and candles, wearing new dress like white saree with red border for women and kurta pyjama for men, eating special dishes like panta ilish and sweets. The Baishakhi fairs organize jatra, kobigan, folk songs, jarogan, gambhira and narrative plays like Laila-Majnu, Radha- Krishna etc. Many old festivals have disappeared in course of time and many new have come with Western touch keeping the indigenous feel intact.

The great gusto associated with the flamboyant non-political and non-religious celebration of Pahela Baishakh on national line by all Bengalis has an undercurrent of cultural tone expressed in decoration, delicacies, dress and above all in the cultural programmes.

It imparts the message of non-communal unity with a sense of togetherness and resonates the hope for prosperity, happiness and peace with an elevated art of living in cultural way in the year ahead. There is a need to ponder over the inner aspects of the celebration beyond rituals and festive celebrations. On this auspicious occasion let us hope for world peace and universal prosperity with heartfelt greeting- Shubho Nababarsha.

The writer is a columnist

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