The pride of Bangladeshi culture has been bolstered after Lalon and Jamdani, in the form of Mangal Shobhajatra, the colourful procession brought out by Dhaka University's Department of Fine Arts (Charukola) during Pohela Baishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year. It used to be the pride of the Department of Fine Arts but now has now become the collective pride of Bangladesh.
Although Dhaka is the centre of the Shobhajatra, it appeals profoundly to the people of the whole country through extensive print and electronic media coverage all around the country. The initiative to inscribe Mangal Shobhajatra on UNESCO's list of humanity's intangible cultural heritage began two years ago when a nomination file on the festival prepared by Bangla Academy and approved by Ministry of Cultural Affairs was submitted to UNESCO.
How it all began: Sources say the country's first-ever Mangal Shobhajatra procession took place in 1986 in Jessore, in which a group of young people wearing masks of animal motifs walked the streets to welcome the Bengali New Year 1393. Three years later, in 1989, Dhaka University's fine arts students brought out a similar procession in Dhaka, and over the years the ritual emerged as the staple of Pahela Baishakh celebrations in Bangladesh.
The Bengali year of 1396 (1989 in Christian calendar) will remain etched in the history books as the inaugural year of holding the Mangal Shobhajatra. It is said that the students of Fine Arts, namely the batch of 1986-87, frustrated with having to live under the military rule, wanted to bring people in the community in the hope for a better future. Members of the university faculty assisted them a month before 14 April to create masks, which was said to drive away evil forces and allow for progress) and floats. Among works made for the festival at least one represented evil, another strength & courage, while a third represented peace.
They were constructed with the revenue from items sold in front of the Fine Arts Institute. "The faculty of fine arts has been organising Mangal Shobhajatra since the Bangla Year 1396. UNESCO's recognition of this secular procession as an intangible cultural heritage is a great achievement for all of us," said Nisar Hossain, dean of Dhaka University's Faculty of Fine Arts. "Mangal Shobhajatra is an instance of cultural and religious convergence in our society. The procession is secular and inclusive in nature as anyone can participate in it," artist Hashem Khan observed.
"There was a precursor to the first Shobhajatra on December 29, 1988 in the form of Zainul Birth Festival," said Alaptagin Tushar, artist and faculty of fine arts at Jagannath University, "we had distinguished faculties such as Nisar Hossain, Mohammad Yunus, Shishir Bhattacharjee and others who studied from Santiniketan, Baroda, Japan and imparted their knowledge and wisdom on us back when we were students."
Regarding the Shobhajatra, he recalled that it was initially to be called Ananda Shobhajatra, but after the advice of language activists Wahidul Haque and Emdad Hossain (Nisar sir's father,) it was finally deemed Mangal Shobhajatra." The initial poster for the procession was designed by painter Tarun Ghosh and was printed with the support of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
"The inaugural procession consisted of one elephant, ten horses, and more than fifty masks," Alaptagin recollected, "including the famous tiger, now synonymous with Pohela Baishakh and Mangal Shobhajatra. At 8am with four dhol beats, commencing from the Fine Arts Institute premises to Shishu Academy and Doel Chattor via TSC and back. It began and we never looked back ever since."
Aspiration turns to reality: The decision was taken at the 11th session of UNESCO's intergovernmental committee on intangible cultural heritage, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Committee in its decision noted that Mangal Shobhajatra, organised by teachers and students of Dhaka University's Faculty of Fine Arts to celebrate the Bengali New Year's Day, symbolises the pride of the people of Bangladesh in their living heritage as well as their strength and courage to fight sinister forces and their vindication of truth and justice. The Committee also recognised that the festival represents solidarity and shared value for democracy, uniting people irrespective of cast, creed, religion, gender or age.
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UNESCO M Shahidul Islam led a four-member delegation to the Committee's meeting in Addis Ababa. The other members were Bangladesh Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union Md Monirul Islam and Dean of Dhaka University's Faculty of Fine Arts Prof Nisar Hossain and First Secretary of Bangladesh Embassy in Paris Farhana Ahmed Chowdhury.
hat more can be done: The Ministry of Cultural Affairs had recently organised a day-long programme to celebrate UNESCO's recognition, by bringing out a rally from Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy to the Fine Arts Faculty of Dhaka University after parading several streets of the city, led by Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor.A discussion followed immediately at the Bakultola of the Fine Arts Faculty, where the Cultural Affairs Minister was present as the chief guest.
"Mangal Shobhajatra has evolved from a simple procession to a celebration of Bengali people and its culture," said the Minister, "elements such as this unite a nation in its battle against adversities, such as militancy and terrorism. As a tool against injustice, this will protect us from malevolent thoughts and practices, but it requires mandatory participation of people from all walks of life."
As far as developing the Shobhajata is concerned, he assured that his ministry will spare no expense to ensure that nothing but the best is on display from now onwards. He also declared that other indigenous elements such as the Nakshi Katha, Rickshaw Paint, and Jatra will also be proposed to be part of the Intangible List. Though skilled research and increased funding are required for that to come to fruition, we can only be optimistic and hope for the best.
"The recognition is significant for fine arts in Bangladesh,' said Sheikh Afzal Hossain, a professor at Dhaka University's Fine Arts Faculty," although skepticism and financial predicaments marred the initial organising of the Shobhajatra, but it gradually picked the pace and will develop further in future.'
"The Shobhajatra is something we, the students of Fine Arts Faculty's 1986-87 batch, hold dear in our heart," said Shahid Alam Mithu, one of the founding organisers of the procession. He recalled drawing the ire of the military junta and their accomplices in the campus premises, as much as one Fine Arts faculty physically being manhandled just days before the inaugural Shobhajatra.
"It spurred us to intensify our preparations," he reminisced, "although the procession was carried out successfully, we received a rather lukewarm response from society. Thankfully that is not the case anymore, now that everyone participates in the Shobhajatra. This is something that cannot be taken away from us."
AAMS Arefin Siddique, Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, echoed similar sentiments, drawing a parallel between the Shobhajatra and the media during the military rule, with efforts being made to repress it. 'It was a symbol of defiance, which was something unheard of previously,' he said.
The writer is Copy Editor & Writer at
United News of Bangladesh
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