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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From village meadows to city streets

By Karim Waheed

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Contrary to what many assume, the tradition of 'Pahela Baishakh' (first day of the Bengali new year) celebration in urban areas, in particular Dhaka, wasn't a sudden implant in the 1960s," says renowned cultural personality and artist Mustafa Monwar.

"The magnitude of the celebration may have changed, new trends have developed over the decades but 'Pahela Baishakh' has been and will remain one of the most authentic secular Bengali festivals," he adds.

"I remember Baishakhi celebrations in Hooghly (West Bengal) in 1945. Along with other kids, I'd get 'mishti' (sweets). Traders would open 'hal khata' (ledgers). People from remote villages would come to the nearest small towns where 'Baishakhi Mela' (fairs) were held. It encouraged local craftsmen and vendors. People tried to get new clothes for the occasion, but nothing garish though. The impact of 'Swadeshi' (anti-Raj movement) was still profound in everyday life. Mostly 'Khadi' clothes were worn," Monwar reminisces. 

"I suppose that'd be the major difference in how 'Pahela Baishakh' used to be celebrated in olden days with the way it's commemorated now -- grandeur or the tendency to show off," the veteran artist continues. "In rural Bengal, the first day of the year was marked with celebrating the harvest. It was a way of conveying gratitude for nature's bounties. The celebration was modest, mostly confined to the peripheries of the homes; in the meadows 'mela' would be on. Nothing like the pomp and public display of merriment that we see today on city streets.

"The fads in the cities include having 'panta-bhat' (a once-a-year phenomenon for most), colour coordinated (often designer) outfits etc -- 'traditions' that have more to do with showing off.

"I don't see anything wrong with this urban trend of showing off though. The razzle-dazzle is appropriate in the cities to bring everyone together, as the social and personal distances among us continue to grow."

Monwar was one of the initiators of 'Baishakhi Shobhajatra' in Dhaka. "The 'Baishakhi Celebration' we see in Dhaka has evolved over the last few decades. In the '60s (during the Pakistan era), we felt the need to celebrate our Bengali identity. Chhayanat's 'Baishakhi' musical programme at Ramna should be considered a catalyst for that movement. Everything evolved around that. Carnivals or cavalcades are very popular throughout the world. The 'shobhajatra' on 'Pahela Baishakh' certainly added to the festivity. What I also find endearing is the growing popularity of 'Lakkhi-shora,' 'tyapa-putul' and other local art objects. 

"On the whole, I'm content with the current urban version of 'Pahela Baishakh,' as it has retained its secular Bengali essence. What's disconcerting though is a waning in the tradition in our rural areas. Perhaps it's financial strains or misguided religious inhibitions. But it's necessary that we look into this issue right away," Monwar says.


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