Pahela Baishakh

by Tajnim Imami

photos by Abdullah Apu

As mango blossoms slowly bloom to make their fragrant journey from emerald to heavenly drops of gold, the season changes from spring to summer bringing along the glad tidings of the Bengali New Year. The sun glares in the sky of this temperamental season until challenged by the ashen army of eastern clouds heralding the maelstrom of Kalbaishakhi.

The tempest is hailed in the musings of poets and storytellers as the metonymy for the strength and hope that Baishakh brings to do away with the wrongs and grievances of the yesteryear. And, just as nature armours itself with its own form of ferocity, so do people as they welcome the new year with music, dance, food, and felicity with the festivities of Ramna Botomul and the Mangal Shobhajatra.
The celebration of the first day of the Bengali New Year has evolved into a great big non- communal celebration that transcends faith and class to champion humanism above all. In fact, both Mangal Shobhajatra and the iconic cultural program of Chhayanaut at Ramna Botomul grew out of secular belief and a strong sense of identity that defied the political status quo of their respective time of establishment. The history and spirit of these two elements of the celebration lend strength to the overall sense of unity and definition of what it is to be a Bengali and Bangladeshi that is revived every year.
Founded in 1961 with the aim to nurture and advance Bengali cultural heritage, Chhayanaut has been a force to be reckoned with throughout its history. Borne out of the protest against the cultural and political oppression of Bengalis by the erstwhile Pakistani government, a group of artists and activists sought to celebrate the centennial of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday during the military dictatorship of Field Martial Ayub Khan. In its futile attempt to dismantle the pluralistic Bengali culture and force a religious facade over its cultural practices, the Pakistani government banned the practice of Tagore’s works.
As a protest, the group of artists and activists successfully celebrated Tagore’s birth centenary resisting any military intimidation. After the event, they considered giving the movement a more concrete form and thus Chhayanaut was born. This illustrious group of people included figures like Sufia Kamal, Mokhlesur Rahman Sidhu, Shamsunnahar Rahman, Ahmedur Rahman, Mizanur Rahman, Saifuddin Ahmed, Saidul Hasan, Farida Hasan and last but not the least, the founders of the institution, Sanjida Khatun and Waheedul Haque.
The peaceful yet defiant spirit of Chhayanaut has persisted since the beginning of its celebration of Pahela Baishakh at Ramna Botomul in 1967. Commencing at dawn, the lush, green arena of Ramna Park becomes the destination for music lovers and spectators alike. The melody of the classical Bengali music praising the new and calling for the purification of the wicked permeate the air and energy of the performers and visitors as the first day of the Bengali New Year begins. Even when the ugly claws of religious fanaticism made its lethal attack on Ramna Botomul in 2001 claiming precious lives and hurting many more, the fearless and indomitable spirit of Chhayanaut recovered and resumed with more vitality.
Mangal Shobhajatra is a proud and vibrant gathering of art and emotions imbued with a sense of tenacity and hope to overcome all that is evil and stagnant. Although initiated in 1989 at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Dhaka University, the first Mangal Shobhajatra can be traced back to 1985 in Jessore. That year, a small art school in Jessore named Charupeeth organized a procession for 21 February. The success of the event inspired the organizers, Mahabub Jamal Shamim, Moklesur Rahman and Heronmoy Chanda, to hold a non- communal event for the new year that brings people from all walks of life together. In 1989, Mahbub Jamal Shamim proposed the idea to arrange a similar shobhajatra at Charukala. With the help of many teachers and students began the preparation for the procession with masks, and floats amidst the dictatorial regime of Lt. General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. True to its spirit, the first shobhajatra of 1989 boldly addressed the divisive tactics of his government regarding religion along with his other transgressions and built a demon or rakkhosh to depict the aggressive, all-consuming nature of his tyrannical power.

Every year, the theme of the procession is carefully thought out with three elements in mind. These are: oppression and evil, courage and strength, and peace and solidarity. The Faculty of Fine Arts buzzes with the hustle and bustle of final year Master’s students leading and guiding other students in the month long preparation process. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016, the shobhajatra is funded with the proceeds from the sale of the teachers’ and students’ artwork which only adds to the dimension of freedom the artists can take. The floats and masks are inspired by the characters present in traditional Bengali folklore such as king and queen, lion, tiger, owl, snake, demon, tepaputul etc. Through the years, the procession has retained its fierce, rebellious energy that still portrays its artwork in critical symbolism of the social and political calamities of the country.
The celebrations at Ramna Botomul at dawn followed by the procession of Mangal Shobhajatra demand a certain level of awareness from its participants with its spirit of freedom and non- sectarian inclusion. Both of these events originated during periods when the yearning to protect people’s democratic rights against autocratic governments reached their climax with a firm disapproval of using religion as a manipulative force in the political arena. Only ever armed with melodies and colour, these celebrations exist as a reminder that the practice of art and culture is a weapon against ignominy and extremism.

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