These days, everything from Thrissur Pooram in Kerala to the world famous Mardi Gras in New Orleans or even the famed Rio Carnival in Brazil can be ‘experienced’ through the internet or television, “just the way we usually watch the Olympics or FIFA World Cup games. The essential difference being a festival or carnival is a celebration, while sport is a competition, where dueling parties seek to outdo each other to win the people’s imprimatur. Being a spectator at a festival or carnival is really not the same. You have to be there, be part of the celebrations themselves, to truly gain a sense of the occasion.
Our own Pahela Baishakh is the same. Let’s take a look back in the history. Soon to be 1426 years ago, Mughal Emperor Akbar took the historical initiative of introducing a brand new calendar to streamline the collection of taxes from his subjects. Ever since the emergence of the new calendar, Akbar made a tradition of celebrating this day which was followed by businessmen, traders and their debtors- a ritual that is known as ‘Hal-khata’, a bookkeeping exercise still in practise today. The entire celebration of Pahela Baishakh gradually evolved and developed from time to time, but during the autocracy of Pakistani Military General Ayub Khan in the mid of 1960, he put the festivities in a comma, or tried to anyway, in the same way that he tried to undermine our Tagorean heritage. Instead, it birthed a unified secular vanguard and since then, Pahela Baishakh and everything related to it started to become much more meaningful.
Then many years passed, an independent nation emerged again a period arrived where almost everything was prohibited- as there was no implementation of the term we know as Democracy. We are particularly talking about the year of 1989- when the country was a military dictatorship. Autocracy with natural calamities and social miseries compounded our troubles. People around the country had just suffered in a devastating flood; and under the confined socio-cultural atmosphere, people eventually forgot how to celebrate in this land of culture, rivers, seasons and celebrations. There was no unified breathing space for people in this secular land where people from every religion, race, gender, age or caste could celebrate together.
It was then that the students of the University of Dhaka and to be more exact, the students and teachers of the Faculty of Fine Arts which is commonly known as ‘Charukola’- took a serious and bold attempt. They became the frontiers in this battle, just like their predecessors of the DU who previously took initiatives and heavily protested to make Bangla as the official language of Bangladesh and later made their courageous contributions to our Liberation War. Now, this was a movement for the sake of our own heritage and culture, hence the idea was a revolutionary one- they wanted to make a procession with the portrayal of a bunch of meaningful masquerades. They named this as the ‘‘procession for wellbeing’’- which is the literal meaning of the term now known as the festivity which we call the ‘Mangal Shobhajatra’, that kicks off the Bengali New Year celebrations.
Ever since the culture behind celebrating the festivals emerged in world history, all the communities had only one agenda, one goal- they wanted to mark their own celebrations, so to speak, with what marked them out, what was unique in their own cultural heritage that united them as a people. As such, most festivals actually represent the ethnicity and heritage of the people who celebrate it, and there are so many festivals having the exact same motif.
What is the similarity between them all and our own Pahela Baishakh? I personally think the term ‘Unity’ should come above all, regarding this discussion. Starting from the year of 1989, thousands of people in this city wake themselves up early in the morning and get united at the Charukola- in order to march together with the vibrantly meaningful masquerades, in the name of togetherness. This togetherness does not fear any autocracy, and not confined under any threats regarding the differences between religion, race, age, gender or social classes. People join this march to show their dedication to the enriched cultural heritage of this land.
As the procession has grown, it can be easily understood that the preparations for this glorious event are also huge. The actual preparation starts not the morning before or even one week before- the fact is, the overall preparation starts a month earlier! Mostly but not confined only within the Charukola- the preparation goes on until the 14 April morning. When the sun rises on the morning of Pahela Baishakh, people start to come towards this procession wearing colorful dresses with colorful masks, with the themes representing mostly the folk heritage of the nation. The main rally consists of thousands of people every year- and it’s rapidly getting bigger every year.
That being said, a few years ago it was only an initiative exclusively performed by the people of Charukola- but things now have changed. With its growing popularity and participation of the people, a number of Mangal Shobhajatra, which translates to the March of Good Tidings, are now observed almost all over the country- and West Bengal also started arranging this procession from 2017. Several institutions including Universities country are also making their own versions of this procession, and the Mangal Shobhajatra eventually got the recognition from UNESCO as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’, inscribed in 2016 after the Bangla Academy and The Ministry of Cultural Affairs of Bangladesh took the initiative for its recognition.
With its “12 months and 13 festivals”, Bangladesh is truly a land of celebration- although that sits alongside the fact that it’s now becoming a land of accidents, catastrophes and miseries. This small country has seen, endured and suffered a lot ever since its emergence. Each and every year we fight several calamities and hazards, and the miseries keep getting bigger in every sphere. Despite all the problems, Bangladesh remains a nation which never stops celebrating. And that speaks to the spirit that resides in each and every one of its inhabitants.