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Pohela Boishakh: A festival for all

14 April 2023

Badrul Huda Sohel :
Twentieth century poet TS Eliot, at a stage, in his poem 'The Waste Land' called April as the cruelest month, but the month April, in fact, is essentially a momentous event for the people of Bengal. Today, the 14th April, is Pohela Boishakh, the first day of Bengali New Year. Bengalis have been celebrating the day as 'Pohela Boishakh Festival' since long to retain their own culture and tradition. Pohela Boisakh is a festival celebrated by the people of all religions irrespective of caste, color and creed. The day appears among us as a beacon of light with new hopes, aspirations and stimulations. It is the biggest cultural festival for Bengalis where they try to preserve their conventional norms and values with great enthusiasm. The day is also called as 'Barsabaran Utsab' by many.
The celebration of Bengali New Year started from the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Village fairs and other recreational events were organised centering the day. With the passage of time, this culture became a norm in the national life of our Bengalis. The Liberation of Bangladesh is also related to Bengali New Year as the then West Pakistanis have repeatedly tried to disrupt the celebration of New Year, the largest festival of the Bengalis. Bengalis also raised their voice against it. Therefore, the history of the New Year celebration is also associated with the political movement of Bengalis.
The very beginning day of Bangla calendar is now the universal folk-festival of Bengalis in many countries around the world. This special day is the preserver and bearer of culture of rural and urban people. Once upon a time, only the villagers were seen becoming more active on the occasion of the day, but now people from both the villages and the towns celebrate the first day of the Bengali calendar with keen interest and fervour. Villagers in our country, for example, still wake up early in the morning on this day, clean the house, take a bath, put on new clothes and go to the house of relatives or friends. Boishakhi fairs are organised on that day in overcrowded places, open fields and river banks. The Boishakhi fairs across the country make the New Year more joyful and festive. Children and teenagers enjoy these fairs more. Throughout the year they keep money or coins in earthen pots dubbed as 'Matir Bank' to spend at the Boishakhi fairs. Agro-based products, folk products, handicrafts, pottery products, kites and flutes are available in these fairs. Domestic food items like Chira, Muri (flattened and puffed rice), Khai (parched paddy), Batasa (sugar-cake) and various types of sweets are sold in the fair. Folk songs and baul songs are sung for adults. For the little ones there is the merry-go-round and bioscope exhibition. Puppet dance and circus which were once popular are no longer seen now.
Vendors decorate their stalls with a variety of rural and hand-made essentials. Hilsa and panta (fermented rice) are served as breakfast. People of all strata greet each other by saying 'Shuva Bangla Nabo Borsha (Happy Bengali New Year)'. To celebrate the day, Mangal Shovabhayatra (a colorful rally in search of wellbeing) is brought out at different places, most prominently at Dhaka University. In 2016, UNESCO declared this procession and festival organised by Dhaka University as a 'Priceless Cultural Heritage of Humanity' recognising this wonderful custom of the New Year.
The arrangement for New Year Celebration with welcoming native music under the banyan tree at Ramana Park in the capital heralds the arrival of the new year. Chhaynat artists ask for the new sunshine in the first day of the new year by singing in unison.
In towns and villages, the main festival of Bengali New Year was centered round Halkhata in shops. The Halkhata ceremony was one of the major means by which shopkeepers collected money owed to them from their old customers. They used to open a new account in the name of that customer after clearing the dues of the old account. This was done by entertaining the customers with sweets. But nowadays, the festival of Halkhata is not seen in the village haat-bazaars, let alone in urban areas.
The day 'Pohela Boishakh' is very significant not only in Bangladesh but also for Bengali speaking people living in different parts of the world. Within the Asian continent, Pohela Boishakh is also celebrated in some states of India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Vietnam. However, this day is celebrated locally with different names in those countries. In our neighboring country India the first day of the month of Boishakh is celebrated as New Year under different names in Punjab, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Orissa, but like us in West Bengal and Tripura they celebrate the day as 'Pohela Boishakh'.
We should not forget the bomb attacks on the event of celebrating Pohela Baishakh at Ramna Batomul in 2001 by the militants. Behind the curtain of joy and exhilaration, we should remain alert so that no one can cause any untoward incident again. The law enforcers are expected to remain more vigilant in this regard.
'Pohela Boishakh' is the name of a non-sectarian festival locally, nationally and globally. May the first day of the month Boishakh of 1430 bring new dreams, new hopes and new possibilities in the lives of all Bengalis.

(The writer is on Assistant Professor and Chairman, Department of English, Ishakha International University).

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