“Pahela Baishakh is a landmark when we recognise our identity”

Serajul Islam Chowdhury

interviewed by Mubin S Khan

How have Pahela Baishakh celebrations changed in recent years, from what you have seen in your youth?

It was during the British period and I remember going with my father to the village market where shopkeepers, especially the ones my father had direct interaction with, would treat us to sweets and other things. The celebrations were basically centred the markets where the old accounts were closed off, payments and dues settled, and new “halkhata” [account books] opened.

During the Pakistan period, not a lot of prominence was given to celebrating Pahela Baishakh. In the 1960s, Chhayanaut started its musical programme at ?Ramna Batamul?, which inducted the middle class into the celebrations and also acted as a rebellion against the Pakistani rulers for stifling the Bengali culture.

During 1969 and 1970, when the movement was its peak, “mela” [fair] was introduced into the Pahela Baishakh celebrations. Before that, “mela” was held more during religious festivals like the Eid and Muharram.

That is how it has been since.

Since the middle class began taking part in these celebrations, there have developed almost two distinct kinds of celebrations. What do you make of it and where does it stand now?

For the peasantry it is more ingrained in the process of life and does not hold any philosophical meaning. It is basically the start of a business year.

For the middle class though I see it as a place in which we stand. It is a psychological landmark in which we recognise our identity. And in this day of globalisation and in a time where we are more alienated from nature than ever before it is a time where we go back to our roots.

It can, however, hold other meanings as well.

In encountering the modern world we can use Pahela Baishakh as a platform to stand upon as a means to celebrate our language, culture and history.

Pahela Baishakh is not only celebrated in Bangladesh but also in many places in the region, including South India, and can also be something with which we can bond with our regional neighbours.

But do you not think that in this modern day and age, with production methods changing worldwide and losing direct relationship to nature, and the world following the Christian calendar, Baishakh’s main purpose has become redundant?

That is not an individual problem of ours; it is a problem for almost all the different cultures in the world. The difference is to the degree with which we have sold ourselves and I am not only being nostalgic about the past in saying this. For example, in Thailand, a booming westernised economy, they are very particular about their New Year celebrations.

So, why and how can we revive it?

We should revive it because it gives us an individual identity and recognises our relationship to nature. Using our calendar as a platform, which is very strongly related to seasonal changes, we should activate our campaign against first world countries, who are primarily responsible for destroying nature and endangering our existence.

There are, however, more reasons. Most of the landmark dates in our culture are related to mourning and this is a rare one which is related to celebrations. Pahela Baishakh should be used to bring urban city dwellers who virtually live slum-like existences, nowadays, to emerge out of their isolated, hostile, individualistic, profit-seeking attitude and step out to share, bond, cultivate a collective dream, etc. Essentially, I see this as framing a certain kind of attitude.

Even in terms of economics, if we are to have a strong human resource, we need things like patriotism, togetherness and identity to build the right frame of mind. Pahela Baishakh essentially is also a rare celebration in our culture which is secular in nature.

As for ways to revive it, one of the ideas is to shift the date of announcing our annual budget from July 1 to Pahela Baishakh. That way, there will be an institutional recognition of this day and business institutions can once again go back to opening ?halkhata? in the New Year.

But would it not affect our stand in international business?

It?s not as if the whole world does it on July 1. The United States does it sometime in August while India declares its budget sometime in April.

There are essentially two celebrations that are directly related to Bangla culture, i.e. Pahela Baishakh and February 21. While Pahela Baishakh remains a historical and cultural celebration, Ekushey seems to have stolen the thunder when it comes to our language and literature.

That is true. One of the reasons could be that Pahela Baishakh is more related to seasonal changes and socio-economic factors. Ekushey is an event outside the flow of life; it is a rare and extraordinary event that inspires literature. Pahela Baishakh is more tuned to the process of life. It is an everyday affair that has very little distance from our lives.

How does Baishakh fare in Bengali literature?

There is a lot of poetry but not much else. Two of our great poets, Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam essentially treat it as a landmark ? of washing away the past and ringing in the new and not much else. Nazrul does make use of Baishakhi jhar but apart from that you will not find much description. Baishakh’s destructive and creative powers are what have fascinated some writers.

See, in our culture, the season we long for, is not Baishakh but Poush. It is the winter, which is very short, which has the greatest romantic connotation. The little description you find of Baishakh in literature is about its rudeness and severity. This is frankly not the best time of the year to feel poetic.

And how about Baishakh’s relationship to politics?

There hasn?t been much. During the Pakistan period it was used as a form of protest for a while though it would be wrong of me to deny there is slight political dimension with the rise of Islamic militancy. It is the only occasion were people from all religion inside the Bengali culture converge and stand in the way of trying to align religion to Bengali culture. This celebration, in terms of philosophy, is also very earthly in the sense that it has no gods or other worldly connotations to it. We badly need to cultivate this phenomenon in our culture.

Apart from shifting the budget announcement date, can you think of any other way that we can strengthen these celebrations with?

The budget thing is something is I feel strongly about but apart from that we can concentrate on stressing on our “mela” culture. It is very much an old and local tradition; and more than its commercial value it has meant a festival, a form of entertainment over the years which needs to be preserved to safeguard ourselves from the ill-effects of modern life.

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