CULTURE: Still Bengali

Exactly ten years ago today*, upon arriving at a friend’s place, instead of ‘Shubho Nobo Borsho’ (Bangla new year greeting), I was greeted with a barrage of ‘Have you heard the news?  Call home now.  Hope family’s okay…’

Militant jihadis struck the new year’s dawn cultural events in Ramna, the major park at the heart of Dhaka, killing over half a dozen people.  

Since these events are attended by most of my family in Dhaka, and by those of most of my friends, we were rightly worried.  Frantic phone calls and msn chats (or did we still do icq then — I forget now) ensued.  Fortunately, the families of everyone present were safe.  But this wouldn’t be the last time such phone calls were made.

Over the following years, militants bombed cinema halls, killed progressive politicians, carried out suicide attacks against judges, and tried to enforce shariah rule in rural northern parts of the country.  Things got so bad that when a friend called to tell me about Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize, upon hearing ‘Have you heard about Yunus’, my first reaction was ‘oh no, another assassination’.

Then Bangladesh stepped back from the brink.  The government of Khaleda Zia was finally shaken enough to move against the jihadis in 2006.  They key leaders were caught under her watch, and hanged by the de facto military regime that ruled Bangladesh in 2007.  ‘Zero tolerance’ of militant jihadis is the motto of the current government of Sheikh Hasina.

Truth be told, the jihadis’ brand of violence in the name of Islam probably never had much following in Bangladesh.  When some militants were hanged, their relatives refused to acknowledge the bodies — contrast this with the ‘hero’s funeral’ one sees elsewhere in the Muslim world.

And Pohela Boishakh — the Bangla new year?  Why, the celebrations are bigger and more festive every year — see the video.

The story of Pohela Boishakh celebrations in today’s Bangladesh is a remarkable one.  While there was a rich tradition of Boishakhi mela (fair) and other merryment in rural Bengal, that world was destroyed by the political and economic convulsions of the mid-20th century that wrought famines, partition, war, and mass migration.  The way Pohela Boishakh is celebrated in rapidly urbanising Bangladesh of today is no more than a few decades old.

Today’s mass celebration has its origin in the protest movements against the Ayub regime of the 1960s Pakistan.  That regime wanted to create a ‘Pakistani nation’.  Bangla new year was not conducive to it.  It was ‘too Hindu’, not pure, not halal.  The progressive cultural activists didn’t like the Ayub regime, and along with Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary, they made Pohela Boishakh a cause celebre.  Singing Tagore songs at the first dawn of the new year became a new ritual.   In time, these became the cultural pillars on which Bangladesh’s freedom movement was built.

These days, of course, the day’s festivities involve much more than Tagore.   Today, we see a hybrid culture of Bangla folk songs, Tagore, pop and rock, and Bollywood — and not necessarily in that order.  This is the stuff of tiger masks, red-and-white saris, and shaplas painted on faces.  This bottom up, mass culture is easily chutneyfied (to use Rushdie’s term).  The cultural purists scoff at it for being vulgar.

But the fact is, this the largest public celebration in today’s Bangladesh.  It is one celebration that overlaps various religious communities.  And it is one celebration that is not hostage to the political expediencies of the government-of-the day.

This is remarkable for two reasons.

First, this is a genuinely mass, popular celebration.  Even when I was young boy in the 1980s, only the sociocultural elites would go to Ramna at dawn to listen to these songs.  But the past decades have changed that.  These days, it’s the working class men and women who dominate the streets.

This is remarkable because it signifies that for the first time in generations, if ever, the non-elites have the affluence to celebrate something outside the circle of life (birth/death/marriage) or something non-religious.  No economic statistics can capture the celebration of life visible in Dhaka streets today.

And secondly, this mass celebration is happening without any state direction or the diktat of money.  State sponsored ‘culture’ is not new to Bangladesh (and its previous incarnation, East Pakistan).  In the 1960s, Ayub tried to create a ‘Pakistani’ culture.  In the 1970s and 1980s, homegrown military rulers tried to craft a ‘Bangladeshi’ culture.  The 1970s and 1980s also saw petro dollar inspired Saudi brand of Islam coming to the country.  Meanwhile, Bollywood always loom large over the sky.

But the chutneyfication is not driven by any one of these things.  Sure, there are elements of nationalist glory stories, Islam, Bollywood and more in how people celebrate.  But how these are mixed and spliced is not directed by the Ministry of Culture or marketing agencies for the big end of town.

All nations are imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson says.  Well, a community is being imagined by the people of Bangladesh.  And there is much to celebrate in this imagination.

But there is also something missing.  The imagination of an all-inclusive, syncretic identity is great.  But coming with it is a desire to emphasize separateness from the outside world — and not just from India/Hindus.  Pohela Boishakh is really a Pan-Asian celebration, with roots stretching from the lands beyond the Khyber to Cambodia, from the Himalaya to the Indian Ocean.  In Kolkata, TV stations show shots of Chennai, Dhaka, Bangkok, Colombo in the way CNN covers January 1st.  In Bangkok, newspaper articles talk about how this is a festival celebrated by a billion people
across Asia.

But we don’t see much of that in Bangladesh.  A typical ‘history’ of Pohela Boishakh tells us that this has its origins in the Mughals playing around with
the calendar, never mind that this is a small part of the whole story and the festival pre-dates that.  One can even detect a kind of apologetic tone: it’s okay to celebrate Pohela Boishakh, this isn’t a Hindu festival, honest, Akbar was the one who started it so it’s actually okay …

Rushdie has a wonderful passage about migration and translation and separation in his novel about Pakistan calledShame where he reminds about Bangladesh being twice separated in a quarter century.  The legacy of that history is visible in the way Pohela Boishakh is celebrated.  It is also visible in the way the history is treated.  For the average ‘educated, politically conscious, culturally aware’ Bangladeshi, history begins with the seminal events of 1971 (or 1952).  Debates about history means debates about who-did-what in 1971.  Heroes and villains are those of 1971.  For us, there is no debate the role HS Suhrawardy played in the Great Calcutta Killing.  We don’t know about Bhagat Singh or Binoy-Badal-Dinesh.  We didn’t mark the 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising, or the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey.

Even as India is erecting a fence around Bangladesh to create the world’s largest open air prison, our cultural elites have erected a mental fence to shut off the rest of the world.  It’s as if Tagore had us in mind when he said সাত কোটি সন্তানেরে, হে মুগ্ধ জননী, রেখেছ বাঙালী করে, মানুষ কর নি (Oh bemused mother, you’ve kept your seven crore children Bangalis, not raised them as part of the humanity).

But that’s not the end of the story either.  The story of Bangladesh is still unfolding.  Look at the video above.  Surely it’s better to have a mass participated chutneyfied festival than a state patronised purist event.  One hopes that some day our cultural establishment will feel comfortable about acknowledging our shared histories.  For now, let’s celebrate the new year as it is.

Shubho Nobo Borsho.

(*This was first posted on Pohela Boishakh 1418 at Kafila and Mukti).

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