Decoding Pahela Baishakh

Photo: bdnews24.com
Related to our “Still Bengali” post, here is Adnan Morshed in BdNews:
Liberalization of social ethos: For better or worse, the shackles of a conservative society seemed to be loosening. The Pahela Baishakh of 2012 appeared radically different from those of the 1980s and 1990s in the sense that the divisive social space between men and women or boys and girls has shrunk. If you go around Dhaka on a regular work day, you will see few women in the public domain. Public places in Dhaka, and Bangladesh in general, are mostly male-centric. But the Dhaka of Pahela Baishakh was a different story, one in which women’s bold claim of public spaces, even if for a day, seemed like a commentary on a waning patriarchy.

Adnan Morshed
Decoding Pahela Baishakh

April 18, 2012

Photo: bdnews24.com

I was in Bangladesh on a whirlwind trip and left the day after Pahela Baishakh. Dhaka was on fire on the first day of the Bangla New Year. I crisscrossed the capital city with an anthropological interest in the people and their frenzied celebration of the day. An exotic medley of red and white was the “official” colour for saree and panjabi. The vuvuzela was the dominant (and deafening) cheerleading accessory. The mass circulation of Shubho Naba Barsha SMS’s defined a new urban camaraderie. There was live music at Dhanmondi, Dhaka University, BUET, Uttara, Gulshan, and other parts of the city, but the whole occasion seemed mostly about seeing (people) and being seen. In short, it was a mesmerizing spectacle. A carnival!

On the long flight back to Washington, I wondered if the feverish festivities of Pahela Baishakh really meant anything beyond the colour, music, and random walking. I was at a loss, but then nervously put the day under a personal microscope.

A commentary on the emergence of an urban middle class: Beneath the bewildering merriments of Pahela Baishakh was the portrait of a fledgling urban people that appeared no longer troubled by the tyranny of a subsistence economy. It seemed like a new, complacent bourgeois society that no longer just grinded along the tortuous path of life’s basics. It also took interest in culture. Irrespective of its mix of varied economic classes, this society celebrated tradition with pomp, while at the same time was eager to reinvent one. But as in all middle-class societies, the superficiality of this high-brow aspiration was spectacular. For example, the curious advent of male dhuti seemed like an anxious narrative of reclaiming a lost Bangali tradition or, as if, a kind of Rabindrik legacy. Relishing panta-bhaat and ilish with a sense of cultural discovery, listening to Papia Sarwar at the amphitheatre of Rabindra Sharobar, and roaming the high grounds of the Bangla Academy were no longer seen as the exclusive domain of the cultural elite and tastemakers. Claiming these spaces of culture seemed to have created for the huddled masses the powerful illusion of a middle-class passage and a comforting dose of status.

Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

A panacea to deal with social angst and an intense urban life: I randomly asked people at Dhanmondi Lake and the TSC area about the excesses of the Naba Barsha gala. The common theme that emerged was that manush anondo chai (people want to have fun) and that the city offered very few opportunities for entertainment. Thus, Pahela Baishakh was the grand occasion to seek joy that would act as an antidote to the travails and monotonies of everyday life. The day offered a temporary escape from the grinding realities of traffic congestion, urban chaos, and social discontent.

Depoliticization of patriotism: In the past, political parties would lend their support to various national occasions and festivals based on their respective ideologies. The political tug of war between the rhetorical constructions of Bangali and Bangladeshi often created a divisive cultural climate in which individual patriotism would tacitly follow partisan dictates. The Awami League was, thus, the official patron of all festivities related to Bangali history and tradition and, of course, the Liberation War. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, on the other hand, has historically exhibited a peculiar discomfort at celebrating Naba Barsha and 21st February. But, now, a new middle class seemed to have risen above this kind of political patronage (or lack thereof) and claimed the spaces of history and tradition on its own terms, however fallacious these terms maybe. These terms straddle conflicting positions: a reverence for secular traditions and religious devotion. Patriotism has entered, as it appears, a post-political phase. My jaw literally dropped to see a staunch BNP-supporter during my BUET days in red panjabi and white dhuti on BUET campus. But is this merely a sartorial patriotism? The new patriotism, while heroic in positing itself in a post-political space, remains confined to the domain of clothing, crude exhibitionism, and a showy musical scene at the expense of any meaningful inquiries into history and tradition. When patriotism is exclusively limited to nationalist colours, sartorial expressions, and an atavistic loyalty to anything local, the concept can only grow into a dangerous political tool of mass control and manipulation.

Corporatization and commercialization of Naba Barsha: I was amazed to see the number of gargantuan corporate billboards offering Naba Barsha felicitations to Dhakaites. In these advertisements, the mobile phone companies tactfully blended the message of their products’ superiority with a patriotic gesture of celebrating Naba Barsha. The fashion powerhouses—for instance, Jarwa House and Artisti—used only two icons on their massive bill boards, strategically placed at street intersections: the mask of a tiger, as if whispering Naba Barsha to your ear, and the company logo. In these clever advertisements, corporations and businesses emerged as patriotic tastemakers.

Photo: bdnews24.com

Photo: bdnews24.com

Liberalization of social ethos: For better or worse, the shackles of a conservative society seemed to be loosening. The Pahela Baishakh of 2012 appeared radically different from those of the 1980s and 1990s in the sense that the divisive social space between men and women or boys and girls has shrunk. If you go around Dhaka on a regular work day, you will see few women in the public domain. Public places in Dhaka, and Bangladesh in general, are mostly male-centric. But the Dhaka of Pahela Baishakh was a different story, one in which women’s bold claim of public spaces, even if for a day, seemed like a commentary on a waning patriarchy.

When I landed at Dulles International Airport two days after the advent of 1419, I was still intrigued by the colour, merriment, and superficiality of Pahela Baishakh. I wondered whether through the incessant acoustic threat of vuvuzela a restless youth expressed its confused aspiration to be noticed by the political elite.

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Adnan Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist.