Pahela Baishakh, the traditional New Year, is a part of our economic history and it is a regional event too. It’s celebrated wherever monsoon comes in our region. It’s celebrated in Punjab, in our Bengal and even in Thailand. It’s commemorated down the length of this belt.
Pahela Baishakh is part of our natural economic historybecause it involves both nature and economic activities. On the advent of the new year, the farmers have to pay their taxes. That was hardly a matter of joy for the peasants. Baishakh also was a month of harsh hot and dry weather, of drought. In no way was it a happy occasion for the peasant farmers.
Yet the middle class made this into a festival. It was beneficial to the businessmen and the land-owing zemindars. The landowners received their taxes then, and the businessmen opened their hal khata, updated their book of accounts. That means they collected all dues from their debtors and started their ledgers afresh.
During the British rule, celebrating Pahela Baishakh took on the hues of a nationalist movement.
The middle class of this region added Pahela Baishakh celebrations to their culture. This signified their stance against colonialism. The colonialists celebrated 31st night, their new year beginning on 1 January. So there’s a bit of national identity, pride and protest in celebrating Pahela Baishakh.
Then during Pakistan times, again Pahela Baishakh became a symbol of Bengali nationalism, as opposed to the religion-based nationalism of Pakistan. It was a part of the shift towards secularism.
The Pahela Baishakh festival is a secular one. Other festivals in the lives of Bengalis are related to religion. Hindus celebrate certain occasions and Muslims celebration their festivals. But this is an occasion where all Bengalis converge on a secular position. This is an emergence from colonialism and neo-colonialism. This is entwined with patriotism, nationalism and our cultural identity.
Along with the issue of identity, there is also defiance. We defied the general thrust of capitalism. We shifted from New Years to Pahela Baishakh. Our economic year starts in July, but the calendar year starts in January, The academic calendar begins in January.
New Year celebrations on 31st night have entered the scene too, but in a different manner. It is a significant confluence with capitalism.
Even commemorating the language movement on 21 February has changed. Before it would begin with an early morning procession to lay wreaths at the Shaheed Minar. But in 1970, Awami League leaders took Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the stroke of midnight of 21 February to lay wreaths at Shaheed Minar. It was a sort of attempt to elevate Sheikh Mujib, to ensure he was not just a part of the early morning crown.
That was the political aspect. But it has a cultural significance. We seem to have surrendered to the capitalist world which we had defied, which the language movement had defied.
Our programmes invariably start very early in the morning, with the singing of the birds and music all around. Pahela Baishakh and 21 February began at sunrise. But capitalism has overridden all. Just as 31stnight is observed, so is Pahela Baishakh.
Then there is Valentine’s Day before 21 February.Valentine’s Day is purely a capitalist phenomenon, imbibed with commercialism. The first day of spring, Pahela Falgun, is celebrated. That is in February too, but in quite a different spirit. Spring is a festival joined in by the businesses, the fashion industry, the cosmetic industry, the fairs and the sales. But 21 February defied all that, it is anti-capitalist, it is nationalist. That is how things stand.
Serajul Islam Chowdhury is a renowned academic, author, critic and emeritus professor of Dhaka University, Bangladesh