What is the date in the Bengali month today? When The Independent asked the question, many respondents couldn’t come up with the accurate answer. Some answered evasively by saying, “It could be some Bengali date”, while some mixed it up with the Gregorian date. While Pahela Baishakh reinvigorates the Bengali spirit within, most people go to back embracing the western culture and calendar as soon as the event ends.
Social thinkers and experts explain this anomaly in different ways. While many of them talk of changing the culture against changing times, others argue that we are losing our original cultural influence in the face of growing western culture. The Bengali traditions of eating "Panta Bhaat" (soaked rice) with Hilsa fish and chilly, staging of musical soirees and "jatras", women decked in red-border white saris and colourful bangles and the men wearing white Panjabi and pyjama are now observed only during the first day of the new Bengali calendar.
“From top to bottom, we are engulfed by the European influence. But come Pahela Baishakh and we get nostalgic of our own culture all of a sudden. On this day, everyone tries to bring out the Bengali inside, even the people from the upper echelons of society. It would not matter if we don"t eat
Panta-Ilish, but just to be on the swim, we go for eating it on this day,” Professor Dr Nehal Karim of Dhaka University"s sociology department told The Independent.
The professor explained that some cultural traditions were indigenous to the soil and as such transcended religious affinities.
“Drawing of alpana on the floors is an influence of non-Muslim culture. But we also draw them during marriage ceremonies like Hindus. The only difference between them and us is that they go to the temple and we go to the mosque. Our common culture is ingrained in our daily conversations and behaviour. And if one looks at Pahela Baishakh, then it can be seen as the biggest festival of Bengalis,” said Karim.
Dr Naadir Junaid, professor of mass communication and journalism at DU, said the “real culture” of Bengal is basically its folk culture. “Baul, jari-sari gan, simple white cloth, rice and fish, etc. are part and parcel of that culture. Besides, religious affiliations are forgotten when it comes to celebrating common cultural events among the people in the region,” he added.
But now the mode of life and culture in the region are witnessing sea changes with several corrupting influences creeping in. For instance, the Jatrapala, which was one of the modes of entertainment for the rural population, is now full of obscenity.
According to Karim, there are around 300 million Bengali people in the world. “There is a similarity in everything from our language and culture, except for religious customs. For example, we only have religious affiliation to the Pakistanis, but for everything else, we are different. In Bangladesh, the people may follow different religions but the Bengali culture is similar for all,” he said.
He further mentioned: “Now, we wear suits and ties all the year round, but on this particular day we turn back to our real culture and wear our traditional dress like Panjabi. Now wearing traditional clothes on special occasions is just a practice, but the scenario was different even 40 years ago.”
The professor informed that the historical significance of the Bengali New Year in Bangladesh dates back to the year 1965 when the day was observed by Chhayanat.
The first day of the Bengali year therefore coincides with the mid-April New Year in Assam, Burma, Cambodia, Kerala, Manipur, Nepal, Odisha, Punjab, Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Thailand.
On his part, Junaid said the growing ignorance of Bengalis towards their traditional calendar is also reflected in a general apathy to culture.
“Human nature has changed because of the spread of TV and films in both cities and villages. People are now so taken up with the glamorous lifestyles promoted by these media that our cultural tastes are being eroded. Our culture is now controlled by the promotion of advertising,” he said.
“For example, the consumption of fast food is not good for health, but it is promoted as a social standard by the media. Also on special days like Pahela Baishakh, the price of and demand for traditional clothes are high. On any other day, the price of Hilsa is Tk 700-800, but on Pahela Baishakh it crosses thousands,” he added.
“A section of people have made a business of this Bengali culture and that has destroyed the main theme of Pahela Baishakh, which is to express good wishes and luck to near and dear ones on the first day of the Bengali new year,” he said.
The tradition of celebrating Pahela Baishakh started during the reign of Akbar. It was customary to clear up all dues on the last day of Chaitro .On the next day, or the first day of the New Year, landlords would treat their tenants with sweets.
On this occasion, there used to be fairs and other festivities. In due course the occasion became part of domestic and social life, and turned into a day of merriment. The main event of the day was to open a halkhata or new book of accounts.