A thematic celebration that also bridges divides.

Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year's Day, has a special place in Bangladesh. This year, while welcoming the new Bangla year 1419, hundreds of thousands of people thronged Dhaka's sprawling Ramna Udyan amid colourful festivity and gaiety.

The festival on April 14 this year attracted a large number of people, not just in Dhaka but also in other townships, and remote villages.

The celebration can be traced back to its origins during the Mughal period when Emperor Akbar introduced the Bangla calendar to streamline tax collection. On that day Akbar used to go to his subjects and distribute sweets to them.

The tradition was followed by businessmen and traders for collecting bad debt observing Hal Khata — a new book of accounts in shops. But from the mid-1960s the day has had a new meaning — a national secular cultural rejuvenation started taking place centering the festivity as the Pakistani military junta led by Ayub Khan banned Rabindranath Tagore's songs in the state-run radio and television.

People in thousands from a broad spectrum of society assembled in droves at Ramna Park, the prime venue of the festival in Dhaka, soon after sunrise.

The celebration began with the central attraction, the traditional cultural function organised by Chhayanat, the oldest cultural body at Ramna Batamul, which is not only the heart of the celebration but also a symbol of protest against oppression and injustices. Besides Tagore songs the artistes presented songs of national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen, Rajanikanta Sen, Shah Abdul Karim, Lalon Shah, Torab Ali Shah, Gyan Prokash Ghosh and others.

Secular identity

In Bangladesh, the Pahela Baishakh celebration is not a mere festivity nowadays but an exposition of the growing will of the populace to uphold their secular identity. One of the special attractions was the Mangal Shovajatra — a colourful mass procession.

Traditionally organised by the students of the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, the mass procession draws a huge crowd. The institute this year organised it on the theme — the maritime boundary dispute victory with Myanmar and the demand to speed up the trials of war criminals. A 40-ft boat with a peacock figurehead from the fairytale symbolised the “victory of sea”.

The day was a public holiday. Numerous social, political and cultural organisations took up elaborate programmes. Cultural bodies performed dances and songs.

Of late, the festival has got a new introduction — Panta Bhat (rice with water) and fried hilsha with onions and green chillies. A tight security system was put in place to guard the celebration.