The country's cultural circles have started basking in the lately earned status for the Bangla New Year, traditionally called Pahela Baishakh, procession.
From now on, the colourful procession, formally known as Mongol Shobhajatra, will be known globally as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The recognition comes from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). This, undoubtedly, is a prestigious honour for a Bangladeshi traditional event. The Mongol Shobhajatra, organised annually by the students and teachers of Faculty of Fine Art (FFA) at Dhaka University, parades the main streets on the university campus and surrounding areas, on the Bangla New Year's Day.
The Bangla New Year's celebratory procession has had to pass through many preparatory phases before it became integral to the day's festivities. The day falls on the 1st of Baishakh, the first month of the Bangla calendar, and April 14 according to the Gregorian calendar. The spectacular procession was first brought out humbly in 1989, 1396 BS as per Bangla calendar, from the Faculty of Fine Art in the Dhaka University campus area.
The idea of the annual procession came from 27 students studying at the then Institute of Fine Arts in the 1986-87session, as well as former students, along with some teachers. The organisers have had to pass through series of hurdles in the initial days of the carnival. The challenges mostly comprised the dearth of creative and energetic youths around, paucity of enough funds to create procession floats and ensuring sizeable numbers of participants in the fiesta. Amazingly, all these worries appeared to be unfounded in a couple of years. As years wore on, the number of people spontaneously participating in it kept swelling. So did the variety of hand-made large and small replicas of traditional objects from rural Bengali life and cultural motifs.
Earlier constituting just a few paper-made animals like tigers, elephants, birds and boats, the procession's breadth later embraced lots of other folk representations and symbols. In nearly three decades, the Bangla New Year's procession emerged as the largest folk event in the country. The length of its routes of parade also increased. Many have raised questions about the purity of the procession's folk character. Due to its being based in the country's highly urbanised capital, a section of people dithered on giving the event much folk value. But upon being viewed in a nationally common folk perspective, the urban-rural divide began disappearing. Thus the initially Dhaka-based Pahela Baishakh celebrations have kept assuming a wider character nationwide. Due to its unique nature and origin, the Mongol Shobhajatra eventually emerged as one of the largest celebratory processions in the region.
The Pahela Baishakh procession saw its birth in the country's district town of Jessore in 1985. It first occurred to the founders of a fine arts school established in the town. Called Charupith, its founding artists wanted to attract notice of the people by doing something spectacular. After pondering some options, they unanimously agreed on bringing out a cultural procession on the 21st February that year. The march proved a grand success, with spontaneous approval coming from the general people. The next year the date of the event was shifted to the Bangla New Year. Prior to the beginning of the formal Pahela Baishakh procession in Dhaka, some young artists from the then Fine Arts Institute organised a marching rally on the concluding day of the annual Zainul Festival in 1988.
Few could imagine that the seeds of the future Mongol Shobhajatra had been sowed in that small procession. The participation in it was not remarkable, but the jubilant festival exuded unalloyed warmth and vibrancy. The next year, the students and teachers behind organising the special procession added to it the colours and motifs associated with the centuries-old Bengalee culture. As years went by, participation in the 'shobhajatra' only increased to finally make the procession emerge as a virtual carnival. Unlike the processions of Samba and some others in the Latin American countries, the Mongol Shobhajatra is filled with pure gaiety and collective jubilation. It has no scope for wild revelry and sensual tantalisation. Nor does it have its origins in deep-seated dissent or anger, and protests against social oppression as has been seen with the Samba festival, especially that of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. The birth of the chiefly Brazilian festival and carnival dates back to the days when the African blacks brought into that country felt persecuted and composed lyrics and dances in revolt to oppressions by the white majority.
However, despite its being linked to pure mirth, the Mongol Shobhajatra, too, has carried a subtle message since its origin. In the late eighties in the last century, the anti-autocracy movement was at its zenith. The Pahela Baishakh procession added to the movement's spirit of protest. Against the backdrop of newer realities, today it represents everything that upholds the secular spirit at play traditionally in Bangladesh society. While declaring the watershed recognition for the Bangla New Year procession, the UNESCO said, "The Mongol Shobhajatra festival symbolises the pride the people of Bangladesh have in their heritage, as well as their strength and courage to fight against sinister forces, and their vindication of truth and justice." The UN specialised organisation recognised the procession's proactive role in instilling the love for peace among the country's people. It has noted the procession's power to unite people irrespective of caste, creed and religion, gender or age.
The Mongol Shobhajatra has not been completely free of detractors and their campaigns. Deadly physical attacks may not have been directed against it; but the Bangla New Year procession has drawn ire of the obscurant quarters in society. A section of the print media, though tiny in size, has long tried to taint its image by spreading concocted myths about it. But to the chagrin of these negative forces, the Mongol Shobhajatra continued to carve out a wider place in the nation's cultural landscape and the people's psyche.
New Year's processions have been part of many cultures and civilisations since ancient times. One can cite the instance of the pageantry-filled procession brought out by the Chinese on the first day of their traditional calendar. Compared to it, the Mongol Shobhajatra of Bangladesh on Pahela Baishakh is a festive occasion veritably in the making. All cultural manifestations in the world once had to pass through this budding period. In spite of their finished and formal look in the later times, they too experienced their formative and disorganised phases in the distant past. Individuals or groups, or particular circumstances, play a dominant role in this evolutionary process. On being recognised by UNESCO, the Mongol Shobhajatra can assuredly look forward to its being considered as an event having inspirations for people promoting harmony. Pageantry and jubilation is not all that finally defines this unique Bangladesh festivity. It does carry a strong global message.