Pahela Baishakh, the celebration of the Bangla New Year, has been witness to several historical events across times.
The Bangla calendar had originally been introduced by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Before him, land taxes were collected according to the Islamic Hijri calendar. The Hijri lunar calendar did not quite match to the harvest cycles of the agricultural year and the solar calendar of India. Hence, paying taxes according to the lunar calendar became hard.
The businessmen and farmers informed Akbar of this and he asked astronomer Fatehullah Shiraji to formulate a new calendar. Shiraji did accordingly and the new calendar was introduced on 10 or 11 March 1584, but it was dated from Akbar's accession time to the throne, 5 November 1556 or Hijri 963.
The first day of the Bengali year coincides with the mid-April New Year in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Assam, Manipur, Burma, Cambodia, Kerala, Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Mithila.
In the middle ages, landlords and businessmen would treat their tenants and clients to sweets on Pahela Baishakh. The tradesmen closed their haalkhata (ledger) on the last day of Chaitra and opened a new one on Pahela Baishakh. It was mandatory to pay all the dues on the last day of the year.
The occasion had been celebrated at Jorasanko Thakurbari (residence of the famous Tagore family in Kolkata) in 1864. The Tagore family women introduced wearing red bordered white saris with specially made blouses on the occasion, which came to fashion and is still followed by the Bangali women across the world. Men mainly wear panjabi with pyjamas.
There are records of Pahela Baishakh being celebrated in 1917, during the First World War as the colonised Indians prayed for their colonisers’ victory, singing kirtan and worshipping. The day, as records show, had also been observed in 1938, during the Second World War.
In 1951, in the newly formed Pakistan, the Lekhok-Shilpi Majlish (Society of writers and artistes) consisting of journalists, academics and scholars, celebrated Pahela Baishakh. This was significant ahead of the 1952 language movement in the East Pakistan.
In the 60s, Pahela Baishakh became a symbol of protest for establishing a distinct identity for the people of East Pakistan. The Pakistani government banned playing Tagore songs at Radio Pakistan. The cultural organisation, Chhayanaut, held the programme in 1967 at Ramna Batamul (originally Ashathwa tree) singing Tagore songs. This became a symbol of protest for the Bangalis of the time. Since then, the Chhayanut programme of Pahela Baishakh opens with Tagore songs.
After independence, in 1977, the literary periodical Samakal group organised a Baishkahi Mela (fair) on the Bangla Academy compounds. Artist Quamrul Hassan and academic Shamsuzzaman Khan contributed to this. Following this event, many more fairs later were held across the capital on the occasion.
The panta-ilish (rice soaked in water and fried hilsa) meal on Pahela Baishakh, as Bangla Academy DG Shamsuzzaman Khan observed, began during the Ershad regime in the mid-80s. This is now in wide practice across the country on the day. The middle class, urbanised, educated people brought it into practice for New Year celebrations, as ‘typical’ Bangali meal.
Around 1985, Charupith, an art research institute in Jashore, established by artist SM Sultan, arranged a Baishakhi Shobhajatra (Baishakh parade) with the help of local artists and students. They made colourful masks and paper maché animals with traditional designs.
Few years later, in 1989, the Charukala Institute (Fine Arts Institute) of Dhaka University held the Mangal Shobhajatra (auspicious procession) on the campus to inspire people to resist the then autocracy. The procession has since been held every year. Colourful masks and paper maché models of fish, birds, and animals are the centre of attraction in the mass procession.
Pahela Baishakh celebration came under a militant attack in 2001. Ten people were killed and 35 injured when bombs exploded at the Chhayanaut Pahela Baishakh celebrations at the Ramna Batamul. Yet this could not suppress the indomitable spirit of the nation. The next year people gathered at the spot once again, in huge numbers, albeit with a tightened security, marking the invincible Bangali spirit.
The UNESCO recognised the Mangal Shobhajatra in 2016 as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity saying, it “symbolises the pride of the people of Bangladesh in their living heritage as well as their strength and courage to fight sinister forces, and their vindication of truth and justice.”
Recently, the apparently successful quota-reform movement by students that had erupted across the country has marked the beginning of the Bangla New Year 1425. Let’s see what more colour it adds to the history of the day’s celebration.