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Arts & Letters, April 2018

Bangla New Year Pahela

Bangla New Year Pahela Baishakh through the years •Binoy Dutta (Translated by Mir Arif ) For Bangalis, Pahela Baishakh is one of the oldest and most celebrated festivals. The first day of the Bangla New Year in a Bangla calendar is known as Pahela Baishakh. Dating back to an early period in history, Pahela Baishakh has become a festival emanating from the heart of the whole Bangla-speaking world, irrespective of caste, creed and religious beliefs. The history of celebrating Pahela Baishakh is very old. Dividing a year into 12 months is an old practice according to the Hindu calendar. But during Mughal rule in India, Emperor Akbar ordered that the Bangla year be counted combining the Arabic calendar from March 10 or March 11 in 1584. Though originally called a Fosholi Shon (crop year), it later gained currency as the Bangla year. In Akbar’s days, the economy of undivided Bengal was solely based on agriculture, with most people making their living through agricultural work of one kind or the other. Some people did enter other professions, but they, too, worked in the fields for a brief period of time. Farmers did not have any cash till the crops were harvested; so they had to buy daily necessaries all the year round on credit from shopkeepers. Since all the dues were cleared up toward the end of the year, shopkeepers tracked the sales on credit in a ledger book known as the “halkhata.” After previous dues were cleared up, a new ledger book opened and each farmer had a fresh entry on the book for the new year, and the whole process would then start all over again. So, creditors arranged a celebration honoring the farmers who lived up to their promises of paying the dues after the harvest, a custom observed in many parts of Bangladesh to this day. This celebration diversified over the centuries and became widely popular among all sections of society. In Bangladesh, Chhayanaut took an initiative to popularize this festival, turning it into a celebration of greeting the new Bangla year. It was also a time when Pakistani military rulers were contemptuous toward any manifestation of our secular culture. Pahela Baishakh now is a universal phenomenon among Bangalis. The first day of the Bangla calendar is celebrated in big cities with much fanfare, music and a feast of various local cuisines, and with high hopes that the Bangla New Year will bring prosperity and happiness for all. Pahela Baishakh is celebrated all over the country at city, district, union and upazila levels. With the crack of dawn, a tinge of festivity spreads in every nook and cranny of the country. In the capital city, Chhayanaut opens the festivity at the Batamul (under the banyan tree) in Ramna Park with a number of impeccable musical renditions composed by five of the best poets and lyricists in the Bangla language (Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Dwijendralal Roy, Rajanikanta Sen and Atul Prasad Sen). Large numbers of crowds throng the park to greet the new year with Chhayanaut. The celebration of the Bangla New Year and Chhayanaut’s programs are now inseparably connected. 4 Chhayanaut first celebrated the Bangla New Year in The festival, in its current form, indeed fosters a non-communal spirit and a cultural openness ingrained in our culture 1967 (1374 in the Bangla calendar) under the ashwatha tree in Ramna Park. Except in 1971, the year that saw the Liberation War, Chhayanaut has been celebrating the day religiously with musical renditions and poetic recitations. Besides Chhayanaut’s program, a colorful, ceremonious procession welcoming the new year is brought out from the Institute of Fine Arts (Charukola Institute), University of Dhaka. Known as the “Mangal Shobhajatra,” it was first brought out in 1989 in the hope of ousting despotic forces from the country’s politics, seeking peace and justice for all. Charupith, a regional cultural organization, had earlier brought out a similar procession in 1986. Inspired by this, one of its initiators, Jamal Shamim, who enrolled in a master’s degree course at Dhaka University, started this at Charukala with replicas of horse, elephant, etc. Since 1991, Charukola Institute has been bringing out the procession with massive replicas of elephants, tigers that have added new hues to this carnival, enriching it each year with more and more replicas, handicrafts and masks of birds, owls, crocodiles, earthen dolls, oxcarts, palanquins, boats, hand fans -- everything crafted in sync with the tenets of local, indigenous cultures. UNESCO has incorporated this procession in its “Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2016. Apart from these, the entire city buzzes with programs and arrangements marking the day. In the old part of the city, businessmen and traders remain busy all day with PHOTO: MEHEDI HASAN halkhata festivities. The Baishakh fair in the field of Dhupkhola demonstrates how much passionate Bangalis are about festivals. The TSC area of Dhaka University vibrates with music and thousands of men and women, mostly young, hanging around in groups wearing colorful dresses. Women prefer green saris with red lining, and men green and red Punjabis, reflecting the colors of Bangladesh’s national flag. Now each area in the city has its own set of programs. Among others, the cultural programs at Rabindra Sarobar in Dhanmondi have gained some prominence in recent times. Pahela Baishakh is not celebrated only in Dhaka; it is celebrated with equal pomp and fanfare in other parts of the country as well. People from the Chittagong Hill Tracts also celebrate the day with various indigenous programs of their own. Boishukh by the Tripura, Sangrain by the Marma and Biju by the Chakma are three such programs to mark this day. In recent years, the three communities have celebrated this day together, which is called “Boishabi.” One of the main aspects of Boishabi is a water festival by the Marmas, which sees young boys and girls splashing water on each other, signifying their coming of age. The communal pressure that the Pakistani military rulers put on our culture and language rather stoked the spirit of this festival into a big national event. The festival, in its current form, indeed fosters a non-communal spirit and a cultural openness ingrained in our culture. Communal forces, however, have been at work to foil the festivities of this day. A bomb attack was also carried out on Chhayanaut’s program in Ramna in 2001, leaving 10 people killed and over 50 injured. But the irony is, the following years saw the biggest congregation of cultural activists and common people who gathered there defying all threats of violence. • Binoy Dutta is a journalist and littérateur. ARTS & LETTERS SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 | DHAKA TRIBUNE

Essay Bangla holds a key to hidden human history •Azfar Aziz Lessons in the old language “In the very earliest time/ when both people and animals lived on earth/a person could become an animal if he wanted to/ and an animal could become a human being./ Sometimes they were people/ and sometimes animals/ and there was no difference./ All spoke the same language/ that was the time when words were like magic./ The human mind had mysterious powers./ A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences./ It would suddenly come alive/ and what people wanted to happen could happen --/ all you had to do was say it. Nobody could explain this:/ That’s the way it was." -- Nalungiaq, an Inuit woman interviewed by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen in the early twentieth century. Matthew C Bronson, an educational linguist of the USA, wrote in his article "Lessons in the Old Language," “The ‘old language’ that unites the human and more-than-human worlds is a recurrent archetype in the stories of indigenous peoples, those who have lived in intimate proximity with a particular bioregion for time immemorial. The Cheyenne version adds another chapter to the Inuit story: “Long ago, people and animals and spirits and plants all communicated in the same way. Then something happened. After that, we had to talk to each other in human speech. But we retained the ‘old language’ for dreams and for communicating with spirits and animals and plants. “In the Abrahamic version (based on earlier Sumerian tales), the Tower of Babel saga, the ‘something’ that ‘happened’ in the opening story is further elaborated. The first common tongue was abolished by a (slightly insecure?) god. He feared that people would use it to cooperate in building a tower that would eventually challenge his heavenly reign. Language has always been connected to the primal question of what it means to be human and our relationship with nature, the invisible and unknown, the ‘Great Mystery’. “The word in its primordial force runs through us like a current: What we say still comes alive, as in Nalungiaq’s story, or dies in the telling. Indeed, the power of language to create reality is a constant of the human experience. But this and other lessons of the old language have been largely obscured in the transition to modernity and industrial-technological civilization. When we contrast indigenous and western languages and worldviews, we can begin to reclaim aspects of the old language that undergird both.” The emphasis on nouns built into the grammar of English and other Indo-European languages is so intrinsic to its speakers’ way of thinking that it is challenging to imagine how it could be otherwise. But Algonquin and many other native languages have chosen a different path, a verbbased grammar in which nouns are derived from roots as needed but are not necessarily part of every sentence. The contrast between the two systems can be reflected in this statement: God is not a noun in Native America. The toughest question from Europeans that Native Americans have ever had was "Who is your (noun) god?" Comparatively speaking, English is very noun-heavy, forcing its speakers to utter at least one noun-phrase per sentence in order to make sense. We need nouns, and the noun-phrases they are part of, in order to make complete sentences. Referring traditionally to persons, places and things (including concepts), nouns can be seen as temporary snapshots of a flux of activity. These snapshots are the basis upon which cultural modes of logic and reasoning are based. When we say "god" in English, we are using a noun, and easily imagining him as a person, a separate entity somehow fixed in time and space (an old man with a beard, for example, as in "May He watch over us." Imagine what a different reading of the Bible one would have if the word "he" or "him" was substituted systematically with "it" in referring to god -- "It is watching over you" does not have the same ring to it. Does it? From the Native American point of view, the word "god" as a noun is a grammatically induced hallucination like the dummy "it" in "it is raining." The closest Lakhota equivalent is tanka wakan, which is an adjectival-verbal construction. This phrase has routinely been mistranslated as "the Great Mystery" but is better glossed as "the Great Mysteriousing." Such mistranslation is not trivial as it obscures the deep differences between a verb-based and a noun-based worldview. Why is this iconic image expressed in English so hard to construe in indigenous language terms? Many indigenous languages rarely use nouns and are much more verb-centered. Sakej Henerson, a Canadian researcher on Native Law, says his people (Cheyenne Nation) can speak Mikmaq, an eastern Algonquian language, all day without uttering a single noun. The Hopi term "rehpi" means "flashed" and would be properly used when, say, one saw lightning in the sky, without any implication at all that "something" flashed: The flashing and "what" is flashing are coterminous. English-speakers can attempt to step back from the way English has colonized their imaginations and turned everything into a noun. This is, in large measure, an exercise in "getting back to the roots." The root word that we translate as "god" from the Hebrew Bible is actually a ver- When we say 'god' in English, we are using a noun, and easily imagining him as a person, a separate entity somehow fixed in time and space (an old man with a beard, for example, as in 'May He watch over us' bal expression, YHWY is one transliteration -- "I am." The shamanic, originally verbal, insights of the Old Testament prophets have been translated into nouns in the transition to modernity, a now familiar pattern. “But, what if god were a verb, an unfolding dynamic processing,” writes Bronson, “Perhaps it would be harder to fight and kill as so many have done in the name of ‘god’ if the native view were more widely held. Verbal thinking is complementary, dynamic and contextual, rather than dichotomous, static and universal. Problem situations and people are much harder to categorize as ‘things’ that one must confront and destroy in a verbal-based reasoning with fully animate subjects.” Unveiling human history using Bangla Niladri Sekhar Dash in his A Descriptive Study of Bengali Words writes, “In an inflectional language like Sanskrit, grammatical elements such as prefixes, suffixes, case markers, etc are usually tagged with the words. However, in some cases, due to various phonological factors, these are normally used to make morphophonemic changes in words involved in the process of inflection. On the other hand, in an analytic language like English, prepositions are generally retained separate from words that follow these. “In case of Bengali prepositions, it may be assumed that both types of characteristics are indeed preserved in the language. Like an inflectional language, it has preserved 5 DHAKA TRIBUNE | SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2018 ARTS & LETTERS

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