Apr. 14 marks the first day of the Bengali calendar, a sidereal calendar secondarily used by people in West Bengal, India and in Bangladesh since its inception in the Mughal Empire (1520s). Called “Pohela Boishakh,” the entire region resounds immense festivities— flashing colors, processions, traditional music, dance and food. Ethnic Bengalis from all walks of life unite to sing the Pohela Boishakh anthem, “Esho hay Boishakh” (come hither, the season of Joy), composed by the Nobel Laureate polymath Rabindranath Tagore. In Bengali, “Pohela” means “first” and “Boishakh” is the first month of the Bengali calendar.
Agricultural products, traditional toys, handicrafts, cosmetics, food and sweets are sold at fairs. Stalls and street vendors sprawl with traditional candyfloss and henna artists at Ramna Park, a large public square in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the largest Pohela Boishakh celebration occurs.
The festivities call for the revival of various aspects of ethnic rural Bengali culture usually masked by layers of Western modernity that have seeped into urban Bengali life. For example, a variety of pitha, a traditional form of dim sum, or cake made from rice or wheat flour, adorn the stalls and tables of households. Although it is still symbolic to Bengali society, pithas have typically taken a backseat to everyday consumption, possibly because they each require an intricate preparation process or because modern Bengalis prefer to sample international desserts instead. Large numbers of people dressed in red and white, the colors of Pohela Boishakh, and flock around a famous Banyan tree to see singers and dancers perform to the gamut of folk music that Bengali culture proudly comprises. Other attractions include puppet shows and miniature wooden merry-go-rounds. Another special ceremony during Pohela Boishakh is conducted by the Institute of Fine Arts under University of Dhaka where students, staff members and teachers organize a blindingly colorful parade around the large campus with giants masks and banners that take months to craft. Women flock to shops weeks before to buy cotton sarees in red and white, the traditional garb of women of the region.
As a Bangladeshi, Pohela Boishakh takes me, my family and friends away from the reality of belonging to a “mixed” culture to mimic the purity of unadulterated Bengali culture.