Contextualizing Boishakh in the urban cultural climate
Identity politics and the secular social order
The urban landscape has always been the site for cultural regeneration, re-creation and transcreation, as well as celebration of certain rediscovered rites. The cultural rhythm that grows out of the collective 'will' helps its citizenry, or at least a conscious portion of it, construct their collective identity in alignment with their modern/secular desire that often reflects certain socio-economic realities. And identity politics, irrespective of secular or non-secular hues, often reshapes our desire and in turn takes the form of a 'nation narrative' which is totalistic in its ambition. The urban spatial-temporal context, which is ever-changing and fluid, where the formalization of cultural/national politics always takes place, is also the turf from where all such totalizing narratives spring. The Boishakh rally and its concomitant cultural firmament and zeal too have been an important flashpoint through which to issue forth the concept of Bengaliness and confront its actual and perceived rivals. It has now entered the annals of national culture, gaining as it has the status of a collectivized form of celebration that is pivotal to the Bengali identity for all the Bangla speaking people living across the globe. At least outwardly, it attempts to transcend national borders and religious difference.
Constructed in the main by the educated middle class, this form of celebration of Bengalihood is a phenomenon created by transporting some chosen heritable rural cultural traits onto the urban territory. It bases itself on the concept of 'return' to a perceived tradition by drawing fragments from the periphery which is rural Bengal and is primarily linked to the identity politics staged to counter the oppressive policies of the pre-independence era. It was a time when in the face of the Pakistani ruling junta's unmeritorious attempt at constructing a pseudo-Islamic identity for all and sundry that the Bengalis propped up their own counter narratives. The former was part of the politics of dominance and was based on an ahistorically cast narrative which they tried to foist upon the Bangla speaking populace in general in the hope of keeping together the two far-flung landmasses – the East and West wings of the newly formed quasi-bourgeois nation of the Muslim minority who parted company with India where the Hindu majority held sway. The cultural construct, which was forwarded in a theological garb, was challenged through the formation of a number of cultural flashpoints for the masses among which the Boishakh festival was one important pivot, one which has always been linked to the counterpoise based on the Bengali-alien binary.
The double bind which went to the very core of the political ferment that was Pakistan manifested in the allegiance to the capitalist World Order and the Muslim identity which served as its mask. The Bengali identity emerged as the latter's antagonist with the aim to vernacularise the cultural territory. Though notions of power in the context of the imperial order of the Capital had, to the Bengalis of the 1960s, remained somewhat obscured in the reiteration of Bengalihood, identity politics of the emerging nation had certainly lent the political struggle for emancipation a radical tool and acted as a catalyst for the subsequent political movements that finally led to the 1971 liberation war. With hindsight one can now say that our position vis-à-vis imperialism was only addressed in cultural terms, never in terms of the political implications that it had for the entire nation.
The secular-modern paradigm – which the Bengalis as a nation desired to inaugurate since the beginning of the struggle for self-rule, which finally turned into the struggle for freedom from the hegemonic alien rule – was centered on the perception of a heritable cultural and linguistic traditions of the bygone Bengal. It was and still is a mirror image of the indigenists' concept of revivalism made popular by a certain section of the cognoscenti in the late 18th century Bengal. And through this perceptual frame the perpetuation of certain rights and cultural functions is stressed with the belief that their regular enactments would effect a change in the collective consciousness. And on top of that it would free the 'nation' of the religious revivalism (assumed or real) that seems to lurk behind every secular society.
In constructing a post-religious social-cultural landscape, the very concept of nationhood needs rituals that are made to look emptied of their religious, and even extra-scriptural metaphysical contents and signification. Though nationalism and identity politics are both enacted through a set of new variants of ritualised events, in the urban space it is juxtaposed with the aesthetic of the educated – as is evident in alpana, which in its original form always had sacred connotations.
From the anthropological perspective, the nation narrative itself is linked to a cultural baggage that contains diverse accoutrements, and in the passage of time some are given precedence over the others and are often subject to renewal, revamping and reiteration in line with the 'will' of the public or of the politico-cultural mentors, to whom a section of the masses willingly show their allegiance. What it all boils down to in the end is the remaking of the cultural markers that are linked to the past but are actually situated in the current psychodynamics of the middle class that has little to do with social relations and modes of production. Therefore, all such spatial-temporal zonality of mass participation, though linked to a narrative of heritage, resonates less with the past than with the spirit of the modern age and the historical present. It is filtered and re-orientated according to modern psychosocial demands.
Framing the vernacular through the exotic
Is Boishakh festival a manifestation of the collective will of the educated middle class to exoticise the Bengali identity? If so, is it by employing a certain template constructed through conscious reckoning that this is being staged? And in the attempt to aestheticise, which is increasingly defining the nature of the Boishakh fest, does this spatial-temporality stand in absolute negation of the irrational content the past rituals were fraught with? Is the later tendency a crucial aesthetico-political decision on the part of the urbanites, one which in the final analysis codifies urbanity? This string of contextual questions is broached in the post-independence reality where the needs and purpose of the nation narrative have changed. Also, the contexts of such attempts at probing the nation narrative rest on the fact that the Bengali New Year rites that are still practiced in certain rural parts of Bangladesh are unquestioningly embedded in divinity, spirituality and the concept of the creation of otherness.
Compared to the European Moderns, the Bengali Moderns are more inclined to clean the cultural turf off of any genuine religious content or even elliptical references to it all. Also, cultural polity is such in Bangladesh that it now allows entry to the visual references pulled from the minority and even marginal faiths, but it casts a blind eye to the references of the majority Muslim population's inheritances.
The problem trails a history that is beset with the controversy centered on representation. Courtesy of the belligerent purist-essentialist section of the Muslim community representation has been given a bad name, and at times, made anathema. In the climate where the hegemony of the Zamindars of the 18th century was patronised by the colonial masters Bengal saw a string of Islamic revivalist movements. Though they were directed towards empowering the peasant population, the 'virginal monotheism' that was their source of inspiration at times generated over-enthusiasm on the part of the followers and their actions and narratives ran contra to some other alternative interpretations of Islam which were soft on representation. At times the antagonism led to interventions which served to defuse the discourses that address in various scopes and breadth the theological/metaphysical nuances of Islam, represented by philosophico-religious traditions linked to such stalwarts as Lalon Fakir.
In today's enfeebled environment of faith or religiosity, the baggage that some faithful carries is the Islamic legacy of iconoclasm. Strangely enough, the unresolved issue of representation in Islam has brushed upon the secularists in this clime, whose nation narrative, or notion of a secular society is bereft of any constructive reassessment of Islam and its position on representation. Thus followed the widespread abandonment of any vestiges of or references to Islam and the cultural heritage it stands for in this deltaic region from the urban spatial-temporal reality which any festival issues forth.
At one point of history, as the need arose to cast a position in favour of the linguistically-framed national identity, the plumbing of the fragments from ritualistic as well as earthy cultural traditions of the land became a necessity. And that too has only been possible due to the fact that in the pre-independent regime cultural festivals were seen as un-Islamic. Therefore, this position was radical and had a clear cultural premise and a political purpose to serve as it was directed and driven by the desire to voice the difference.
Today's Boishakh fest, it seems, is more in tune with the media-savvy events that speak of the participants' will to daub the otherwise mundane face of existence with a bit of exotic April red. As such, the festival has gone through subsequent facelifts in the last one and a half decades scaling the spectrum of a growing media culture that emphatically brings the spectacular to the centre of all activities.
In the dyad of magic and aesthetic, if the aesthetic is given prominence in the urban milieu, all past ritualistic forms that still survive today largely found in their evolved form– need to be sidestepped due to their atavistic and irrational qualities and content. Redesigning the festival by pulling fragments from the village fair and casting it in the form of visually exotic urban eye-candy for modern tastes, the educated middle class ensured that it kept a safe distance from the religious rallies, of which one is Ashura or Maharram rally by Shia Muslims, which is also a strong testament to Dhaka's past tradition.
To fit the purpose of the acculturated/educated middle class and to appeal to the need to stage a popular cultural sensibility restructured through what is proximate to the 'highbrow', all kinds of modalities of celebration within the urban landscape go through a cosmetic transformation. In the last twenty to twenty-five years, Boishakh, which, even in the urban environment used to manifest through fairs echoing village mellas alongside the long Dhakai tradition of opening a halkhata (accounting book) at all small business enterprises, has gone through a revamping through the intervention of the Fine Arts Faculty of Dhaka University, from where the idea of the rally was born and received subsequent thrust for the present-day aesthetico-political position which is pivoted on the idea of Bengalihood that shuns both mainstream and renegade Islam.
Boishak has become what Eric Hobsbaum calls the 'new constructions for spectacle and de facto mass ritual'. Such constructions usually exhibit dual meanings – one is the intended meaning– which surely has to do with the voicing of difference, and the other is the visual-cultural paradigm that it successfully echoes – one that reflects pomposity and grandeur of urban economic might.
Spectacle over performativity
Richerd Schechner writes in 'Performance Study: An Introduction' that, 'Rituals are more than structures and functions highlighting what Victor Turner calls anti-structure and communitus. It describes liminality which is forwarded as 'the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc. from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses, enacting a multiplicity of social roles, and being acutely conscious of membership in some corporate group.' Divination and sacrifice are two important components through which ritual processes are enacted where the social and spiritual intersect with the aesthetic. This, according to Martin Buber's notion, is the 'I' and 'Thou' relationship and Essential We formed by people moving towards a freely chosen common goal which is an intuitive perception of non-transectional order. Therefore any ritual demands a sacred spatio-temporal matrix, a reality away from the everydayness of reality, as it is through rituals that the participating bodies are transformed and are transported into that spatial zone that is 'nowhere'. It is about creating a temporary station where the self/body experiences its outsiderness or otherness. Is this what the aestheticized, revamped Boishakh rally is capable of effectuating by wresting us from the social space to transport onto a seemingly timeless, spaceless domain defying straight or linear time? Perhaps the very intent behind the rally never explicated such a radical disruption, rather its organisers aspired to embed in it the liberal cultural brew they have been concocting since independence – one that is more about assimilation of the urban population into the meta-narrative of Bengalihood. And this assimilation process itself has more to do with our current need for spectacles than any other political and cultural desire.
'The camera becomes an extension of my hungry eyes. I stare intently and without embarrassment, absorbing everything voraciously,' Ihtisham Kabir writes in his piece titled 'Picturing Pahela Baishakh', on the Metropolitan page of The Daily Star, April 23, 2011. The 'hungry eye' is central to today's framing and organizing of any festivals, and Boishakh has not been any exception.
All visible cultures have their cognates, and if we are to look for Boishak's cognates, we will have to search among all other modes of celebration that are fodder for the media – the winning of the cricket team, the celebration of the silver or golden jubilee of nationally important institutions, or the kite festival in an exotic location by a certain group of urbanites. The media and its voracious appetite for newer visuals left a clear impact; the concept of culture has now embraced the urban industrial framework and only forwards its narrative in visual terms.
The commodification of culture goes hand in hand with the exoticisation of the cultural commodities. It sets the tenor which governs all modalities of celebration – especially the ones at national levels. As culture has given rise to an industry, the entire process of 'framing the nation' has been relegated to 'celebrating the nation', and through a dual conduit of culture and nationalism the collective unity construction and the supply of the visual-stimulants are being instituted annually in line with the idealised interpretation of social progress we encounter in the media, while paying little or no attention to the structural functions.
GOLAM MORTUJA is a freelance writer based in Dhaka.