Memoir of Baishakh: Season of the poet
Personal account of childhood memories has always been fascinating to me. Especially for its rich diversity of revelation of human feeling and sensitivity. As the thermometer is hovering close to hundred in Southern California, I can’t resist speaking a few words about my fond childhood memories of ‘Baishakhi’ summer back in my village town in Nadia.
Baishakh is the first month in the Bengali calendar (~15 April-15May) and the hottest month of the season. It is also the month of cultural festival in Bengal as we celebrate the birth date of our greatest poet Rabindra Nath Tagore who was born on 25th of Baishakh. I do not know of any other country, any other race where people celebrate the birth of a poet as their biggest festival. Besides Tagore, there are Hindu cultural rituals as well—‘Gajan of Shiva’ (a deadly tantric ritual for Shaivaite, I will come back on this later), Radha-Krishna Lila Kirtan (Dancing of the Baishanavites..the cult of love) and first day of business, ‘Hal-Khata: opening of business accounts) . From 25th Baishakh to 22nd Shravan (death of Tagore) , approximately for three months Bengal observes ‘Kabi Pakhya’ or ‘season of the poet’.
I was growing up in a small village town of Karimpur in the district of Nadia. Having unique advantage of being located in high land, it was immune to flooding and therefore, during my childhood, a lot of good families were migrating to this small but beautiful river town. My father built our house at the bank of Khare River (a tribute of Jalangi). My early childhood memory is filled with the seasonal change in and around the river. Bengal means ‘Bong+Aal~land+river’ , or in short, land of rivers. To feel its meaning, one really needs to travel in Ganges delta where it is difficult to find a place not within a few miles of any river. Also, it is difficult to find a place in delta that does not get flooded by the rivers in the rainy seasons. However, comes the last month of spring, all the rivers along with all the ponds and the lakes will be dried out. As the Baishakh would set in, all I remember is cracked and sun dried river-bed and smell of clay (‘Sendo Gandho’: not unfamiliar with Bay Area people, while crossing Hayard Bridge in marsh land in summer). However, I used to long for summer in my early childhood because clay mud in summer river-bed is best for making clay sculpture. Since idol worship is deeply rooted in Hindu culture, I had fascination for making clay idols—not out of religious feeling but I guess, out of childish curiosity to make something! Ganesh, the Hindu semi-rat/elephant God was my favorite.
It was so hot that temperature will always be above hundred and therefore, most of the schools will be running in the early morning to avoid hot afternoon. So to us, summer means a free afternoon to steal ripening mangos, licchis, jack fruits etc. from other’s garden. Typically most of the fruit garden used to have security and you have to operate in group with orchestrated effort to for such misadventure. Cultural festivals for ‘RabindraJayanti’ or ‘birth day celebration for poet Tagore’ would be close by and we would gear up for recitation, drama, songs and dance!
Poet Tagore wrote around eighteen hundred songs, couple of thousands of poetry, numerous dramas and composed several dances for his songs. At childhood, it was difficult to understand the meaning of his songs except for a few simple ones. I was not the most sought after person for such functions as my seniors found me void of talent for any cultural event: I was horribly stiff in acting; my pronunciation was below the purity level of recitation and I was a rejected soul in music and dancing. After a lot of begging, I used to earn small roles! I was definitely jealous of those who were very popular and sought after celebrity of the town for their performance in music and dance.
Celebration of Tagore continues for three months, from his birth date of 25th Boishakh to 22nd Shravan, date of his earthly demise. These three months are known as ‘Kabi Pakhya’ or ‘ Season of the Poet’. All the local communities will be making their own celebration for a day or two (sometimes for a week). Typically, schedules are arranged with mutual discussions with other communities so that no two communities conduct their celebration at the same time – to maximize audience in a small town. No matter what, the airs and the skies will be filled up with the music of ‘ Esho he Baishakh, esho esho’ “ Hail the month of Baishakh! Come and fill our life”. Celebrations may be disrupted in some of the nights, devastated by ‘Nor Wester’ a cyclonic thunder storm that chills out the temperature drastically!
25th Baishakhi morning is a special day. We will get up very early in the morning and start attending the procession in traditional Bengali attire. In front of the procession, there will be a big photo of Tagore and we will all sing his songs while marching across the town. I don’t know of any place in the world where there is so much of devotion and fire to celebrate the birth of a poet as their biggest ritual!
This is my moment to part,
Swing the gates quickly my love,
Our eyes met, we smiled in joy,
We played games in light and dark,
It was all a happy dream
That vanished when we awoke ..
I hear the distant music,
The touch of a world unknown
Keeps tugging at my heartstrings
That world is mine forever,
I am ready my Beloved,
Light my path, give me your hand,
Lift your veils of illusion..
(Translated by Dipak Basu)
Celebration of Tagore is confined within middle class literate Bengalis. Lower section of people are just an audience, they seldom participate in music and dancing as one needs to be highly trained in such performance. None of the poor, who lives by daily wages can afford such training and to them, such festivals are nothing more than a source of entertainment. Unlike in USA and in cities, most of the celebrations are conducted in open air stages and everybody can attend it. The most traditional stage for celebration of Tagore is under the shadow of mango garden and in the morning.
To the larger section of people, specially among the depressed section of the people, Kirtan or a ritual dancing for the love of ‘Radha and Krishna’ ( the Hindu God Krishna and his childhood sweetheart Radha) was the most popular. Rhythm of dancing is formed around sixteen words:
“ Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
(Hare means we thy pray: Krishna and Rama are two most popular Hindu Gods)
Dancing continues on the ground for seventy two hours in a circle around the icons of Radha and Krishna in their loving style without a break! Sometimes, it may continue for more than a week. Typically a group performs dancing for one hour and then other group takes over. But central stage never remains empty and performing group never leaves the stage till other group takes over. Such performance does not need training but love & compassion for Krishna, the ultimate Hindu God! In the night they perform with a theme from Krishna’s love life with Radha. We call it ‘Raslila’ or ‘Cult of love’.
Other popular festival is Shiver Gajan or addiction of lord Shiva. Shiva is a pagan god of mysticism from non-Aryan time. He is five thousand year old phallus God for the pagans. In him they pray the fertility of the society. People who follow such cult are generally called Shaibite and section of them that performs black magic is called Tantrik. Their mystic ritual is called Tantra. They want to prove their extra-ordinary power obtained from the practice of Tantra which very often leads to their death.
One such deadly practice is ‘charka’ (circle) during Gajan. Before the eyes of thousands of devotees, back of one of the Tantrik will be pierced by a ‘Barshi’ ( a semi-circular sharp nail of steel) and will be locked with his vertebrate. It is as horrible as if we have caught a human fish by Barshi! Then he will be suspended through rope of cloths from a tall column like a circular pendulum. Before the cheering crowd, he will be set to swing in the air, hanging like a pendulum.
To common people, it looks like an inhumanely painful process as they see that muscle from vertebrate gradually tear apart after few rotations. However the devotee does not feel pain because typically he is highly drugged with ‘Ganja’ for three months. Also he lives on special diet for an year so that he becomes the man of skeleton and bones.
Many tantriks die later while trying to be popular with such efforts to prove their inhuman ‘Godly’ power.
Any account of Poila Baishakh can not be complete without the memories of Hal Khata or new account book for the shop owners. On the first day of Baishakh, they invite all their customers for a small party and customers also make a small payment towards their debt so that the shop owner can open a new account book! I would always accompany my father on Poila Baishakh to the local shops for collecting sweet and snacks packets!
Things back in my town changed fast with high penetration of cable TV and booming of hundreds of media channels. Kids don’t have time beyond school books and TV programmes. Number of celebrations have fallen drastically and that’s too a full days celebration of Tagore’s birthday is becoming rarity.
Welcome to the era of cultural homogeneity!
My life spilled over with your love, sweetheart
You did not know, you did not know it's worth,
Like aroma of a hidden Rajanigandha
wafting in the dreams of night -
You filled my heart with your melody,
You did not know, you did not know,
you did not know that.
It's now time to part -
lift up, lift up your smiling face for once
As sweet death fills my life I leave at your feet
As mute nights of hidden passions end for one -
Whom you did not know, you did not know,
you did not know.
-Translated by Arindom Basu
Dr. Biplab Pal works as an optical R&D engineer in Endress+Hausser, California. He is one of the regular contributors of Mukto-Mona.