Collective Arts and Secular Festivals: From Tagore’s Shantiniketan to Bangladesh

Tagore, Shantiniketan and Ramna Batomul

‘Collective art’ is not an individual ‘leisure time’ occupation, added to life; it is an integral part of life itself, corresponding to a basic human need. It means the same as ritual; it means to respond to the world with our senses in a meaningful, skilled, productive, active, shared way. The need for the creation of collective art and ritual on a non-religious basis is at least as important as literacy and higher education.

 Thus wrote Erich Fromm, the influential social psychologist and philosopher of the 20th century.

Approximately seventy years before Erich Fromm articulated his theory on collective art, Indian poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore was putting this into practice at his experimental educational center in Shantiniketan, around 250 kms from Kolkata, in West Bengal.

The poet was astute enough to observe that religious festivals in India were largely insular and exclusionary in nature. He therefore conceived of secular festivals that would transcend narrow denominational boundaries of religion, cast, creed and class. He introduced the celebration of seasons at Shantiniketan and linked collective arts, crafts and rural cottage industry very closely to the festival of seasons.

Tagore conceived of the Utsav (festival in Bengali) as a celebration of diversity that included all. Utsav for him represented a holistic celebration of human society, which presented an opportunity for shared aesthetic experience and creativity and very importantly – appreciation of the gift of nature.

While recognizing the need for individual and group space, Tagore worked tirelessly towards creating public celebratory spaces that would be open to the extended human family.

The celebration of the seasons through songs, dance and fares has since became a regular feature in the Shantiniketan calendar. Varsha-mangal is observed to celebrate the advent of the rains, Sharad Utsav to celebrate Autumn, Poush Mela to celebrate winter, Vasanta Utsav to celebrate spring and finally Pohela Baishakh, celebrating the Bengali New Year at the onset of summer.

In addition to these, Tagore also introduced beautiful commemorative events like theVriksha-ropan (tree planting) and Halakarshan (plough festival) as a part of an annual environmental awareness campaign.

In Shantiniketan, minority ethnic groups, particularly the Santhals who lived in and around the area are invited to be part of all celebrations. These festivals are open to anyone and everyone. These excludes none.

These secular festivals give a very strong feeling among the participants that with all their diversity and differences, they are part of one great human family. Not only do these festivals bring people together, these also encourage the arts and crafts and promote livelihoods and local economic development, particularly among rural artisans who sell their wares in the fairs organized around these festivals.

In the fringes of these events, food festivals are organized with an emphasis on traditional Bengali preparations and local delicacies.

Tagore composed a large number of songs, plays and wrote poems specifically for these occasions and more often than not sang and performed in plays during these events. Music, dance and other performing arts therefore form an important part of these celebrations.

These secular festivals continue to this day in Shantiniketan. However, nowhere else does one find a truer, finer and grander expression of Tagore’s original idea of an inclusive and artistic festival than in Bangladesh where on April 14 every year (the first of the Bengali month of Baishakh), the entire country comes alive and erupts into a spontaneous celebration of the Bengali New Year, in an event that reveals the underlying inclusive and secular aspect of this essentially progressive Islamic country.

Borsho Boron, literally meaning, “ushering in the New Year” in Bengali is a wonderful summer festival organized every year on the Bengali New Year by Chayanat, an institution of national importance and a center for research, teaching and promotion of Tagore’s works and other performing art forms of Bangladesh.

The Chayanat institution was founded in 1961, the year that marked the birth centennial of Tagore. It sought to counter the fundamentalist ideologies that were forcefully imposed upon Bengalis of then East Pakistan. It was the late Waheedul Haque and Dr. Sanjida Khatun who conceived and orchestrated Chayanat’s first Borsho Boron program in 1961.

Taking the clue from Shantiniketan, Chayanat started holding cultural programs to celebrate the change of Bengali seasons. The special Borsho Boron festival was arranged in the Ramna Park – a large green expanse in central Dhaka, and a well-planned and impressive musical soiree took place at the foot of an old banyan tree.

This event which had a very modest beginning was destined to create history and trigger off a national cultural movement in Bangladesh. It soon caught the imagination of the people and has over the years snowballed into a nation-wide celebration, becoming an integral part of Bangladesh’s annual cultural calendar and heritage.

The main Borsho Boron program organised by Chayanat starts at 6:15 in the morning on the 14th of April every year and lasts for approximately two hours. Thousands of people participate in this unique event which principally includes songs of the leading Bengali poets and composers, folk music, a brief presentation of Indian classical music and Bengali recitation – all performed by teachers, alumni and students of the institution.

This early morning program then kicks off a cluster of diverse events, including the spectacular carnival like pageantry (Mongol Shobhajatra) from the adjoiningCharukala (Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University), organized by the students and alumni of the institution. Simultaneously, scores of cultural shows are arranged by other organizations, keeping the area alive with the buzz of music and a heavy rush of people.

The other events in the fringes of Borsho Boron includes Bengali food festivals, fairs selling traditional handicrafts, face painting, folk music, street theater etc. Integral part of the festival is the feasting on sweets and rice cakes (Pithas), Panta-Ilish-Bhorta (soaked rice, fried Hilsa fish and spicy mashed vegetables) and other traditional Bengali delicacies. Thousands of people from all walks of life attend the festival in a spontaneous expression of joy and fellow feeling.

While the biggest and the most spectacular celebration takes place at the Ramna Park in central Dhaka, simultaneously similar smaller celebrations take place throughout the length and breadth of the country. These events celebrate the rich ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Bangladesh.

The Chayanat institution has taken great pains and has shown formidable courage in ensuring that it remains completely secular, non-sectarian and apolitical. They have consistently and very successfully resisted the attempts, overt and covert, by politicians to use the popular Borsho Boron platform to convey political messages. Moreover, attempts of fundamentalist groups to subvert the event, including once by bombing the venue, killing many people, have come to a naught. Citizens of Dhaka started attending the event with even greater determination and enthusiasm since the bombing, in a clear message reaffirming their faith and support to the essential values behind the festival.

On similar lines, other secular festivals in Bangladesh include Pohela Phalgun – the Spring Festival , Sharod Utsav – The Autumn Festival and the Nobanno – the Harvest Festival. Yet again, along with a lot of music, dance, arts and crafts, specially prepared food forms an integral part of these festivals.

Inter-religious, inter-community and non-sectarian communion was something that deeply occupied Tagore throughout his lifetime, just as much as the lack of it continues to pose immense problems in our largely troubled world today.

It is in this light that these secular festivals, particularly the Borsho Boron Utsav of Bangladesh attain special value and universal importance. Stemming essentially from an artistic impulse, what started off as a modest experiment of promoting secular festivals of the seasons and collective art by Tagore in Shantiniketan in India has now gained massive momentum in Bangladesh — the country of his ancestry.

It is here that we see the fruition of Tagore’s dream – in what is a splendid case of life imitating art.

Acknowledgement:I am grateful to the following individuals for the permission to use their photographs with this article.

  1. Anirban Saha, Kolkata,
  2. Arindam Banerjee, Kolkata
  3. Lubna Marium, Dhaka Bangladesh
  4. Marine Mukherjee, Kolkata
  5. Ridwan Adid Rupon, Dhaka Bangladesh
  6. Shubhasish Mitra, Shantiniketan,

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