It has taken a little while to write this one but finally I get the chance to tell you about Pohela Boishak – at least the way it is celebrated at LAMB anyway. I also get to tell you about fulfilling a dream I’ve had for 20 years.
Bangladesh has three calendars running simultaneously, just to be difficult:
The Western one – universally adopted simply because everyone uses it and it is convenient to use if you want to trade internationally – may be the one most commonly used but does not have the biggest impact on most Bangladeshis.
The second one is the Islamic calendar. With 90% of the population of Bangladesh being Muslim, this comes as no surprise. This started in 622 CE with the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina means we are now in the year 1433 until the 14th November.
The third, the Bangla one, is the oldest and is thought to have started with Shashanka who is credited with bringing in the Bengali era around 590 CE to 625 CE. However, under Akbar, centuries later, the calendar was reformed and it was celebrated from 1556 onwards. The upshot is that the year is now 1419 in the Bengali calendar.
Confusingly, Bangladesh months start in the middle of the Western ones. Boishak began on the 14th April and will end in the middle of May. Pohela merely means “the first”. Together you get “the first of the month of Boishak”. Simple.
At LAMB the celebrations are taken seriously. I mean it – having fun is obligatory.
We all met first thing in the morning outside the school and got given special hats to wear. The band had arrived and we all paraded around the grounds of LAMB before then heading out of the gates and down the road to another little community made up of LAMB staff.
There we danced – some more than others – before heading back to the LAMB grounds and having an even bigger dancing session. Along the way, various bideshis (foreigners) got swept up in the feverish excitement (or were dragged into it by their deshi friends) and partied like it was 1419.
I kept a reserved distance and took photographs. Partly this was because I am rubbish at dancing and just look a complete idiot when I try. Much of it though, was because I was terrified about what was coming next. I had three reasons to be very nervous…
In the afternoon, it is traditional for a concert to take place, outdoors under the marquee that is erected. So many people take part singing songs or dancing – but most of them are children or at least teenagers. Few are adults.
So my first fear was for my wife who had bravely (foolishly?) agreed not just to take up dancing again (something she had not done since she was a little girl herself) to support our daughter but to also dance with her and their teacher – a wonderful woman called Deena – at the concert all just a few weeks previously! Bangla dancing is not easy for anyone – there are a lot of quite complex and intricate movements that are essential even in just how you hold your fingers or bend your wrist – so to remember a whole routine took some hard work, I can tell you.
In the end, they ended the whole concert and were the talk of the NGO for days afterwards. The link to the video is here. It is poor quality I am afraid as the evening time had fallen by this point and we were working by floodlighting. They did well and I was proud of all three of them.
The second fear was for my daughter who, earlier in the concert, was dancing her first solo Bangla dance in front of a Bangladeshi audience. This was difficult enough but only a handful of weeks earlier she had still been on crutches after her knee gave in at a Christmas party in the UK last December. I was terrified in case it gave way on her again and she collapsed in agony on the stage. She wore a bandage on her knee but the blasted thing started to come off mid-performance which was a bit of a distraction – especially when Deena tried to sort it but didn’t manage. For a second I thought my daughter had lost it but, professional as she is proving to be, she carried on after the blip and danced beautifully. See the dance here.
My third – and greatest fear – was also the fulfilment of a personal dream. I was going to play the Sitar in the concert.
I first studied Asian Classical music back at University 20 years ago when I took up Ethnomusicology. It was a fascinating subject looking at everything from Spanish guitar, to Red China propaganda music through to the curious and amazing Mongolian Throat Singing. I loved it. But I fell in love with Ragas when our lecturer played Raga Lalit to us. Somehow, this was a music I didn’t know, yet I understood it. Now, years later and having traced something of my family’s history, I have a much better understanding of why it affected me so deeply. But even without that, I think most of us found it beautiful music.
Since then, I have taught Indian Classical music as a high school music teacher, but always with an admission to the kids that I only knew the barest of theory and that I would love to learn the Sitar one day.
That day came last year when I finally bought a Sitar and got a teacher. Six months of home leave back in the UK interrupted the lessons but that did not stop my Tabla teacher (who accompanies me on the video link) from deciding that it would be brilliant if I played at the concert. There are not many Sitar players in Bangladesh and it is something of a dying art around the world, so he was keen to have others see it being played – even if it was pretty bad – and maybe spark some interest for the future.
So, after getting permission from my Sitar teacher and an awful lot of advice and help, I agreed to play Raga Birob ( or Bhairav) and at least attempt a mini-composition in the correct style and order. The result is here for you to see for yourself. Bear in mind you are supposed to learn with your guru for many years – as much as 20 – before giving your first performance. When you bear that in mind, I didn’t do too badly, did I?
So there it was. Daughter, Wife and me. We all performed, we all got through it. Only my son kept out of the way, but he noticed the teenage lads playing a Bangla song Rock style and, being a keen guitarist (and not a bad one, I must say) has his eye one next year’s Boishak.
As for me, I went home, put the Sitar safely away and slunk into a chair with a huge sigh of relief. It was over.
Then came a knock on the door. It was my Tabla teacher.
I thanked him for his help and he thanked me for playing and helping to spread the music of ragas. I said it was a great experience. He then said how we did ok and that next year’s performance will be even better. NEXT YEAR?! I don’t recall ever saying I would do it again! This was supposed to be a one-off…
But almost as soon as he had left the house with that bombshell, my ADHD kicked in and I began to dwell, excitedly, on the fact that I still had another dream to fulfil. I had always wanted to play that first Raga, Raga Lalit, the first I ever heard and studied. “I could play Lalit” I said to myself, thoughts running overtime in my head.
I never learn.