In the past Poila Baishak or Bengali New Year was more associated with traders who wished to begin the year on an auspicious note and definitely, with a new ledger book. However, with changing times Kolkatans have begun celebrating the occasion with lot of fervour- shopping malls being decked up and restaurants serving typical Bengali cuisine. But ironically, the quaint Bengali calendar seems to have no place in our present cosmopolitan lifestyle
Narayan Parui, owner of a small printing press at Baithakkhana specialising in printing Bengali calendars for the past seven decades, has resolved against churning out any more calendars from next year onwards. The reason: demand for Bengali calendars have gone woefully down and rising cost of paper and printing has wiped off the small margin of profit. The small establishment set up by his father in the 1930s was a flourishing one and printing Bengali calendars was their prime business. These calendars had pictures of gods and goddesses and orders were placed by traders and jewellers beforehand and these were supplied to them by the first week of April. It was a customary gift along with sweets to the regular clientele who visited the shop on the first day of Baishak – the beginning of the New Year.
Among the gods and goddesses, Maa Kali was a great favourite; in fact a popular depiction had the goddess blessing Ramakrishna. Another one had Ramakrishna and Maa Sarada in sitting postures while the temple at Dakshineswar featured at the background.
Earlier, quite a lot of Bengali festivals, pujas and rituals were observed according to the calendar including ekadashi (the 11th day of the lunar month) and purnima (full moon) by widows and Brahmins while the women observed various sasthis (the sixth day of the lunar month). But with the women taking on more of the economic burden it is not possible for them to fast or observe rituals. The Christian calendars now usually mark the dates of major pujas like Durga, Kali and Saraswati which are holidays too. All this has rendered the Bengali calendar which depicted ekadashi, amabashya (night of no moon) and purnima, redundant.
Dr Ritu Basu Roy Chowdhury, a sociologist delving in to the changes in Bengali society and custom said: “Now even the jewellers do not require calendars. In the past women brought gold ornaments only before marriages and months like Poush, Chaitra, Bhadra were considered inauspicious for marriages. However, now gold ornaments are bought throughout the year.”
She rued the fact that although television channels show addas with celebrities and artists and families prefer to dine on typical Bengali cuisine, children from well-to-do families are not conversant with their mother-tongue and are ignorant about the names of the months of the Bengali calendar. Even the elders are not aware of the current Bengali year. Very soon the Bengali calendar and almanac will be things of past and fairs like Gajan and Charak held on the eve of the New Year will become history.
Bengali calendar was introduced by King Sasanka who ruled Bengal, parts of Bihar, Orissa, Assam and present Bangladesh between 590 AD and 625 AD and is still followed in these areas. The calendar was derived from the Hindu solar calendar based on Surya Siddhanta.
It was Emperor Akbar (1556 AD to 1605 AD) along with his colleague Fatehullah Shirazi, a well known astronomer who introduced a new Bengali calendar for tax collection purpose. Earlier land and agricultural taxes were collected on the basis of Islamic calendar which is lunar based. Hence, the agriculture calendar did not always match with the fiscal one. The farmers often found it difficult to pay taxes. Akbar reformed the system and the new calendar was based on lunar and solar calendars. But it became obsolete after Akbar’s death.
The Bengali calendar consists of six seasons – Grishsho or summer, Barsha or monsoon season, Sarat or autumn, Hemanta or dry season, Shit or winter and Basanto or Spring with two months comprising each season.
According to famous Astrophysicist Professor Somak Rai Chaudhuri, Bengalis had strong base in Mathematics and Astronomy and hence the seasons were named after stars. Baishak was named after star Bishakha. Similarly, Jaistho after Jestha, Asharh after Uttorasharha, Shravan after Srobona, Bhadra after Purbabhadropod, Ashwin after Ashwini, Kartik after Kritika, Agrayan after Mrigoshira, Poush after Pushya, Magh after Mogha, Falgun after Utterfalguni, and Chaitra after Chitra.
“It is unfortunate that we do not teach our youngsters about our history and rich heritage. With the disappearance of Bengali calendar, our youngsters will not know the names of the seasons Bengal is blessed with and they will become more and more rootless,” he regretted.