Old traditions, new beginnings

Amrita Prasad
Sunday, 14 April 2019

On Poila Boisakh (Bengali new year) and Vishu (new year for the Malayali community), we speak to associations and groups in Pune who are trying to keep the essence of these festivals and communities alive

What is unique about India is that its diversity brings you up and close with various communities — their languages, traditions and festivals. In Pune, various communities come together and celebrate their festivals all through the year. The period between January and April is the season when various Indian communities mark their new year. Just a week back, Maharashtrians celebrated Gudhi Padwa, and today both Bengali and Malayali communities are ushering in their new year — Poila Boisakh and Vishu respectively. Both these festivals signify new beginnings and are celebrated with a puja, lots of scrumptious food, get-togethers, cultural programmes and so on.

Poila Boishakh, also known as Bangla Nabobarsho, is usually celebrated on April 14 or 15 in West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura and parts of Assam. Vishu is celebrated in a big way in Kerala and the adjoining areas of Tamil Nadu. Although, a great number of people from both these communities are living in different parts of the country, including Pune, they indulge in the festivities in a big way.

Bangalee Association Pune, one of the oldest Bengali cultural groups in the city, which has been organising various Bengali festivals like Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Basant Panchami, Rabindra Jayanti and so on, for the last 39 years, is celebrating Poila Boishakh at Ashok Sankul at Bhonsale Nagar. Mihir Kumar Dutta, president of the association, says that while the celebrations begin at home with a puja followed by a scrumptious meal comprising authentic Bengali meal, the group also organises cultural programmes and get-togethers for the members. 

“Every year, we book a big auditorium and organise cultural and musical events. However, we are keeping things very simple this year. Around 100 families will join us in the celebration. From the youngest to the oldest, all members actively  participate in the programmes,” says Dutta, who adds that Durga Puja organised by the association sees the highest number of footfall in the pandals. 

Over the years, the number of Bengalis in the city has grown tremendously and organisations like Bangalee Association are helping them connect with the community and try to keep the art and culture of the state (Bengal) alive. “The idea behind forming the association was to celebrate our culture, however we refrain from making things commercialised as it takes the essence and purity away from our culture. Our annual membership fee is also very nominal and members are expected to take active part in organising festivals all round the year,” he adds.

Apart from celebrating important Bengali festivals such as Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja, Poila Boishakh etc, Nandanik Sanstha, another Bengali group which operates in the Kalyani Nagar area, also puts up socially meaningful programmes. Asis Ray, president of Nandanik, says that they are celebrating the Bengali new year by organising a get-together at one of the clubs and needless to say, there will be an irresistible Bengali feast. 

Talking about keeping their culture alive in a different land, Ray says, “To be honest, we are Probashi Bangalee (non-resident Bengalis) and most of our children and youngsters have grown up here, which means that they don’t know the true essence of the Bengali culture. They’ve experienced a very mixed culture. Nandanik is like this big joint family which connects these youngsters with their roots and also acts as a local family support to the community,” says Ray.

Emphasising that one cannot grow without one’s culture, Ray says that during Bengali festivals, kids and youth get an opportunity to perform and organise events which helps them grow. “We have in-house programmes. Drama and music being a huge part of Bengali culture, we try to promote these during such celebrations. Of course, Poila Boishakh is about digging into scrumptious food, adda and brotherhood. However, I would like to stress that having a Bengali association is not about creating a mini Bengal in Pune, but being a part of their culture and promoting our art and culture here. During our festivals, people from different other communities too come forward and extend help and rejoice with us. It’s all about embracing and respecting each other’s culture and living and celebrating in harmony,” asserts Ray.

Velayudhan P Marar, editor-in-chief, Vakdevatha, a Malayalam magazine which is published from Pune, feels that the growing number of nuclear families often becomes an obstacle when it comes to families/individuals following every ritual on Vishu. He informs that in order to create awareness about the Malayali culture, Vishu and other festivals of Kerala, among the new generation which is born and brought up outside Kerala, a booklet has been released. It talks about their culture, deities, art and festivals.

Says Marar, “The chief priest (Thantrik Pramukh) of more than 300 temples in India and abroad — president of Aluva Thantra Vidhya Peetham, Thantraratnam Brahmasree Azhakakathu Sastra Sarman Namboodiripad, released a special edition book for Vakdevatha, a city-based Malayalee literary and cultural centre. Many (Malayalis) living in Pune, do not know the essence of Vishu. The booklet can be a tool to educate them,” says Marar.

A day before Vishu which is called Vishu Sankranti, people go to the market to buy all the items required to organise Vishukanni. Vegetables, grains, cashew nuts, jackfruits, bananas, coconut are some of the items that are needed to make Vishukanni which is decorated with a new dhoti. Gold or silver coins are kept on it and the Vishukanni is kept in a round-shaped urali. The eldest member of the family takes the youngest person to the Vishukanni, closing his/her eyes. The youngest  member has to open his/her eyes and look at the Vishukanni kept in front of the idol of Lord Krishna,” says Marar.

Later they visit Sri Krishna Temple and worship the deity and come back home and relish traditional Kerala food on a banana leaf. “We also prepare sabjiyan - a dish made with 18-32 varieties of vegetables. In Pune, since we are living in nuclear families, we try to connect with the other members of the community and start planning the get together 15 days in advance. Even if there is pressure at work, we make it a point to take holiday to celebrate the day,” says Marar.

He adds that Vishu is also the harvest festival for the community and it marks the beginning of Sri Krishna Temple’s annual festival at Amigos.

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