By Selim Jahan
The term Boishakhi Mela dates back to the Mughal reign when Emperor Akbar introduced the Bangla New Year. Since the inception of the Bangla New Year, Bengalis have celebrated the Pohela Boishakh by organising a traditional mela or fair. In Bengali, Boishakh is the first month of the Bangla calendar year making Pohela Boishakh the first day of the Bangla New Year.
Traditionally the Pohela Boishakh was observed in rural areas of Bangladesh before a progressive cultural organisation Chayanot, bought the celebration to Dhaka city. Bengali students, who came to the UK from then East Pakistan for their studies, introduced Bengali New Year celebrations to the UK.
Following the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the Pohela Boishakh was celebrated in a much bigger way in Trafalgar Square in 1972 and 1973. The Bengali New Year celebrations used to be observed by various groups in Britain in their own styles. Among those events the Desh Bikasher Mela was a notable example. This mela took place between 1991 and 1996 at various places in Tower Hamlets.
The largest Boishakhi Mela was staged at Brick Lane on 10 May, 1998, organised by a number of groups and businesses and supported by Cityside Regeneration.
Mahmud A Rouf was the convenor of the first Brick Lane Boishakhi Mela. Sonawar Ali was elected Chairman of the mela committee in 2000. Since then, the Boishakhi Mela was organised under the Boishakhi Mela Trust Ltd with Shiraj M Haque at the helm. Tower Hamlets Council organised the Boishakhi Mela between 2009 and 2011. After that, the role went back to Shiraj M Haque.
Over the past years, I have heard about it on so occasions and from so many people – about the Boishakhi Mela in London. Boishakh is the first month of the Bangla calendar year. Traditionally, Bengalis celebrate the Pohela Boishakh (the first day of the months) by organising a traditional mela or fair.
In London, over the years, even though some melas were organised by some groups, the largest Boishakhi Mela was staged at Brick Lane on 10 May, 1998. After
that with each year passing, the Mela not only grew bigger in terms of people, but also in terms of diversity, publicity and recognition. In fact, I was told that in London, the Boishakhi Mela is the largest festival of South Asian communities in the world. The 2018 Boishakhi Mela in London was held on 1 July in Weavers Fields in the heart of Banglatown.
I have had the opportunity to attend this year’s Boishakhi Mela in London because I was invited to the Kobita Corner to read from ‘The Ancestral Embryo’ – a translation that I have done of Shamim Azad’s autobiographical novel ‘Bongshobeej’. Since I received the invitation, I decided that I would spend the whole day at the Mela. So I joined the colourful procession at the beginning of the Mela, attended my own session along with my dear friend Shamim as well as her story-telling performances, saw the cultural performances, roamed around the Mela Ground, and enjoyed the tasty foods.
Three things impressed me about the festival. First, Boishakhi Mela is the celebration of Bangla culture, tradition and heritage abroad. This is particularly important for second and third generations of Bengalis in London. It has also become a huge platform for social gatherings. You meet old friends, make new friends. Second, it draws more than 50,000 people. So its reach has extended to more and more new groups of people from different races, ethnicity and nationalities. Thus it serves a huge role for assimilation of different communities, including Bengalis. Third, the Mela has had so many diverse activities – songs, dances, story-telling, reading from books, poetry, even chess. And it has offered so many tasty food representing various cuisines. So everyone has something to enjoy.
The London Boishakhi Mela for me was a unique experience and I am sure that in coming years, I would always look forward to coming here during the Mela.