Mangal Shobhajatra

Photo: Fatiha Polin, Dhrubo Alam, "Ten Elements of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Bangladesh” 

As soon as the dawn breaks on the first day of Boishakh, a group of artists from Chayanot (an institute dedicated for music) prepare themselves to perform the famous Tagore song “Esho he Boishakh esho esho” along with other melodious tune to start a better, aspire and peaceful new year under the Ramna Batamul (a huge banyan tree) to welcome Boishakh. Not very far from that, another group of students and teachers of Charukala (the institute of Fine Arts) are busy with Mangal Shobhajatra , without which the celebration wouldn’t have been so enchanting. Enjoying the musical soiree people slowly start to gather there to start the procession. Men wearing Panjabi, women adorned with flowers and red-white Sharee, walk around the area like a wave of color as the procession; which ends at the institute. The Mangal Shobhajatra can be considered as the heart of Pahela Boishakh celebration, and Charukala remains the same for any festivity.

Mangal Shobhajatra, a vibrant and enthusiastic procession of thousands of people to battle the social prejudice in a peaceful way has become an integral part of celebrating Pahela Boishakh in Dhaka for about two decades. People from all walks of life attend with great enthusiasm and pride as a citizen of this country. According to Firoz Mahmud, a famous Bangladeshi artist who works on installation, painting, drawing, photograph and various from of art; Mangal Shobhajatra is eloquently enthralling as carnival, vividly meaningful as a ritual, creatively thoughtful as a manifestation of expressive art, and symbolically powerful to fight for freedom and justice. It is not a festivity only for a day. It is a month-long event that culminates on Pahela Boishakh. Every year the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University works on a selected theme. The responsibility is predominantly handed toward a new group of students accordingly. The whole process is carried out voluntarily and depends on a committed, blended energy of students and teachers. Students prepare giant, colorful paper sculptures, decorated, at considerable expense of labor. Art, here is a process governed by skill; practiced and refined under the supervision of senior students and faculty.

Generally, the preparation begins from 14th of March to facilitate the huge event. Each year a committee is formed with teachers and senior students. The responsibility of different tasks like making of large objects, masks, smaller objects, maintaining account following a selective theme, is distributed to different sub-committees for smooth operation. For example, in 2013 the Mangal Shobhajatra was comprised of a monster and a reptile to signify the sinister forces, a dove as a symbol of peace, a bull to stand for the revolutionary spirit, a clenched hand to embody vigor and courage. Furthermore, wide ranges of masks are prepared for the participants to carry in order to strengthen the community with courage and bring peace. As an institute of art and craft, the Charukola plans, arrange and lead the procession. But it is the spontaneous participation of people that makes it so vibrant and lively. All the students and teachers work voluntarily for this event and many formal students join for their passion and attachment with the tradition. The knowledge and skill they learned from their beloved institute, they try to pass on to their next generation happily and wholeheartedly. 

Dating back to 1989, its history is quite different from that of the celebration of the Bengali New Year which can be traced from the early medieval period of Bengal in 1556. It didn’t start as a separate event, but the occasion of the New Year celebration and the procession both have a common goal to protect against all evil. The Mangal Shobhajatra also began as a protest rather than an event of celebration. It acted like an expression of creative symbol to demonstrate their courage and vision in the time of political or cultural suppression.

From 1982, the country was under martial law for the second time in its history since independence in 1971. Moreover in 1988-89, a devastating flood did irreparable and irrecoverable damage to economy and daily life and the misery of common people knew no bounds. The students from most of the institutions started voluntary activity to lessen the effect of that natural disaster and realized the power of collective effort. They were also confident enough to stand up against the undemocratic military government with their creative endeavor and enthusiasm.

They started preparing for a protest under the veil of celebrating Pahela Boishakh with full support of their faculties. A former student of the Fine Arts, Imdad Hossein proposed the name “Mangal Shobhajatra” meaning a journey for well-being in Bangla and thus the celebration of Pahela Boishakh with a wonderful procession in 1989 came into being. It challenges the cruelty, humiliation and disrespect towards the society. It states that people can always fight back the evil in an artistic, imaginative and nonviolent way even in an extremely distressed situation. Art here is a medium, which brought out the hidden faces of personal, social, political and environmental despairs. 

An appeal was made to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to be listed, Mangal Shobhajatra as an intangible cultural heritage by Bangla Academy in 2014. It was described as a collective art and symbol as a resolution to perpetuate the struggle for freedom & justice. And to our good fortune the UNESCO declared it as a cultural heritage of humanity in 2016. This significant bond, formed by a creative endeavor helps to regain hope not only in the time of festival but also in political turmoil. 

Mangal Shobhajatra is not an ordinary event. It is beyond any bias and antagonism. It’s an open call for brotherhood and empathy, for affection and acceptance. It’s beauty lies not in colorful banners, festoon, masks and giant sculptures, but in the bright and beautiful mind of people associated to it.