Annual fairs where festivity reigns supreme

Shihab Sarkar | Published: January 24, 2019 21:29:24


Fairs used to be an integral part of Bengalee recreation in the past. The tradition, however, continued into the present times in different segments of society in different forms. Due to the country's rural past and the vast expanses comprising clusters of villages, fairs had been organised for ages in the land's rural areas. Fairs and villages eventually became synonymous. After centuries, these simple-looking and makeshift assemblages of people conducting business transaction began to shift to the nearby urban centres. Since the late 20th century in Bangladesh, fairs have largely been shifted to the cities and townships. Some indigenous fairs, however, continued to stay back in villages, thanks to their long tradition of thriving in a pure rural setting. Notwithstanding the fairs' increased pace of shift to the cities and the adoption of newer characters of fanfare, the rural events retained some of their early forms of merriment.

There is an element of novelty that has been added to the different types of fairs being held in Dhaka and the other cities. The fairs have been part of local cultural activities for the last few decades. Despite being called 'mela', Bangla for a fair, these urban occasions continue to include scores of commercial and festive items. Unlike the limited economic capacity of the rural fairs, those in the cities found commerce as one of the basic features. In time, the fun and amusement-focused fairs found themselves intruded upon by traders. Their merchandise began to define the new-age fairs. As part of it, trading in essential household and fancy items emerged a remarkable feature in the urban fairs. In accordance with it their spheres both physically and in terms of character have been on an unabated expansion.

The village fair visitors were not strange to trading and small-scale business activities. In fact, the idea of selling and purchasing various items in a fun-filled ambience was a vital aspect of these fairs. A difference from today's pageant-like fairs had marked them. It stemmed mainly from the volume of business at these one-day or 2-day events. Hand-made household objects, toys and trinkets and cheap cosmetics constituted a significant volume of the merchandise at these village fairs. So did the crudely made fancy sweetmeats, which mainly targeted children. The irony is urban fairs could not give any radically different character to this festive event. The basic model remained the same. What has made the city fairs different from that in the villages is their broader expanse. Compared to most of the rural 'melas', the large city-based fairs now witness larger numbers of visitors. Their number on days soars to hundreds and thousands.

Given these continuing developments, various types of winter trade and other fairs have lately emerged as popular and much-awaited events in the recent years. The largest of them is the month-long Dhaka International Trade Fair (DITF), which is held annually at a sprawling venue at the capital's Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. In 2019, it enters its 24th year. Like every year, it started on January 09 and concludes on February 08. In the recent decades, a handful of such grand fairs are held in Dhaka. Apart from DITF, the most prominent among these fairs is the Amor Ekushey Granthamela --- the Ekushey Book Fair, organised by Bangla Academy. Being a specialised fair, it caters to mainly the book lovers. It also has an economic aspect, since sales and purchase of books comprise a major activity at the month-long book fair.  With business constituting a significant part, the international trade fair has eventually emerged a largely sales-cum-purchase event held in a festive food.

The trade fair is organised by the Export Promotion Bureau, under the patronage of the Ministry of Commerce. With 550 stalls and pavilions, the DITF this year puts on display myriad types of products related to the domestic sphere. As seen every year, almost all the items are targeted at specific buyers. Sales on lucrative discounts have become a feature integral to the fair, which in the earlier times was known as an 'exhibition'. The first such exhibition in this land, the eastern part of the then Pakistan, was held at the then Dhaka Race Course ground in the mid-1960s. Prior to this 'international exhibition', East Pakistan had little idea of the mass appeal generated by a largely commercial event. The exhibition in the 1960s was followed by one held at the same venue, renamed Suhrawardy Udyan, in the early 1970s. Bangladesh was then an independent country; but in its early fledgling stage of industrial production. The country had little to put on display for traders from outside, or, for that matter, the local clientele.   A few sloppily arranged, small-scale exhibitions followed.

In trade exhibitions in the past, people would visit the events just to move around in groups and with families, from pavilion to pavilion --- all colourfully decorated and illuminated by night. Participated by a considerable number of foreign countries showcasing their products, the exhibitions had little for Bangladeshi consumers. The overseas products were beyond the purchasing capacity of middle or lower middle-class people. The goods in the sales list of foreign stalls at these fairs included high-end consumer goods like wrist watches, electric irons, transistors and even cars. In fact, foreign participants at these trade exhibitions used to go by the theme strictly --- exposure of their products to prospective importers.

Since the launch of the International Trade Fair in Dhaka in 1995, it has continued to undergo remarkable changes in its character. With the number of visitors increasing exponentially, the event has finally emerged as a marketplace for consumer products both local and foreign. The overseas participants annually joined the fair eying a sales bonanza for their products. In order to reach their target, they employ a highly effective business strategy: incredible discounts. This allows the local retail buyers to purchase in droves their choice products on 5.0 per cent to 30 per cent discount. As the DITF has increasingly been focused on household goods in the recent years, the fair witnesses a huge rush of visitors with every passing day. That the visitors will comprise huge numbers of women is implied. In line with the common preference of the womenfolk, the foreign entrepreneurs customarily fill their racks and display boards with tempting products. Beginning from utensils, ceramic products, cosmetics, designer ornaments, winter garments to spices to canned food, the month-long fair sees the pavilions selling varied types of items. Electronic goods also continue to occupy wider spaces, as do motorbikes and smart phones. Local entrepreneurs do not lag behind. A few reputed houses this year have brought innovatively built furniture, leather products and newer types of jute products. They have added remarkably to the varied nature of the DITF 2019.

Over a fortnight into the fair, the event has now reached its crescendo. Apart from the Dhaka residents, visitors from the areas living on the city's outskirts now comprise a major part of the fair-goers. The developments, however, do not make many take heart. To them, the DITF in reality has turned out to be an annual fair for shopping in the tradition of the age-old Bengal 'melas'. Attracting overseas traders had been publicised as one of the prime objectives of the event. Woefully, it did not materialise as expected. Local entrepreneurs and traders dominate the fair. As many view it, the DITF appears to be similar to the Ekushey Book Fair, where big publishers continue to bring new books throughout the month and sell them to the hungry book lovers. The only difference: Books have a healing effect on the mind, and the consumer items lack it. 

shihabskr@ymail.com

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