The case for a National Paddy Day

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: July 05, 2018 21:30:09 | Updated: July 06, 2018 21:17:11

The world's farmers have been celebrating their harvests since the early days of civilisations. The event stood in stark contrast to the hunting people, who led a nomadic life in the main moving from one place to another. They have never been known to engage in any community-based celebration, except participating in raucous feasts centring round a hunted animal. They constituted the class to live on hunting wild animals, the oldest of vocations. Unlike farming, hunting was not bound by any rule or method.

The festivities marking rice or corn harvest and first plantation take place around the world at different times of a year. The last June 29 saw the National Paddy Day in Nepal. It has traditionally been observed as the Rice Plantation Festival in the Himalayan country since ancient times. Similar to monsoon in Bangladesh, which is related to the country's rice-based agriculture, the Nepali people chose the season as their time of planting paddy seedlings. The Rice Plantation Festival, 'Ropai Jatra' in Nepali, heralds the start of planting rice seedlings in the rain-softened, muddy fields. June 29 appears every year in the Nepali rural life symbolising an auspicious start of the cultivation of rice. According to Nepali solar calendar, the day falls on the 15th of Ashar. Different from the occasion in the Bengal region, both male and female farmers in Nepal celebrate the day in the rice fields amid folk songs, dance and myriad types of revelries. Special delicacies are prepared at village homes on the National Paddy Day.

Like in many regions in the world, the main and only crop festival in Bangladesh is observed in the pre-winter autumn, the time of harvesting Aman, one of the country's main varieties of paddy. The festival is called Nobanno (new rice) in the region of Bengal comprising Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. While going through the news report on the Nepali Paddy Day in the print media, many in Bangladesh may have felt sad. A spell of nostalgia may also have overtaken others. All this has invariably stemmed from the slow fading out of the Aman rice-dominant Nobanno festival from the country. The event is inextricably associated with the Bangladesh rural life for centuries. But few farmers nowadays bother to take a break from work on Nobanno, the first day of Bangla Agrohayon, and engage in festivities like in the past. The day wears on without the notice of most of the villagers. Ironically, the day of the Bangla pre-winter Nobanno, has lately found a major place in the calendar of the city-based festivals in the country. But through the ages, the event remained centred in the rural Bengal region to eventually emerge as the most widely participated fest in the land. Due to its being focused on the harvest of a staple variety of rice consumed by the people -- Aman, rural folk themes enjoyed a dominant place in the traditional fanfare including songs and other cultural performances. Traditional 'pithas' (cakes) made of the powder coming from the newly harvested rice or its paste and the aromatic rice-pudding comprised the ceremonial cuisines prepared on the day of Nobanno.

Thanks to the inroads made by city-based festivities, the pageant-filled Nobanno has been on the decline over the last few decades. Apart from the locally grown harvest rituals, the day of Nobanno, 1st Agrohayon or November 15, once featured over dozens of spontaneously participated merrymaking events. They ranged from traditional music sessions and performances of operetta to sport events. The day, or sometimes days, of Nobanno would literally invigorate a whole village from a year-long weariness. To the farming community and the other professionals like fishermen and small tradespersons, the festival would bring with it a long-awaited period of rest and recreation. Traditionally confined to the boundaries of their homesteads, village women discovered in the Nobanno festivities an occasion to identify themselves as being a part of the community. For without their innovative preparations of Nobanno delicacies the festival would remain incomplete. The village fairs organised during Nobanno offered the rural housewives, unmarried young women and children an opportunity to make short trips to a world filled with fanciful things.

The slow disappearance of this great tradition coinciding with rice harvest deserves to be called a saga. If ever recorded in a written form, the tale is expected to shed light on the chief factors behind this demise of Nobanno in Bangladesh villages. The kind of Nobanno festivities now being organised in urban Dhaka or Chittagong are in essence ersatz. They are nowhere near the age-old sight, sound and smell of the rural Bangla Nobanno. Drawing mainly on the urban patterns of celebrations, they are tailor-made suiting the taste of urban participants. They miserably lack the rural festival's soul.

Upon taking an in-depth look at the reasons behind the Nobanno festivities' petering off, many will home in on a few distinctive features. They may, in most likelihood, are set to point the finger at the overrunning of the rural cultural landscape by alien customs and trends. It began with the menacingly invincible television, and later, the TV dish channels. Due to these mediums' capability to win instant audiences through their visibly mind-boggling entertainments, the rural people in general emerged as a gullible segment. In course of time, with the spread of television, the villagers proved to be as vulnerable as the urbanites. With vast expanses of rural areas getting connected to electricity, few could remain unaffected by the so-called technology-borne modern entertainment outlets. In the later times, many other socio-cultural adversities cropped up prompting the start of an era of creative barrenness.  A few sections in rural society tried to resist the tide, but to no avail. Open-air sessions of traditional songs no longer keep villagers awake throughout the night. The traditionally popular 'jatras' (rural operettas) have long bidden adieu to their performing stage. Village fairs have largely migrated to the cities and the suburbs. The month of Agrohayon comes and goes. So does Nobanno. Few care to even feel nostalgic about the festivities.

In many respects, the scenario in Bangladesh is unique. Given the fact of agro-festivals being fully alive in almost every part of the world, its decline in Bangladesh may appear an aberrant development. Harvest and crop plantation festivals are celebrated across the world even in these frenzied times of online entertainment. Festivals related to crops are organised annually in the sub-continent, Southeast Asia, Middle East, the US, Canada and Europe. The crops vary from paddy to various types of corn. Home to a number of ancient human settlements and ethnic groups, many regions in Africa have been celebrating their harvest times since time immemorial. So have the lands of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and many others --- the peoples being rice-eating. In Europe and North America, the cereal crop harvest celebration is generally known as Thanksgiving Day. The dominantly American-Indian native heritage is brought alive in similar festivals in South America and the Caribbean.

Notwithstanding the nationally important festival's lacklustre status among people in this country, the event is attached great social and cultural importance in other regions. We tend to be oblivious to the major place rice and the related customs once enjoyed in Bengalee society. The glory of the cereal has not paled even a little in the context of its national dietary significance. To the misfortune of the country, Nobanno had to find itself uprooted from its rural base and take refuge in the cities. Rice and the villages where it's grown ought to be given back their deserving distinctions. Despite being on the road to graduation into a developing nation, Bangladesh is set to remain agro-based, with paddy being the chief crop, for decades to come. A state-sponsored celebration of rice harvest on a specific day every year could be an occasion to honour the crop and its growers. A formal National Paddy Day, coupled with the Nobanno festivities, carries the prospects for a countrywide appraisal of rice in its multi-faceted aspects. Owing to its national character, no community, be they based in cities or villages, can lay claim to the day as theirs. After all, people of the country depend on rice as a staple.




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