Alexandra Indira Sanyal, New York, USA
Growing up in a hybrid Bengali-American household, I was blessed with the opportunity to incorporate various traditions from both my maternal and paternal sides into my everyday life — piecing them together to create a lifestyle that was uniquely hybridized and culturally inclusive. As a child, I noticed that there were a few distinct differences between the ways that my parents viewed the world and their own role in it. One of those was the passing of time.
Photo credit: Alexandra Sanyal
As is typical in the Western world, my mother understood the revolution of the year as broken into 12 months and subdivided into the four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall); also known as the Gregorian, solar calendar. My dad, on the other hand, seemed to have a much more complex understanding of time and “seasons,” celebrating New Years Eve socially with his American friends but feeling a sense of closure and opportunity for new beginnings during Bangla Noboborsho (the Bengali New Year) a few months later. When asking my father why the holidays didn’t line up, he explained to me that, officially, for Bengalis, the cycle of a year follows its own structure and is broken into six seasons that are named in Sanskrit (altered with a Bengali pronunciation to reflect the switch of “a” to “o”) to reflect the Hindu Vikrami lunar calendar. What I found more interesting, however, was the “unofficial” calendars recognized by Bengalis that seemed to come from a deep seated love for food, family, festivals and the fine arts. As I got older and immersed myself further into Bengali culture, I realized that Bengalis seemed to have multiple ways of telling time — understanding a year as something not only defined by the movement of the sun but also reflections and celebrations of Bengali cultural markers. For my family, and many Bengalis that I know, it simplifies down to the trifecta: festivals, foods and feelings...or the three Bengali “calendars.”
Like most kids, I spent much of my childhood counting down the days from one holiday to the next — special days that happened once every year (and that often came with presents). This idea was something practiced and preached by both my mother and my father — something almost universal. What was special about being Bengali, however, was that the next holiday or festival was likely just around the corner. Whether it be Pujos, Eids, birthdays or death days of notable figures, Bengalis are always finding a reason to celebrate! In fact, according to the West Bengal government, the 2020 calendar recognizes twenty one public holidays, one nearly each month, that showcase the religious diversity of state — with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh holidays noted — as well as a great pride for the founding fathers of Indian Independence. For Bengalis in Bangladesh, the frequency of festivals is similar, with a notable seven national holidays that are secular and which commemorate important moments of national heritage — a concept of utmost importance and pride to Bengalis, no matter which side of the partition line they live on.
Bengali new year celebrations in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 14, 2016
Besides this extensive list of nationally recognized holidays, there are numerous festivals and moments of importance that commemorate Bengali cultural heritage and that have accumulated over time, reflecting the evolution of Bengali identity. For example, whether it be Bhai Phota, on which sisters give and receive blessings to/from their brothers, Kathin Chibardan, on which offerings of cotton woven robes are made to monks and nuns or Nouka Baich, on which boat racing festivals are held after the rivers fill from the monsoon, the year is marked by festivals and holidays that justify coming together with family, friends, and the larger Bengali community to celebrate the richness of the culture and identity.
Bhai phota celebration, India
It’s important to note that this abundance of celebrations does not just provide moments to look forward to, but also structures the daily work of the large population of artisans and craftspeople that orient their year around the production of decorations and deities for these various festivals. Take the idol-makers of Calcutta’s Kumartuli, also known as “Pal Para” (named for the ancestral family of artisans), for example: the name “Kumortuli” is derived from the original Bengali word ‘kumore’ meaning ‘potter’ in English.“Tuli” is a Bengali word that roughly translates as ‘a small space’ or ‘place’ where the potters stay, create and perfect their craft from one generation to the next. These artisans spend months in preparation for each pujo season working on the protima (idol) by creating skeletons out of bamboo and stray, sculpting their bodies in clay, painting their exteriors (saving the eyes for last) and decorating them in glitter and gold. As soon as one festival ends, they begin to prepare for the next, making the festival calendar one of utmost importance to their livelihood.
Artisan's studio in Kumartuli, Kolkata, India. Getting ready for Durga Puja, September 30, 2018
If you grew up in or around Bengali households, chances are you have a special appreciation for food — it’s at the center of everything. So, another popular way by which Bengali’s identify the passing of the year is by the *sweet* arrival (and sad departure) of their favorite seasonal foods. As a region with a rich agricultural history, the tradition of eating what’s fresh and plentiful is important to Bengalis. Take আম (“am” or mango), for example, one of the staples of a summer diet — they are arguably the most important fruit in the region and their trees occupy about 80.90 thousand hectares which is more than 41 per cent of total area under fruits in the state of West Bengal. Mangos come into season in Boshonto (spring) and are eaten up until Borsha (the rainy season). Whether it’s sliced up and served with morning cha, offered as an afternoon snack, or enjoyed in chutneys or mishti dois (sweet yogurt) for dessert, mangos are everywhere and are to be savored (until all that’s left is a clean pit)! The change in seasons is also important when it comes to the preparation of different মাছ (“maach” or fish). For example, one Bengali favorite is the hilsha fish, called ইলিশ মাছ (illish-mach), served during বর্ষাকাল (varsha-kal), or the rainy season, when the rivers fill up with these small fish.
A Bengali feast. Photo credit Naim Chowdhury
Whether it’s eating hearty food, like thick daals and payesh, in হেমন্তের কাল (hemonto-kal) to stay warm, or late autumn, or steamed seasonal vegetable medleys like goto-sheddho, in বসন্তকাল (boshoto-kal) to cool our bodies and fortify the immune system, Bengalis pay close attention to following the cycles of the harvest and eating what their bodies are asking for in each changing climate.
Lastly, Bengalis are passionate about the arts and much of the artistic works produced by Bengalis are deeply emotionally driven, particularly the words of the revered Rabindranath Tagore. The enthusiasm for Tagore is ephemeral and many Bengalis still refer to Tagore’s work to understand the passing of time and articulate the various emotions that these changes in time evoke. Tagore, himself, is said to have been a deeply emotional man who was able to skillfully articulate his various emotions as facets of human nature that connect us all with each other and our surroundings. He loved to immerse himself with nature and it is said that he spent one of the most creative phases of his life by the bank of the river Padma, writing poetry that depicted the seasons of Bengal. Ever since Rabindranath's time, it has been a tradition at Shantiniketan — where he created the Visva Bharati University in 1921, attracting some of the most creative minds in the country to learn and create beyond the confines of religious and regional barriers — to welcome each season with Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindra Nritya (song and dance).
Folk singer performing at Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India. February 14, 2019
Much of the power of Tagore’s work on the seasons comes from his passion for articulating the feelings of each season and the natural elements that, when identified, signal the natural evolution of the year. He writes of the scorching Grishma heat, the blue skies of Sharat, the fleecy clouds of Hemanta, the blossoms of Basanta — points of reference that come together to create what former Bangladeshi government minster Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley calls “multi-coloured melange which is integral to the Bengali psyche.”
Rabindranath was a romantic of sorts, writing poems meant to insight a feeling of nostalgia for each passing season:
Jabar agay jani jeno
Amai dekechhilo keno
Aakash pane noyon mele
Shyamol Bashumoti ...
" ...Jeno amar ganer sheshey
Thamtey pari shame eshey..."
... Chhoyti ritur
Bhorte pari dala ..."
(So that I may know
Before I leave
Why the green Earth
Looked up at the sky
And call me to her lap
....Before I depart
I pray that
I may end my song at its peak.
...Have the fortune of
Filling my container
With the fruits and flowers of six seasons).
His words encourage an acceptance for the natural turning of time, creating an appreciation amongst Bengalis for the little signs and symbols of beauty and life in each season — like the way that my father looks at the clouds on a spring day in Boston and can be immediately transported back to late summer day on the veranda of our Calcutta house. To this day, Bengalis look to Tagore’s words, songs, and shows to connect them to home and help usher in the new.
As I reflect on the previous year, one defined by hardship, pain, and uncertainty, I realize that much of the difficulties that I faced, and that my family faced, came from the fact that we were not able to tell time in the ways we usually would — it was almost like time stood still. Stuck at home, without the ability to travel and see family, to spend time in Calcutta, to gather together and share a celebratory meal, took a toll on us. Without our usual markers it was only natural to feel lost. However, as I embrace the start of a new year with open arms, I hope to find comfort in festivals, foods, feelings and family again and wait, eagerly, to put on a new pujo saree and take a bite out of the first mango of the season.
Alexandra Sanyal is a Bengali-American designer, artist and activist based in New York City —and founder of Shrishti Studios, a creative consultancy that uses writing, film, photography, and visual design, to investigate the complexity of socio-spatial and cultural identity.