Preparations for Bangla New Year at the Fine Arts Institute of the University of Dhaka. (ucanews.com photo)
Under the scorching sun of a late spring afternoon, Tanjima Tabassum is patiently painting face masks in the yard of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka.
For days, Tanjima and dozens of other students at the institute have been preparing the masks to sell on the occasion of Bangla New Year, the largest non-sectarian cultural festival in Bangladesh.
Many people believe the mask symbolizes a form of power that can drive away evil spirits or forces — both past and present — that pose a threat to peace, prosperity and harmony in the country.
The Bangla New Year, popularly known as Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali calendar, falls on April 14.
"Pohela Boishakh embodies the spirit of Bangladesh which our ancestors dreamed and lived — harmonious, pluralistic and non-sectarian," Tanjima, 26, told ucanews.com.
"We have had difficult times as a nation, but in a broad sense Bangladesh is still a land of harmony and tolerance," the Muslim postgraduate student added.
"We celebrate our rich cultural heritage on Bangla New Year and this helps us to defy radical forces in order to establish a peaceful and prosperous society and nation."
In addition to preparing masks and large floats of birds, animals and human figures made of colored paper and bamboo, the institute conducts a mongol shovajatra (welfare procession) on the morning of April 14.
Thousands of people participate in this, wearing colorful masks, singing and dancing to the beat of drums and the rhythm of the music
This year, however, several hard-line groups including Islami Oikyajote (United Islamic Front) have warned people against engaging in grand celebrations on Pohela Boishakh and have called to scrap the procession.
"Singing, dancing and having processions on Bangla New Year are un-Islamic acts and they derive from Hinduism. No good Muslim should take part in such unholy acts in the name of culture and tradition," Mufti Rezaul Karim, chief of Islami Oikyajote warned last week.
The threat to the Pohela Boishakh celebration is not unprecedented in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has seen Islamist militancy rise in recent years.
The festival has irked Islamists for years.
In 2001, a local militant outfit, Harkat-ul-Jihad, bombed a New Year concert in Dhaka that killed 10 people and injured dozens more, making it the deadliest attack ever carried out on this day in the country.
But teachers, students and secular activists say the Boishakhi celebrations are purely cultural and nationalistic in fervor, and religion has got nothing to do with it.
Tanjima Tabassum, 26, a Muslim postgraduate student at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka, paints face masks on April 12, two days ahead of the Bangla New Year celebrations. (ucanews.com photo)
Sohel Khan, 21, a Muslim graduate student at the same Faculty of Fine Arts, said the New Year spirit can help to battle the growing radicalism that is creeping into Bangladesh.
"A group of so-called Islamist radicals are trying to give Bangladesh an Islamic identity even though our nation was born as a secular democracy," he said.
"They have vested interests, so they oppose a popular cultural festival like this. They are afraid that if people live in harmony with others based on the non-sectarian spirit of the New Year, they will never succeed in turning Bangladesh into an Islamic state," Khan added.
"Bangladesh is going through a critical time when extremists are trying to take over. But the people of Bangladesh are liberal-minded and they believe in religious harmony and tolerance. They will battle radicalism with the spirit of Bangla New Year."
Echoing similar sentiments, Professor Nishar Hossain, dean of the institute, said the festival is close to people's hearts and no radical force can stop the celebrations.
"Most people in Bangladesh love this festival as it celebrates the rich culture and traditions we have. There is a small group of radicals who think otherwise, but people reject their ideology and their threats," he said.
Father Tapan C. De Rozario, chairman of the World Religions and Culture Department at Dhaka University, said extremists will always be "on the losing side" in Bangladesh.
"Bangla New Year is a spontaneous expression of both the spirit and the philosophy that people in Bangladesh have inherited through a long tradition of harmony and pluralism," he said.
"Those who want to sow division in the name of religion don't like it but they will always be on the losing side as people reject them," he added.
Shahriar Kabir, a prominent writer, filmmaker and secularist, said Pohela Boishahkh represents the true spirit of Bangladesh.
"It is non-sectarian and accommodates everyone. It reminds us that religion and culture each have their own place and should not be mixed up," he told ucanews.com.
A melting pot of culture and tradition
On the day of the New Year, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life flock at dawn to large trees, mostly banyan trees, in Dhaka and major cities nationwide.
They sing cultural, folk and patriotic songs to usher in the New Year, marking the start of daylong festivities for the largest traditional festival celebrated by ethnic Bengalis not only in Bangladesh, but in India and other countries, too.
The festival celebrates the simple rural cultural heritage of ancient Bengal, which included the Indian state of West Bengal.
In modern times, the festival has gained popularity in urban centers like Dhaka where people have migrated to en masse in the hope of bettering their lives.
The day is a public holiday in Bangladesh.
Music concerts, cultural programs and processions are held all over the country. On the street, people enjoy popular folk traditions such as puppet shows, snake-charming, cock-fighting, street plays and yatra (folk dramas).