Basant banished & banned

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 7, 2014

AFTER considerable pressure the rulers of Lahore had announced a limited Basant in the now denuded ‘forest’ of Changa Manga, away from the heart and soul of Lahore. In their hired special tents, the more resourceful were to be given an opportunity to flog the lifeless body of a festival that has evolved over thousands of years. That was before the news came that even the Changa Manga flight is being aborted.

In other cities the ‘virus’ of happiness has spread. Across the border in Delhi and Amritsar huge celebrations are planned. In Kabul of all places it will be a holiday as the people fly kites and enjoy their finest foods. It might amaze our puritans that even in Tehran they will be celebrating.

Newspaper reports inform that Basant celebrations are planned in England, France, Germany, Bangladesh and many cities of the USA. In San Francisco a huge Basant Festival is planned on February 16 and it is expected to attract over 50,000 people. What Lahore lost has been an immense gain for the entire world.

In every civilisation there are moments of collective happiness which people love to share. It is an unprompted response, almost a genetic switch, in all humans. Collective happiness is best in evidence when the crops are ripe and wealth is expected to flow your way. Given ‘perfect’ weather, celebration is a human need.

In the Punjabi culture as it has evolved over thousands of years, agriculture and Basant Panchami have evolved like it has all over the subcontinent. In the Punjabi New Year the harvest celebration spreads over 14 moons from the end of ‘Maagh’ to the beginning of ‘Phaggan’.

Traditionally it was called Baisakhi. To the north in Kashmir it is called ‘Navreh’, or ‘the renewal’. To the far-east in Bengal it is called ‘Pohela Boishakh’, the flowering of the crops. Down in Sri Lanka it is called New Year’s Day. Far to the north-east in Assam it is called ‘Rangoli Bihu’, the eruption of colours.

That and much more it means to Lahore, where the festival has evolved as one of colour, of happiness, of the arts and culture, and, naturally, immensely good food. With care to the wind, the kites did once fly and around this time in February, everyone in the city would be preparing for Basant. It has been replaced by the culture of the desert, grim as that is.

People measure life in terms of colour and happiness. That is why when in 2007 this amazing festival of Basant, which attracted tourists from all over the world, was banned, it took away from the poor the one true unprompted all-inclusive happiness they loved and indulged in. The reason being that a new lethal wire was being used for kite-flying by a handful of spoilsports.

No death can be justified, least of all the ones caused by revellers who want to win at all cost. Instead of finding a solution, our inept rulers banned a thousand years of culture. To be honest one did not expect much better from them. But then let us examine police figures for ‘kite-string’ deaths and locate them in Lahore. I will use official figures so that the government cannot rebut them. Of the total of 14 deaths by kite-string over the last seven years, not a single one took place inside the walled city of Lahore. But there is a compelling reason why all the deaths took place on main roads on motorcycles, and that being that this ‘wire’, normally used by doctors to stitch patients after an operation, does not snap, and children on motorcycles at speed are sadly caught.

The walled city of Lahore, to whom this festival belongs, does not have fast-moving motorcycles and wide roads, for the kite-flying is taking place on the high roofs. For this reason not a single death has ever taken place inside the walled city.

Even the British rulers restricted this festival to the old city, and to open grounds away from the city. The move to Changa Manga surely reflected what the people of Lahore, in their colourful description of all things, term the decision as that of a ‘Changa Manga Mind’ – a non-solution that could have occurred to any Tom or Dick. Nothing could be more insulting to the very essence of the happiness of the poor, the young, the caring and the connoisseurs of life who wish to celebrate a few days of spring.




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