Dhaka: When Old Town Parties

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Image credit: Mushfiqur Rahman/instagram.com/mushfiqur.rahman8/

I’m not a historian. I can’t exactly tell you with accuracy as to what makes Old Town old, or different from the ever-developing stretches of one of the most cluttered cities of the world. I can tell Old Town apart only from the sepia-toned life that its people live, from the chipped walls and electricity cables that loom over us as the buildings close down on our rickshaw, from the lingering smell of the kabab that celebrates it Mughal heritage, from its spice mills and open butcher shops.

I can tell Old Town apart from the centuries old traditions it still retains, and its unshakeable love for celebration. And when Old Town parties, you cannot ignore it.

Old Town is made of different neighbourhoods, each holding a feature or story unique to itself. Thatari Bajar is the birthplace of Star Kabab and our fathers are witness to it; Shakhari Bajar is marked by Hindu ornamentations, sculptors of idols and statues, and the colourful frenzy of Holi; Dholaikhal is sacred to motorheads for its junkyards full of auto parts. And on the 14 and 15 of January every year, to various parts of Old Town comes the festival of kites called Shakhrain.

Ready with kites and DJs

Old Town’s Shakhrain is popular today as a two-day long affair marked by hundreds of kites in the skies, flying from roofs brushing up against each other. It’s about the rice cakes that are cooked up in the homes and eateries of the neighbourhood. But most of all, it’s about the party after the sun sets: the fireworks, the lights, and the ‘DJ parties’ on the roofs.

Put simply, if you flew above Old Town at any time during Shakhrain, you would see clusters of roofs overflowing with dancing people.

A video posted by @maheemanga on

Every year, the city kids flock from all over Dhaka to Old Town to partake in its various festivities while the newer parts of the city show no sign of any of the grandeur. You can very well remain oblivious to the affairs if you stay a little more than a few kilometres away from its perimeters. We followed suit and managed to join a party that could give us access to a roof via mutual friends. Here, ‘we’ is a group of friends (including myself) who grew up breathing the city air, each of us foreign to the finer intricacies of Old Town’s cultures. We aren’t that bad though; we care for culture, especially the ones that birth from urban lifestyles, and try to make up for our ignorance. All of us are especially passionate about electronic music, its culture and codes, and we do the little we can for Dhaka’s electronic music scene.

So when I found myself tackling kite strings and struggling to push kites into the air, I was amused. But when I saw the lights and DJs sat next to uncles wearing fishnet caps and aunties wearing borkha, I was fascinated. And when loud club music and Bollywood remixes started bellowing from every roof all around us, creating a mash of beats that could very well pass off as techno to an observer with a sense of humour, I was excited.

On a blog that focuses on the art and techniques of electronic music and its culture, this kind of partying may seem kitschy. But a small lesson in history brings in a perspective important for Dhaka’s present day electronica.

Shakhrain is grand, to say the least, considering that we expected a plain old traditional kite festival. But we saw local kids putting up well-planned arrangements. And some straightforward assumptions had to be made based on what we observed. For example, rented DJs, sound systems, lights and fireworks don’t come for free; so they must have raised money to pay for it. These buildings and apartment complexes are their homes and their families are involved in the celebrations as well; so the festivities must be taken seriously enough by the moderately conservative and religious local population.

But how does a local kite flying festival become such a boisterous affair? Dhaka city is having a hard time tackling religious extremism and parties are largely regarded as sinful congregations of the devil’s spawn. I had to find out what kind of kite flying festival allows for the young to go wild while their parents watch them, in this city caught between progressiveness and conservative values.

So I knocked on the door of my favourite connoisseur of Bengali history and cultures, Arfun Ahmed, a lecturer of photography at the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy. Arfun’s lived in the Old Town all his life, and a small history lesson from him on the roots of Shakhrain initially confused me but then put things into place.

A party from the past

Shakhrain’s history goes a long way as a Bengali festival of the subcontinent that follows the Bengali calendar of six seasons. It goes by different names in various parts of West Bengal and northern regions of India. And formally, it is known as Poush Shonkranti because it marks the end of the Bengali month of Poush and is a middle point of sorts for the winter. And the reason it has historically been quite an affair is because it marked harvest for a civilization heavily dependent on agriculture before the onset of its industrialization. Today, in urbanized Bengal, this time of the year still manages to steal the show with its abundance of gur (molasses) and rice cakes.

To sum it up, Shakhrain was a party before parties took the perverse form it has in people’s minds today.

And the parties at the time didn’t have DJs yet but they did have the music of the Bauls – a form of philosophical poetic oral tradition largely originated from the Bengal. And because the Mughals loved kite festivals as much as they loved their pleasure palaces and extraordinary architecture, kites took over the skies in celebration of this season of success and perfect wind flow.

So today, the festival holds on to the name and its love for rice cakes, but because agriculture is no longer a primary marker for our lives, the festival is no longer about the yield. It is still, very much, a festival that takes place during the winter though, a time perfect for kites to fly. And Old Town’s rich Mughal history remembers the royalty’s love for kites, which is why today, Shakhrain is also popularly known as the ‘Kite Festival’.

Time takes its toll on traditions. Shakhrain is still the same festival celebrated differently to the extent that it no longer looks the same. The traditions have evolved for a different time and age, for the kids of a city that don’t know what a harvest looks like and for a landscape that no longer sees kites flying in the horizon. The people of Old Town aren’t cut out from the city life; their kids go to the same universities, they work with us in the same offices.

However, they do come from a place that pockets colonial structures and Mughal palaces in its subpar urban plans, that takes pride in its Mughlai food, that still remembers traditions of past with plenty of dedication and some inaccuracy.

So now, Old Town parties the same party, but for the kids of today – the age of beats and glorified dance parties.

A photo posted by Arman Rahman Khan (@arman_rk) on

So the DJs are rented, the lights are shot into the sky, and everyone dances under the fireworks. Sure, the music isn’t intended to be ‘electronica’, it is simply what makes them dance – beats and lots of bass. But if I slipped some techno into one of the roofs, how different would it be from one of the electronica events I wish we could throw? Isn’t electronica about the ambiance, the togetherness, the celebration lead by the music?

Electronica has its challenges in Dhaka, the most primary one being that it is simply a term that the local population is unfamiliar with. Call it a DJ party and an electronic music event will sell. For the sake of the music and the art though, the electronica scene here is careful to distinguish itself from the tags of ‘DJ parties’. You can’t play your experimental downtempo or glitch-hop for a market that’s not familiar with it, in a ‘DJ party’ where people simply pay to drink and have fun; your audience doesn’t want to call your production ‘music’ if it thinks your work is to only remix popular tracks to make them more suitable for dancing.

But maybe if we showed them that their lives already overlap with so much of electronic music culture, if someday we slipped some techno into the playlist innocuously without disturbing their dancing frenzy, then just maybe it won’t be so difficult.

And if we realized that so much of what we do in electronica isn’t as foreign to our people as we think, maybe if we let our new age innovations merge with our traditions, then maybe, just maybe, our newness wouldn’t look so unacceptable and unfitting either.

So maybe, someday, we’ll learn to throw electronic music events in Dhaka with our parents watching too, like these Old Town parties today.

written by Maliha Mohsin

NEWS - 19. February 2016   CITY - Dhaka

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