Who are the Bengalis:
This article has been written to introduce the Bengali people and their culture to the Chinese community in Hong Kong. The emphasis on this essay is on the cultural aspects of the Bengalis and not on the political and economic aspects.
The Hong Kong Bengali Association caters to the cultural need of the Hindu Bengalis living in Hong Kong. The Bengalis from the West Bengal province of India and the Bengalis from Bangladesh are members of the HKBA, though the vast majority is from West Bengal.
Geography of Bengal:
Bengali is a language spoken in Bengal which is a region in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. The people of this region are known as the Bengalis. It is the official language of Bangladesh and is one of the recognized languages in India.
Loosely speaking, at the time of British Empire, the Bengal state consisted of today’s Bangladesh, the Indian provinces of West Bengal and Tripura, parts of the Indian provinces of Assam, Bihar and Orissa. At the time of India’s independence, the British Government divided the state into two parts primarily on religious grounds. The eastern part of the state where the majority of the people were of Islamic faith went to Pakistan. This part later became known popularly as East Bengal and East Pakistan. The rest of the state, where the majority of the population is Hindu, became part of India. The major land mass on the Indian side became the province of West Bengal. The rest of the state on the Indian side that was on the east side of East Bengal was added to the states of Assam and Tripura. After the partition, large sections of Hindu population from East Bengal crossed over to the neighboring states in India. The table below represents some basic data about the region. The majority of the population in both Bangladesh and West Bengal is predominantly rural and rely on agriculture based economy.
Introduction to Bengali language:
Bengali is the sixth most spoken language in the world following Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic. Like most other Indian languages, it is largely derived from the Sanskrit language which is the language used in all ancient Hindu scriptures and philosophical writings.
Noble Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali language are the two common threads between the Hindu dominated West Bengal and the Muslim dominated Bangladesh. The national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are from Tagore.
Year 2010 being his 150th birthday anniversary, year‑long celebrations of this event has began earlier this year in Bangladesh and in India, particularly in West Bengal. The governments of India and Bangladesh have agreed to co-operate with each other in many cross border celebrations.
Tagore was a multifaceted genius – a polymath. He was not only a great poet and a composer of great many varieties of songs, he was a novelist, a playwright, a musician, a philosopher and an educator. His main forte was his songs and the poetries. The vast majority of Tagore songs – commonly known as Rabindra sangeet (sangeet means song in Bengali) – are romantic in nature and remain the most popular musical songs for the Bengalis. He formed a University – the Visva Bharati – at Santiniketan in West Bengal. The Prime minister of India is the vice chancellor of Visva Bharati, loosely translated as “a union of India with the world”. Visva-Bharati is perhaps the first Indian education institute that started teaching Mandarin in India.
Religion and cultural festivals:
Two major religions practiced by the Bengalis are Hinduism and the Islam. The majority of people in Bangladesh are of Islamic faith while the majority of the people in West Bengal are Hindus. Although there are many cultural similarities in the two regions, there are some differences too, primarily due to the religious difference.
The cultural festivals that are common to both Hindus and Muslims are the celebrations of the Bengali New Year (Poila/Pahela Boishakh – Boishakh being the first month of the Bengali calendar) and the birthdays of the two great Bengali poets - Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam.
In Hong Kong, HKBA celebrates the two Hindu religious festivals Durga Puja and the Saraswati Puja. Although these are primarily Hindu religious festivals, there is no restriction on the people of other religious faiths to join in these festivities. The HKBA welcomes everybody.
The Durga Puja is celebrated for five days in September/October each year as per the Bengali almanac which is a lunar calendar. This religious festival signifies triumph of good over the evil or more subtly, one’s triumph over the evil in one’s own inner self. This is the most important festival for Hindu Bengalis.
Bengali food habits are very similar to those of the Chinese – the main ingredients being vegetables, fish and rice. Unlike the Chinese, the Bengalis also devour copious amounts of sweets, mostly made of cottage cheese. The main staple is rice, though a wheat-based Indian bread is also quite popular these days. Bengalis are predominantly non-vegetarians, although most widows adopt a vegetarian diet. It is usually very rare to find a completely vegetarian family. Meat consumption is much less compared to that of fish. Due to religious beliefs, Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork. Goat and chicken are the two most common forms of meat consumed by the Bengalis.
The most common spices are turmeric, red chili, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. Fish is most often cooked with mustard paste. The most common herbs used in Bengali cooking are onion, ginger, green chili, garlic and coriander leaves. Bengalis use mustard oil as the cooking base.
Music and Drama:
Bengalis are very fond of music and other forms performing arts such as stage-drama, dance-drama and cinema. Satyajit Ray was a legendary film director whose low budget Bengali films received many international film awards. The late Uttam Kumar was, and perhaps still is, the most versatile and most popular actor of Bengali films. He was often paired with an equally able actress Suchitra Sen. The films that featured the Uttam‑Suchitra duo were often block busters. Even today they remain very popular among Bengalis.
A basic training in music is almost mandatory for all children. This heritage is manifested in the wider stage of the Indian national cultural arena. Many a famous playback singers in the Bollywood film industry are Bengalis. Several famous Indian classical musicians are either Bengalis or were trained in Bengal. One of the most prodigious Bengali families in the Indian classical music is the family of legendary sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. His guru, the teacher, Ustad Allauddin Khan, himself a legend in Indian classical music, was also a Bengali. Ravi Shankar’s brother, Uday Shankar, was a famous classical dancer.
Pujo Barshiki and Kolkata Book fair:
Bengalis pride themselves to be men of letters. Although that practice of reading books is rapidly disappearing in this age of television and the Internet, it remains quite popular among the Bengalis. Giving books as gifts for birthdays and even for marriage ceremonies is a common practice among the Bengalis.
The literary industry reaches its zenith twice a year – once during the Durga Puja festival and once again during the Kolkata book fair in the winter. During Durga Puja many Bengali-language book publishers in Kolkata publish special editions of their flagship magazines. These are commonly known as Pujo barshikis. The writers and poets contribute their best masterpieces in these issues. As Bengalis are avid readers, this is a time for a literary extravaganza. They devour these books during the week long holiday for the Durga Puja and weeks and months beyond the festive period. The success or failure for the year for the writers depends on how the general public reacts to their writings in these issues.
The Kolkata book fair is a rather recent phenomenon - 2011 will be its 35th anniversary. It is a two week long book fair. Publishers from all over India, Bangladesh and from other overseas countries participate in this fair. Apart from book stalls, the organizers also invite many eminent speakers from home and abroad to give lectures on various literary topics. More than a million people visit the book fair each year. Kolkata book fair has added a new dimension to the cultural portrait of the Bengalis.