The Baishakhi Mela in Spitalfields
The streets of Spitalfields were closed off from dawn yesterday and, in the cool of early morning, an expectant hush lay upon the neighbourhood. Then, in the distance, came the sound of drumming which grew and grew until around midday the Baishakhi Mela procession arrived, beneath a transparent blue sky, filling Brick Lane with a joyful chaos of colour and noise and life. The Mela, celebrating the Bengali New Year, is the largest Bengali festival held outside Bangladesh and, for one day, Spitalfields is transported to another continent.
From mid-morning, drummers, dancers, groups of children, and fantastic carnival animals gathered on the far side of Spitalfields Market, before lining up in Lamb St. Once everyone was assembled, the mayor took a photocall and cut a ribbon. Then they all set off past the Golden Heart and into Hanbury St before erupting onto Brick Lane where, among curry houses, Bangladeshi grocers and in the shadow of the mosque, the whole extravagant drama took on its full meaning. The narrow street and tall buildings intensified the din of drumming, whistles and horns, while spectators found themselves crowded together and swept along by the infectious sense of carnival that ruled Brick Lane. This annual moment, of the Baishakhi Mela procession passing through Brick Lane, manifests the jubilant apotheosis of Bangladeshi culture, both here in East London and for members of the Bangladeshi diaspora across Britain.
Meanwhile, I was nipping around, in and out the crowd, jumping onto street furniture and sprinting through the side streets to catch every detail of the parade. Standing upon a telephone junction box, I found myself eye-to-eye with those riding the magnificent elephant, and party to spectacular perspectives up and down Brick Lane, of the procession of dancers and drummers stretching in either direction, as far as I could see. The lyrical images passing before my eyes added up to a poem, with each carnival float and attendants attired in silk and tinsel, comprising a sequence of verses featuring an owl, butterflies, a giant waterlily, an elephant and a turtle. It evoked the imaginative universe of a dream, or a collection of Indian folk tales, or a set of miniature paintings, except it was here now – loud and brash – and in your face in Brick Lane!
I followed the procession as it turned into Old Montague St where the atmosphere changed as the crowds ebbed away. In the residential streets, people leaned out of the windows of their houses to wave, and homeless people woke from sleeping on the grass to witness an unlikely vision. From here, it was a short journey to arrive at Weavers’ Fields which held a funfair and a huge concert stage. The parade was merely the catalyst to ignite the festivities and, for the rest of the day, the streets, parks and curry houses of the East End were full with high-spirited revellers enjoying the blessing of the sunshine. Everyone had plenty to celebrate, because it was Bengali New Year and the day Summer arrived in Spitalfields too.