Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pohela Boishakh

Pohela Boishakh is the first day of the Bengali calendar, celebrated in both Bangladesh and West Bengal, and in Bengali communities in Assam and Tripura. Pohela Boishakh connects all ethnic Bengalis irrespective of religious and regional differences. It falls on April 14 or April 15 of the Gregorian calendar depending on the use of the new amended or the old Bengali calendar respectively. In Bangladesh, it is celebrated on April 14 according to the official amended calendar designed by the Bangla Academy. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is a national holiday and in West Bengal and Assam it is a public (state) holiday.




The Hindu solar calendar based on the Surya Siddhanta commences in mid-April of the Gregorian year. The first day of this calendar is celebrated as the traditional New Year in various parts of South Asia, including Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Manipur, Nepal, Orissa, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Tripura. It is also celebrated as the traditional New Year across Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand (see Songkran).

Under the Mughals, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri calendar. However, as the Hijri calendar is a purely lunar calendar, it does not coincide with the harvest. As a result, farmers were hard-pressed to pay taxes out of season. In order to streamline tax collection, the Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered a reform of the calendar. Accordingly, Fatehullah Shirazi, a renowned scholar and astronomer, formulated the Bengali year on the basis of the Hijri lunar and solar Hindu solar calendars. The new Fasli San (agricultural year) was introduced on 10/11 March 1584, but was dated from Akbar's ascension to the throne in 1556. The new year subsequently became known as Bônggabdo or Bengali year.

Celebrations of Pohela Boishakh started from Akbar's reign. It was customary to clear up all dues on the last day of Choitro. On the next day, or the first day of the new year, landlords would entertain their tenants with sweets. On this occasion there used to be fairs and other festivities. In due course the occasion became part of domestic and social life, and turned into a day of merriment. The main event of the day was to open a halkhata or new book of accounts. This was wholly a financial affair. In villages, towns and cities, traders and businessmen closed their old account books and opened new ones. They used to invite their customers to share sweets and renew their business relationship with them. This tradition is still practised, especially by jewellers.

In Kolkata

In Kolkata, Pohela Boishakh (and indeed the entire month of Boishakh) is considered to be an auspicious time for marriages. This day people wear new clothes and go about socialising. Choitro, the last month of the previous year, is the month of hectic activities and frantic purchases. Garment traders organize a Choitro sale and sell the garments with heavy discounts.

Pohela Boishakh is the day for cultural programmes. Prayers are offered for the well-being and prosperity of the family. Young ladies clad in white saris with red borders and men clad in dhuti and kurta take part in the Probhat Pheri processions early in the morning to welcome the first day of the year.

This day being auspicious, new businesses and new ventures are started. The Mahurat is performed, marking the beginning of new ventures.

Pohela Boishakh is the beginning of all business activities in Bengal. The traders purchase new accounting books called halkhata. The accounting in the halkhata begins only after offering puja. Mantras are chanted and স্বস্তিক shostik ("Hindu swastika") are drawn on the accounting book by the priests. Long queues of devotees are seen in front of the Kalighat temple from late night. Devotees offer puja to receive the blessings of the almighty.

On Pohela Boishakh various fairs are held in West Bengal. The most famous of these is Bangla Sangit Mela, held at Nandan-Rabindra Sadan ground. This fair is conducted by the Government of West Bengal.

In Dhaka

Colorful celebration of Pohela Boishakh in Dhaka.

New Year's festivities are closely linked with rural life in Bengal. Usually on Pohela Boishakh, the home is thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned; people bathe early in the morning and dress in fine clothes. They spend much of the day visiting relatives, friends, and neighbours. Special foods are prepared to entertain guests. This is one rural festival that has become enormously big in the cities, especially in Dhaka.

Boishakhi fairs are arranged in many parts of the country. Various agricultural products, traditional handicrafts, toys, cosmetics, as well as various kinds of food and sweets are sold at these fairs. The fairs also provide entertainment, with singers and dancers staging jatra (traditional plays), pala gan, kobigan, jarigan, gambhira gan, gazir gan and alkap gan. They present folk songs as well as baul, marfati, murshidi and bhatiali songs. Narrative plays like Laila-Majnu, Yusuf-Zulekha and Radha-Krishna are staged. Among other attractions of these fairs are puppet shows and merry-go-rounds.

Many old festivals connected with New Year's Day have disappeared, while new festivals have been added. With the abolition of the zamindari system, the punya connected with the closing of land revenue accounts has disappeared. Kite flying in Dhaka and bull racing in Munshiganj used to be very colourful events. Other popular village games and sports were horse races, bullfights, cockfights, flying pigeons, and boat racing. Some festivals, however, continue to be observed; for example, bali (wrestling) in Chittagong and gambhira in Rajshahi are still popular events.

Observance of Pohela Boishakh has become popular in the cities. Early in the morning, people gather under a big tree or on the bank of a lake to witness the sunrise. Artists present songs to usher in the new year. People from all walks of life wear traditional Bengali attire: young women wear white saris with red borders, and adorn themselves with churi bangles, ful flowers, and tip (bindis). Men wear white paejama (pants) or lungi(dhoti/dhuti) (long skirt) and kurta (tunic). Many townspeople start the day with the traditional breakfast of panta bhat (rice soaked in water), green chillies, onion, and fried hilsa fish.

Panta Ilish - a tradtional platter of leftover rice soaked in water with fried Hilsa, supplemented with dried fish (Shutki), pickles (Achar), lentils (dal), green chillies and onion - a popular dish for the Pohela Boishakh festival.

The most colourful new year's day festival takes place in Dhaka. Large numbers of people gather early in the morning under the banyan tree at Ramna Park where Chhayanat artists open the day with Rabindranath Tagore's famous song, এসো, হে বৈশাখ, এসো এসো Esho, he Boishakh, Esho Esho (Come, O Boishakh, Come, Come). A similar ceremony welcoming the new year is also held at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. Students and teachers of the institute take out a colourful procession and parade round the campus. Social and cultural organisations celebrate the day with cultural programmes. Newspapers bring out special supplements. There are also special programmes on radio and television.

The historical importance of Pohela Boishakh in the Bangladeshi context may be dated from the observance of the day by Chhayanat in 1965. In an attempt to suppress Bengali culture, the Pakistani Government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous poet and writer in Bengali literature. Protesting this move, Chhayanat opened their Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park with Tagore's song welcoming the month. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan as a symbol of Bengali culture. After 1972 it became a national festival, a symbol of the Bangladesh nationalist movement and an integral part of the people's cultural heritage. Later, in the mid- 1980s the Institute of Fine Arts added colour to the day by initiating the Boishakhi parade, which is much like a carnival parade.

In Chittagong Hill Tracts

The punya or rajpunya is now observed only in the three figurative tribal kingdoms in Bangladesh - Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachori. In Rangamati, the principal town of Chittagong Hill Tracts and the seat for the Hill Administrative Council, three different ethnic minority groups have come together to merge their observance of Pohela Baishakh. Boisuk of Tripura people, Sangrai of Marma people and Biju of Chakma people have come together as BoiSaBi, a day of a wide variety of festivities. One of the more colorful activities of the day in the hills is the water festival of the Marma people.

Celebration in other countries

The Bengali community in the United Kingdom celebrate the Bengali new year with a street festival in London. It is the largest Asian festival in Europe and the largest Bengali festival outside of Bangladesh and India.

The Hindu communities in India, where the holiday is called Vaisakhi, also celebrate the beginning of Spring and the end of the harvest season on Pôhela Boishakh. The Sikh communities celebrate 'Vaisakhi because it is the birth of the Sikh order of the Khalsa. Vaisakhi is also called Rongali Bihu in Assam, Puthandu in Tamil Nadu and Pooram Vishu in Kerala.

In Buddhist communities, the month of Boishakh is associated with Vesak, known as Visakah Puja or Buddha Purnima in India, Visakha Bucha in Thailand, Waisak in Indonesia and Wesak in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It commemorates the birth, Enlightenment and passing of Gautama Buddha on the one historical day, the first full moon day in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June. Although this festival is not held on the same day as Pohela Boishakh, the holidays typically fall in the same month (Boishakh) of the Bengali, Hindu, and Theravada Buddhist calendars, and are related historically through the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Pohela Boishakh does, however, coincide with the New Years in many other calendars, including those of South India (Kerala, Tamil Nadu), Sri Lanka, Nepal, Eastern India (Assam, Manipur, Orissa), and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand).

In Australia, the Bengali new year is celebrated in various cities such as Melbourne and Canberra through Boi Shakhi Melas (fairs) where people gather to celebrate the culture of Bangladesh through dances, fashion shows, stalls of art, music, clothing, food and etc. However the largest celebration for the Bengali new year in Australia is the Sydney Boi Shakhi Mela which was traditionally held at the Burwood Girls High School but from 2006 has been held at the Homebush Stadium. It attracts large crowds and is a very anticipated event on the Australian Bengali community's calendar.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hussein Chalayan's fashion fantasies

There was a time when high fashion was an élitist pursuit. Behind closed and gilded doors, the world's most gifted creators unveiled their twice-yearly collections and the limited press in attendance used any imagery that sprang from their presentations in only the most strictly controlled manner. Opportunistic copycats – and even way back when, they infiltrated such hallowed portals – were unlikely to be invited twice unless they were prepared to pay through the nose for the privilege. Now, though, even some of the most rarefied fashion is well understood by anyone with even a passing interest in aesthetics. And that is a good thing. The democratisation of design has made the world a better place to be.

With this in mind, while we may not all be prepared to invest hundreds, and even thousands, of pounds on a single garment, we are, for the most part, aware of the iconography generated on the catwalks and beamed across the world within seconds of its first airing – or, not unusually, live. Jean Paul Gaultier's conical bra, for example, is as well known to even marginally inquisitive eyes as, say, Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans. Ditto Vivienne Westwood's mini-crini, rocking-horse platforms and pirate pants. And while Hussein Chalayan may not as yet be a household name, he is the mind behind some of the most thrilling fashion happenings of the past 15 years. If many have still not heard of this designer, they may well be familiar with his most famous creation: a tiered skirt made out of nothing more immediately wearer-friendly than polished wood.

When, for the finale of his autumn/winter 2000 collection – it was called Afterwords – Chalayan instructed the Russian model Natalia Semanova to step into the centre of a circular coffee table that, until that point, had been part of a stage set, and pull it up around her waist and walk, anyone present knew that they were witnessing what is known as a "fashion moment". Furniture transforming itself into clothing in front of one's very eyes was a fashion first.

Since that time, any mention of this designer's name is likely to reference this particular occurrence. Given the finesse with which it was choreographed, and the perfectly harmonious proportions of the finished item, one might expect Chalayan himself to be quietly fulfilled, even proud of that. But no. That would be too simple by far.

"The number of times I've seen that bloody table skirt," he says, over coffee on an icy January morning. "I mean, I love that piece, but it's only the tiniest part of what we've done. If you have to feature it, feature it small, please. OK, it's amazing but I'm sick of the sight of it. People think that creativity and commerce don't go together in my brand, but that's a misconception because we have always – always – made clothes that you can wear. We have always, for example, cut a great coat.

"I think sometimes that those iconic images can be more of a hindrance than a help. The important thing is to feature the duality. It's not about one thing or the other; otherwise I wouldn't have a business. Often, you know, the B-side of a record is the best."

It may be a source of irritation – and, it should be pointed out, good-humoured irritation – for Chalayan, that over the next few weeks, the item in question is likely to become better known than ever. Tomorrow, the designer's first solo exhibition in this country opens at the Design Museum in south-east London and, given the gallery setting, it is this, along with other showpieces, that will inevitably attract the most coverage, over and above any more low-profile clothing.

If anyone's work is suited to a museum, then it is Chalayan's. Since he first came to public attention in the mid-1990s, his output has been considerably more ambitious than most, after all. In fact, home furnishings morphing effortlessly into garments is merely the tip of the iceberg for the Turkish Cypriot-born designer who has been brave enough, in his time, to explore both convent girl and covered Muslim, who has created clothing sprouting nothing more obviously appealing than internal body parts – cut out of fabric as opposed to anything visceral, thankfully – and whose work has dwelt on subject matter as diverse as mortality and climate change. Chalayan has suspended feather-light garments from helium balloons, crafted a dress out of fibreglass, which mimicked the wings of an aircraft in motion at the mere push of a button, and another with intricate seaming that echoed flight paths.

More recently, a single outfit metamorphosed from Victorian crinoline to 1920s flapper dress and silver, Space Age shift thanks to complex mechanisms built into its underpinning; another exuded a dazzling halo of dancing light, a result of laser technology, again embedded in its fragile and unfathomable structure. Not content with restricting himself to the creation of fashion, meanwhile, Chalayan's art projects have included a series of short films: Temporal Meditations, Place to Passage and Anaesthetics. In 2005, he represented Turkey at the 51st Venice Biennale with Absent Presence, another film featuring Tilda Swinton.

"What's exciting for me is that this is the first show of it's kind in London," the designer says today. "Because I was raised here, I was nurtured here, but although I've been part of group exhibitions at the V&A, the Tate, the Barbican, I've never had my own exhibition before." In 2005, Chalayan took over three floors of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands to celebrate his 10th anniversary in business, to considerable critical acclaim. "I've always had more of a showing outside London though," he continues, "and that is the story for all British designers. A lot of great talent comes out of this country but it blossoms elsewhere. The British are so cynical."

Chalayan – a self-proclaimed "idealist" – describes the latest airing of his work as "a jewellery-box of a show". Co-curated by Mark Wilson, who was also responsible for the Groninger exhibition, and by the Design Museum's Donna Loveday, the exhibition's design is the work of Block Architecture, also the brains behind the designer's Tokyo store. "There will only be about 35 outfits," says Chalayan. "It's quite small, but it might be that one room has one garment and another room has many. Or one of my films might be showing. It's really about my world, more than being a costume show."

And that world is a complex and multi-layered one. It's small wonder that Chalayan dislikes being pigeonholed. "You might say I'm an artistic designer, I suppose," he concedes. "So what? I'm definitely an ideas person. But I've never been interested in labels. They're only there to make it easier for people to understand someone's output. They're restrictive and mean nothing."


The only child of Turkish- Cypriot parents, Hussein Chalayan was born in Nicosia in 1970. He was interested in clothes from an early age. "I wasn't trendy or anything," he's quick to point out, as if that might be uncouth. "But I always liked to wear different colours to other people, to wear my hair in a different way." A respect for individuality, for difference, was part of his make-up then, as now, it seems. "I'm quite highly strung," he says. "I can't sit in a meeting for too long, for example. I have to walk around. Or at least stand up. I have to apologise because, well, it is rather odd, isn't it?"

He describes his mother's side of the family as "extremely dextrous. She made all my clothes and they looked like she'd bought them. Whatever she did, she did really well, and I think that set the standard for me."

He was, he remembers, an introverted child. "I spent a lot of time in Cyprus on my own, but there were always things I had a real passion for. I used to love building things, creating environments was such a big thing for me. And Cyprus, you know, is a Mediterranean island so it's very colourful. It's also a divided island, and I was fascinated by that. We could see the border culture, and you grow up with a curiosity for what's going on on the other side, but you can't actually see it."

He says that the mentality that arises from island culture still informs his work today. "I think that my curiosity has been my big drive. When you come from an island, there's an emphasis on wanting to explore because you're isolated. And that, coupled with any natural curiosity, is a fantastic recipe for an adventurous mind."

It is noteworthy that interviewing Chalayan is very much a two-way process. He asks as many questions as he answers, and his responses are as carefully considered as they are generous. Not for this designer the endless soundbites and hyperbole that, for better or worse, characterise most of his profession. Although he is meticulously well-mannered, he is far from backwards in coming forward where speaking his mind is concerned. When he was awarded the Designer of the Year prize, for the second time, by the British Fashion Council in 2000, he took the opportunity to bemoan the fact that Victoria Beckham, who had appeared as a model on Maria Grachvogel's catwalk only days before, had stolen the limelight from London's less-than-financially stable young designers. "I'd like to take this opportunity to say how disappointing it was this week that all the press were still so impressed by celebrities appearing on designer catwalks," he said. "That space could have been given to all the designers who bust a gut over their collections. It's Fashion Week, not Celebrity Week."

More recently, and on the subject of Kate Moss's collaboration with Topshop: "It would have been better for her to use her celebrity status in an area that suits her. To me, the Topshop collection is not enough of a reflection of her aspirational style," he said.

"I didn't want to be mean, you know, or to upset anyone," he says now. "I'm not a nasty person. I just say what I think." Chalayan also says what other people think but would never be courageous enough to put into words. "I actually don't think it's uncool to work with celebrities," he continues. "I think it depends who it is. Like, Jennifer Connolly wore something of mine the other day and so did Sarah Jessica Parker. If Pamela Anderson wore something of mine and made it look great, then why not? People assume that if you're articulate or have a few brains cells, you are also somehow uncompromising; that if you are passionate, you are a fixed person, but I'm actually very flexible, very open to ideas."

Aged 12, and following the separation of his parents, the designer travelled to this country with his father, a restaurateur, and still based here. It is the female members of his family, however, that always attract the most open expressions of warmth. He once described his mother to me as "the sweetest of mothers". His maternal grandmother is "poetic, she used to call me in song, we loved each other, it was a love affair. I have always been interested in women. I love women. My mother, growing up where she did, had so few opportunities, and that made me ambitious. I always wanted to make the best out of any talent or any passion I might have."

In London, Chalayan went to Highgate, a private school ("I guess it's like a child's idea of the army"), and then enrolled first on a foundation course in Leamington Spa, then on the fashion degree course at Central Saint Martins. Prior to that, he had considered a career as an architect."Basically, I felt that I had to do something linked to the body. Architecture was the first thing that came to mind because the essence of what's talked about – you know, the relationship between an environment and a space you create around something, with its social or physical connotations – is very much what I think about. When people talk about clothes, they don't do so in the context of society, in the social or cultural context, they just take them at face value. That's not something that interests me."

These were halcyon days for the celebrated art college. Alexander McQueen was the name to watch on the MA course. Katie Grand was soon to arrive and co-found the style magazine Dazed & Confused. "I sat next to Hussein," says Giles Deacon, who was in the same year as Chalayan. "We had a whale of a time. People think he's going to be this super-serious person, but he's got this really funny, gorgeous personality about him."

"People always say I'm serious," Chalayan confirms, "but that's so not true. I don't take myself seriously as a person at all." He pauses for thought before conceding: "I suppose I can be very arrogant and hard-headed, but I try to be arrogant for the right reasons, if you like. And I do take my work extremely seriously."

This has manifested itself from the start in the way Chalayan is motivated almost to the point of obsession. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that, in 1993, the designer buried his degree collection in a back garden to discover how it would decompose. That did not stop Joan Burstein, owner of London boutique Browns, from taking it in its entirety and installing it in her shop window, just as she'd done for John Galliano almost a decade before. In fact, the career trajectories of these two designers are not entirely dissimilar. Chalayan rose to prominence at a time when designer fashion was characterised by a buying spree on the part of luxury-goods conglomerates including, most prominently, France's LVMH and Italy's Gucci Group; anyone attempting to remain independent did so at their peril. A fledgling designer – even one as feted as Chalayan – could never hope to rival the advertising budgets and infrastructure of those corporate superpowers.

Chalayan, along with his contemporary, the more obviously media-friendly McQueen, began to attract an international following to London Fashion Week that was unprecedented, and yet he struggled financially, just as Galliano had before him. The older designer was at Dior by that time – he remains there to this day, and the parent company LVMH supports his signature line. McQueen moved to Givenchy – he is now in partnership with Gucci Group as is, following a stint at Chloé, Stella McCartney.

In 1998, Chalayan was appointed design director of TSE New York, remaining at the helm for two years. In 2001, he became creative director of Asprey for three years, launchin a quietly beautiful clothing collection for the jeweller. "It was a very difficult project," he says of the latter. "Very enjoyable, too. It taught me – as did my previous experience with TSE – about luxury product." What it failed to generate, however, was long-term backing for his own label, which has always eluded him. Until now.

In February last year, with the Paris collections in full flow – Chalayan has shown his womenswear in the French capital since the beginning of the new millennium – a press conference announced his appointment as creative director of clothing for the German sportswear brand Puma, of which more than 60 per cent is owned by PPR (Pinault Printemps La Redoute), a rival of LVMH. Chalayan's first designs for the company will go on sale in the autumn of this year. In return for his expertise, Puma has become a majority stakeholder in Chalayan's own company and is the title sponsor of the forthcoming Design Museum show.

"Hussein Chalayan is not only hugely creative but also has an incredible passion for fabric and technology," says Puma's CEO, Jochen Zeitz. "For that reason, we have a mutual understanding of one another. Only very few designers have managed to create a business on their own without being part of a big fashion conglomerate, and he has done that. But he has now come to the point, I think, where he wants to take the next step."

Puma's relationship with PPR means that Chalayan benefits from the infrastructure of the Gucci Group – the same Italian factories that produce, of course, Gucci but also McQueen, McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent and more, are now responsible for Chalayan's collections, too. "I became a designer to try to create a new language for clothes and another way to look at the body, culture, the environment, politics and so forth," Chalayan said when the deal was first announced. "Although our business has remained relatively small, this partnership will hopefully mean that my work will reach more people, both through designing for Puma and with the expansion of my own business."


To label Hussein Chalayan a "conceptual designer" would be to underestimate the importance he attaches to the fact that his clothes come to life when they are worn. "It's exciting to see the clothes being worn because then it becomes real," he explains. "I always think of the idea first, then about how I am going to represent it with clothes. I guess that makes me a conceptual designer in a way, although that is such a cliché these days. You're conceptual, you're avant-garde, whatever. The story behind a collection is only important as a vehicle through which I can become interested and inspired. At the end of the day, I don't want someone to buy a garment because they know the story behind it, but because it fits them, because they like the way it looks. I actually spend most of my time working towards that, looking at the lines of the body, at how to fit, at fabric. The concept is only the beginning. From thereon in, it's really all about technique."

Chalayan's clothes are often grouped with the more radical designers – Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela and so forth. His aesthetic tends to be more body-conscious than theirs, however. He may share a customer base with such designers in as much as his clothing is neither bourgeois nor status-driven in the conventional sense. It is also determinedly – exceptionally – modern. If Chalayan chooses to reference the past, it will be in an archaeological sense, as opposed to a nostalgic one. Not for him a Seventies-inspired collection one season, a homage to the Eighties the next. Chalayan's clothes, like Margiela's, possess an extreme sensitivity to, and even tenderness towards, the body within them.

"I can be rational but I'm also emotional," he says. "I like the clothes to have their own life. I'm excited when a composition that I draw or develop relates or reacts to the body. I like there to be a harmony with the body, for the clothes to be like a second skin. That, for me, is successful design."

If there is a single thing that unifies Hussein Chalayan's work, it is that it is cross-disciplinary, however. "Yes, my work references art, architecture, politics, technology, science, nature and philosophy, up to a point," he says. "My quest, in a way, is to identify the connections between different entities. In the end, though, it's important to remember that it's still fashion, and if it wasn't, I wouldn't be having this exhibition. What's interesting to me is the merging of all those different worlds."

Mr Obama's international overtures deserve a response

In his first act as President, Barack Obama asked for the military tribunals at Guantanamo to be suspended. His request was interpreted, essentially, as a holding operation, preparing the way for the prison camp to be closed down. Above all, though, it was a signal, to America and the world, of how he intends his presidency to be different from his predecessor's.

It may be unfair to contrast the George Bush who emerged after 9/11 with the as yet internationally untested Barack Obama. But the new President was wise to start here. If there is one image that damned Mr Bush, and alienated Muslims around the world, it was the barbed wire and orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo. The legal limbo in which the camp existed – and was designed to exist – was ruled, even by a Supreme Court sympathetic to the Republicans, to violate the US Constitution.

The final closing of Guantanamo could, regrettably, take many months, some say years; the dilemma is what to do with the remaining prisoners. But unlike many foreign policy issues with which Mr Obama will have to grapple, the principle here is simple; it is also something that is entirely within the President's power to do. Almost everything else will be more complicated. But tone counts for a great deal in diplomacy, and the new President has introduced himself as someone who sees the world as peopled by potential friends, rather than potential enemies. When he said: "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist", he was inviting former adversaries to countenance a new beginning: a more benign sort of security built on mutual self-interest.

It is important not to be starry-eyed about how much such a fresh approach might achieve, and how quickly. But the significance of a change in the atmosphere emanating from Washington should not be under-estimated either. Mr Obama has already indicated that many curbs on relations with Cuba could be lifted. One of the last vestiges of the cold war could thus be eradicated – and the lives of millions of Cubans eased.

An early visit to a Muslim country – an unofficial visit, perhaps, as informal as a presidential trip can be – could do an enormous amount to demonstrate goodwill. It has been speculated that Mr Obama might travel to Indonesia, where he spent some of his childhood years. More risky, but more geopolitically advantageous, might be a stopover in Pakistan. Mr Bush recruited the former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf as an ally in his "war on terror" – at great political expense to Mr Musharraf. New leaders in both countries could forge a more productive and understanding relationship.

Mr Obama has already set a provisional timetable for handing Iraq back to the Iraqis, as he put it, and made Afghanistan a priority – although many European countries, including Britain, will take some persuading before contributing more troops. But his most urgent challenge is the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza. With his own openness to new ideas, and a team comprising Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, Mr Obama has a chance here that he must not let slip.

We should not be disappointed in Europe to find ourselves further down Mr Obama's list. We should rather seek to assist the new President address conundrums, such as the Middle East, where only the US can take a lead. Mr Obama, for his part, must savour the few days or weeks he has to set his own agenda. It will be overtaken all too soon by the inevitable unforeseen events

Chinese milk scam duo face death

Tian Wenhua, former chairwoman of the Sanlu Group, on trial with three others, 31 December 2008 ( image from Chinese state TV)
Sanlu's Tian Wenhua pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing

Two men have been given the death penalty for their involvement in China's contaminated milk scandal.

The former boss of the Sanlu dairy at the centre of the scandal was given life imprisonment.

They are among 21 sentences being handed down by the court in northern China, where Sanlu is based.

The scandal, in which melamine was added to raw milk to make it appear higher in protein, led to the deaths of six babies and made some 300,000 ill.

It caused outrage in China and has tainted the image of the country's food industry both at home and abroad.

Illegal workshop

The most senior figure to be sentenced was Tian Wenhua, who was chairwoman of the Sanlu Group, the largest producer of baby milk powder.

When the scandal broke in September, it emerged that Sanlu had known it was selling toxic milk - and allowed around 900 tonnes of it to leave its dairies.

It was only when its New Zealand partner intervened that production stopped.

Tian Wenhua pleaded guilty to charges of producing and selling fake or substandard produce in December.

The Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang gave her a life sentence and ordered her to pay a fine of 20m yuan ($2.9m).

Sanlu itself was fined 50m yuan ($7.3m), Xinhua news agency reports, even though the firm has been declared bankrupt.

Three other former Sanlu executives were given between five years and 15 years.

Earlier the court sentenced Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping to death.

Zhang Yujun was accused of running an illegal workshop in Shandong province in eastern China, producing 600 tonnes of the fake protein powder - the largest source of melamine in the country.

He was sentenced along with Zhang Yanzhang - accused of selling on Zhang Yujun's protein powder - who was given a life sentence.

Milk producer, Geng Jinping had been convicted of producing and selling toxic food to dairy companies.

His associate Geng Jinzhu was given eight years in prison.

Gao Junjie, who was also accused of selling protein powder to milk producers, received a suspended death sentence, Xinhua said.

Huge anger

The scandal left parents terrified and caused outrage across the country, the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Beijing says.

It came only four years after an earlier milk powder scandal left 13 babies dead.

The government has scrambled to fight off allegations that it reacted slowly to the latest crisis, by pledging to improve food safety standards and promising to bring the culprits of the scandal to court.

But families of the victims say China's lack of openness, public accountability and official corruption mean they have little faith that similar poisonings will not happen again, our correspondent reports.

All together, 22 companies sold contaminated milk, which had been supplied by a chain of melamine producers and middlemen.

Chinese babies
Tainted milk made thousands of Chinese babies ill

The dealers added the industrial chemical to boost the apparent protein content of milk, which had often been watered down to make more money.

Major dairy companies bought the milk from such dealers, failing to test the milk for purity and nutritional value.

The result was widespread poisoning of babies, the group most vulnerable to tainted milk as it was their only food source.

Kidney damage was reported in hundreds of thousands of people. At least six babies were killed because of it.