Bihu is more than a festival in Assam; it is closely tied to the cultural identity of its people. Like a river is said to be always old and new; Bihu too has an almost timeless quality to it, and has never failed to encourage, inspire and enthuse the people of Assam.
Young at Heart
Bohag Bihu, closely associated with spring, heralds the flowering of the mango trees, or the sounds of the cuckoo bird. As nature rejuvenates itself, one finds a reflection of it in the festival as well which rejuvenates life and society. Beyond the dance and music popularly associated with Bohag or Rongali Bihu, it has also acted as a great leveler for it touches every stratum of society and cuts across barriers of caste, creed, community, gender and religion. It too marks the beginning of the Assamese annual calendar.
During Rongali Bihu, there was a practice in earlier times when young men would venture forth in search of suitable companions who would be skilled at the loom, household chores and also assist them in the fields. It is also a festival which is believed to be primarily for the youth. This particular practice also speaks of a very liberal society where social evils like dowry or bride burning did not exist. And young men and women had the freedom to exercise their choice alike.
Taking Centre Stage
Among all the Bihus, Rongali Bihu has always held a special place in the hearts of the Assamese people, perhaps because it is another name for dance and merrymaking. It has travelled a long distance to carve a niche for itself on stage from the fields where it was originally enjoyed. Among the various luminaries of Assam who has helped to elevate Bihu, mention must be made of Bhupen Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta, and Dimbeswar Neog, to name just a few. But Rongali did not always have this place of honour in the minds and hearts of people.
There was a time when it was believed to be vulgar and crass, and a celebration of the working class only. However, around the time of independence, the new emerging intellengsia and middle class understood that the Assamese needed a festival like Bihu to bring them together, so they put in effort to assimilate Bihu into the mainstream. Among pioneers who helped Bihu to achieve this cult status, mention must be made of Khiroda Bisayaia and Sinha Purush Radha Govinda Baruah. They were the pioneers in bringing the Bihu to the stage from the fields. In fact, Latasil and Judge Field were the first places where Bihu was first officially staged.
Today, Bihu is celebrated by the Assamese wherever in the world they may be, from Bongaigaon to Boston. Musicians all over India have fused the sounds of Bihu in their music which has been a hit with the public. One can take up Bihu music as a profession, and an entire genre of music (Bihu suria ) has been inspired by it. Assamese music and music shows are believed to be incomplete without the imprint of it.
Folklorists have time and again pointed out how this festival and specially its music has traced and recorded the historical and sociological progression of the Assamese as a community from the pre independence era to modern times, through its lyrics. Be it the coming of the British, the advent of company rule, the establishment of tea gardens and factories, or the invention of trains, one finds entire eras etched in Bihu lyrics.
It is interesting to note how our beloved agrarian festival has today achieved this place of prominence. It has touched lifestyle also as mekhela sadors and Assamese jewelry is hugely popular. With the coming of ‘corporate’ Bihus, the festival has perhaps entered a new phase with much hyped and cut-throat competitions and prizes running into lakhs. As extensive Bihu workshops before the festival has become common, the festival has travelled a long way from being a mode of refreshment and rejuvenation for a simple farmer after a hard day’s toil in the fields. A new phase of modernization and commercialization of the Bihu has started, but let not the essence and spirit of Bihu be lost in the dazzle, glitz and glamour of the city lights.
Words: Meenakshi Gautam