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Bihu: The lifeline of Assamese culture

Journalist Md. Sabir Nishat
As the cuckoo's dulcet voice echoes in the hills and vales of the State heralding spring

and the sound of the 'dhol' vibrates in the air, it's time to celebrate Rongali or Bohag Bihu, one of the greatest festivals of the State. Unlike majority of the Indian festivals that are religious in character, Bihu has little religious fervour and is observed with secular character. This festival binds together people of all communities in a secular spirit. The essence of the festival has been aptly summed up by the noted singer-lyricist-composer Dr. Bhupen Hazarika thus: Bohag mathu eti ritu nohoi/nohoi bohag eti mah/Asomiya kristir e ayhuh rekha/ganajibonor e hah (Bohag is not only a season, nor is it just a month; it is the lifetime of Assamese culture, inspiration of social life).

Significantly, the propensity of the grandeur relating to each of the three Bihus - Rongali, Bhogali or the harvest festival and the Kongali or the Bihu of the lean period is basically popular festivals of the agrarian community. Rongali Bihu not only marks the advent of the Assamese New Year but also the beginning of the harvesting season. Wild jubilation expressed through pastoral singing and dancing dominates the Rongali Bihu, the spring festival. Etymologically, its roots can be traced to Vishuvat - a Sanskrit term referring to the vishava sankranti, spring. Of course, the use of this word is not confined in Assamese society. It is called Chaitra in Tamil Nadu, Bisu in Himachal Pradesh, Baisakh (same day with the Assamese) in West Bengal and Baisakh in Punjab.  

Most of the tribes in Assam too celebrate Bohag Bihu in their own traditional style. Bodo Kacharis observe it as Baisagu whereas Tiwas call it Bisu. Deoris name it as Bahagiyo Bihu, while Rabhas observe it as Nava Barsa. The plain Karbis call it as Johang Puja and Tai Phakes observe it as Pani Bihu. Though the celebration varies from one another, quintessentially it remains the same for all the tribes: Bihu as the messenger of peace, brotherhood and joy. The songs and dances, mostly earthy ones reflected elemental passion. Primarily a festival of youth, the old however did not lag behind in spirits and movement. With the advent of the Vaishnava movement, the songs underwent a change. The Vaishnavites and the traditional strongholds of faith, which accepted the songs, changed them with earthy, perhaps erotic connotation and graduated them to Nava or devotional songs or hymns associated with the leelas of Lord Krishna.

Then came the westerners and with their advent the Bihu songs took a backseat. Bihu songs, they believed, could not propagate moral or ethical messages. However, Bihu asserted its place despite tremendous pressures at least from two quarters to subdue it. The traditional and elitist religious and cultural strongholds labelled it indecent and lascivious while the "new enlightenment", that is, the western institution, felt it detracted from their moral emphasis. But its vitality and vigour made it prevail and it in turn augmented national resurgence as a cohesive secular domain that everyone could participate in and subscribe to.

Among the enlightened ones were Holiram Dhekial Phukan, who rejected Bihu songs out and dubbed them erotic and degraded. Phukan felt they were the song and dance ensemble of lascivious youths held in erotic secrecy, especially in Upper Assam. But Bihu ultimately prevailed and bounced back with the national resurgence. Today Bihu is the only secular festival that has given a kind of oneness to the people of this multi-ethnic and poly-cultural region and the nation as well and has become a nationalistic endeavour displaying the distinct oneness of the Assamese nation or sub-nation.

As far as the masses are concerned, they continued to persist with Bihu in diverse forms. The songs, dances and rites associated with it dates back to ancient times, prior to the days of settled agriculture, gathering and hunting. The Bihu songs, which constitute a prolific variety of Assamese songs, are woven mostly around themes of love, replete with music from pepa, dhul and gagana. While the boys play the buffalo horn called pepa and beat the drums, the girls clad in mekhala chadar dance in wild ecstasy.

Moreover, rituals like the ceremonial bathing of the cattle on the first day of Rongali Bihu called Goru Bihu and community fishing date back obviously to those days. Finally, the "gentle folk" also agreed to give in to it as folk customs. May be, their participation and keen interest in it transformed the pristine folk art into a performing art. Although they would not sing and dance themselves, they would have others perform it. With the advent of the electronic media as well as stage performances by the urban elite, Bihu in its new incarnation proliferated into remote rural bastions. Soon the originators started emulating the imitators. Today, Bihu has come full circle.

With the winds of change the concept of celebrating Bihu in the truly customary way has been considerably on the wane. Bihu being celebrated today at the various Bihutolis of the State is far removed from the one that is celebrated in the open fields.  

Eminent personalities from the fields of education, arts and culture say that the changes in the tunes of the songs associated with the festival, the rhythm of the dances and the places where they are performed are bound to occur with the passage of time. However, a section of eminent personalities attribute the alienation from culture to the translocation of people from the rural to the urban areas. They are of the view that people living in towns and cities can never feel the spirit of the Bihu. Dr. Md. Muslih-ud-Din, an educationist of long standing, reasons that there is nothing to be worried about the changes taking place in Bihu songs. “Culture, as we all know is not static and changes with the times. So there is nothing to feel bad about the changes taking place in Bihu.”

Echoing his views, noted cricket umpire and football referee Suren Ram Phookun says, “A lot of changes have taken place in the last two and a half decades. The world is changing, so has Bihu. Change is inevitable. In earlier times, we used to get pithas (rice cakes) on Bihu. Now we get biscuits. Most people nowadays do not keep cattle at home and cannot observe Goru Bihu even if they want to.” Phookun feels that the new generation should be allowed to celebrate Bihu in their own way.

Noted folk singer Khagen Mahanta says the change in the concept of Bihu is because of distorted incorporation of western culture with the passage of time.

The well-known singer feels people living in the urban areas are completely out of village life and this has alienated them from their roots. “There is a need to go back to our roots. The younger generation swayed by western culture must be made aware of what their culture really is. And that Bihu is not an occasion to make merry. The elders must take the lead in this regard,” he adds.

Apart from this, the commercialization of Bihu has come under scathing criticism from various quarters. The critics say that Assamese culture is being sold to the big corporate houses in the name of Bihu. These companies with an eye on marketing their products put up hoardings and banners at the Bihutolis and not with the intention of promoting Assamese culture. “How many of them have come forward to financially help needy artistes?” says a critic.

On the other hand, organizers say this commercialization of Bihu is helping the propagation of Assamese culture. They attribute the spiralling prices of various commodities as well as the near astronomical fee demanded by the artists today behind such commercialization.

“We can no longer meet the huge expenses through donations only. Sponsorship by companies helps us to make both ends meet.

The sponsors do not have any say in the Bihu programmes. Since we are not under any kind of obligation from the sponsors, their help can only further the cause of Assamese culture,” says an organizer adding, “There was a time when artists felt honoured to be invited to the Bihutolis and performed without any fee. But those days are gone. Now even minor artists demand several thousand rupees for themselves and their accompanying musicians.”

Says Md. Muslih-ud-Din, “If players can sport the logos of various companies, then what is the harm if the Bihu organizers accept sponsorship from any firm? One has to accept the fact that commercialization has come to stay.”

Although the concept of Bihu has undergone changes with the passage of time, one thing is certain - Bihu has no sectarian bias. It is a festival celebrated with great enthusiasm by people of various faiths.


April 2007

Journalist Md. Sabir Nishat is based in Guwahati.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.