‘Bohag mathu eti ritu nohoi; nohoi bohag eti mah; Asomiya jaatir e ayuh rekha; ganajibonor e hah…” Bhupen Hazarika very beautifully and intricately describes Bihu when he says that Spring is not only a season; nor is it only a month-it is the lifeline of Assamese culture and the inspiration of social life. The festival of Bihu, often wrongly identified as only the Bihu dance, is a festival dating back to ancient times.
It is a festival of various colours, various sounds. It is that time of the year when the air is scented with the fragrance of flowers, freshly tilled soil and pithas (rice cakes). The cheerful sound of birds chirping fills the air.
The pepa (instrument made of buffalo horn) and the dhol make sweet music for our ears. Bihu is one of the most popular and widely celebrated festivals of India and among the hordes of religious festivals; it stands as a truly secular festival free from any religious dogma.
It is a celebration of the predominant farming community of Assam, a celebration to welcome the Assamese New Year. Bihu as a festival is celebrated thrice in a year. Bohag Bihu celebrates the coming of spring and the Assamese New Year.
The farmers prepare themselves for the new crop year and the cultivation of rice. The general mood is that of happiness and celebration. Smells of pithas, larus and jolpan waft through the air as the farmers celebrate ahead of months of hard work. The people clean and worship their cows, wear new clothes, worship the Gods and welcome the New Year with vigour. This Bihu is also called Rongali Bihu meaning colourful and joyous or Rongal.
The environment all around in Assam at this time of the year is vibrant and exciting marked by the blooming of the Kopou flower, clear blue skies and the colourful dresses of the Bihu dancers with the women clad in colourful Mekhela Chaddors.
The Rongali Bihu dance is celebrated with enthusiasm by the youth as it provides them with a chance at romance with the dances full of vibrant chemistry between the dhol and pepa players and the female dancers!
Bihu, although celebrated all over the state, differs in the dances and traditions from tribe to tribe. Kongali Bihu celebrated in mid-October sees a constraint in the celebrations as the crop is not ready yet and the granaries are empty. It is celebrated by lighting saakis (earthen lamps) in front of the granary, household Tulsi plant and in the fields.
The logic behind lighting these lamps in the fields as told by my Grandfather was that the lamps would not only illuminate the fields but also kill the insects present in the field. The wise old men have been proven wise again!
The final celebration of Bihu is the Bhogali Bihu which comes from the word Bhog meaning eating and enjoyment signifying the fact that this Bihu is the celebration of harvest. There is merriment all around as people feast and celebrate.
Young men collect hay and make a tower of it and light it on fire at night which is known as Meji. People sit around the Meji, feasting, dancing and singing. Pithas are made by stuffing the mix inside bamboos and throwing them into the fires.
Unfortunately with the advent of westernisation, industrialisation and globalisation, the traditions and cultures of Assam are dying. Most of the traditions like washing cows and worshipping them have become archaic due to the fact that very few people own cattle nowadays. But the advent of globalisation and westernisation have also brought commercialisation.
With people becoming increasingly aware of their culture, the Bihu dance was recovered from the swamps of stagnation and has been infused with a new lease of life. The traditional songs and tunes are being given a facelift with the use of a variety of instruments with the famous pop star Papon at the forefront of this movement. Although this has come under criticism from many in Assamese culture, modernisation is the only way that this culture of ours can be kept alive among the youth hugely alienated from rural life.
Class XI, Coordinator, Julien Day School, Kolkata