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Bihu – Then, Now and In-Between

Bihu – Then, Now and In-Between

Bihu - then and Now

She is back. Back with the history of the festival of Bihu and the way it is celebrated now the present day. East India Story welcomes back Dr. Monideepa Das with this sensational story.

Bohaag (mid-April to mid-May) is that month of the year which is eagerly waited for by the people of Assam because it brings with it the hallmark heralds of Spring; the melodious cooing of the cuckoo and a skyline set ablaze with riot of colours rendered by the Polaaxh, Modaar, Xonaaru, Aezaar, Krishnochura and Radhachura trees. The orchids Kopou-phool and Bhaatou-phool, which are an integral part of Assamese culture come alive during Bohaag and not only adorn the trees but also serve as a hair ornament adorning the hair-buns of the beautifully attired Bihu dancers.

The Rongali Bihu also known Bohaag Bihu is a traditional, ethnic festival, celebrated by the indigenous people of the North Eastern state of Assam and it coincides with several other Spring/Harvest Festivals celebrated across the country, such as Baisakhi (Punjab), Vishu (Kerala), Pohela Boishakh (West Bengal) etc. Rongali Bihu is precisely associated with ‘sowing’ and therefore, is correlated with the fertility of soil and the spring season heralding a new beginning.

All the three Bihus, namely, Bhogaali, Rongali and Kongaali, are essentially socio-cultural festivals of Assam, with no religious bearing whatsoever. Rongali Bihu includes seven phases and is a 7-day festival, hence known as Xaat-Bihu; comprising Raati Bihu, Sot Bihu, Goru Bihu, Manuh Bihu, Kutum Bihu, Mela Bihu, and Sera Bihu. The most significant ones being the Goru Bihu, observed on the last day of Sot (Chaitra) month wherein the cattle are revered for their immense contribution towards agriculture while Manuh Bihu falls on the first day of Bohaag and ushers in the Assamese New Year.

As a child, I was intrigued by the phrase ‘Bapoti Xahon’ often used as prefix for Bihu. It wasn’t until recent times when I learnt that the phrase originates from the Chutia community, wherein Bapoti means father and Xahon means property; implying that Bihu is a family heirloom, something of great value that is being handed down for generations.

The origin of Bihu can be traced to being brought to Assam by the Mongoloid tribes that had migrated from Southeast Asia. Eventually, Bihu went on to become a synthesis of various cultures stemming from diverse ethnic groups such as Tibeto-Burman and Tai. Several words and phrases associated with Bihu testify significant Aryan contribution towards it. However, the key factor of Bihu is deeply rooted to the indigenous culture of Assam. The word Bihu was derived from the Deori word Bisu meaning ‘excessive joy’. While the Bodos call it Baisagu, each ethnic groups has individual names; such as the Dimasa, Tiwa and Rabha call it Bushu Dima, Pisu, Dumsi respectively.

The word Bihu also stands for the Bihu Naas (Bihu dance), accompanied by folk songs known as Bihu Geet. Rongali Bihu and Bihu Naas or Husori are intertwined in such a manner that it is impossible to separate one from the other.

The rustic form of Bihu characterised by joyous and agile swaying of the body and synchronised movements of the hands and feet, danced to the beat of Dhol (drum), Tokaa (a bamboo clapper), Taal (cymbal) and the rich, high tones of the Moh’orxing’or pepaa (buffalo-horn pipe), and Gogonaa (small reed and bamboo string instrument), with Bihu Geet (folk songs) reflecting Love, Life, Nature was originally performed outdoors, on the riverbanks, paddy fields, around a bamboo bush or under a tree. It had remained confined to the local farming communities and not much interest was demonstrated towards it by the aristocrats and the gentry until back in the year 1694, when the Ahom king Swargadeo Rudra Singha gave recognition to its aesthetic appeal and accepted Bihu as the National Festival of Assam. It was under his aegis that the Husori groups of the neighbouring states were invited to perform in the royal arena during the seven day celebration of Rongali Bihu, hence enabling Husori to be viewed from the ramparts of Rong Ghor, the only known amphitheatre in medieval India. Thus, was born the Husori tradition.

Delving into the history of Bihu, a copperplate inscription dating back to 1401 A.D issued by the Chutia king Lakshminarayan stating that he had donated land grants to Brahmins on the auspicious occasion of Bihu was found in Ghilamara region of Lakhimpur District in the year 1935; this being first ever reference of Bihu whereas the first historical evidence of Rongali Bihu celebrations can be tracked down to the writings of Shihabuddin Talish in his book Tarikh-i-Assam where he mentions about Bihu celebration. A munshi (clerk) assigned with the additional task of writing the history of war operations, Talish wrote about the events observed by him while in the service of Mir Jumla (1660-1663 AD), the Mughal General, who occupied Gorgaon, the capital of the Ahoms for a couple of months during mid-17th century.

Delving deeper, we learn that the origin of Faat Bihu (Faat meaning ‘to migrate’ in Deori-Chutia language, goes back to when a group of Kachari Dimasa survivors had migrated after a political turmoil to settle down in Harhi Sapori, Dhakuakhana where they set up a temple by the name Harhi Dewaloi. It was at this spot that the first form of modern Bihu dance came into existence.

The advent of the neo-Vaishnavite movement by Srimanta Sankardeva in the later part of the 15th century brought on an era of socio-cultural renaissance in Assam and instilled hints of spirituality into Bihu. From being performed on riverbanks, under trees and on paddy fields, Husori began to be performed in Deuta’r Poduli meaning household courtyards with Grihosto or the head of family honouring and seeking blessings from the Husori troops.

A leap to the 19th century, takes us to when Rongali Bihu was given the status of Moncho Bihu, meaning that Bihu began to be presented publicly on stage. It was embraced as an active instrument for bringing about unity in the form of a National Festival, especially in the Brahmaputra Valley with a common sentiment stringing the individual adaptations of Bihu by Bodo, Sonowal, Chutia, Mising, Deori, Lalung, Tiwa, and Hajong communities in both upper and lower Assam.

The concept of Moncho Bihu was taken up as a conscious effort towards popularising Bihu by stalwarts such as Xinghopuruxh Radha Govinda Baruah, Bihogi-Kobi Raghunath Choudhary, writer-orator-President of Assam Sahitya Sabha Lakhyadhar Choudhury among others, and between 1935-1952, Bihu was held publicly in major towns of the state, such as Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Dergaon (Golaghat), Nagaon and finally, at the historic playground Latasil in Guwahati. Till date, delivering a performance at the Latasil Moncho is deemed a matter of great pride even by Bihu experts and connoisseurs

Bihu in the contemporary times, is celebrated by not only by the people of Assam, irrespective of religion, caste or creed but also by the Assamese diaspora nationwide and oversees.

Although Husori continues to serve the historic purpose of being a symbol of solidarity and goodwill, it goes without saying that the ‘organised’ Bihu has certainly taken away some of the traditional relevance from ‘the Husori of yesteryears’. It is the need of the hour that concern and caution be directed against over-enthusiastic commercialisation of Bihu so as to prevent distortion of the traditional Assamese culture, mainly by media and television.

Now, the pertinent question is : what was the Bihu scenario in between or rather before Moncho Bihu came into existence ??!!

Not many of us are aware of the drastic turn of events that took place with regard to Bihu following the Treaty of Yandabo, signed at the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, as a result of which Assam was annexed to India.

The new British system of education, administration, industrialisation, trade, transport and the import clerks from West Bengal and other parts of the country gave birth to a new class of Assamese aristocrats which replaced the ones in the royal age. This new class loathed the existing culture and social values. According to them, Bihu songs and dance were erotic in content and hence, they considered it as a culture of the lowly people.

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The ‘The National Guardian’ in 1898, published an article titled ‘The Assamese Bihoo’ written by Budhindranath Delihial Bhattacharya, a tea planter of The Crown of England(later Govt. of Assam & WB), known for his work The Pronouncing Anglo Assamese Dictionaries, published in 1931. Through this strong statement, “When the dancing wake high the dancers, both men and women, become frenzied and behave very indecently… this notorious Bihoo greatly demoralizes the Assamese, especially the lower class…”. Budhi Babu, as he was popularly known, basically appealed to the British Government to pass an act to ban Bihu, to which the British issued an order banning the observance of Bihu from 1898 April.

Isn’t it unimaginable and utterly shocking that Bihu, which had been regarded as the National Festival of the state and the symbol of our unified cultural vision had been subjected to such disparagement and denigration.

Needless to say that the ban cast a dark cloud of glum upon the common people of Assam, especially the Dhuliyas and Naasonis.

A deeply disturbed and saddened brother-sister duo, Moimat Tatinga, a dhuliya of repute and Seni Gaabhoru, an expert Bihu dancer hailing from Chalchali in the Puronigudam area of Nagaon District, decided to take up the formidable task of getting the ban revoked. Along with Aanondo Das who also belonged from their native place, they set sail to Guwahati where they appealed to a British administrator to give them an opportunity to display the ‘real’ Bihu. It was a ‘Do or Die’ situation; Ozha Moimat played the Dhol like there was no tomorrow and his sister Seni Gaabhoru danced with her heart and soul while Aanondo Das explained all the interpretations and nuances of the dance steps and the words of Bihu Geet to the Saheb Bahadur before whom they performed. Fortunately, the British administrator found the artistic and uninhibited performance aesthetically appealing and failed to find even a trace of obscenity in it. He immediately issued an order stating that the ban be rescinded.

Excited and elated by their victory, the Triumphant Trio, Ozha Moimat, Seni Mai and Aanondo, decided that on reaching home they would celebrate their victory by performing Bihu amid the monsoon showers. The news of their plan trickled out and on hearing about it, many British officers sailed along the Kolong River to Chalchali where they enjoyed the enthralling Bihu performance.

Suffice it to say that in today’s time, Bihu might have been a word of history, relegated to libraries and museums, had it not been for the grit and determination of the brother-sister duo along with their friend.

The fact that Ozha Moimat and Seni Gaabhoru belonged to the Muslim faith bears testimony to great secular traditions of our state which has aptly been termed as Xongkor-Azaan’ore Dexh – that is, the land of Shreemonto Xongkordev and Azaan Fakir, the two religious and cultural saints of medieval Assam

So, from then to now, Rongali Bihu and Bihu Naas continue go hand in hand and despite the many pre-requisites and rules imposed upon it, Bihu dance is here to stay as the heartbeat of the people of Assam and the Assamese people across the globe for as long as eternity.

Also read: With Love – Subho Noboborsho & Rongali Bihu

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