The transformation of Bohag Bihu down the decades is remarkable.
By Mitra Phukan
It’s amazing, isn’t it, and heartwarming too, just how the people of these valleys that we call home connect to the festival of Bihu. Perhaps it’s something to do with the change in the weather.
We put aside our warm clothes, and don lighter ones. The warmth still feels good on the skin, and indoors is still cool. The flowers of Spring, in celebratory mode like the rest of us, burst into bloom, bringing their vibrant hues to the balmy air. Truly, this is a festival of joy, of laughter, of love.
The dances and songs of Bihu are, after all, based on fertility practices, and it is inevitable that its spillover should perfume our jaded, election-weary minds in such a welcome manner. It is now commonplace to find that Bihu is being celebrated across the globe, in places where even a few Assamese congregate. It serves as a peg for the diaspora to get together over homemade larus and pithas, to catch up in countries to which they have migrated.
A fine and parallel development is that even in Assam, it is being celebrated in places such as Dhubri and Silchar, places in which this festival was not, historically seen. And because it is such an inclusive festival, friends from across religious, ethnic and social denominations join in the fun.
Bihu reminds us once again that yes, life is a gift, and should be celebrated. With song, dance, laughter and goodwill. There is something about the unique double beat and the tempo to which these songs and dances are performed that bring a smile to our faces, and set our feet tapping.
Bihu dances are now recognised all across the country, just as Bhangra is. The unique melodies of Bihu have inspired composers across the land, from Bollywood to regional musical maestros. The lissome dancers, astonishing in their grace and beauty, attired in gold and red, and the handsome youths playing the dhol and pepa, with their gamosas tied so rakishly around their heads are a familiar sight across screens and stages in this season. And yet, this journey of the Bihu, the genre, from remote rural areas in Eastern Assam to the national and international stage, has been completed in only a few decades. For this, credit has to be given to the practitioners of the form, to those who brought it to the urban stage, and yes, also to the audiences across the land, over the decades, whose enthusiasm for the form has contributed in keeping it vibrantly alive today.
In the process, it is inevitable that several changes have happened to the original form. The Bihu we see on the stage today is a rehearsed, choreographed “performance,” not the spontaneous dance in sylvan conditions. True, the latter also happens, but it is more in the nature of dances within a closed group where everybody participates. The costumes, even the phot on the foreheads of the nasonis are coordinated in the performances. Certainly it is pleasing to the eye, though after weeks of seeing it through the month of Bohag, and well into Jeth, it does become a little wearying.
What is also intriguing is the way in which the songs, as well as the dance movements, are being sanitised. The gorgeous suggestiveness of the movements of this fertility dance have been toned down. The double entrendres and raunchiness that are so much a part of Bihu lyrics are, unfortunately, being muted. Let us hope that they will not be washed out completely. The alterations we see in the performances are backed by enormous changes in the way Bihu, the song, dance, and instrumental expertise, is learnt. No longer is it something that farm hands and village belles catch up with, and imbibed through watching others, while experimenting on their own.
Today there are workshops where songs are learnt, where dance movements are refined, where the beats of the dhol acquire even more vibrancy. Little children learn the movements of the dance in the “proper” way. To all this is added the competitions that are now part and parcel of the Bihu celebrations. Whether on the Bihutoli stage, or the TV channels, the Bihu Rani, Kunwori, Samraggi competitions are closely fought. It is amazing that they are also questioned on theory aspects of this genre. What does this movement seek to convey? What is the significance of this word in the song? Why are you using this particular drum roll at this point? Perhaps what we are seeing is the swift transformation of this genre into the classical.
Who would have thought, in the Fifties of the last century, that there would be so many economic spinoffs from this festival? Bihu performers, organisers of Bihu celebrations, pandal makers, pitha and laru sellers, restaurateurs, weavers, retailers of mekhela-sadors and gamosas, holders of exhibitions, all know that this is the time when purse strings are loosened, and people are in “buy” mode. And that, too, is part of the joy of these celebrations.