By Nasreen Habib
As the Bihu moves towards a more formalised urban setting, it continues to hold on to its secular ethos.
A wild, fierce wind – Bordoisila – had swept across Assam, heralding the advent of Spring. Junali Bora, 16-years-old, picked up the fallen red roses strewn across their small garden path in Puranigudam, Nagaon, and securely fastened them to her koldiliya khupa (bun), named after the shape of the koldil, or banana flower, a popular delicacy in the State. With gam-kharus on her wrists, a jaapi necklace and matching jaapiearrings, and a coat of red lipstick and black eyeliner with a tip phot (bindi), and the elaborate bun, her Bihu costume, made up of a red blouse and a muga mekhela-sador, was now complete.
Her next-door neighbour Malabika had wrapped a riha instead of the sador, a more popular choice nowadays. As for her khupa, she had managed to find the elusive kopou phool (foxtail orchid), the State flower of Assam, a rare sight in the time of climate change. But, thanks to globalisation, every Bihu, plastic kopou phools from China flood the market! Nasonis (dancers), however, are advised to stick to the natural world.
As they made their way to the open-air field where a makeshift stage was constructed for the Bihu Kunwori and Samraggi titles, young women dressed similarly met the eye. But look closely, and you would know that the mekhela-sadors were not all a staid muga colour. A burst of colours broke the monotony, as Mising, Karbi and Bodo sadors were freely mixed with the muga mekhelas. Gayatri Mahanta, a popular actor and Bihu exponent explains, “Nowadays, the Rabha, Kachari, Tiwa, Mising and Bodo sadors are also being draped with the traditional muga mekhelas. The colour combinations are eclectic; my personal favourite is a muga mekhela with guna phool (flowers made of golden thread) in red or green, the sador suitably matched.”
In the midst of much socio-political turmoil in the State, this can also be seen as an attempt to build a broader pan-Assamese society. Where earlier the Bihu was performed in the open, on a corner of a paddy field, it has now firmly ensconced itself on the mancha or stage, thus making the transition from mukoli to mancha Bihu. In one stroke, it has evolved from being an agrarian festival to a public spectacle. “The three-quarter red blouse that is so symbolic of a Bihu dancer is actually a recent phenomenon. Earlier (I am talking about my great grandmother’s time), wearing a blouse was uncommon. Women used to wear the mekhela as a methoni and dance under the trees. And a xendur phot was all the make-up that a nasoni used,” says Shyamantika Sharma of Jaanmonifame.
Shyamantika had emerged on the scene in mid-2000, riding the wave of a new phenomenon – the Bihu VCD. These were complete stories that revolved around Bihu and brought in many stylistic changes in its performance. Shyamantika herself was responsible for the ‘Burhi’ naas (dance) style, where a dancer bent low to effect the kokal bhanga move, “The Burhi naas is actually quite old. It was typically performed by the aitas (grandmothers) as they need not copy the young, lithe dancer’s style. Maybe it was its ease or the novelty, but it caught on”. The VCDs also brought in other changes, especially in the presentation of Bihu. “The make-up has evolved. Earlier, it was Bihu under the trees, now, it was under the lights, on a stage, or in front of a TV camera. Ujjal dekhabo laagibo (You have to look bright). The make-up has to be natural and dewy, it can’t be cakey. I prefer pinks and neutral shades for they suit our skin tones, kajal, of course, has to be the blackest black,” shares Gayatri.
With growing hashtags on Instagram and tutorials on YouTube, even the neighbourhood parlour is equipped with the latest trends. “A light base, an earthy pink blush, an eye-liner and red lipstick is basic. Now, you also need a setting spray to set your makeup. The emphasis on eye make-up has grown, as has the trend to highlight your cheekbones and the inner corners of your eyes,” says Shyamantika. Trained by Bihu expert, Ranjit Gogoi, Shyamantika, a former Bharatnatyam dancer, like countless other nasonis, has come out of a Bihu karma shala (workshop).
“Now, the dancers have to be multi-talented, they are required to know about the dance steps of other communities as well. Theory is also important, you need to know about naamand jujona; pepa and gogona”. These workshops are also responsible for homogenising the dance form. “Thanks to the karma shalas, the style of performing the Bihu is more uniform. I am from Tezpur’s Bhorolipuria Bihu group, our husoridoesn’t have the element of lohori. Once when we went to Sivasagar to participate in a competition, we came to know about the difference. Their husorigroup has women in it, ours didn’t. There is no Lakhimpuriya Bihu, or Sivasagoriya Bihu, as such now, it is all the same.”
As the Bihu moves towards a more formalised, urban setting, is it losing its essence? As Gayatri quietly puts it, “The Jamugurihat Bihu or any other Bihu, however stylised it is, will also hold difference in it”. As in the early 1950s when the doyen of modern Assam, Radha Govinda Baruah, envisioned Bihu to be a cultural unifier, its legacy will live on – as a truly secular, rich story of inclusiveness.