By Krishanu Kashyap
From a spontaneous outburst of celebration (“Mukoli Bihu”) in open fields to organised celebration of “cultural nights” in the cities— Bihu has come a long way. But here I talk about what it has been, is still, and even more so— a celebration of nature.
Bihu is, largely, an agrarian festival. Abandoning the hunter-gatherer life, the primitive human settled for organised agriculture. But agricultural production and hence their own sustenance depended on things they understood less— natural phenomena. In simple words, they were at the mercy of nature. As the prominent Assamese poet and politician, Hem Barua notes, the primitive human, equipped with their own lived experiences, founded a number of festivals that accorded with the ways of nature— festivals of dance, music and of worship. These marked, quite ingeniously, critical points in the cycle of nature— Bohag Bihu signified the start of the cultivation cycle, Kati Bihu symbolised the expectation of a good crop mid-season and Magh Bihu signalled the end of the harvest season. These not only furthered their understanding of nature but also brought about a nascent form of a cultural life— heavily influenced by nature and its ways— expressed, as noted by Joseph Sachs, in the form of bodily movements like sun-dances, rain-dances.
Prominent poet Hem Barua notes, Bohag Bihu is the season of fertility. The dry earth is impregnated with the rains that lead to agricultural reproduction— the earth becomes bountiful with crops and vegetation. But this representation is of symbolic importance. It is useful to note that in agricultural societies, apart from the forces of nature, there was another requirement— labour. Hence, this symbolism—that of fertility—is not just limited to nature, but to humans as well and the importance of their procreation.
Noted scholar MaanBarua writes, in Bihu songs there are constant references and extensive descriptions of the season in which it is held. Flowering of the nahor (“nahor phul phular botor”), the blooming of kapau phuls (wild orchids), the spring breeze, the dark heavy clouds, the wild gusty winds called ‘Bordoisila’, find mentions across the range of the Bihu songs. Moreover, the medieval text ‘Deoburanji’, written by Maan Barua, mentions Bohag Bihu as the time when all sorts of flowers and wild orchids bloom. Culture thus expresses itself not in any vacuum but in relation to some context, which here is the transition to Bohag— a vibrant, lively and colourful change from a barren, dry, almost lifeless form of nature.
One can find numerous references to a variety of flora in the Bihu songs. They include the Nahor, Keteki, Bhebeli Lota, Madhoi maloti, amongst all others, writes Barua. Various plantain and grasses— Khagori, Birina, Keya-Bon find their mention in the songs with reference to their daily use. Bathing with Maah (black gram) and Halodhi (turmeric paste) on the first day of Bohag is considered auspicious— that washes away the germs and protects one from ill health for the coming year.
Dr.Bhupen Hazarika in his popular Bihu song Modarore Phul Henu describes that the flower finds no use in either pujas or ceremonies, but embellishes and adorns nature with colour in Bohag. This, along with many other such references, are in striking contrast with the modern conceptions of nature which equate it with utility— valuing nature only because it has some use. But Bihu songs don't; they see nature not through its use, but it’s mere existence— nature is as living and breathing in the songs as are humans and also as integral to the festivities.
As with flora, Bihu attaches significant importance to the fauna as well. Along with rainfall and labour, draught is also essential for agriculture. The reverence to cattle finds its way from that premise. The Goru Bihu day is one such example where the cattle are fed and attended to, with festive fervour, because they are considered auspicious. The Bodos however, devote each day to honouring a different animal, writes Maan Barua. This signals the relationship between humans and animals— a relationship not of exploitation but of symbiosis and reverence. Some birds that find references to in the songs include the Asian Koel, Indian Cuckoo, Black Necked stork, etc. Several types of fish also find their mentions— xol, xingi, borali, elenga, sital, etc. writes Barua.
This expansive vocabulary, that of the language of Bihu, that encompasses all beings that are part of it, is nothing less than a spectacle — a collective recognition of our nature and surroundings as part of what we are.
However, Bihu has not always remained the same. Spontaneous celebrations under trees in open fields has been replaced with organised celebrations on stages, in both urban and rural contexts. But the change was not sudden. Hem Barua points out that with the advent of feudal society, Bihu began to be performed within the precincts of the King and nobility. This prompted the creation of a new form of Bihu dance— ‘Husori Nrityo’— and possibly, a new form of Bihu celebration— ‘Moncho Bihu’ (on stage). To lament the dissociation of Bihu from an Open field celebration, is justified. Commercialisation of Bihu, in that way, has only furthered the dissociation— where highly paid singular artists often overshadow Husori groups and Bihu groups. But the essence of Bihu will live on, as it has throughout history, spanning several different ecological, economic and social settings— through the very songs that we sing— the songs that hum the tune of nature.
The month of Bohag, therefore, sees us immerse in the sights and sounds of nature. The roaring beats of the Bihu drum (dhol) along with the piercing blare of the pipe (pepa), envelop the entire area. Energy is infectious in the time of Bohag and only few can resist themselves giving in to the all inviting sounds of nature, that is, to do a Bihu dance. Or sing the numerous Bihu folk songs that recount the trees, the flowers, the wind, the animals, their loved ones and quite unsurprisingly, their ‘Atikoi senehor bohagor bihuti’. It is indeed, that in the time of Bohag Bihu, that we become one with nature.
(The author is a student of Economics and Social Anthropology at Ashoka University, Delhi and a columnist at Centre For New Economic Studies (CNES), Delhi.)