A ssam may at present be in ferment over who qualifies to be a son of the soil, but undoubtedly something as indigenous as Rongali Bihu ought to come as a gust of fresh spring air. As the State immerses itself in the Rongali spirit, can it be hoped that the mass effervescence will somehow help to resolve contradictions that has crept into Bihu over the years? After all, there can be merit in adopting a sunny, positive outlook before getting down to some thorny issues. How do we live with the contradiction of celebrating a quintessentially agrarian festival in a State where the burden of farming is being increasingly borne by immigrants? The indigenous Assamese are celebrating Bihu, the Bodos are welcoming Baisagu, the Rabhas are in euphoria over Baiyokhu, the Deuris are rapturous with Ibaku Bisu, the Dimasas are making merry with Hangseu Maoba Busu, as are other indigenous communities with their own spring festivals. Every year, the Bihu season has reinforced the underlying bond of unity among communities inhabiting the region. They share the same space, hold high hopes for the sowing season and cherish the once-in-a-year opportunity to renew their cultural moorings. But how do the people of Assam resolve the contradiction of a rural, agrarian festival brazenly assuming an urban, commercial character?
Once celebrated under open skies in the lap of ture, Bihu now finds expression on the stages in towns, full of commercial glitz and razzmatazz. It is commodified and packaged for mass consumption, backed by sponsors and lurid advertisements. Bihu sanmilans now require serious money; contributions from the public constitute but a fraction of the big budgets needed to draw high-profile artistes and globe-trotting cultural groups. The entire package has to be beamed live into homes through ubiquitous television cameras. In fact, celebrating Bihu that is not being telecast or streamed over the Internet is beginning to seem like an achronism! The stakes in such public celebrations of Rongali Bihu are now so high that it is the politically powerful and the rich who get first obeisance, rather than the local elders. Stage bihus are iugurated by ministers in return for their ‘kind sponsorship’, the programmes cannot get going without agents and factotums of political parties taking the lead. For the politician, Rongali Bihu is the time of the year to cultivate the electorate and renew the network. Corporate groups and media houses co-exist cheek-by-jowl by fincing the Bihu entrance gate, pavilion or stage. Winners and runners-up in Bihu dance competitions are showered with unheard of prizes like apartments and luxury cars, but surely this has given a fillip to the entire Bihu music and dance industry, even if for commercial reasons and desire for fifteen minutes of media fame. Thanks to the Rongali Bihu season nowadays beginning just after Bhogali Bihu in TV studios and stretching long into the rainy season, the Bihu CD and DVD industry too is riding piggyback on the wave.
Bihu may once have been the festival of the indigenous, but the indigenous component in Bihu markets is declining over the years. Gamosas and silken garments woven in powerlooms outside the State are flooding the markets, even though there is a law against such products. Staring at a bleak future, local weavers with their traditiol looms have to pin their hopes on self-help groups. But only Bihu melas will not keep such self-help groups afloat. Even Bihu orments are now mostly Chi-made, imitation varieties, but wildly in demand due to low prices. Local traders and self-help groups are achieving some success in popularising Bihu delicacies, which needs to be welcomed. Skeptics may have a low opinion of Bihu dance workshops mushrooming during this season, but at least these workshops are drawing kids to practice and parents to patronise a dance form, that was dying out about two decades back. It is another matter that the judges of Bihu dances and songs differ so bitterly among themselves over standards and correctness. Overall, technology and corporatisation has taken over a Rongali Bihu now increasingly urban in character. This festival of spring may have lost much in its transposition from our fields and villages into towns, but there are two things it cannot afford to lose — popular involvement and joyful spirit. And so we need to be ever positive about Rongali Bihu while doing the necessary course corrections and keeping out distortions. For the people of Assam, irrespective of caste, creed or language, Rongali Bihu is more than merely celebrating the advent of Spring, the king of all seasons. It is a proud heritage, a statement of harmonious life and composite philosophy unique to this region.