(The writer is retired Principal, Doomdooma College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The folk-songs, music, dances, the rituals related to agriculture, the religious customs prevalent in family and socio-economic life of a community or nation – all embody the cultural tradition and heritage of a country or community. These various ever-valued aspects of culture are the genuine semblance of a nation's identity in the world.
The spring-time festival known popularly as 'Rongali Bihu' is all God's grandeur – an illuminating record of the socio-cultural heritage of the people of Assam that has come through tradition down to our present times since time immemorial. Every indigenous aspect of nativity, stuck firmly to the soil of Assam, finds its full expression in this much celebrated festival-solemnly observed amidst gay abandon by people of all description, irrespective of caste or creed, rich or poor. The Spring being the maiden season of the year, heralds in a new era of joy, peace and prosperity amid Nature's beauty and bounty. With ecstatic feeling of joy, people of Assam feel naturally enthused during this time, to re-invigorate their lives with deep yearning for happiness, peace and prosperity in the days ahead.
The lusty Spring – the sport of all temptation, being the maiden season is pregnant with beauty and bounty, fruits and flowers. The all pervading fragrance of numerous flowers, the melody of the singing birds, the greenness of the forests, the bare sky and the vast open fields – all exhibit a fresh and lively feeling that captivates one and all during this time. Assamese people embrace this season as a harbinger of peace, happiness and prosperity. The Rongali Bihu is primarily related to the rustic village folk and traditionally connected with cultivation. The Assamese cultivators, at the advent of Baisakh, prepare themselves in advance for the ensuing season of agriculture with new hope and enthusiasm. With this end in view the ploughmen in Assam, on the first day, celebrate the traditional rituals by giving a clean bath to the cows especially the pair of bullock meant for cultivation. They pray for their sound health, vigour and long life. They are offered new ropes and given rice balls made of rice powder mixed with jaggery. Not only that the village folk arrange smokes to drive out flies and mosquitoes from the cowshed. Thus they are made ready for the ensuing season of cultivation. This first day is observed with customary rituals exclusively for the health and longevity of the domestic cows. Medicinal plants are also used to drive away flies.
The second day is earmarked for man. On this day the households do everything for refreshment and refinement. The first day of Baisakh is the new day for the Assamese calendar. The day is celebrated as a holy occasion by every family rich or poor, wearing customary Assamese handloom clothes by women and observing religious rituals at home and 'Namghars'. With due regards to the elders and love and affection to the young ones they embrace each other to strengthen the bond of love harmony and integrity and offer hand woven towels 'Gamosha' as a token of love and regards. The members of the family with neighbouring kinsmen, gather together in the family floor and take home-made sweets and snacks, fried rice, curds, cakes etc. The cheerful young girls wear 'Kopouphool' – a wild string of flower around their hair in conformity with the beauty and colour of the season. They wear home spun 'mekhela and chaddar' and look jovial, smart and lovely. Even the most destitute feel enthused to welcome this season of the year. The clarion call of Nature is well-nigh responded by people from all walks of life. The melodious songs of the cuckoo birds, the nightingales ushers in a new era of endless and spirited joy and gay abandon all around, captivating the mind and heart of people. The village folk on Nahar leaf write the Sanskrit rhyme, "Deva deva Mahadeva Nilagriwa Jotadhar - Baat Bristi Harang Deva Trahi Deva Namastoote" to get rid of storm, hurricate, lightening etc. This sacred occasion is observed by every household with pomp and solemnity.
Now begins the ceremonial demonstrations of Hoochari Bihu in public. The enthusiastic and cheerful young girls and boys gather in groups to sing Bihu songs and dances attuned with the lyric ruptures in their typical native styles under the shades of trees shrubs, thickets and river banks. The old and the young alike give whole hearted participation in joining hands together in Bihu Hoochari and thus express their ecstatic feeling of joy by singing and dancing amidst drum-beating and whistling clarionet and flutes. The Bihu songs are the spontaneous expression of a powerful feeling of ecstasy and agony, love and despair, smiles and tears of life. These songs – the invaluable treasures of Assamese folk culture are the rhythmic and lyrical composition of unknown and illiterate village poets. The enchanting melody of the songs captivate one and all alike irrespective of caste or creed.
The beginning of the Assamese New Year is celebrated all over Assam with sanctity and joviality. The villagers, young and old alike, visit in groups, the family of the elderly villager first to celebrate Bihu-Hoochari. They first sing hymns from books of religion and pray for the health and happiness of the family. Then with permission from the family folk the cheerful youth sing and dance attuned with drum beating and whistling music of flutes. The old elderly people gather at the village temple called "Namghar" to offer religious prayer for the peace, happiness and prosperity of the village folk in the days to come. Among various games and sports the traditional Egg competition are also held in certain places. The Hoochari groups visit every household with songs and dances to bless the family for health and happiness. The love-tunes of the young boys and girls are the spontaneous expression of their ecstasy and agony, spring out of love, hope, frustration etc.
The traditional Assamese Rongali Bihu has, in modern times, lost most of its sanctity and austerity owing mainly to the inroads of mass cultures into the very fabric of Assamese folk culture. The mushroom productions of cheap-rated and easily available Bihu cassette have decultured the traditionally austerity of the Bihu songs which are directly related to the life breath of the rustic village folk. So is the case with Hoochari Bihu. Hoochari Bihu is now brought to the modern stage from the field and forest where they are meant for competition, Prize are awarded from best Hoochari group, best dancer, best drummer etc. The music of modern songs has entered into the traditional Bihu songs and debased this precious Assamese folk culture greatly. The impact of modern mass culture is felt in every sphere of this folk culture.
Late Radha Govinda Baruah – the lion man of Assam, had first attempted to give wide publicity of Bihu Hoochari at Guwahati long back in 1953. He organized Rongali Bihu Sammilan at Latasil Bihu field and endevoured to exhibit this traditional Bihu Hoochari to the public. Since then all over Assam during this season Bihu continued to be celebrated even till late May amidst pomp and splendour.