By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Festivals are always delightful, as they relieve our minds from much anxiety and problems, though only for a very brief period. Life is full of suffering and diverse problems—as the saints and the philosophers have often stated. Without going into such high–level philosophical discussions, we may say from our own experience that we have more pain than pleasure in our lives. It is a great thing to forget suffering even for a very brief period. A few hours of unmitigated joy are worth a life time of misery and drudgery.
Bihu is a heart–warming festival of Assam; it goes straight to the heart of the Assamese people. Three Bihus are celebrated in Assam. They are Bhogali or Magh Bihu, Rongali or Bohag Bihu and Kangali or Kati Bihu. As the me itself suggests, Kati Bihu or Kangali Bihu does not give much scope for joy. There is no feasting or dancing during this Bihu and there is not enough food at this time to attract the hoi polloi.
We are merely supposed to plant a Basil (Tulsi) sapling, light an earthen lamp before it and make some meager offerings. Many people are not even aware when it comes or goes. But we have to admit that though it lacks in festivity, it does not lack in sanctity, as the rituals of bathing, worshipping and offerings are observed most faithfully, at least by the people of older generation. Of course this impoverished Bihu does not attract the young people, since they want fun and not piety.
Bhogali or Magh Bihu is very enjoyable from the point of gaiety. Everybody, young or old loves it. It is observed in the month of January, which is the proper time for warming up, sitting in front of a blazing fire throughout the night with choicest food to consume. Feast is a part of Bhogali Bihu, as the me itself suggests. In rural areas it is specially delightful. Young boys in groups make ‘Bhelaghar’ or ‘Meji’ in the open field with thatch, wood, bamboo or whatever they can lay their hands on. They stay awake throughout the night, singing, dancing and feasting before a blazing fire. Stealing is a part of the Bhogali Bihu festivities. It is fun to steal broken chairs, tables, signboards, wooden gates or whatever is combustible from the neighbors’ houses to make the bonfire more brilliant. Even vegetables in the garden do not escape the hawk like eyes of these pranksters. These are all good tured mischief. The victims of these plunderers do not really mind the innocent fun—unless they cross the limit. Still the more conscientious people do keep a vigil at night to guard their homes and things. At the crack of dawn the Bihu revellers set fire to the Bhelaghar, before going home to have a magnificent breakfast comprising pithas, ladoos, chira – doi and other delicacies.
In towns the method of celebration is slightly different. In towns there is scarcity of open space – so the Bhelaghar have become almost extinct. Yet the spirit of Bihu is not lost, families celebrate Magh Bihu with gaiety. If there is even a tiny space, they make a small replica of the famed Bhelaghar or Meji – and set fire to it in the morning. Throughout the night they keep awake to celebrate Magh Bihu. Hence though it is not celebrated in the rural style due to paucity of space, the celebration is not less enjoyable. It is nice to visit friends and relatives at Bihu time. turally in each house you are offered the same kinds of scks – pithas, ladoos, etc. Though at the beginning they are hugely enjoyable – after having them in a few houses the taste rather palls on you. But how can we imagine Bhogali Bihu without the obligatory pithas? So they have to be offered without fail.
Once women kept busy weeks before, getting ready with the ingredients like ‘Bora’ rice, coconut, ‘gur’, ‘til’ etc for making the delicacies. The ladies of rural areas are adept at making these mouth watering pithas. But the ladies of urban areas are not as skilled as their rural counterparts. It is difficult for the inexpert hands to get the right shape. For me, they come in every shape except the right one. Without doubt, the ladies of rural areas can beat the town ladies hollow in the art of pitha – making.
But now there is not problem – everything that is needed can be bought in the market, without going through all the rigmarole of the preparation for the Bihu. You can buy whatever you want in sealed polythene bags. But it does take away some of the joy of Magh Bihu. There is real joy in making these things at home for the family and friends. And market products cannot really measure up to home made things.
Rongali Bihu has arrived with all its glory. Despite the mayhem we see all over the state, we are happy to welcome the spring festival and have some respite from all the worries and anxieties, at least for a few days. Preparations for the celebration of Bihu have already been completed Bihotolis have become hives of activities – songs, dances, the throbbing sound of ‘dhol’ ‘khol’ ‘pepa’ ‘gaga’ etc have brought a kind of joy into the air. Housewives are extremely busy; they have lots of work to do. Those who depend on home – made things have to make mounds of varieties of pithas and ladoos. But the exorbitant price of everything does make us pause. And we have to procure the delicacies from the market – as at Bihu time we may expect any number of guests to visit us.
Like everything else, Rongali Bihu has also gone through lots of change – as is only tural. Gone are the days when young men in groups came to various houses to sing and dance in gay abandon. Young girls danced in the open field, wearing alluring ‘Muga Reeha – Mekhla’ with enchanting ‘Kopou Phool’ adorning their hair. Perhaps I have used a confusing word which might bewilder the young people. I wonder if anybody knows what a ‘Reeha’ is. In an age when the girls go for casuals like jeans and tops, or miniskirts, they may not have a foggiest idea of what ‘Reeha’ is. Even in the shops where they sell gorgeous ‘mekhela chadars’ and bridal dresses – ‘Reeha’ is conspicuously absent. But in my young age, no respectable Assamese lady stepped out of her home without a ‘Reeha’. The dress was incomplete without the long and rrow beautiful ‘Reeha’, which was worn under the ‘chador’ and over the ‘mekhla’. Unfortutely today it has become a museum piece.
When I observe the functions held in the Bihutolis my mind goes decades beck. There were no Bihutolis in that period nor were there any organized function. The songs and dances were spontaneous, without any rehearsals or artificiality. The girls of course did not participate in the dances, which were performed only by men in various homes. They came at any time during day or night to dance to the accompaniment of ‘dhol’, ‘khol’ and ‘pepa’. The main gate and the front doors were kept open throughout the night. After the groups performed their dances, the inmates of various households bade them farewell with folded hands and were offered ‘pithas’ and other delicacies, with, ‘gamocha’ and betel nut. Before leaving they blessed the entire household, which had great importance for the people of that era. It was an exciting time for the young and old alike. Now of course Bihu has gone through a kind of metamorphoses. You do not find groups of young men dancing at your home nor do you keep your doors open for them. At a time when violence has become the order of the day, nobody keeps their doors open even during the day, let alone at night, even in rural areas, I believe that the custom of Bihu dancing at various homes by young men in groups, has become a thing of the past. The tradition of the spirit of Bihu has been kept alive by diverse ‘Bihutolis’ in and around the state, including our city. People throng these Bihutolis and enjoy the variety performance, which continues till late hours.
But for us, the old timers, these arranged and rehearsed programmes are not half as enjoyable as the dances performed by young men in the past. Those young Bihu dancers did not care a fig how they danced or how they looked. They did not have a trace of make–up in their faces nor did they bother about the dress they wore. There was a kind of spontaneity in their dances. But in this age of commercialization nothing is done spontaneously, there is always the money – angle behind each performance. Today the artists are hired – for a price. These competitions held during the Bihu functions, rob the pleasure of Bihu , since competition and spontaneity do not go together. Today the groups of dancers come from diverse places. In the absence of ‘kopou phool’ the girls wear plastic replicas in their hair – and fake copies of genuine Assamese jewelry. But that is excusable, since you get nothing genuine in this age. Their faces are perfectly made – up and each tries to outshine the other. Yet that is the rule of time, artificiality has elbowed out spontaneity.
But it is no use grumbling or thinking about good old days. We must move with time and cannot go backward. The old generation has to accept the modern trend – or they would be totally isolated. None of these jeans – clad young men would even dream of dancing in another’s home – it is not to be thought of. Hence it is better to float with the tide and not against it. At least the people would be able to have three nights of ulloyed pleasure and it is something great in these days of violence and turbulence when nobody is sure if he would live through the day. These three night’s festivities are worth a life time of misery. For these days we may forget all our miseries and we can talk about something else besides the eterl problem of price rise and violence.
It is the custom of the Assamese women to offer ‘gamocha’ to the men folk. In Assamese society gamocha has a special place. It is needed in pujas, meetings, weddings and other functions as well. It is a symbol of love and respect. Any distinguished person, visiting Assam, is greeted with a ‘gamocha’. Bihu cannot be imagined without ‘gamocha’. Assamese women were skilled weavers, who could create magic in their creation. None could equal them in this art. But sadly enough, weaving has become a dying art – specially in the urban areas. In villages it has still been kept alive. Modern women are not adept in weaving – and today’s girls may not even have seen a loom. It is a terrible pity that such a great and unique art of weaving has been gradually disappearing from the state.
Now we go to the market to buy gamochas. We have kept up the tradition of giving ‘gamochas’ to the men folk – and since we cannot make them, we have to buy them from the market, which are available in plenty and which are going like hot cakes. We hear that most of the ‘gamochas’ we buy, are really imported from outside Assam. There is a world of difference between a gamocha, bought in the market and one that is made at home. Yet there is no altertive – it is the unwritten law that during Rongali Bihu the women of the family must give gamochas to the men folk.
It is not the time for idle speculation nor is it time to wallow in self – pity. In spite of exorbitant prices of essential things, we cannot ignore Rongali Bihu – can we? It heralds the New Year, which fact rather confuses young children. As a child asked why we celebrate two New Years day – one in January and the other in April. Difficult to explain – is not it? Even the adults do not know much about the Assamese months without consulting some almac or Assamese calendar.
It is not the time for speculation or going back to the past. Let us enjoy the Rongali Bihu celebration and forget the unpleasant things. HAPPY BIHU, dear reader.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)