By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
The spring season is regarded as a harbinger of joy by all people through the centuries. April is a beautiful month when the wintry sun begins to turn warm and days get longer. Flowers bloom in all their splendour in this season. The month of April is very dear to the people of Assam, as it heralds the most lovable festival of Bihu, to throb the heart of every Assamese. This spring festival is celebrated in almost all the parts of India under different mes. It is Baisakhi in Punjab, Bohag Bihu in Assam, Poila Baisakh in West Bengal, Vishu in Kerala, Pudu Varsham in Tamildu.
Bihu is a festival which goes straight to the heart of the Assamese people. Though we have three Bihus in different parts of the year, “Rongali Bihu”, the festival of spring, is the dearest to the people of Assam. Kati Bihu or “Kangali Bihu”, as it is called, does not give much scope for joy — there is no feasting or dancing during this Bihu, as there is not enough food at this time to attract the people. We are merely supposed to plant a young Tulsi sapling and make some meagre offering to it and light an earthen lamp before the plant in the evening. Many people forget about this Bihu — it comes and goes without any fanfare. Though lacking in festivity, it does not lack in sanctity, as the rituals of bathing, worshipping and offering are observed faithfully. Of course this impoverished Bihu does not attract the young people, since they want fun and not piety.
Bhogali Bihu or Magh Bihu is very enjoyable from the point of gaiety. This harvest festival is celebrated in winter; that is in the month of January each year, when the crops have been harvested. Feasting is the special feature of this Bihu, since there is an abundance of food at this time. People make ‘Mejis’ or ‘Bhelaghars’ (Bonfires) and make a night of it. The month of January is the proper time for warming up, sitting in front of a blazing fire throughout the night with the choicest food to enjoy. Feast is a part of Bhogali Bihu as the me suggests. On the Bihu eve every household prepares a sumptuous feast with meat, fish and other things. Rich or poor, everybody must have some fish on that night. Especially in rural areas it is more delightful. Young boys in groups make ‘Bhelaghars’ or ‘Meji’ in the open field, with thatch, wood, bamboo sticks, hay or anything they can lay their hands on. They arrange community feasts at night. They stay awake throughout the night, singing, dancing and feasting before a blazing fire. Stealing is a part of Bhogali Bihu. It is fun to steal broken wooden things like chairs, signboards, tables etc. from the neighbouring houses to make the ‘Bhelaghars’ on the Bihu eve. Even the vegetables do not escape the hawk-like glance of the pranksters. They are all good-tured fun, unless they cross the limit. But the more conscientious people do keep a vigil at night to guard their homes and other things. At the crack of dawn the Bihu revellers set fire to the ‘Bhelaghars’ with shouts of joy, before going home to have a huge breakfast comprising pithas, ladoos, doi, chira and other delicacies.
In towns the method of celebration is slightly different. Due to the paucity of open space, the ‘Bhelaghars’ have become almost extinct. Yet the spirit of Bihu has not been lost; the families celebrate Magh Bihu with gaiety. If there is even a tiny space, they make a replica of the famed ‘Bhelaghar’ and set fire to it in the morning. Throughout the night many people keep awake to celebrate Magh Bihu. Some young people celebrate it with friends and arrange for a party on the ‘Uruka’ night. Hence though it is not celebrated in the real style, the celebration is not less enjoyable.
Once, women kept busy weeks before the arrival of the Bihu, getting ready with the ingredients like ‘Bora’ rice, coconut, ‘gur’, ‘til’ etc for making the delicacies. The ladies of the rural areas are adept at making those mouth-watering pithas. But ladies of the urban areas are not very skilled in the art. For them pitha-making is a once-a-year event. Hence they are not as skilled as their rural counterparts. It is difficult for the inexpert hands to get the right shape. Without doubt the ladies of the rural areas can beat the town ladies hollow in the art of pitha making.
But now there is no problem. Everything that is needed can be bought in the market without going through all the rigmarole of the preparations for the Bihu. You can buy whatever you want in sealed polythene bags. But for the old timers like us, it does take away the joy of Magh Bihu to a certain extent. There is real joy in making these things at home for the family and friends. And market products can not measure up to home-made things.
Of all the Bihus the ‘Bohag Bihu’ or the “Rongali Bihu” is the most joyous. This spring festival heralds the Assamese New Year. Despite the mayhem all around, we are very happy to welcome the spring festival. At least we can have some respite from all the worries and anxieties. Preparations for the celebration of Bohag Bihu started a couple of months back and now possibly they have been completed. “Bihutolis’ 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 as they have lots of work to do. Those, who make pithas and other delicacies at home, must be keeping very busy. But the exorbitant price of everything makes us pause. Yet we have to keep varieties of pithas and other delicacies in store to entertain visitors, since at Bihu time we may expect any number of guests to visit us.
Like everything else Rongali Bihu has also gone through a lot of change, as is only tural. Gone are the days when young men in groups came to various homes to sing and dance in gay abandon. Young girls danced in secluded open space, wearing alluring ‘muga reeha-mekhela’ with enchanting ‘Kopou Phools” adorning their hair. Perhaps I have used a confusing word, which may bewilder the young people. I wonder if anybody knows what a reeha is. In an age when girls go for casuals like jeans, shorts or miniskirts, they may not have even the foggiest notion of a ‘reeha’. Even in the shops where they sell gorgeous mekhela chadars and bridal dresses, the ‘reeha’ is conspicuously absent. But in earlier times no Assamese lady stepped out of her home without wearing a reeha. The dress was incomplete without the reeha. Unfortutely today it has become a museum piece.
When I observe the functions held in the Bihutolis, my mind goes decades back. There were no Bihutolis in that age nor were there organized functions. 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 young 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 in every home throughout the night for the Bihu dancers — and we had a hilarious time in our young age, as in those days we were allowed to stay awake till late night. After the groups performed their songs and dances, the inmates of various households bade them farewell with folded hands and were offered ‘pithas’ and other delicacies along with ‘gamochas’ and betel nut. Before leaving they used to bless the entire household, which had great importance for the people of that era. It was an exciting time for the old and young alike. Bihu rituals were performed almost with religious fervour.
Now of course Bihu has gone through a kind of metamorphosis. You do not see groups of young men in Dhoti and Kurta carrying ‘dhol’ or ‘pepa’ or any other thing, walking hilariously on their way to visit various homes. Now that custom is extinct. Today’s young men would not even dream of going to diverse homes in dhoti and kurta to entertain them with Bihu songs and dances. Nobody keeps doors open for Bihu revellers. At a time when violence and anti-social activities have become the order of the day, nobody keeps their doors open even during the day, let alone at night not even in rural homes. We may say that the custom of Bihu dancing by young men at various homes has become a thing of the past, a kind of history. But the tradition of the spirit of Bihu has been kept alive by diverse ‘Bihutolis’ in and around the state, including our city. People enjoy these variety performances in the ‘Bihutolis’ till late hours. That is the way Rongali Bihu is celebrated in the present age. But for us, the old-timers, these arranged and rehearsed programmes are not half as enjoyable as the dances were performed by the young men, in the past. Those young Bihu dancers did not care a fig as to how they danced or how they looked. They did not have a trace of make-up on their faces nor did they bother about the dresses they donned. There was a kind of spontaneity in their dances. Their joy was obvious in their expressive faces. But in this age of commercialization nothing is done spontaneously without hoping for any gain. There is always the money-angle behind each performance. Today the artists are hired for a price. These competitions, organized during the Bihu festival, rob the pleasure of Bihu, since competition and spontaneity do not go together. The groups of dancers come from various places. In the absence of the “kopou phool” the girls wear plastic replicas in their hair and wear fake copies of genuine Assamese jewellery. But that is inevitable, since you get nothing genuine in this age. I still remember those beautiful “kopou phools” blooming in abundance in our own garden about half a century back. But for years now I have not seen them anywhere. Possibly, today’s generation have not even heard of them. They looked so divine and wonderful! But it is no use getting nostalgic about them. The times have changed and so have the people and their predilection. Today the Bihu dancers are more interested in winning the prize than in deriving joy from the performance. 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. Modern generation will not like it, and people of my generation must move with time, without looking back to the past at the slightest pretext. The old generation has to accept the modern trend or they will be totally isolated. None of these jean-clad young men would even dream of going back to the past. Hence it is better to swim with the tide and not against it. Despite the changes the people would at least be able to have three nights of ulloyed joy and it is a great thing in these days of violence and hatred, when nobody is sure if he would live through the day. These three nights of festivities are worth a life time of misery. For a few days we may forget all our misery and we can talk about something else besides the crimes all over the country and the eterl problem of price rise of everything.
It is the practice of the Assamese women to offer a ‘gamocha’ to the men folk. In Assamese society a gamocha has a very special place. It is needed not only during the Bihu, but also at other functions like pujas, meetings, weddings etc. It is a symbol of love and respect. Any distinguished person visiting Assam is greeted with a ‘gamocha’. Rongali Bihu cannot be imagined without gamochas. Once Assamese women were skilled in weaving, they could create magic in their creations. None could equal them in this art. But sadly enough weaving has become a dying art - especially in the urban areas. In villages it is still being kept alive. Modern women are not adept in weaving and today’s girls in the towns and cities 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.
The custom of offering a gamocha to the men during the Bihu is still prevalent. 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 in the market, which are available in plenty and which are sold 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 made at home and the one bought in the market. Yet there is no altertive. It is the unwritten law that during Rongali Bihu the women must offer gamochas to the male relatives and friends.
It is not the time for idle speculation nor is it the time to be nostalgic about the past. In spite of the exorbitant prices of essential things, we cannot ignore the ‘Rongali Bihu’ — Can we? It heralds the New Year, which fact rather confuses the young people. Children wonder why we celebrate two New Year’s Day — one in January and the other in April. It is difficult to explain. Even adults do not know much about the Assamese months and years, without consulting the almac or the Assamese Calender.
Let us forget the unpleasant things and enjoy the Rongali Bihu Celebration. Happy Bihu, dear reader, and a Happy New Year!
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)