Bihu is the national festival of Assam. During Bihu every mind must be in joy, every one feasting, dressed in the colours of spring. Nature too is resplendent in her colours and flowers. In seven decades, what was a festival celebrated at home and fields, with cattle and pranks on the river bank, singing and dancing among the youth in Upper Assam, has now spread its wings from ‘Sadiya to Dhubri’. It has transformed itself from a localised Hindu festival heralding in the Assamese new year, to what has now become the national identity of the state, so much so that all swear by the Bard’s prophetic quote- Bihu is not a season, its the lifeline of the Assamese. And indeed it is, as Bihu travels with the Assamese as they move around the world in search of new homes.
Bihu, in its song and dance form was a taboo among the gentry, till a hundred years ago. Gunabhiram Barooah had written an essay denigrating it as a festival belonging to the lowest strata of society. The song and dance must have been a preserve of the Ahoms, Muttoks, Morans, Sonowal Kacharies and the other communities on both sides of the big river. The other people living amongst these communities, must have learnt the Bihu songs and dances and joined in the ‘notorious’ night long revelry called ‘Raati Bihu’. Out in the open, romances bloomed, elopements happened amongst liberal doses of song, dance and the spirits. To add a community tinge to the festivities, the ‘hussorie’ must have found its way in, derived from Vaishnavite influences. The young and the old combined to go around the homes of every villager, wishing them well for the coming year. They combined the divine with the fun, by beginning in prayer and ending in vigorous dance to speedy drum beats in rising crescendo. The ‘goru bihu’ must have been a commonality in all communities, for whom the bullock was the source of all ploughing energy. For whom agriculture was the main occupation and livelihood source, the importance of the bullock can be well gauged. The fun component common to all communities must have been the feasting and the new dresses, as also the exchange of ‘bihuaans’. Otherwise, other than the rituals, Bihu as we know it today, would have left central and lower Assam untouched. Even literature upto the fifties had not touched upon Bihu as a cause of celebrations. The month of bohag may have been eulogised as nature being in its best, the flowers, the orchids and the birdsong being written about, but as Bihu, we rarely find mention as something to be celebrated. One can’t recall instantly any poem from the days of Bezbaruah or a song from Jyotiprasad or Bishnurabha celebrating Bihu. And now there’s nothing else but Bihu .
How did Bihu become a national festival in Assam? A national festival is marked by all communities coming together, for a common cause or on a common platform. This perhaps first happened in the days of the independence movement. All communities within the geographical area of Assam came out unitedly to drive out the British. What initially began as a royal revolt at the loss of prestige and hold in society with the coming of the British, later transformed itself into a mass movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Bapu was able to bring together the high and mighty, to the lowest of lowest on a common platform. Gandhiji broke the barriers of caste, creed, religion, economic status, that separated man from man, communities from communities. He was able to instil a sense of purpose amongst all, that if they stood together, all would benefit. Fundamentally the emotions in man was the same and similarly all reactions were more or less, bound to be same. Petty interests tend to create a wedge between what is common. All Assam united under the leaders of the freedom movement, irrespective of caste or creed, towards freedom from the British. The movement swept the plains and the hills. It created its own literature, song, music and drama. Sirajuddin Hazarika, a Muslim rescued Sita a Hindu girl and brought her up, in the all time classic play SIRAJ. Jyotiprasad added fuel to the fire , with his soul and spirit stirring marching songs- biswabijoy najowan, luitor parore aami deka lora, kon kot aso ahow, jononir xontan jaaga. Poems of Ambikagiri, Kamalakanta brought all to the streets in a pledge of do or die. That was the time was the power of culture realised to sweep Assam from one end to the other, on a common purpose and above all in a feeling of WE ARE ALL ONE. Caste, creed, religion all faded on the onslaught of the need to free India.
The first attempt to project Bihu as a national festival was the brainchild of Radhagobinda Baruah. It could have been unintentional, but the time for the idea of a national festival had come to roost. Bihu as it first mounted itself on a stage, was not all Bihunaam and bihunaach. It was a cultural festival of modern song, dance and drama. The Bihu dance had not gone under the baton of a choreographer, nor did it have a laid out learning program like Sattriya. So the dance was something done in gay abandon, than to a set repertoire. There was no set pattern and the discipline and order required for a stage performance came much later. Only the Dhulia Oja had a set repertoire, as he always performed solo, supported by his paalis. The emphasis was on combining the traditional with the modern. The mood was to rope in cultures of all tribes and communities and to showcase their songs and dance. The tribal communities performed their songs and dances on the same stage as all others. Assam came to know of bagurumba, farkanti and other dances. Zikirs and jaaris came in from Sivasagar and Jorhat to rub shoulders with the Goalparia lokageets. Jogesh Bharali expounded the Kamrupi lokageet. The amalgam made everyone feel that there was something common in all cultures of Assam and each community had borrowed elements from the other. As the years went by the Karbis, the Tiwa, the Hajongs and other communities presented their own spring festival songs and dances. The tea tribes, the Nepali and other communities living in Assam did not get left behind. Given the platform they all felt the need and the pride to claim their contribution to the composite culture of Assam. The modern artists from Bhupen Hazarika to Khagen Mahanta, from Rudra to Brajen Barua, to Jayanta Hazarika and a Ridip Dutta, generation by generation, made the Bihutoli a melting pot of people and cultures. They drew the people in hordes. Every gathering attracted more and more people, till it could hold no more. Every congregation gave birth to newer celebration venues. No community wanted separation, all wanted inclusion. There was no bar in participating in the fun and festivities. Hence the audience grew and the spread grew. Assam nationally and internationally began to be identified with Bihu. Every citizen of Assam began to treat Bihu as his own. And thus was born the first national festival of Assam. May this spirit of colour, creativity and joy continue.
About the Author ::
Social worker, Activist, Author
Retired IAS Officer, Assam