> Society > Tradition  
Dr. Moushumi Kandali
Date of Publish: 2016-04-14


(Bihu through the lenses of stage performances and popular VCD culture)


“When the dancing wake high  the dancers , both men and women, become frenzied and behave very indecently…this notorious Bihu greatly demoralizes the Assamese, especially the lower class…” Thus wrote Bhuddhinath Dilihial Bhattacharya in an article titled ‘The Assamese Bihoo’ in the ‘The National Guardian’ in 1898, where he had appealed to the British Government to pass an act in order to ban Bihu. At this point of time it is simply unimaginable that Bihu once faced such kind of disparagement and denigration when now it has become the lifeline of our cultural subsistence. At present Bihu has become almost a signifier of a unified cultural vision, though it might look somewhat Utopic at times. The Bihu, a seasonal and agrarian festival  celebrated by most communities in Assam, is a unique example of a festival of acculturation signifying the fine synthesis of multiple cultures where religious/ritualistic components of various ethno-racial groups get assimilated.

Celebrated in the pre and post harvesting period since hundreds of years as recorded in the Buranjis or the historical accounts of the royal Ahom kings who ruled Assam for six hundreds years till 1826, Bihu is a festival of fertility and magic cult . Bohag or the Rongali  Bihu of the spring, the joie de vivre of the Assamese, is the most vibrant, joyous  and colorful among the three bihus which are observed at various times with different significations.  Bohag Bihu’s significance lies in the celebration of spring with dance performances by  young boys and girls in group with brisk stepping, rapid hand movements and rhythmic swaying of hip to the accompaniment of dhol (drum), taal(cymbal), mohar singar pepa (a pipe made of buffalo horn), gogona(a small string instrument made of reed and bamboo) toka(a bamboo clapper) etc. The Bihu songs accompanying the dance are pointer of a very rich oral tradition of folk music imbued with a rare poetic imagination about human love, passion and desire. Of course there are different types of Bihu dance forms such as the Jeng or female Bihu where only the girls perform, the male Bihu, the Log Bihu where both male and female take part and the ‘Huchori’ where a group including elderly people visit every house in the village in the evening to sing and dance Bihu in the courtyard of the household. Singing Bihu with religious and spiritual intonations, the group offers  blessings and prayer for the prosperity and well being of the society. ‘Rati Bihu’ or the Bihu performed in the night by groups of young boys and girls that was once an effervescent tradition, dwindled with the advent of British colonization.  Though a traditional folk dance form like Bihu cannot be datable per se, scholars through their research and findings have opined that it has been thriving vibrantly for centuries approximately thousand years if not more. Writings or literary references to Bihu can be found in the historical accounts of the Ahom kings, in the early twentieth century journals like Banhi (1909-19), and in the early modernist Assamese novels like Mirijiyori (1895), Dondua Droh (1909), and Rongili (1925) by writer Rajanikanta Bordoloi.


The first phase of Bihu datable to the pre-mediaeval period mainly comprised of the  Bihu where prayer to fertility Goddess and ritualistic dance depicting  youthful love passion and desire predominated. The songs and the body gestures expressed the joyfulness of being in love, the physical craving for the paramour, and intimate bond between human being and nature. The second phase manifested the reflections of the new socio-cultural developments and changes which became evident in the expansion of Vaishnavite Bhakti movement propagated by the Bhakti saint scholar, writer, artist and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva(1449-1569). The  Vaishnavite spiritualist expressions gave way for a more transcendental touch especially in the accompanying songs of Bihu. Bihu underwent a definite departure in its third phase during the rule of the Ahom king Rudra Singha who was a connoisseur of music art and culture . The king started a new practice of performing Bihu in the Royal courtyard in the open space with a broader spectatorship paving way for a new tradition of Huchori, where the group of performers would go in a procession to the court and on their way back the bureaucrats elite would invite them to sing, dance and shower blessings. In return the household head would kneel down to bow with betel nut and leaf while offering ‘gamocha’ and some money as a token of reverence and gratitude,  thereby gradually paving way for this practice to spread on a larger scale as a marker of community bonding. Perhaps it was at this juncture Bihu came up as a public spectacle for the first time when performing Bihu in the premise of Rong Ghor, the pleasure pavillion of the Ahom Kings with limited privileged spectatorship became an annual affair. It no longer remained a rural agrarian celebration of spontaneous ritualistic merriments but an amalgamation of classical Vaishnavite rendering and folk rendition to cater to the feudal taste and aspiration of the ruling class.

Later transitions followed after the Burmese invasion and the advent of British colonization with the Treaty of Yandaboo between the British and the Burmese in 1826. As in the case of the rest of India, British colonization brought forth unprecedented and long standing socio-cultural, political and economic implications with the implementation of British Education System and the subsequent emergence of the Assamese middle class in the nineteenth century. Not only the vibrant tradition of Night Bihu collapsed and died out but also the entire dance form came under threat with the spread of colonial education, neo influence of Western and pan Indian elite, classical culture and simultaneous tendency of the people to look for other avenues of livelihood other than agriculture.  Bihu faced vehement criticism by some quarter of Assamese literati enchanted by puritan ethical norms and neo classical ideals  of an emerging elite class during the nineteenth century for whom the folk art form was “low art” performed by the “lower class” as opposed to “High art” as seen in the vilified proclamation  by Bhuddhinath Dilihial Bhattacharya mentioned in the very beginning.


However in a counter discourse, a process of reclaiming Bihu in collective cultural arena of   Assamese life began in the beginning of the last century. The educated youth, fired with the idea of nationalism in the first decades of the 20th century protested the puritan denigration of this festival by the elders and termed it a festival of the entire race. Soon, in a quantum leap from an agrarian rural phenomenon Bihu became an urban spectacle. In 1941, for the first time in Assam Bihu came to be celebrated publicly at Sibsagar Natya Mandir, in the affluent upper Assam town of Sibsagar .The president of the first Bihu committee to organize Bihu function in such grand scale was a very popular poet Raghunath Choudhari and other associated members were esteemed scholar like Maheswar Neog, Paragdhar Chaliha etc. After one decade when Radha Govind Baruah, a social doyen, known as the Iron Man of Assam, organized a grand gala of Bihu celebration, this new practice became immensely popular spreading to the nukes and corner of the state bringing forth a neo form of stage- Bihu with all associated changes and transformations in props, settings, lighting, and choreography in the stage performance, where Bihu Dance became Spectator-centric with the essential aim to entertain the audience. Over the decades  the spontaneity that was visible earlier in open fields and courtyards lost eventually in such dance forms by modern day performers.


Mapping this transitive journey of a dance, from an agrarian rural/folk form with limited private spectatorship to a mega public spectacle with mass spectatorship posit certain queries with regard to the making/unmaking of this spectacle called Bihu. The rise of Bihu as a spectacle, a competitive- urban- entertainment –phenomenon, shouldering a whole lot of inherent socio-politico-cultural   baggage perhaps coincides with the emergence of politically reflexive Assamese Middle Class. In the fifties and sixties the coming of the confidence of the highly educated urban middle class marked a new awakening in the socio-political and cultural arena. The emerging urban Assamese middle class engaged itself in reappropriation  and reconstruction of the  past to cater to the idealistic concerns of the new cultural identity and Bihu came up to fit in this ideal of a all encompassing democratic, secular ,unified cultural marker, a signature of cultural identity of Assamese community. Buoyed by the economic boost of tea and oil industry, advancement and improvements of technology and communication, a section of the urban population also started off as power players in the society with long standing implications of desire and power in the public collective sphere. Mushrooming of  Bihu committees over the period , sponsored by big corporate houses, political agencies, affluent  business class and the influence, prestige and power associated with the positions in these  committees further enhanced the making of the spectacle of Bihu.

 Initially those who strived to uplift this linguo-cultural heritage of Bihu believed that it was essential to expose the traditional form to the broader arena and bring those diligent practitioners of this art into the limelight. Hemanga Biswas the doyen of progressive cultural movement of Assam brought the then unknown Dhol maestro Maghai Ozha on to the national stage. However the consequent ‘Stage Bihu’ became a neon glittering spectacle with a million rupee budget. The spectacle further accelerated with the fashionable accommodation of Bihu in the music of Assamese Film Industry. In the decades between 70’s to the 90’s, most Assamese movies featured age old Bihu songs that flew through the generations orally, accompanied by a distinctively traditional score. In audio industry, cassettes took over from gramophone records in the 80’s. The first Bihu Cassette to our knowledge was PAHAROR JURITI (The Hill Brook). By and by, Bihu cassettes cornered a major chunk of the audio market and it came to such a pass that from the month of Magh, the petty shops, marketplaces and even decks on public buses gave the public a preview of the Rongali Bihu to come. At first, the cassettes recorded the traditional Bihu songs. However as time passed, new songs took their place. The subject matter began reflecting contemporary issues rather than traditional youthful romance. The Dhol beats were slowly replaced with electronic percussion and modern instruments such as guitars slowly began to be heard. Now from about 2005, new digitalized acoustics are being used in Bihu songs along with classical tabla beats replacing the Dhol. In the late nineties this entire Bihu phenomenon as a lucrative business/commercial endeavor got further fillip when along with this trend of cheap and easy audio cassettes, the trend of CD and VCD making spread in the market like wild fire. Whereas at present Assamese Film Industry, once a vibrant arena emerging since 1934, is under a great threat of commercial sustainability, this Bihu oriented VCD industry is flourishing in all sphere churning huge turn over annually thereby further exhaling the status of Bihu as a grand public spectacle.

It is worth mentioning herein that along with the emergence of the aspirant urban Assamese Middle class as mentioned in the foregoing,the sixties and the seventies also had seen the beginning of active student agitation and movements triggered by sub nationalism . Subsequent emergence of sub nationalism / ethno-nationalism among various ethnic groups and the new found political consciousness and critical self awareness among various ethnic /cultural groups and communities, eventually gave rise to several political forces demanding new political powers structures within Assam. Emerging as a site for contesting identifies, ethnic rifts and  cultural difference Assam started  manifesting as a  site of paradoxes.  In the midst of such socio-political whirlpool, an attempt to seek  out a  cultural unifier, synthesizer and a catalyst to built up a state of “Bor Asom “ a broader pan Assamese community diffusing all these centrifugal forces became evident . To build up a common homogeneous cultural unity in line of the Indian nation building strategy,  a restructured Bihu in the search  for  a new significant cultural form, a   signifier of Pan Assamese culture that would encompass all the socio-culture trait of the community, a synthesizer of cultural commonalities against all differences in a place of people inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups began to emerge.  Thus began the process of  imagining  of a  community, a broader progressive community with pan Assamese Identity. Stage  Performance with creative innovations began to create a neo modern icon of the Bihuwati ,a female Bihu dancer who now adorns herself not only with the traditional Assamese attire of muga silk chador mekhala but also other tribal costume signifying a new Assamese community with new synthesized identity. Though  a mere fusion of cultural costumes and motifs of various ethnic groups on the surface plane is inadequate to address the socio-political complexities  and resolve the differences , it can be seen as a  pointer to the search for an unified vision or imagination. Similar to the India Festivals organized by the cultural ministry of India or the showcase of the cultural bonanza of India in the Republic Day parade, the Bihu functions of the state too became a site for celebrating the multiple manifestations of Bihu dance forms from different ethnic people such as the Deory Bihu, Mishng Bihu, Bodo Bagrumba etc . ( Of course, the final item or the climax of the Bihu Nights would be reserved for  the musical performances by the celebrity singers like Zubeen or Papon) . Such cultural mosaic would be the triggered by this very imagination of the larger community or unified identity to which Bihu became the medium.   

The Metaphor for the imagination of a united community got further momentum within the popular cultural realm through  the weaving of the plots and themes of the Bihu dance and songs of the popular VCD culture. A stanza from the best seller VCD of the 2009, Janmoni, depicts the hero asking the heroine…”O beauty who are you, the Meghali from Meghalaya, the Aruna from Arunachal Pradesh or who else .. oh I know  you are the Asomi of Assam, the epitome of all the identities together. The heroine also asks back—“ Who  are you o handsome young man, a kachari, chutia, khasia, naga, nepali or mishing .. oh I know you are the New Assamese the amalgamation of all, a farmer and son of soil of this land called Assam…” Here the body of the protagonist , especially the female body become a political signifier, a political anatomy, a site of invested dream of a imagined community.  Along with such attempt at imagining at greater community with a pan Assamese identity, such VCD industry evolved around the cultural expressions of Bihu also enhanced the process of turning it into a spectacle.  The emergence of Bihu as a public spectacle has been adhered by the romantic  plots and subplots of such  VCDs  which tend to ascertain the middle class values like hard work, thriftiness fair play,  respect to tradition, humility, with Bihu as  a distinct cultural marker of  the young protagonists. In the story line of Janmoni- II of 2010, the female protagonist who was an outcast because of the superstitions of the villagers terming her as inauspicious creature bringing forth evils, gets immediate redemption and salvation the moment   she becomes a Bihu Queen winning the cash prize in the Big Bihu function !  As an extension to such imagination , the popular entertainment channels have also  now started spinning up Bihu moments in the TV serials . In one of the scenes of Oi Khapla, a serial set in a rural backdrop with multiple lingual expressions and ethnic groups, family of a religious minority (Bengali Muslim origin) was shown dancing to the catchy rhythm of Bihu and claiming that how can someone hailing from Assam would not gyrate to the drums of Bihu ! To summarize, participation of various communities in this cultural phenomenon called Bihu is seen equivalent to the participation in this imagination of a larger unified community, a community of cultural assimilation and commonalities.

The carnivalesque element of Bihu and its potentiality to subvert the normal/accepted social norms  perhaps have been lost in this transitive journey. Fewer in the urban population know  or actually dance Bihu in the spring time .But amidst the void space of the nihilistic urbanspace with an acute lack of community ties and sense of camaraderie, the overwhelming mass participation in the  popular cultural  event  called   Bihu  in forms of the stage-performances  ( organized by various Bihu committees ) is  perhaps  the indicator to the underlying factors for this making of  the spectacle of Bihu and its simultaneous  prerogative of imagining a community, even if its re appropriated  or constructed to some extent.  Laden with many inherent contradictions, ironies and parodies, here Bihu becomes a metaphor, a symbolic mediator to transcendent certain historical and socio-political maladies of a place of people called Assam .Perhaps it has sprang up in that psychological space of a collective subconscious domain, where culture as retrospective act adds a symbolic meaning and dimension to the lived-experience of an emerging urban community enhancing an acquired participation and belongingness. As Terry Eagleton says – “Culture, then, is the unconscious verso of the retro of civilized life, taken-for- granted beliefs and predilections which must be present for us to be able to act at all..” (The Idea of Culture, page28, Blackwell, Oxford, 2000.)

Dr. Moushumi Kandali

( Dr. Moushumi Kandali is Editor, Visual Art & Culture, nezine.com )


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