Urbanization and Bihu
Prior to the expansion of the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist society which has fuelled up the processes of urbanization and so called modernization to the extent that we see today, Bihu predominantly used to be a harvest festival. But today, claiming it so will perhaps not be correct in entirety. The idea of Bihu, being a harvest festival and the three Bihus (bhogali, rongali and kongali) being in some way or the other attached to crops, fields and the granaries has almost faded from our consciousness. In the wake of rapid urbanization and modernization in Assam, Bihu today is fast detaching itself from the rural to become a commercialized urban festival. Although to claim that the festival is no more celebrated in the villages would be an exaggeration, but the fact cannot be denied that the rapid urbanization has given Bihu a new décor. With the increasing commercialization of the festival, Bihu seems to be moving more towards the realm of political economy from the realm of culture. We failed to trace when Bihu got separated from harvest and came to be predominantly attached with the highly mechanized stage concerts and the numerous bhogali melas. The increasing commercialization of the festival is visible perhaps from the fact that in the urban centres, the equally relevant Kati Bihu (kongali bihu) has failed to keep up with the other two counterparts (bhogali and ronagli) primarily because it lacks the comparative glamour and relevance in terms of the political-economy of festivals. The significance of the Kongali Bihu is fast fading away from the consciousness and the occasion usually passes by every year as an ordinary calendar day.
Bihu, Then and Now
Bihu (all the three forms) like other harvest festivals of India is meant to be primarily associated with agriculture i.e., crops, cattle, fields, granaries and the nature. But, with the rapid urbanization in search of better livelihood these traditional aspects have come to be separated from the idea of Bihu. It would be unjust to blame solely the aspiring Assamese middle class for such transformations. After all, in the increasing apartment culture where neighbors fight for a space for parking their automobiles, how would a sensible mind think of domesticating a cow which he/she can worship on the occasion of Bihu? The rising urbanization and modernization has come to alienate more and more of the Assamese population from the cattles, farms and granaries. As a result, the idea of Bihu has transformed drastically – whether for good or for bad is left to the scrutiny of the scholars and think tanks and of every conscious resident of Assam.
A few reasons to believe that Bihu as we knew and as it is supposed to be in its very traditional understanding has changed today or has rather transformed are mentioned below. Although the readers require no mention of the characteristics and significance of the three Bihus namely- Rongali, Bhogali and Kongali, a brief of each of them are provided below for a better analysis of the transformations.
Bohag/Rongali Bihu: Celebrated in the Assamese month of Bohag, the festival marks the beginning of the Assamese calendar. The festivity is in the air and the cultivators are in comparatively less stress with lesser work in the farms and sufficient grains in the granaries. On the day before onset of the Assamese New Year, the cattles (primarily the cow) are worshiped and prayers for the coming harvest season are offered amidst colorful celebrations.
Kati/Kongali Bihu: Kati is the Assamese month that falls roughly around the English month of October. Almost mid-way the harvest season, the granaries by now are close to the threshold lower limit and thus the name Kongali (kongal contemplating roughly to poor). Festivities include lighting of lamps and offering of prayers for a better harvest.
Magh/Bhogali Bihu: The festival marks the occasion of bringing of paddy from the farms to the granaries. With filled up granaries and surplus food the farmers thank the nature for the harvest season. Prayers are offered to the fire God by lighting the Meji (a structure made of bamboos and firewood).
With the rising inflation and scarcity of resources, the line of distinction between Bhogali and Kongali is readily getting blurred. A whole discipline of political-economy has got attached to the festival. Now that granaries and farms are distant cries in the urban centres there remains no dichotomy between Kati and Magh. The skyrocketing prices, especially during the festive seasons make a considerable section of the population incapable of maintaining the traditional customs. Despite such crises, many of us still fail to realize that the root cause behind such crises is nothing but our aspirations for a so called better life that has alienated us from our traditions. Grinding of rice and preparing the traditional pitha is no more a domestic exercise partly because of time crunch amidst busy urban schedules and partly because the ingredients are tough to find. As a result of such indifference, the capitalist mode of production readily finds space in this ever expanding political-economy of Bihu. The handlooms now are out of trend but the hand-woven clothes are coming back to trend. As a result the capitalist forces find the space to take away the rich Assam silk and manufacture machine woven fabric at the industrial centres. The products are then dumped back into the markets at cheaper prices thus outnumbering the few remaining hand woven clothes. The Assamese population with their wide open eyes saw the recent uproar in Sualkuchi but had nothing to do then just overlook. The Rong (rejoice) of the Rongali bihu has inseparably got attached with the highly mechanized stage concerts stretching till the late hours of the night or perhaps till early hours of the next day. It is bitter but true that concept of harvest, farms, crops and cattle are absolutely missing in such manifestations of Bihu.
With increasing commercialization of the festival, Bihu today has attained a stage when it would not be strange if a kid in the urban centres consider Bihu to be a festival where we are supposed to get new clothes and attend concerts or may be a festival when a snack called pitha is bought from the nearby bhogali mela and served with tea in the evening. Change but is inevitable and anything which does not change fades away. Change for good is always welcome but the need of the hour is a conscious introspection of what the changes and transformations have brought to us. Now that we are approaching yet another season of Bhogali Bihu let us take a momentary pause from our busy schedules and evaluate our gains and losses in the mice race called life.
Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
(Uddipta Ranjan Boruah, Student of International Relations, South Asian University. Write ups feature in International Policy Digest, South Asia Monitor, Eurasia Review and Greatway, Nepal among others)