By: Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee
“I will do to you what cherries do to the spring” wrote Pablo Neruda. This is so true about Rongali Bihu in Assam which goes beyond religion and is celebrated mostly as the Spring Festival by different communities of Assam and even outside by the Assamese people. However, like the previous year, Covid is lingers on as a nightmare making people scared and cloistered in their own cells. Since the past year almost everything has gone digitalized and reality nearly dwindled. They were separated, masked and almost housebound. In the Pandemic days, nature is however less invaded by human beings and naturally it is less polluted. And Rongali Bihu has come again with the message of sanity and love, harmony and unity in diversity. It is a spring renewal of the mind, heart and soul which is necessary for the post Pandemic situation and when we are threatened by a second wave of infection.
Rongali Bihu echoes an Assamese whose identity is shaped by nature and its idyllic beauty. Bihu is one such spring festival that brings to our mind a perfect cultural combo of love and religion. In Europe, spring is celebrated in many ways. Chaucer in his The Canterbury Tales sang about the significance of spring season when people go for pilgrimage. This year before the Rongali Bihu, Assam has been witnessing a few cold showers which has added to the liveliness of the blooming flowers and the melodies of cuckoos. As a popular proverb goes, “Jodi Barshe Magher shesh; Dhanya Raja Punyo Desh” (If it rains at the end of Magh, kingdom is filled with prosperity) and this has happened in Assam this year. Bihu is a season of love and romance and at the same time a month long festivity for the Assamese people. The festival of Bihu gives a unique identity to the Assamese people and makes them stand out in the history of the nation. Like Durga Puja for the Bengalis, Pongal for the South Indians and Makar Sankranti for the North Indians, Bihu is a national festival for the Assamese.
In different parts of the world, Bihu is celebrated with much fanfare and no less so, with religious solemnity, though nowadays it is also becoming a festival of social interactions and cultural integration. No other state can claim so much integration of religion and aesthetic, as the Assamese felt in the time of Bihu. It is about the advent of Spring and yet the solemnity of religion is not sacrificed while it goes beyond. Assam becomes youthful with the Bihu songs, dhol and pepa as well as dancing men and women all around. It makes the spring a festival of joy and colours. Even in New York and New Jersey, the enthusiastic people celebrate Rongali Bihu with the same energetic liveliness even in the foreign soil. People make it a point to meet and socialize on the occasion of Bihu in different cities from New York to New Jersey, from California to Florida and in Europe from London to Paris.
Bihu besides being a primary identity of Assam is also a harvest festival. Originally derived from the sanskrit word “Bishu’, it means people asking for prosperity from the Gods during important junctures of the harvesting season. According to another source, it is commonly believed that the festival received its name from two different words, namely “bi” which means to ask and “hu” which means to give. Both these words combined to form the name Bihu. Unlike other festivals, Bihu is celebrated thrice a year.
Rongali Bihu is the most important of the three (two others being Kati and Magh bihu) commemorating the Assamese New Year and spring festival. While the Bhogali Bihu or the Magh Bihu is the one that is all about food, Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu is celebrated for a period of seven days and is about fun and fervour. It celebrates the onset of spring and farmers on this occasion prepare the field for cultivation.
In Pandemic times when people are separated more or less than they had been in the normal times, Bihu gives them an additional space for coming close. It brings people closer who usually live outside the cartographic frames of borders and boundaries. It helps the Assamese to rise above the binaries of inside and outside. People of Assam musically cross over the fault lines across eastern India and beyond. Bihu singers are the bagpipers who help this vast borderland connect through shared aesthetics, superseding the colonial demarcations.
Bihu songs are a voice that is needed now more than ever. The healing power of music is sometimes empowering as well. If collectives are about shared experiences, Bihu singers remain one of the few shared cultural experiences for the people of Assam across ethnic groups. A symbol of harmony that had emerged from the live experiences of people. In Assam, Bihu transcends the narrow religious connotation; however, nowadays many singers in order to gain cheap popularity are seen diluting the gravity of Bihu songs. This is utterly unfortunate and deplorable. The original Bihu songs have the power to bind the people in an excellent bond of love and friendship and raise them to a high aesthetic level of understanding each other and mutual sharing.
In Kolkata Bihu is celebrated with no lesser enthusiasm. People gather together in Rabindra Sadan or any Mahajati Sadan where all festivities are arranged. The most important thing is the cultural and literary side. The wonderful magazine Sristi is published annually during the occasion which had to miss in 2020 given the Pandemic restrictions. This multilingual magazine where many poets and writers of Bengal and Assam contribute is a perfect example of how Bihu binds communities and languages together. To add to it, Rongali Bihu festivities synchronise with the Bengali New Year, hence taking the enjoyment to a larger level.
Having said this, this year again the pandemic is trying to play spoilsport during the festivities. But we shall rise out like a phoenix during the Bihu festivity. All we have to remember is to maintain social distancing, wear a face mask, wash hands regularly and follow the pandemic code of conduct so that together we may defeat this virus during this auspicious celebration of spring. (The writer is an Associate Professor and Head Post Graduate Department of English and Kolkata Correspondent of The Hills Times. He can be reached at [email protected])