Springtime Bihu festival- called Bohag (spring) Bihu or Rongali Bihu. The festival lasts for seven days and marks the beginning of the Assamese New Year. It is celebrated during the month of April when spring arrives and all around can be heard the songs of the cuckoo (kooli sorai). Plants and foliage bloom with fresh shoots and new leaves called the koohipaat. A bounty in the heart of nature inspires glory, joy and celebration in the heart of the common people whose lives and emotions are integrally connected with the phases of the natural cycle and processes.
Like all folk festivals come down through centuries, their rituals and beliefs reflecting age-old notions and faith of the ancient man, the celebration of Bihu encapsulates the same. Many of these festivals originated in the primitive man’s ‘magical rites’ and rituals to appease the gods and goddesses who represented natural forces, revering the five elements of life-earth/ soil, forest, water, air and sky. Through such rites they wished to attain longer days, continuation of summer and to get rid of winters. The important aspect of such rites was to increase the fertility of both man and soil. Fertility, the acts of mating and birth held the fancy of the primitive man because they emblematize the act of creation.
Rongali Bihu traces its origin and meaning to such older rites. The youth sing and dance in gay abandon during the festival to the accompaniment of bihu dhol (a special drum used on the occasion), pepa (buffalo horn pipes) and Taal (bell-metal cymbals). These spontaneous occasions of singing and dancing occur unrestrained by norms and rules that define any classical paradigm of song or dance traditions- the aesthetics of folk performances do not adhere any form of grammar except for those inherent ethics that govern the lay-out of a ritual norm. For instance, the Huchori tradition that heralds the festival of springtime Bihu is confined to just male performers who visit as a troop from house to house singing songs primarily standing in a circle and playing the dhol and taal.
The concept of Rasa as a formula of (Sanskrit) aesthetics cannot be applied appropriately to Bihu songs because they are part of folk-literature, called orature as we know, which is a product of the common masses illiterate in textual references and ideas that pertain to one dominant class. Orature never forms part of the canon; they cannot be accurately identified as a text nor can they be sufficiently textualized. Folk literature lives on in people’s hearts and gets carried from generation to generation through word of mouth; the dissemination is largely oral and hence they become a part of organic narrative that one gets exposed to and learns about by being a part of and growing up in that society and culture.
The Rongali Bihu was originally celebrated in the crop-fields. The Moran community of Assam does so even today. The aim was to increase soil fertility, bring in rains and pray for a good harvest. According to Dr. Prafulla datta Goswami, a pioneer folklorist, the Bihu dance might have come to Assam with the Mongoloid people who migrated from South-east Asia to this region. There are instances of Spring Festivals in other parts of the world which is the time for the youth to select their life partners. The entire celebration of this Bihu becomes an occasion of celebrating the life force Eros- be it in nature or amongst people. The body becomes the venerated object of beauty and celebration, so we can find plenty of examples in Bihu songs where the woman’s body is described with great gaiety and abandon. In fact, going by ‘norm s’ of all fertility cults across regions and throughout history, these dances have served the purpose of provoking sexual union, which obliquely served to contribute to fertility of soil and resultant agricultural production. The songs express sexual desire overtly and candidly and the rasa we can associate with it is the adi rasa, the source of all other rasas as it is said to be. Springtime brings mother earth new life too, after the harsh long winter, and in turn invigorates the hearts of man.
Bihu performance is undergoing a rapid process of modernization, and so is the festival on the whole. This celebration being essentially linked to an agricultural society which characterizes a symbiotic relationship between man and nature gets displaced in an urban bourgeois setting. This has largely affected the indigenous nature of the bihu performance which, as said earlier, is nowadays performed on the stage in cultural events that are organized not just during Rongali Bihu but in other festivals as well. Such shifts are as a matter of fact inevitable; knowledge about folk forms and aesthetics are important to be disseminated amongst the urban crowd of children and youth and for most part, their exposure to such cultural forms occur in limited spheres like that of cultural events held in auditoriums or open-air stages.
Either ways, the displacement is huge but obvious. What is more problematic, rather, is how the erotic and ‘folk’ significance of the festival as well as of the songs and dances begin to get considerably sanitized when they are proselytized through schools that have newly come up in the cities where the bihu dance is taught to children by ‘experts’. This is entirely antithetical to the very concept of a folk dance- which is meant to be spontaneous, without formal rules and dictates of postures, rhythm and gestures. This emerging trend replicates the dictum of those schools that teach classical dances like Bharatanatyam and Kathak.