As we bid goodbye to our ‘Bapoti xahun’(legacy) Rongali Bihu, I am filled with several thoughts and questions, besides my annual melancholy of seeing my favourite festival end. Yes, one may question – has Rongali bihu celebrations really ended? If you go by TV live telecasts, one may differ, but in spirit, Bihu ends in 7 days and hence we call it Xaat Bihu. About the thoughts and questions I have, I wonder what does Bihu signify? When did it start? Will it last forever? Let me try to answer myself one by one.
Bihu, specifically Rongali Bihu marks the first seven days of the Assamese new year. Being essentially related to forces of nature, religion always took a backseat. Since the spring heralds a new beginning for crops, people prayed for a bumper crop and associated fertility of soil to human fertility. Thus, the force of life – EROS, prevailed. The dances and songs had description of the female form, of sexual attraction and romance, and finally an invitation or decision to marry and start family life. Thus, it is essentially of the young though the joy de vivre transcends age.
How Bihu originated is a difficult question to answer but Late Dr Prafulla Dutta Goswami believed it was brought to Assam by the Mongoloid tribes migrating from different parts of SE Asia. While its origins were in the paddy fields and celebrated by the masses, it first gained acceptance of the gentry when Swargadeo Rudra Singha first introduced it as a festival to be viewed from the ramparts of Rong Ghar. This gave rise to the Huchori tradition. Since Bihu and similar sounding Bwisagu, Busu etc were prevalant amongst other non-Ahom tribes, it may be concluded that Bihu should be atleast a thousand years old, if not older!
Bihu in its rustic form survived and flourished for years. The songs reflected aspirations of love, life and nature. It remained a property of the masses and the aristrocrats and gentry who did not toil in the fields were not really a part of Bihu. It all changed with the iconic Ahom king Swargadeo Rudra Singha. He found the aesthetic appeal of the culture in bihu and organized it to be performed in the fields of Rang Ghar and viewed by the gentry from its ramparts. This started the tradition of HUCHORI in Bihu. The rise of neo-Vaishnavite movement of Srimanta Sankardeva saw spirituality and religion creep into Bihu, especially Huchori and the tradition of Bihu revelers blessing the households.
Inspite of Huchori and Jeng Bihu, the traditions of Raati Bihu as well as normal Bihu with its amorous contents continued and proliferated often transcending tribes and Bihu naams overlapping amongst different tribes. The social scenario started to change from 1826 when Britishers annexed Assam into India through the Yandaboo treaty. The new British sytem of education, British administration, import of Bengali clerks, the rise of industry, transport etc created a new class of Assamese aristrocrats replacing the ones in the royal age. This new class being what it was loathed the existing culture and social values. They held anything English, Bengali or from mainland in awe against the disdain they had for things like Bihu. Gradually, Bihu sounded to them as a culture of the lowly people and full of filth and was utterly sexual in content.
“When the dancing wake high the dancers, both men and women, become frenzied and behave very indecently…this notorious Bihoo 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.
The efforts of these new class of educated urbane Assamese aristocrats ably incited and helped by the Bengali babus saw the British issue an order banning the observance of Bihu from 1898 April.
In a place called Chalchali, in Puranigudam area of Nagaon district, the ban saddened a very expert Bihu Dhuliya (drummer) called MAIMAT TATINGA. He was a dhuliya of repute and with his sister SENI GABHARU – an expert Bihu dancer, formed a formidable pair. Although like them, many others were saddened by the ban on their dear Rongali Bihu, none thought of doing anything about it. But not, Maimat and Seni. After many deliberations, they decided something had to be done. They got hold of one Ananda Das from that area and sailed forth to Guwahati. Here, they managed to get appointment of the British administrator and displayed the real Bihu. Oza Maimat played the Dhol like a man possessed, Seni gabharu danced her life and soul into it and Ananda Das sang and explained it all to the British Saheb Bahadur. The cultured British officer saw no hint of obscenity to it and rather enjoyed the aesthetics and abandon of Bihu. The ban was immediately rescinded.
Victorious in their efforts, the trio went back home and decided to celebrate Bihu in the monsoon amidst rains. The British officers coming to know of it, set sail on the Kolong towards Chalchali to watch Bihu.
Thus, it is only for the efforts of Oza Maimat Tatinga and his sister Seni Gabharu, aided by Ananda Das, we Assamese are still enjoying the dances, music, flavours and abundant joy of Bihu. Had it not been for them, Bihu would have been a word in history books or an item in the museum.
However, the most remarkable fact of this story is not only lifting of the ban. The most remarkable fact is MAIMAT AND SENI GABHARU WERE OF MUSLIM FAITH!!!
So, it was a Muslim brother and sister for whom we Assamese are still celebrating Bihu, a testimony to our great secular traditions of Sankar Azan. We shall continue to celebrate Bihu as long we remain Assamese, the day we degenerate to being Hindus and Muslims, Bihu shall cease to exist.