A Secular Festival

Folkloricisation of Bihu

Antora Borah, Bishadeep Kakati & Bagmita Borthakur

The state of Assam is the homeland to different tribes and each tribe has its own unique ways of celebrating Bihu. The annual Assamese Bihu festival is more than a temporal marker of the beginning of spring and a new year for Assamese community, the ushering in of a new planting season in the agricultural cycle, and a celebration of fertility. Bihu provides a ceremonial way to strengthen people’s kinship ties and revive the relationship between nature and mankind. Unlike many other festivals in South Asia–for example Holi, Muharram, the Punjabi festival Vaisakhi, the Rajasthani festival Gangaur, or the Tamil harvest festival Pongal–Bihu is often described as “secular” and not marked primarily by rituals and traditions of one religious community. Apart from its ritualistic ceremonies, Bihu also presents “public culture” through its Bihu music and dance performances featured on various platforms like intimate village courtyard, public stages, television and social media platforms.

The very first time when Bihu was brought from the paddy fields to the stage, the main agenda behind it was to make the broader masses witness the diversity of Bihu celebration of various tribes in one particular stage. The “public” commemoration of Bihu beyond ritualistic practice believed to be began since 1918 among the local village communities. However, it was after independence with the growth of Assamese nationalism, the music and dance were incorporated into staged Bihu events and framed as entertainment. The staged Bihu also meant promoting the local artists as well the tribal performers who were probably less known. The staged Bihu also brought in the notion of BihuXamragyi, BihuRani, BihuKuwori, etc, the recognition which is awarded to the best female Bihu performers. As such, the staged Bihu codified the various means of celebrating Bihu and also provided the opportunity for the denizens to see the amalgamation of different forms of celebration of Bihu. In the facet of liberalisation with the new way of consumerism and the arrival of satellite television, created a new platform for Bihu. As a consequence, Bihu made an en route to larger audience; there was an increased trend of sponsoring the Bihu programmes. Critics have often brought forward the perspective that the folkloricisation of Bihu has shaken its tradition but often people forget to realise the importance that commercialisation of Bihu has its own merits. It is witnessed that advertising media use Bihu songs, images of women and men in iconic Bihu dance poses, and symbolic Bihu instruments, Bihuan to market products to consumers across the region and nation. For instance, very recently there was a hue and cry among a section of Assamese people that Gamucha, pride of Assam has been used as packaging design by a whiskey company. The design was actually Yakshagana illustrated through Kaavi Art from the region of Karnataka. As the design was in white and red, the netizens thought it be Gamocha and assumed that the new packaging came up as a pre-Bihu marketing campaign. Thus, in the past few decades, Bihu has become an even more powerful symbol of Assamese nationalism through the increased intensity of advertising, which caters to an upwardly mobile Assamese consumer public.

Furthermore, with Bihu programmes being sponsored, various Bihu pageantries have been organised which not only meant the artists bringing in the best of their talent to get awarded but also these have led to increase in healthy competition among the Bihu performers, thus, giving a wide appeal to traditional celebration of Bihu. In the present time, the concept of sponsorship has also led to a lot of workshops being organised on Bihu dances which again gives opportunity to all the enthusiasts to learn more about Bihu and its associated rituals, culture, norms, etc. The social media platforms like Youtube, Instagram reels had moved one step ahead in globalising/glocalising Bihu. These platforms also made a way for local artists to generate income by making Bihu songs and videos. In this environment of media excess, competitive market and increasing consumerism has created an array of opportunities for Bihu performers of different class and caste backgrounds to thrive, while also increasing cultural purists’ anxieties about the preservation of “traditional” modes of performance. Furthermore, folkloricisation of Bihu will also be able to attract tourist throughout the world and which people definitely add to the state revenue and create more employment opportunities for the youth in the state.

The Assam government under the leadership of CM Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, has also tried to create the necessary balance between the concept of folkloricisation and holding on to the roots, by not only organising one of its kind programmes, where eleven thousand Bihu Dancers will perform simultaneously in the presence of the Prime Minister of India, but also taking the initiative of prohibiting sale of powerloom gamusas, sadors and arnais from the period between 1st March to April 14, 2023. In fact, he has also given significant importance in seizing machine made Gamusas as 16 thousand machine made gamusas were seized in Assam in the last one year. Considering the importance of Gamusa getting the G I tag, the government under the Swanirbhar Nari scheme, has decided to procure hand woven items directly from the indigenous weavers of the state and already 4.8 lakh female weavers from the state have registered their names for the same.

No doubt folklorisation of Bihu in a proper manner and with proper scrutiny is helpful. However,when a “little tradition/folk culture” is turned into “Great tradition” and rapid folkloricisation of Bihu has led to standardisation of Bihu through various codes and ethics such as sharing same costumes by the Bihu troupe in the stage, comportment of the performer, etc. has led to exclusiveness of certain sections of society. For instance, a performer from poor family may not be able to afford a Muga costume. It is true that documentation of Bihu is necessary with proper codes and ethics but at the same time it should be fun- filled festival so that one can revive relationship with kins and nature. The current need of the hour is to make “Bihu Binandiya” i.e. to make the festival of Bihu joyful and colourful while maintaining its own heritage and hegemony.

  [Dr Antora Borah, (Assistant Professor, OKDISCD, Guwahati)
Bishadeep Kakati (Advocate, Gauhati High Court, Bagmita Borthakur
(Faculty, Dispur College, Guwahati)]

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Vol 55, No. 44, April 30 - May 6, 2023