Rongali Bihu and its journey through time

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bihu & history


Author : Dr Anil Saikia, Principal, Moran College

Translation : Shakya Shamik

The First Phase

“Sotor Mahor anondot gaisil
Potharot gaisil
Habir majot gaisil
Mohor pithir uproot gaisil”

An open meadow, a hump – may be a small hillock capped by a huge sheltering tree. A perfect platform for a young man to hum the spring song. 

The month of Aaghon and Puh. The harvest spell is almost complete- according a bald look to the fields. The cattle move around, as dusk beckons. As the twilight sky welcomes the cows home, a few young men go out seeking for the ones who have not yet returned. The granary bleeds with grains as hearts sink in happiness and emotions emerge. Vocal chords take over and the spring song reverberates.

Slowly, the ‘nora’ shed themselves and fall to the ground. The latter acquires a paper like smooth appearance. The winters are long dead. The favourable winds start to move. Faagun has arrived. Words take shape.

Meanwhile nature continues with its magical play. Rivers, Lakes, forests, Konhuwa bushes garlanding the river shores dance in tandem providing the delicate hearts a touch of amazement. Cuckoos, Ketekis and other winged beings sing in unison. This chorus, when picked up by the poetic caliber of an adolescent heart is expressed as – “Hai oi!”

This joyful mood of the hearts gave birth to poems, in couplets. This became ‘Bihu’ or ‘Bihunaam’. Lyrics, tune and voice assembled to resonate loud everywhere. Rythmic and non rythmic lines were penned down. The rhythmic creations would be measured in ‘Saporis’. Bihu songs were composed with two saporis or three. Hand movements started getting choreographed to go along the songs. Thus came the concept of Bihu dances. Body actions and hand gestures added fervor to dance. Whether the songs came first or the dances took shape, is a matter of deep contestation and debate. Going by the popular belief that rhythm, tune and instrument together is music, it seems that the lyrics were born first and then came the dance. However, this may not hold true. People danced to show their gaiety. Dance marked their happiness, zeal and rhythm were kept in shape by ‘saporis’. These dances were first performed towards the end of Sot under trees and amidst woods adjoining the villages. Songs of the like could be heard from such forests around the villages-

“Batteryr xoriyoh dhekire sepile
Per per koi ulaal tel
Rati dupor eporoloi tomare amare
Piritir nisigil mel”

Bihu would be danced in circular formations as it was customary for everyone to be seen by each other. Individual happiness was stressed upon to a higher degree than group discipline. Dancing was simply to record one’s happiness, not to entertain the village folk or any audience.

It is not known, when  the young folk took to Bihu during the final days of Sot singing for days and nights together. But it can be empirically stated that the first phase of Bihu as seen in a historical panorama was more of a personal enterprise to show love and romance, which through the teleological treatment of time changed to songs of devotion.

The bihu of the Sot days was soon to come to the first day of Bohag, when the young men took Bihu to the streets, perhaps to the crossroads in the villages. Households began awarding them with Betel Nut and currency. Thus commenced the second phase in the life of Asom’s Bihu. It is worth mentioning here that, when Bihu started to be performed in front of public audiences, the obscene content was selectively and carefully taken out from Bihu songs. Objectionable words and phrases were once again purged out with the coming of the Vaishnative wave in Asom.

Bihu hence came to doorsteps. This form of the art came to be known as ‘Husori’. Husori embraced prevalent folk traditions of the time – Monikonwaror Geet, Pogola Parbotir Geet, Fulkonwaror Geet, Jonagaborur Geet and the like. ‘Husori’ thus emerged as a very comprehensive folk art form.

The second phase and the period of change:

It was the time when Neo Vaishnavism took charge of social change in Asom. Srimanta Sankardev who painted the whole of Asom with Naam Kirtan and Horinaam influenced to a great extent the Bihu tradition of Asom. It was during that phase that expressions like ‘Ram’, ‘Gobindo’ and ‘Gobindai Ram’ entered the Bihu lexicon. This period of change and reform was long drawn and took nearly a whole century. Once upon a time, Husori was of the following order –

“ Joydoul Shivadoul O’
Rang Ghar, Kareng Ghar O’
Asomor bijoy kiriti
Roiya ki roi ona O’”

However, post the Vaishnavite revolution, these very lines changed to –

“ Joydoul Shivadoul Oi Ram
Rang Ghar, Kareng Ghar Oi Ram
Asomor bijoy kiriti Hori
Gopal Gobindo Raam”

In the same way, expressions of the following type emerged –

Kolmou khautei burha honumontoi / nogori (?) korile son oi Gobindai Ram”

Noted Researcher Bhaskar Sharma has called this phase, the first instance when the Bihu tradition experienced the initial tremors. The 17th Century AD saw the Vaishnavaite elements invading the folk tradition with what Sharma calls essential ‘Hindu’ concepts. The influence of the Vaishnavaite culture was so profound that many original intrinsic cores of Bihu were completely and radically taken over by this new wave of religious reform. This was particularly injuring to the Old school pundits of the art, who despised the new Hindu order. This included those Ahom priestly classes who till then had not come into the Hindu fold. This did not go down well with this set of people who saw the future of Bihu as bleak and un- encouraging. Bishnu Sharma’s prime contention seems to have been that the advocates of No- Change could never see a silver lining in the harmonious integration of traditions. The present day debates over Bihu, he argues marks this historical continuity. Sharma, holds that it was then that the existing tribal oriented flavor gave in to Vaishnavaite tenets. Sharma’s argument can be seen within two broad contours. Firstly, some of the songs popularized by Shankardev have great similarity with Bihu couplets. Shankardev was quick to  realize that Folk songs always attract audiences. This explains the process of integration of cultures that took place then. Logically speaking, since Bihu folk was more archaic than the Vaishnav faith of Shankardev, the influence of the former on the latter should have been more profound. The intra cultural osmosis was so great that the beats of Khol and Dhol are in great convergence with those of the Negera. Conversely, many movements and gentures which are a part of Bhaonas are imitations of the same in Husori. This mutual interaction amongst traditions proves that the influence of local folk traditions only add to the splendor of music and arts. The Shankardev years brought about an immense change in the existing Bihu order. The following couplets could have only be composed in the post Shankar era –

“Gaa dhui bhokote guru xewa kore
Ghate xewa kore naao
Moi sinta koru
Toke oi senaiti
Kenekoi okole paau”

Bihunaam and Bihugeet

Lila Gogoi’s anthology of Bihu songs is titled ‘Bihunaam aaru Bonghoxa”. Here, Bihunaam and Bihu geet have been used as synonymous terms. In English as the word Song is used universally, in Assam, both terms Naam and Geet are employed. Aainaam, Biyanaam, Dhaainaam and Tokari geet, Nisukoni Geet, Deh Bisaror geet are examples. In Lower Assam, the term Biyageet is used in place of Biyanaam, as in upper Assam.  Baagdevi Choudhury’s ‘Biyageetor Thupi’ is a colossal work done on the Biyageet of Lower Assam. The term Gaan is also used in Asom. Examples include Kushan Gaan and Shaam Gaan. Many critics call the old ones as Bihunaam and the recent ones as Bihugeet. Many point out that any verse accompanied with music can be termed as a geet. The concept of categorizing songs on the basis of their emerging period is problematic and self-contradictory. Neither is Borgeet a recent invention nor is Kushan gaan a product of the ages bygone.

Third Phase: Second phase of change

Amiya Devi, in her work –‘Swargadeo Rudrasingha’ has shed light on a very important aspect of Ahom rule. It has been rightly pointed out that during the six hundred long reign of the Ahoms, whatever cultural capital was generated, a huge chunk of it was done during the rule of Rudra Singha. It was during this age that a large scale influx of cultural wealth reached the frontiers of Asom from the west. Men with expertise in varied fields – Painting, calligraphy, sculpture, music and the like arrived at the capital Rongpur and received royal patronage from Rudra Singha. This was the beginning of a new dawn in Asom. Amiya Devi writes that Rudra Singha was not only a patron of arts and education, but an able poet too. His momentous work – “Shiva Puran” is one of the finest early writings of significance in Assamese.  It was during his reign that the first experts in Hindustani classical music reached Asom. The Khounds, a title created by Singha were responsible to visit the great Hindu shrines of North India and bring doyens trained in music and dance. It is also known of Rudra Singha, to have dispatched a bunch of aspiring vocalists to train in Delhi and other centres of music. Anandiram Medhi, a Tripuri singer is believed to have visited Singha’s court with a batch of artists who performed various arts and Kirtan at the royal court. It is mentioned in the Tripuri Buranji that the Swargadeo allowed his musicians to learn the Tripuri Kirtans that were being performed. One of the most significant events during his reign was the emergence of a few Khels – Kholiya, Khutitaliya, Mridangiya, Nasoniyar, talowa, Biyah Gowa, Pod Gowa etc. To overlook the activities of these Khels, he also appointed a Gayan Baruah, equivalent of today’s Chief Secretary, Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The Swargadeo also appointed a Satriya Baruah to look after the developments in the Satras, the cultural hubs of Assam.

 Rudra Singha not only encouraged the coming of North Indian arts to Assam, but was equally enterprising when it came to patronizing the local traditions, Bihu being the most prominent. It was he who took the Bihu of the village crossroads to the Royal court. Rudra Singha started the long standing tradition of the Ahom King bowing before a Husori troupe sending out a clear message that the throne is a dwarf vis – a –  vis the citizens.

Rudra Singha’s reign is marked by another significant development in the Bihu tradition- that of Husori troupes going to doorsteps and performing. This has continued till date. In this context, Leela Gogoi writes that the young folk would assemble at a pre-determined location and then begin performing. However, there never existed any tradition of going to homes for their renditions. However, during the Ahom days, especially those which saw Rudra Singha at the helm of affairs marked the beginning of the practice of Husori coming to the doorways. As in the case of Bhagawad Bhromon, where the procession moves through the lanes and bylanes of the villages, the Husori troupes traced a similar path. The village folk would come to their gates, bow their heads and hand out their offerings – betel nut and a token sum. If this theory stands true, it is highly possible that Bihu of the rural hamlets first reached the roads and then climbed upon the royal ramparts.

As mentioned earlier, Rudra Singha’s rule saw the Husori reaching the royal palace. It was then that even the noblemen’s residences greeted the Husori performers. After that, they would then move to the homes of the commoners. Those villages where people could not make it to the palace complex would see the Husori coming to the residence of the respected folk in the village , from where every house would be visited.

It was also during this phase that the iconic Rang Ghar opened its gates to Bihu. The majestic pavilion was a platform from which the King would watch the danseuse and listen to the verses. Bihu acquired a competitive character. Various troupes would contest for prizes up for grabs. This is how an art form, initially born to ventilate individual self-satisfaction got transformed into a vehicle for entertainment. Quality enhancement became much talked about, owing to the fact that the Swargadeo was a great patron of arts. It was generally taken that the King would not appreciate songs that talked of the forests, of nature. What would they sing instead? Such questions led to sweeping changes in the form and structure of Bihu songs-

“Swargadeo ulaale baatsorar mukhole
Duliyai patile dola
Kanot jilikile mokore kundole
Gaatu gumsengor sula”

Bihu might have also been a mode to pray for mercy and forgiveness, evident from lines like the following-

“Ehe Deuta Ishwor o- namot nodhoriba daai
E deuta ishwar o – podot nodhoriba daai
Deuta ishwar o – amar sengeliya mon
Deuta ishwar o – amar sengeliya mon”

It was under the patronage of the  Swargadeos that Bhoanas were staged inside the four walls of the royal palace. Rajeshwar Singha, who was also an Ahom ruler wrote the play ‘Kichak bodh’. When the Manipuri King Jayasingha and Kachari King Sandhikari had visited the Ahom court, Chandrahas Deka Baruah who was the son of Kirtichandra Borboruah directed the famous play ‘Rabon Bodh’ and entertained the royal guests. The unprecedented patronage received by Bhaonas and Husori naturally meant that a harmonious integration ensued between both traditions. It is interesting to note that sometimes when essential tunes of a Dihanaam are overstressed, they acquire a proto-Bihu character.

“E Bonomali, roi roi dhemali
Kora bonomali roi roi dhemali
Roi roi dhemali kora
Prothome ishwore – E bonomali
Srishti sorojile – E Bonamali
Tar pisot srojile jivo Bonomali
Roi roi dhemali”

All these historical processes brought about a great deal of change to Bihu. What this change might have implied emotionally for those who sang in the fields out of love for the art, is not known , but their deep seated apprehensions surely surfaced at that time. Hem Buragohain in this context states that Shankardev’s profound influence over Bihu did bring in extensive change in the latter, but it is also true that this change also meant that Bihu had lost its intrinsic soul, which distorted the form and character of Bihu.

Tosheshwar Chetia writes in this regard that Bihu was always under the attack of the Big brothers of the caste order, since those who rallied behind the tradition were peasants. In the semi – feudal days, when Vaishnavism shaped Bihu in many different ways – Bihu songs incorporating the names of Hindu gods and goddesses in their lyrics, Bihu being performed in the Namghars in front of the Gosains  were some of the big changes that Bihu saw happening to itself. However, it is also interesting to note that in spite of all invasions and incursions, Bihu survived as a  well defined folk art form retaining its original character. Chetia also writes that the royal patronage received by Husori and Bihu during the rule of Rajeshwar Singha strengthened the feudal elements in Bihu. Husori was sort of a performance born out of slavery and servitude. The royal class would enjoy the dances, performances, Moh juj, Koni juj from the Rang Ghar pavilion and the performers and players would go about their acts. If appreciated, they would be awarded silver coins, thrown at them by the King and his loyalists. When during Moh Juj (Buffalo Fight) a buffalo died , its master was liable to punishment for incompetence and mal- maintenance of the buffalo . This royal connection with Bihu that evolved during Rajeshwar Singha’s days saw the import of words and phrases that venerated the King, if not designed to please him. However, this patronage also meant that the popularity of the tradition was at an all-time high. Chetia’s contention that silver coins were thrown at the performers is not backed by empirical data. Conversely, it has been known throughout history that Husori stood for the ideal of ‘the people being superior to the throne’ and it was also widely observed that the King bowed down before the Husori troupe as a mark of respect and appreciation.

Circa 1769. After the death of Rajeshwar Singha’s son in law and Princess Kuranganayani’s husband’s death, Ragha Moran, the Borborua had to co- habit with Kuranganayani inside the royal apartment. However, Moran was unable to enjoy physical intimacies with Kuranganayani. On the day of Bihu, according to the advice tendered to him by Kuranganayani, Ragha Moran went to bow down before the Bihuwa crowd when he was killed as per planned previously. This incident indicates to us that the royal notables held immense respect for the Bihu artists.

In conclusion we can ascertain that Bihu acquired novel dimensions during Rudra Singha’s days. When Bihu was required to be performed at residences of people, traditions like Monikonwaror Geet, Fulkonwaror Geet and Pogola Parbotir Geet made their first intrusions into the Bihu fold.

The fourth phase

This period can be categorized as the socio –political and socio – economic phase in the history Bihu. It unfolded during the latter days of the Burmese invasion of Assam and the time when the British firmly established their foundations after the Treaty of Yandaboo.

With the completion of the British conquest of Assam and the overthrowing of the mighty Ahoms, credited for uniting the fractured land of this place, there began a new chapter in the history of Assam. Tea gardens flourished, oil and coal mines were discovered, administrative nodes were set up, courts –cuttcheries evolved. Assam became a part of the expansive British Indian territory. Assamese youths were drawn towards these new innovations for employment. Offices and courts saw an influx of a considerable number of Assamese speaking people. The period of 1826 to 1947 saw sweeping changes coming to the socio –cultural fabric of Assam. By 1872 there were well established forums that staged dramas based on Western aesthetic sense and dramatic devices. 

English rule meant a new paradigm, as far as Bihu was concerned. This was the time when nocturnal Bihu sessions became totally non-existent.  Some reasons cited for such an occurrence was the changed working and educational atmosphere of Assam- offices with long working hours, schools that meant the inculcation of a competitive spirit, western dramas being staged in the evenings, shift from an agricultural mode of life to other alternative sources of livelihood.

English rule also extended its spell of direct change upon Bihu. This included the inclusion of words like Sahab, Babu, Time, Saah Bagisa were absorbed into the Bihu fold. However, this change as some critics point out, had a negative impact. Bihu had lost its beauty in a way. The long and rigorous night Bihu sessions during the end of Sot meant Akharas and dance sessions, responsible for the high standard of performance. However, the colonial set up dealt a huge blow to the long standing Bihu tradition devouring its age old charm and glory. 

A section of the new emergent western educated middle class Asomiya youths, fresh from Maccaulay’s educational shock therapy did not even care to call Bihu as ‘An art form of heathens’. This was heavily criticized by notable intellectuals of the time. Rajani kanta Bordoloi of Miri Jiyori fame was the first to accord the title ‘Bapoti Xahon’ to Bihu. He was also the first to say that Bihu was the National Festival of Assam. Stalwarts like Bezboroa too fought for the Bihu cause. This period between 1826 and 1947 also saw a gradual erosion of the Bihu culture from the land where it had taken its first breath. Western Educated boys and girls were so very excited with the prospects of rising in the social ladder and the colonial hierarchy that the sweet fragrance of Kopow during Sot and Bohag were dwarfed by long hours of bibliophilic obsession. The emerging atmosphere meant conditions that made Bihu was turned into just an annual funfair. Till the time, experts in the art remained (1940s or so) Husori was a gala event at the doorsteps of people, but with the passage of time and death of such able performers this activity experienced a spiral down motion in quality. The new trends in motion can be attributed to many factors, viz -the colonial experience or the change in social dynamics . Whatsoever may be the cause, the natural Asomiya urge to revel during Bohag found a new platform for survival , if not growth – the concept of ‘Monso – Bihu’ or Bihu on stage.

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