Veteran singer Khagen Mahanta, whose name will be etched in the history of Assamese culture for his efforts to popularise Bihu songs, said a handful of artistes in the state is working sincerely to keep the original form of Bihu songs intact.
For two decades, from 1956 to 1977, Mahanta criss-crossed every nook and corner of Upper Assam to see how Bihu songs are sung by people and collected them to popularise them in central and lower Assam.
“I ceaselessly travelled throughout Upper Assam collecting Bihu songs and then popularised them in central and lower Assam. I sang the songs in different parts of the country and the globe,” Mahanta said.
He said his main objective behind popularising Bihu in entire Assam was to make people of the state celebrate the first week of the spring festival at the same time with the same spirit.
Mahanta said earlier, Bihu was sung only in the first week of Bohag, starting from Sankranti.
“In those seven days everyone became an artiste, irrespective of age and sex. But from the eighth day, everybody rushed to the fields to work and even touching the dhol was looked down upon.”
“I have seen all these. I used to travel to the remotest areas in the state to learn about Bihu and collect the songs,” he added.
“Bihu is a festival of cultivation. Earlier, people celebrated the seven days of Bihu so that they could work with full vigour and energy in the sowing season. But these days, people continue celebrating even after seven days of Bohag to evade work,” he said.
The singer is hurt when he hears people describe Bihu songs only as love songs. “Bihu songs are not only love songs. They are primarily related to cultivation that speak of society and, of course, love and sex.”
“There is a section of artistes which is trying to commercialise Bihu. As a result, the originality of Bihu songs is disappearing. But at the same time, there are a few who are also trying their best to retain the originality,” he said.
However, Mahanta said he was not in favour of “codifying” Bihu songs. He said Bihu is not something to be confined within rules and regulations. “These songs have come down through traditions. They cannot be made a statistic,” he said.
Mahanta, who loves Bihu more than anything else, cannot tolerate if anybody maligns Bihu songs. “If somebody tarnishes Bihu songs, they are worse than insurgents,” said Mahanta.
Everybody should be careful so that the beauty and originality of the Bihu songs are not affected by any means, he said.
Bihu guru and borbihua Prashanna Gogoi believes that culture is not static. Just like a river changes its course as it advances, culture also changes with time, he says. During a chat, the stalwart reveals his views on Bihu and how it has changed with time.
“The change is obvious and natural,” he says.
“Bihu songs are sung with elements available all around in society. The lifestyle of people has changed. The nongola (a familiar word in Bihu songs) has been replaced by iron gates. There is hardly a courtyard in any household,” Gogoi says.
“How can it be possible that you want to listen to the same Bihu songs which were prevalent several decades ago when you have changed with time?”
Gogoi looks at the positives that modern technology has brought to Bihu. He opposes the idea that CD has done great damage to the Bihu. Rather, he says the CDs and the electronic media have helped popularise Bihu songs not only in the state but also across the globe, because of which Bihu has been recognised as one of the most fascinating folk dances in the world.
“The CDs and electronic media have brought Bihu to every nook and corner of the world. It is right that some producers have inserted some songs which cannot be categorised as good. But all songs are not bad. Besides, many of the songs have been recorded in the CDs as their original forms, after picking them up from society,” says Gogoi.
Gogoi says if a grammar is followed while performing Bihu dance or singing Bihu songs then it is easier for people to learn. “Besides if a person comes from another country, he can pick up Bihu easily if a grammar is followed.” Gogoi himself has formulated some grammar to play the pepa and follows it while performing and teaching the instrument.
“There should be an institution to teach Bihu songs. If there can be an institution on fashion technology, why not one on Bihu songs?” Gogoi asks.
“Now experts have to go outside the state to teach Bihu to others. Why can’t people come to Assam to learn Bihu despite the fact that the festival is held only in Assam?” asks Gogoi.
People should stop complaining that Bihu is getting degraded day by day, he says. If a person sees degradation, he should come forward to correct them by showing them the right. “People should look at it from a positive angle,” says Gogoi.
Renowned Bihu performer Ranjit Gogoi, who has performed in various countries with his troupe, has given people the opportunity to experience the beauty of Bihu.
About influences on Bihu: Over the years, Gogoi has trained thousands of students in different workshops or training camps.
“Many of my students come to learn Bihu after learning some classical dances like Bharatanatyam, Kathak or Kathakali. As soon as I see my students dance Bihu, I can detect the influence these dances have on their performance. When I point out the influences, they make the corrections,” Gogoi said.
He added that even Bollywood dances influenced Bihu. “Experts or resource persons should point out these influences. Otherwise, some elements of these dances will end up distorting Bihu,” he said.
Gogoi said some CDs were distorting Bihu geets. The singers, producers and directors of these CDs were contributing to the distortion, he added.
“At one point of time, I worked in some Bihu CDs. But as soon as I realised the problem, I left and started performing on stage. The directors, producers and singers involved in making Bihu CDs should study the art form and prevent any sort of distortion. It is seen that even tabla and drums are used in some Bihu CDs. What is the need of these instruments if there is dhol?” Gogoi asked.
He added that the audience should also be careful and vigilant while selecting and listening to such CDs. They should avoid those CDs that distorted the art form.
“Change is a part of every culture. Naturally, Bihu has also changed, and not for the worse. The elements that formed the very basis of Bihu songs a few decades ago have also changed. At the same time, we should make sure that it does not change too much. Otherwise, it will disappear with time,” Gogoi said.
On codification of Bihu
On the attempts by some experts to frame some strict guidelines on how to sing and perform Bihu, Gogoi said the attempts reflected the anxiety of the experts about the changes the art form was undergoing.
“They (Bihu experts) are worried. But who will emphasise that his way of singing or dancing is the perfect one, and how. Bihu is a folk dance. Such strict guidelines are not acceptable. Instead, the experts should explain to the people what actually Bihu is,” he said.
As told to Rajiv Konwar