Feast and fire

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  • Published 13.01.03

Bihu has travelled a long way from its pastoral origins to become Assam’s cultural emblem

lThe author is Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

What are these songs

We sang these songs

by the river…

A gentle poet stops by for a moment, in shocked recognition, when he hears a Bihu song. He recalls that this was the very song he had sung years ago in a field by the Kolong river.

Forty years ago, Magh Bihu was a grand pageant, the centre of a fullness of harvest and bucolic fun all around the rural landscape, particularly in the Brahmaputra valley where the farming community was relatively more prosperous.

Every Bihu in a way carries the resonance of yesteryears. All great traditions do. The Assamese Bihu has a rich tradition. It has always had its roots deep in the soil, in terms of its acceptance by the young and the old, irrespective of social barriers. It radiates folk poetry and music in an elegant form. Its rhythm is the very rhythm that finally binds life and nature in a happy harmony.

One can recall here a few lines of a poem by a philosophical poet of an earlier age, Durgeswar Sarma:

The enraptured cowherd leaves his charge/He waits too long and late in the field/with his buffalo horn, he puts his case/which the human tongue can never utter

The philosophical “charge” in the poem is enforced here by the rural and the pastoral images of the cowherd and the buffalo horn, which are also familiar images one comes across in Bihu songs.

An earlier generation of the 19th century gentry in Assam did not take kindly to Bihu; their trite Puritanism stood in the way of their appreciating the social openness and humanity and the embedded creativity that the Bihu stands for. Later, Lakshminath Bezboruah and other important figures of the Assamese literary renaissance felt its deeply-liberating influence. They came to regard it as the most invaluable aspect of Assamese folk tradition.

Nakul Chandra Bhuyan compiled and edited the first authentic edition of Bihu songs, titled Bohagi (1923). Padmadhar Chaliha, the poet-composer of some memorable lyrics inspired by the freedom movement wrote around 1921 an introduction and called the Bihu songs pastoral poetry. The Times of Assam in its adulatory review (May 19, 1923) went a step further, describing the poetry as comparable to the best of pastoral poetry of the European tradition.

Bihu songs, we know better, are not in the pastoral mode. They are, no doubt, rural ditties but their chief note is one of spontaneity. These are not even like the more earthy type of pastoral songs, which the highlanders of the western Himalayas sing while shepherding their flock. Intrinsic to the Bihu songs is the native rhythm of the life of the Brahmaputra Valley. This rhythm makes one feel the intimate bond and rapport that the Assamese peasants always shared with nature.

It demonstrates with an immeasurable vitality and beauty of expression the links between nature and human life. Bihu poetry talks of the transience of life but is not light-hearted; it evokes the colour and sound of nature and endows a specific meaning to life. It is not surprising that the Bihu songs yield a more sophisticated kind of meaning: the cowherd, the buffalo horn or the flute implies another less “worldly” world with which the peasant is not unfamiliar. Yet the difference from the ritual songs is very marked and further, being shorn of magic in its symbolism, the poetry brings out the essential humanness of the Bihu festival. The songs are full of concrete details: the haunting image in the poem could be the face of the loved one or of the floral design woven by her or of nature like the shifting cloud, the orchid in bloom or the flowering tree by the side of the river.

The songs mainly relate to the Bohag Bihu, the springtime festival, which like the Vaisakhi in northern India, coincides with the Assamese New Year. The Magh Bihu, which is all about celebrating the winter harvest, is also significant. The Bihu cycle is complete with a third Bihu, which is more austere, evoking nature shorn of plenitude but yet having a gentle autumnal grace and sanctity.

Shorn of magic and the ritual cults, Bihu has an underpinning of religious signification. With the warmth of a homely hearth and the resilience of popular religious beliefs, Bihu cuts across caste or religious barriers and becomes universal.

Purely from a folkloristic point of view, Magh Bihu has a good number of parallels in the rest of India. Magh is a holy month in Orissa. During this ritual time, rice dried in sunrays is offered to Lord Shiva. Magha-Krishna Navami in Rajasthan is essentially a hangover from the feudal days as it seems to connect with the deification of Sati. In the mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh, the festival signifies the return of the gods from their mountain abode to earth. This festival is connected with ritualistic worship and Shaivism.

There are, however, regional variations all over as there are between mountainous regions and the Kulu and Kangra valleys. Celebration of Bihu differs from them not in form, but in content. What distinguishes the Magh Bihu is not exactly the nature of its religious signification but its symbolic significance and the larger and more broad-based representation in it of communal life. The feast and the fire in Magh Bihu symbolically celebrate the new harvest. People gather around the bonfire at night, have a feast together and the eating and the merry-making of the young men go on till the grey streaks of sunrise appear on the horizon. By early morning, the improvised wicker hut where the flock has their feast is set on fire and at daybreak, individual houses have their small fires — the mejis. These are built into a stack with finely-splintered wood and bamboos burning in the backyard. The fire is lit after a traditional prayer. Offerings of Bihu delicacies to the fire invariably follow.

The small invocation to the meji, often muted, is a prayer to Agni, the fire god, a practice anchored in ancient belief. It has also a mythological background. Magh Bihu thus connects itself with an abiding symbol of Indian mythology. Agni is one of the three deities, the other two being, Vayu and Surya. They are conceived as the presiding deities, respectively, over earth, air and sky. According to a mythological belief, Agni is the mediator between men and gods and the protector of men and homes — hence the invocation on a solemn occasion. According to myths again, Agni appears in three phases in heaven as the sun, in mid-air as lightning and on earth as ordinary fire.

The third phase connects Agni with the hearth and by extension of meaning to home where the hearth exists. It is this symbolic layer of meaning that invests the Magh Bihu with a sense of traditional piety.

The origins of Bihu are ancient but its present form is the result of profound historical changes that had come over the ways of life of the nomadic communities as these communities transformed themselves by taking recourse to settled agriculture.

In the Northeast, almost all tribes have harvest festivals; they contribute to the rich repertoire of oral traditions and folklore of the region. The Yuletide spirit in some of the hills resembles the spontaneity of the Bihu in the Brahmaputra Valley.