Most of us who live in these valleys of the Brahmaputra, know the history of how this folk form came to occupy such an important space in the urban Bihu celebrations of today. As the story goes, Radha Govinda Baruah, who today is called “The Architect of Modern Assam” along with some of his friends were out hunting in forests near Dibrugarh. It was just Bohag, the month in which Rongali Bihu is celebrated. In the past, so it is said, this was a time when youths courted the girls, and if the latter were willing, they eloped, consensually, to happily set up house. The hunters chanced upon a group of young people dancing in those sylvan surroundings to the accompaniment of dhol (local drum) and pepa (a bamboo flute), gogona (a type of Jew’s harp) and vocals.

     The onlookers had seen Bihu being danced before. Indeed, R G had at times participated in the songs and dances of the people there. But something about the scene, the surroundings and the song and dance in totality enthralled them. They were people who were of a fiercely patriotic bent of mind, and were perhaps sensitised to what was, for want of a better phrase, “The Essence of Assam”, in the most inclusive sense of the term. They were aware, too, that these vibrant songs and dances, if confined to the interior of the land, were quite likely to be lost, in due course of time. In any case, they wished to bring this pulsating and effervescent form out of these remote areas, for others to witness.

    And so it was that they arranged, in due course, for groups of Bihu dancers to come to Guwahati during the Bihu festivities. It was held in 1952 at Latasil field, a three day affair which was resoundingly popular. At that time, it was all makeshift.  The stage was temporary, as were the surroundings. And yet, in spite of this, history was being made as the urban audience listened to, and witnessed, the celebration that is the Bihu song and dance in its entirety. And from the beginning, the celebration of Bihu was a totally secular event. The popularity of the Bihu was so great that soon, it was being celebrated on stages of this kind.

   This is a true story of our times, only slightly mythically exaggerated, if at all, and viewed today as a positive one. However, at the time, there were mixed reactions to the raw sensuality of the dances. Gestures and poses that seemed, to middle class, “proper” and “bhodrolok” eyes vulgar and indecent, filled some guardians of morality in the towns with outrage. How could their women be exposed to these suggestive poses? The lyrics, too, were often unabashedly suggestive.  Indeed, some bastions of morality refused to let their women and children even go to view such fare, at least in the beginning. But then Bihu celebrations were always democratic events, with no hierarchies. The general people delighted in these songs and dances which kept them swaying in the audience as they hummed along.

    And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Bihu is one of the most recognizable dance forms of the country. There is something about the rhythm, and the double beat that is not too common in the rest of the country, that invariably brings a smile to the faces of onlookers, and sets feet tapping, whether the people know the language of the lyrics or not.

       But the Bihu as we know it is even now undergoing a very swift transformation. This is unusual, for usually cultural changes come in incremental doses. But in the few decades after it was first brought to the proscenium stage, there are many aspects of the form that have morphed into something quite different.

    This is because today, the Bihu we see on the urban stage is, overwhelmingly, a performance. True, parallel to this, the Bihus in the sylvan settings still exist. But even in the villages, dancers are professionalizing themselves, and preparing to perform on urban or semi urban stages during the Bihu season, and indeed, around the year. For the “demand” for Bihu performances is high, not just in this State, but around the country. In fact, Bihu, the performance, has travelled around the world, and brought honour to the State.

    It is indeed intriguing to see this form morphing before our eyes from a rural folk dance to a polished stage performance. This piece is not to judge, criticize or praise. It is just an observation of changes happening over the decades.

     The first thing that strikes the onlooker is the costumes. The happy mishmash of the past has given way to uniformity in the attire of the dancers, whose beautiful muga (golden silk) coloured mekhela sadors with their red flowers are certainly eye catching. Even the patterns on them, one notices, are the same. True, some troupes are now donning ethnic weaves, but here too, the same principle applies. Everything is perfectly matched, the black and red of the Mising mekhela sador finding an echo on the jackets of the dhol player.

The large red “phot”s (a dot used for decoration), on the dancers’ foreheads, are of the same size. The blouses have the same uniform length of sleeves, their hair is tied in the same way, and the shade of lipstick they wear is the same, down to, possibly, the brand. Red handkerchiefs, tucked into the waists of their mekhelas all flutter at the same angle as the dancers twirl around.  The kopou flowers (a type of orchid) on their buns are the same delicate shade of purple. The men, too, the dhulias (dhol players), pepa players  and dancers, are identically dressed. The gamosa (a white piece of cloth decorated with red patterns, rectangular in shape and of much social significance in Assam) is tied at the same rakish angle on each head, and each dhol covered in the same ethnic fabric.  The dhutis (a garment worn by males below the waist) rise to the same level on their legs, and their upper garments match those of the women dancers in colour and fabric, usually muga. The male dancers’ legs seem to be waxed, and the women wear tights under their mekhelas in the interests of modesty. Twirling around energetically is likely to show their shapely legs, and of course, this cannot be “permitted” in contemporary performances.

   The performances, tailored now for the stage, are meticulously choreographed, often by professionals. They look lovely, the nasonis (female dancers), as they bend and swirl, grace personified, and create complex patterns on the stage. And the intensive rehearsals that each troupe undertakes around the year in preparation for these stage shows are a far cry from the spontaneous assemblage in rural surroundings that are at the root of these dances. Not better or worse, but certainly, very different. So different that as things stand today, the two can hardly be called the same genre.

   There are dance schools that specialize in the teaching of this form. One envisages a time, in the not too distant future, when perhaps these schools will morph to become “gharanas”, showcasing the different styles of Bihu.

   Throughout the year, there are Bihu workshops held across the State, when the “correct” way to dance, or play the dhol, are taught. These intensify in the weeks leading up to Rongali Bihu. This is also a huge change, for generally, folk forms are not formally “taught”. They are participative affairs, with younger participants learning by watching, absorbing and taking part and at most, being gently shown by the elders how it is done.  Gradually, as creativity matures, they can add their own individuality to the whole, even while conforming to the general format.

       The very popularity of the form is making it swiftly change direction, towards a more formalized, rehearsed and homogeneous entity. The meanings of the movements of the hand, hip and feet are given due consideration, and weightage. No longer can one sneak in a pose or a movement on a whim, a fancy, as is part of the folk idiom. The whole performance now has to conform to certain rules. And since this is a group performance, there is now no space for individual variations.

    This loss of spontaneity in the Bihu performances shows that the form is firmly established along two different paths. One is still the “original” kind, where there is gaiety and abandon, but no homogeneity, and often, no audiences, since everybody participates, and is not showcased on a stage. The other is the performance, which today is becoming more and more arresting, visually as well as aurally. Nothing wrong, really, in either path, it’s just a very interesting phenomenon that is occurring before our eyes, as Bihu becomes more mainstream.

   The importance now being given to “rules” has also been fuelled by the competitions that are fiercely fought on the Bihu stage. The Bihu Kuwori, Bihu Rani, Bihu Samraggi titles come with many monetary benefits, and also recognition. It opens many doors that may lead to lucrative careers in the movies or theatre. Besides, Bihu is performed round the year these days, and the best troupes travel all around the country, and indeed, globally.  A lot is at stake. It is not surprising, therefore, that the judges insist that each participant must execute specific items to evaluate their expertise. Of course grace, rhythm and flexibility are a must, but these days there is also the requirement of being able to execute all the components of the dance, which, in the process, is becoming “set” into a specific “form”.

   Also, there are the very popular Bihu contests on TV, with the judges being learned people, highly respected in their field. In the rigorous weeding out process, flaws are ruthlessly pointed out, questions are asked about, for instance, the name and history of a particular dance movement. This is “theory”, something found in the classical dance and music but not so commonly in the folk genre. All this, arguably, points to a “classicalization” of the form, which is happening at a very fast pace.

   One effect of this is that the movements indicating fertility have been toned down appreciably. The hip and chest movements of the dancers now flow from one posture to another, in ways that do not make them a centre of attention. OF course these are still there, for after all these are part and parcel of the Bihu. There is, however, nothing even remotely indecent in the performances of dance movements today, nothing that any moral policeman or woman could object to in such aesthetic presentations. Arguably again, this, too, is a bit of a pity.

    Bihu always was a light hearted genre. After all, it is a celebration of fertility, of romance, of gentle teasing, of Spring, of the soft breezes that waft in from the Luit, and of the beautiful blossoms of the kopou. True, the nasonis, the dancers, as well as the dhulias, the dhol players, do have smiles on their faces, for that is “required”. But again, the sameness of the smiles pasted on their professionally made-up faces seems artificial at times. The humour of the lyrics, too, which were often delightfully risqué, has been toned down. In the past, these lyrics often incorporated verses reflecting contemporary society. This seems to be becoming rarer during stage performances.  The spontaneity of the lyrics is missing. The singers, too, have rehearsed carefully. They are all trained vocalists, and certainly they sound melodious. But one does miss the endearing nasality of the singers of the rural areas.

    One of the most interesting things in this annual celebration of Rongali Bihu is that of witnessing these changes that are taking place. True, many musical or dance forms do have some roots in folk, or traditional forms. But those changes came in very slowly, over several generations. With the Bihu, though, one can see the changes happening from year to year. Within the lifetimes of our generation, much has changed.

   There is, of course, nothing wrong in a genre changing from a spontaneous folk item to a performance. Many Ragas that are now established in the Hindusthani Shastriya Sangeet pantheon have their roots in folk music. However, one does hope that the original Bihu, which are not performances but group songs and dances, continues, parallel to this. Hope lies in the fact that many gatherings of Assamese people, at home and abroad, break into spontaneous Bihu songs and dances, maybe after dinner, or after the serious work of a meeting is done. This too, is great. Perhaps it will evolve, who knows, into yet another genre, something not part of the rural Bihu celebrations, but definitely not a performance, either.

   Such is the magic of this vibrant double beat on the dhol that forms the basis of the Bihu songs and dances.

(Guwahati-based Mitra Phukan is a novelist, columnist and a vocalist of the Hindusthani Shastriya Sangeet tradition.)

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