The quintessence of Bohaag, the first month of the Assamese calendar, lies in the month-long celebration of Rongali Bihu. The name Rongali suggests a vibrant celebration of the rebirth of spring. This is when nature revives afresh with the first rain, and Soha Axomiya (rural Assamese people) hum their favourite Bihu tunes to the sounds of dhol (drum) and pepa (hornpipe), the two key instruments of Bihu.
Bihu songs articulate the ethos of Assamese culture and reflect its social frameworks. They teem with descriptions of rural life and speak of love, marriage, community bond, environment, food, middle class desires and working-class struggles. A number of prominent Bihu composers and singers of the 20th century, such as Khagen Mahanta, Bhupen Hazarika, Sharat Sharma, Lokeswar Deka, Anju Devi, Archana Mahanta, Bibha Barua, have imbued their songs with the flavour of Assamese life.
Recorded Bihu songs, it must be noted, are not the same as the ones performed on stage or traditionally in village fields. Nor are the songs produced today the same as the songs of the late 20th century. Today’s songs are rightly viewed as corruptions, their lyrics considered factitious and shallow, whereas the songs of old are seen as repositories of cultural sentiments. This is probably why the older songs are unimpeachably popular and exemplify Bihu in its finest form.
The song Sakala Tengati released in December 1978 reminds us of days when, cycling back from school with friends on humid summer days, we would sneakily pluck seasonal sour fruits. Sitting under a tree, we would cut the fruits into tiny pieces, mix in salt and chilli, and devour them before returning home. There was a feeling of community in what we did and that feeling also courses through Sakala Tengati.
In the song, the singers – Bihu Samrat (king) of Assam, Khagen Mahanta, and his talented wife Archana Mahanta – are engrossed in a conversation, during which each asks the other not to leave them out. For instance, one of them asks, “sakala tengati okoloi nekhaba, amaku esokol diba” (do not eat the citrus fruit alone, give us a piece as well) and “bihu mariboloi okoloi nejaba, amaku logote niba” (do not go to the Bihu field alone, take us as well). This act of extending equal access to people of a different class is evident in other pursuits mentioned in the song, such as “maas mora” (fishing), “ukoni mora” (killing lice) and “gamusa bua” (weaving gamocha). The song, through this back and forth, underlines the virtues of unity and inclusivity, which the Assamese society should adhere to. And in this, it is opposed to the individualistic structure of today’s Assamese society.
Dneoe Di Sarile, a melodious number sung by Sharat Sharma and released in 1978, orchestrates an insight into the everyday life of Assamese people and its bucolic countryside. There are mentions in it of occupations, such as “maas mora” (fishing), “seleng bua” (weaving traditional attire), “haal boa” (farming), “kathia para” (planting paddy), that exhibit the excellent skills of Assamese people. These skills are generationally passed down in families and since almost all families in the countryside depend on cultivation and raising livestock, they learn it from a young age.
This tradition has made the Assamese an independent people over the ages. Although urbanisation and industrialisation have forced people to move into cities for better educational and financial opportunities, it is captivating to hear our parents and grandparents recount the time when they worked in the rice field or fed their cows before going to school. The reminiscences help our generation understand where our parents and grandparents grew up.
A less appealing notion in the song is the codified gender roles assigned by society. There is a line in Dneoe Di Sarile, for instance, that goes “kaoi maas ujale, dhori aan khorikat diu”, which means that while men are asked to go fishing, women clean and prepare the fish to eat. In another line, the man says that he is going to farm the land so that the woman can plant young rice seedlings neatly. This idea of assigning more laborious work to men and lighter chores, along with cooking and cleaning, to women is reflective of the presumed gender roles in Assamese society. The binary is internalised by the woman in the song as she pleads, “Jaji noir sipare kune nu ringiai, nao e nai jaboloi, botha nai baboloi, jene tene pare kori dia o mur senai”. She begs her lover to take her to the other side of Jaji river, showing her helplessness and putting him in a position of power.
Love and Struggle
Namore Kathia is a famous Bihu song from the 1970s. It speaks of the importance of wealth for a common man and his desire for a better life, through the conversation of two lovers in a village. The song, sung by Bhupen Hazarika and Anju Devi, vividly describes the intimacy between the lovers, for instance, when the woman abandons her kasi (a tool used to reap paddy) and runs towards the woods where her lover awaits her. In doing so, the couple is following the conventions of Assamese society, which pushes the practice of courtship to spaces beyond the gaze of people.
The beloved cries like a wounded deer after the act of coition and later in the song addresses her lover as Bonroja (king of the jungle). This association of the man as a predator is more evident in the part of the song where he expresses his desire to have her: his “Sot mohia duporiar bhok” (hunger of heat), he says, requires her to be a cucumber. The woman here is a mere object from which the man seeks to derive pleasure. His attempts at persuasion, it must be noted though, are more affectionate than aggressive, and his advances are playful. On the whole, the descriptions of the two young lovers’ desires are so intimate that the song cannot but appeal to the romantic at heart . Nevertheless, it raises questions about women being portrayed as defenceless objects, submitting to the pleasures of men while neglecting their own.
One of the themes in Thuriai Katila, another Bihu song portraying love from the late 20th century, is capitalism’s intrusion into the subaltern man’s desire to marry the woman of his choice. This theme is also present in Sakala Tengati. In this song, a woman confronts her lover with the question, “e senai tel nu nai nojole saki” (how will the earthen lamp be lit if you cannot buy oil?), after he promises her the rose-tinted imagination of a peasant’s life. These songs indicate how financial stability is a requisite for assuring the beloved a relatively comfortable life, if not a luxurious one. The demands are very much grounded in reality and are again telegraphed in the song Dneoe Di Sarile, in which the man leaves his job and place of work because he is heartbroken at not seeing his lover for a long time. Love and accountability are closely related, not only in these songs, but also in Assamese society.
Cultures and Ecologies
There are other ways in which Bihu songs lucidly reflect Assamese society and culture. Thuriai Katila by Lokeswar Deka describes the act of offering “tamol-paan” (betel nuts) to a visitor at home. This practice also appears in Sakala Tengati, a song in which asking for hasoti (a sort of knife) to cut a betel nut disguises romance between lovers.
In another stanza, Thuriai Katila equates the change of season to an opportunity to rearrange the lives of people. With the coming of Bohaag, the man wants to ask his beloved for her hand in marriage. But the onset of monsoon brings destruction: “eibeli baodhan paniye marile” (the flood destroyed the crop this year). While the man is contemplating what to do, the year shuffles the seasons and Bohaag is at the doorstep again. The community puts the fury of flood behind it and embraces the struggle, as Bohaag brings a new hope, positively impregnated with rejuvenation.
The insightful lyrics of these Bihu songs take us on a tour of Assamese life in the Brahmaputra Valley, revealing its socio-economic, cultural and ecological details. Contemporary Assam and its way of celebrating Bohaag have changed over the years. It is imperative for the society, therefore, to reflect on the Bihu of the past to identify the turn in its journey where the essence of what meant to be Assamese got transformed.
Joyshri Pathak is an Assistant Professor of English in Assam. She is also a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of English, Gauhati University.
Aditya Ranjan Pathak is a Research Assistant working on the Urban Ecologies research project in National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and the University of Cambridge, UK.