November is usually a time of joy and fervour on the riverine island of Majuli, as it is time for the much-awaited grand annual festival – Raas Mahotsav. However, this year uncertainties loom large over the hosting of this annual festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nerve-centre of Assamese Neo-Vaishnavite art and culture, Raas is an autumnal festival, celebrated in the Sattras of Majuli, on the full moon day of Kartik or Aghon month. It attracts a large number of domestic and international tourists, and hosts a spectacle of programmes such as traditional prayers, dance and symposiums, making it an abode of spirituality.
Talking about the preparations for the festival this year compared to previous years, Simashree Saikia, a resident of Majuli said, “Starting from the day of Lakhi Purnima, Majuli attracts a lot of visitors. The ferries and boats are flooded with tourists from around the globe. It’s missing this year.” She adds, “Had it been the previous years, our family would have been busy with Aakhora. But this year, the organising committees are still confused.”
As per news reports, Majuli district administration held a meeting with the Raas organising committees to discuss measures regarding the pandemic. The committees were allowed to conduct the annual festival but were informed regarding some COVID-19 protocols. One of these protocols is the prevention of children and senior citizens from attending Raas. This decision by the district administration has led to a situation of confusion and chaos in the minds of local people.
Kuki Kalpita Borah, a resident of Kamalabari in Majuli says, “We can see a loss of spirit and encouragement in conducting Raas this year. Without the performance of ‘Shishu Leela’ which primarily involves participation of children in the act, Raas cannot be considered complete.”
She explains that in the Raas of Majuli, the first scene involves showcasing how life started in the world, followed by depictions of Devaki and Vasudev (Lord Krishna’s mother and father) before Krishna’s birth. Subsequently, comes ‘Shishu Leela’, which depicts Lord Krishna’s childhood and his friends. Scenes like this cannot be done without direct involvement of children in it, and cannot be acted out by adults. So, the entire ‘Raas’ would remain incomplete as a result. “Moreover, it would not be possible for the ones taking part in Raas to keep wearing masks while they act out their final performances,” she adds.
The yearly Raas Mahotsav in the ‘Vatican of Assamese Neo-Vaishnavism’, also brings many sources of income to its residents. Starting from the masks made in Samaguri Sattra to the handicraft trade such as bamboo, cane and woodcraft; all these sectors are benefitted from the crowd of tourists.
Lakhyajit Gayan, a native of Garmaur in Majuli said, “There are many people from self-help groups that look forward to this time of the year to sell their products such as pickles, woven clothes, handicrafts. This is also a time where business in the local resorts and restaurants flourish much more than the rest of the year. So, definitely, these institutions and people will also see an economic loss in this year’s sales compared to last year’s due to the spread of coronavirus.”
The COVID-19 protocols laid down by the administration have evoked two kinds of opinion among the public. While a section of people believe that Majuli should live up to its age-old tradition of hosting Raas Leela without any hiccups; the other section believes that some guidelines are necessary for the wake of a deadly disease.
Anamika, another Majuli resident, who has participated in several Raas Leelas as Devaki, said, “To organise the ‘Shishu Leela’, children’s participation would be important. In my opinion, a little relaxation on the lower age limit would help in the complete conduction of Raas.” She added that the guidelines laid down on COVID-19 check-up and wearing of masks with sanitation is undoubtedly necessary, and the public should not resist following them.
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