Assamese sub-nationalism, which is often in overt display taking many of us to the edge of being called racist, is a post-independence phenomenon stitched together through Bihu by the elders to give Assam the political taste of regionalism.
Many will like to disagree and disbelieve, but the sublime sub-nationalism of Assamese came into being only in the early-70s when the social leaders of Assam repackaged Bihu as the best-combining factor and calculatedly brought it out from the pockets of greater Sivasagar district and gently unrolled it over the Brahmaputra valley to give the shape regionalism.
Today, Bihu can be seen in Nalbari, Goalpara and even the riverine ‘char’ areas but the fact is that till mid-60s, Bihu hardly had crossed the traditional boundaries of the old Sivasagar district.
The general Assamese people first found the taste of Bihu in the mid-50s when it came out of the original ecosystem of old Sivasagar to the stages of Guwahati.
A section of the elders of post-Independence Assam had realised that Assam was not taking the regional character because of strong nationalistic flavour and the heavy influence of Gandhi-Nehru in their lives.
Regionalism was not in air and even regionalism espousing leaders like Ambika Giri Roy Choudhury was labeled as “anarchists” who was used as pressure weapon by the old guard of Congress against the high command around the time of independence.
Culturally and ethnically, Assam was a mini-India and home to many tribes and people having a different way of life and it was a veritable mosaic. So getting a common ground was difficult.
Then the Bihu was tossed out, repackaged, polished, rawness smoothened, religious part was reduced and unrolled over the Brahmaputra valley.
Before the 60s, people of lower and central Assam hardly knew anything about Bihu except for pictures in newspapers. Except for the seasonal radio recordings, there were no way one could hear the Bihu songs, as it was not popularly prevalent.
Those who were from old Sivasagar district carried the Bihu in the raw form to the places of their work, but that was unorganised and not helping to stitch together the Assamese identity.
It has always been a common belief among the people that the Guwahati’s Latasil Bihu was the oldest Bihu programme performed on stage, not only in Guwahati but in entire Assam as well.
Now challenging that popular notion, eminent writer Ismail Hussain proved that Latasil was not so. According to him, Latasil was actually the 12th oldest stage for Bihu programmes in Assam.
The oldest stage Bihu programme was held in Sivasagar in 1918. After that, the next one was held in Tezpur’s Ban Theater in 1926, after which it was held in Dibrugarh in 1928. This was then followed by Golaghat’s Betioni in 1934.
After all the stints in various places of Upper Assam, the stage Bihu programme was finally held in Latasil in 1952. Here too, Hussain stated that the oldest stage Bihu function in Guwahati was held in 1948 at Uzanbazar’s Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. So technically, even in Guwahati, the Latasil Bihu was not the oldest.
But here again, he states that the stage format of Bihu did not gain too much popularity until the 1970s when they began to be organised on a larger scale as we see today.
This was the time when it was repackaged by the AASU, which had started the Assam Agitation and Bihu and Gamocha were the most evident tools of Assamese nationalism growing against the influx issue and Bihu started spreading fast to both banks of middle and lower Assam.
Today, it is natural to have a Bihu Kuwori from Nalbari or Mangaldoi, an unthinkable proposition even as late as the early 90s, as it remained under the full domination from the undivided Sivasagar district.
Interestingly, most pan-Indian festivals observed by people in Assam are regarded as being religious in their function and setting, and the manner in which they are celebrated serves largely to evoke and fulfill religious sentiment.
However, the festival to which utmost social importance is assigned by the people is Bihu, a festival that is neither pan-Indian in character nor observed with any religious fervour.
The tradition of Bihu deals with practices related to cultivating the land and raising livestock. Thus, the rituals and customs associated with it are seen by scholars as being closely linked to ideas about the promotion of agricultural prosperity, the transition of the seasons, and the mode of living in a rice-growing society in a tropical, flood plain ecosystem.
In the course of the past 150 years, this agrarian festival has undergone a number of changes, mainly arising from the social and political thought of the period in question.
In the second half of the 19th century, it began to be regarded as a vulgar peasant festival by the newly formed Assamese urban elite under British colonial rule.
More liberal interpretations of the festival began in the first part of the 20th century but, after the post-war independence of India in 1947, it gradually began to assume the role of a symbol of Assamese pride and nationalism — a role that it continues to fulfill to date.
But the real truth is that “our very dear Bohag Bihu” (“atikar senehar boha ̄gor Bihu,” a phrase commonly used in the Bihu songs of Assam) has become an instrument of regionalism.
What was once a broader social and cultural phenomenon has now become a vehicle for politics revolving around the notion of identity. To this, we may add that it has become alienated from the very ecological environment that it grew out of and continuously redefined.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own)