From the sylvan to the urbane, life, fertility and celebration seem to have come full circle in Assam. Rongali Bihu, the spring festival and Assamese new year, now has a corporate look.
Expect the traditional banana trees at the entrance, as one enters a crowded city Bihutoli, only that the toran (gate) is now vivid with fancy cut-outs of Vivek ‘Coca-cola’ Oberoi and The Telegraph’s “unputdownable” neon sign overhead. An aha Pepsi, meanwhile, has well replaced water from roadside stalls for the heady concoction of rum and cola in the typical whoop-de-do outside the Bihutolis. In a city overrun by its
300-odd liquor shops, offering traditional brews such as xaaz, laupaani and apong would be a statement in itself, something like offering your guests caviar in Cooch Behar, one might say.
“We have to cater to the changing times and tastes of the Guwahatian for which we need money and sponsors," says Mipun Das, organising secretary of the Noonmati Bihutoli, one of the city’s oldest. Changing times now include stylised Bihu dances,choreographed to fit the 50 by 40 stage (a far cry from the Mukoli Bihu that teenagers would have danced in the paddy fields of Assam, singing
songs of love and longing), the occasional laser show, and the Bhangra pop for Guwahati’s cosmopolitan masses. And the one-off political organisation;this time it was the Sanskar Bharati of the Sangh Parivar;that use the festival to make a statement.
But the giants of Assamese culture still rule. One still hears Bhupen Hazarika in Guwahati’s Bihutolis. This time round, Hazarika sang at a number of functions, including the Bihutoli at Bharalumukh, a special for the singer who was once a student at the Xonaram High School located in the area. Others such as Zubin Garg, a rage in the state, and playback singer in films such as Bollywood’s Kaante and Fiza, represent the younger generation. But that is on
Visiting relatives and elders on Rongalee Bihu, an age-old custom prevalent in the rural and semi-urban areas of Assam, is fading out; Guwahatians send Bihu cards from Archies and Hallmark, and, well, SMS their ‘Happy Bihu’ messages. Pithas and komol saul, traditional Assamese delicacies served during the celebrations of the month of Bohag (Baisakh), now come neatly packed, off the shelves of local department stores.
But sponsorships are certainly the order of the day. While MNCs such as Pepsi and Coca Cola prop up a series of Bihu functions, also in the fray are organisations such as The Telegraph, vying for space at such functions, which at times cost over Rs 25 lakh per pandal. "Sponsorships by private companies were,however, quite poor this time," says Saurav Bhawal, business manager, The Telegraph. “Maybe its due to the bad market conditions.” In the days of yore,Bihu would have been a pastoral celebration, celebrated with the villagers’common kitty.

And while the omnipresent cable TV wallah now pipes in the celebrations into the Assamese drawing room, there are valuable traditions that seem lost in the joys of technology. Groups of husori singers, a common sight in the days of yore are a rare sight. That they would go from house to house, playing their dhols,
singing and dancing, blessing the residents of the house, pausing even before the abandoned shack to bless the owners “wherever they may be” isn’t, it seems, a concept among the new generation that seems happier greeting people in faceless chat rooms in the cyber cafes.“But it’s appreciable,” says Ashok Bixoya, Assamese film director, whose highly successful film Joubane Amoni Kore, a teenage love story that perhaps set the standards for the successful Assamese commercial film. “Bihu has become nationalised, it brings together the culture of the country.” Ashok’s father,the late Khiroda Bixoya, was instrumental in bringing Bihu from rural Assam to the modern stage in the 1950s.

There are, of course, the small mercies: had the state government not
intervened, the colourful gamochas that the Assamese wears on Bihu, would not have been woven on traditional xaals, or looms, by the village belle, but on giant machines in textile mills of Mysore as the case was for years. With the cost of traditional paat and muga silks, the xeepinis (Assamese weavers, who as Mahatma Gandhi once remarked, “wove dreams” in cloth), are now a harassed lot.
And, of course, like any other community in the country, there’s the couture culture to deal with.

Assamese woman (who at one time wouldn’t have got married without knowing how toweave) has learnt to settle for mixed yarn’s mekhela-sadors.

But, as nostalgia goes, the festival of life and fertility has still retained one of its age-old touches. In Assam, many a couple in love still elope during Rongalee Bihu. One doesn’t need to be a hunk in daddy’s swanky imported car. Here, eloping is quite a tradition, like Hazarika sings: “Tomake poluwai niboje lagibo, nohole jibon mor byetha … (I must woo you away, or my life is of no meaning…) “ Well, we are like that only!

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