Assam, once known as the “Light of the East” is the land of the mighty Brahmaputra, one of the longest flowing rivers. The Brahmaputra curves in a serpent like manner around a land where one not only sees lush green tea plantations and an extravagance of flora and fauna, but also myriad tribes and races that come together to bring about a conglomeration of cultures, values, traditions and beliefs. Among the repertoire of festivals celebrated in Assam, the Bihu stands at the pinnacle bearing the most importance. The Bihu is a festival, most anticipated, and celebrated with a tremendous amount of zeal and enthusiasm. The festival brings together all the Assamese people, irrespective of their caste, creed and religious beliefs.
The Bihu Dance is one of the most colourful folk dances of India. Bihu is generic to celebration in an agricultural society. For the people of Assam, Bihu is not only a festival, but also a time for celebration. The Assamese people celebrate three different Bihu festivals, Bohag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu, celebrated in Spring, Magh Bihu or Bhogali Bihu celebrated in Winter and Kongali Bihu or Kati Bihu celebrated in Autumn. The Bihu dance is a traditional heritage of Assam and the festival helps to strengthen the unity in diversity among the people of Assam. During the revelry, the banks of the Brahmaputra come alive with the rhythms of the dhol (drum) and pepa (flute).
The dancers perform in a circle beginning with a slower tempo, which gradually gains momentum. Drums, cymbals, hornpipes, harps and bamboo clappers, provide musical accompaniment. Though the dance is inspired by agricultural operations, the songs and the graceful dancing builds up an atmosphere of love and romance. The dance has been noted for maintaining authenticity and at the same time displaying the traditional Assamese handlooms and handicrafts in their beauty and glory. The costume worn by the women consists of a Gitigee (kind of headgear), Agoo (mekhala) and Lagu Richa (chaddar). Beautiful ornaments are their accessories. The men wear a Dhoti, Gomocha (Towel) and Chapkan (shirt). The well-known forms of the Bihu Dance include:
Bohag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu.
With the advent of spring come the Bohag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu, a festival of music and dance when nature like a young woman blossoms into radiance of light, beauty and colour. It is in this atmosphere that young boys and girls perform the Bihu Dance, inviting each other to the land of romance. The Bohag Bihu or Rangoli Bihu not only ushers in the Assamese New Year, but also the sowing time and the season of marriage. In fact, this festival has its roots in some earlier fertility cult. The Bohag Bihu Dance is an expression of the joys of spring and the exuberance and vigour of youth. Amidst nature’s pristine beauty, young boys and girls perform this dance, accompanied by songs of erotic sentiment, virile beating of drums (dhol), soft strains of Pepa made from buffalo horns and many other indigenous folk instruments.
Magh or Bhogali Bihu
The Magh or Bhogali Bihu is also an important festival celebrated after the harvest is collected. Bonfires, social get togethers and feasts are an integral part of Magh Bihu. Most of the rituals connected with this season’s Bihu are observed in front of Agni, the God of Fire. Various offerings are made to Agni with the chanting of mantras. The origins of Magh Bihu can be traced back to the Fire-Worship Festival of ancient times. The Bhogali Bihu Festival begins on the last day of the month of Pous and the actual day of celebration is the first day of the month of Magh.
Kaati Bihu or Kongali Bihu
This Bihu festival is not celebrated with the usual pomp with which the other Bihu festivals are celebrated. The day of celebration is the last day of the month of Ashwin – when the new crops are not ready for harvesting and the previous harvest stored in the granary has been depleted.
The festival reminds people of the scarcity of food. It is a time to offer prayers for a good harvest in the coming season. Prayers are possibly the most significant part of this festival.
Differences exist in the presentation of the Bihu Dance, depending on the community presenting it.
Moran Bihu is a typical form of Bihu Dance practiced by the Moran tribe of Assam. Generally, young Moran boys select a place far away from the din and bustle of the city. Here they make a wooden bamboo-house known as the Bihu-Ghar. The ghar is separated into two areas – one for the young boys and the other for the girls. Their songs and dances are woven around the theme of love and yearning. Indigenous instruments such as the dhol and pepa provide the musical accompaniment.
The Deoris of Assam are a riverine tribe who originally belonged to the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. They have preserved and maintained their traditions, religious beliefs and practices. The Deories celebrate the Bohag Bihu or Bhohagiyo Bihu and the Magh Bihu or Maghyo Bihu. The presentation of Bihu by this community has a distinct style.
Mishing Bihu is a form of Bihu dance associated with the Ali-Ai Ligang festival (seed sowing festival) of the Mishings. The dance demonstrates the various stages of the process of cultivation from sowing to reaping. The Bihu songs of the Mishing tribes have a telltale note, a lovely ‘eiiyoo oh’ that rises and falls, as if a cowherd is calling out to his beloved who is reaping the paddy. The Mishings have starkness in their Bihu that captures the spirit of the festival, of Spring, fertility, longing, of the beautiful kopon flower (the Assamese orchid) and love like no other. It is the time to sing about Jonki and Panoi, the Romeo and Juliet of the Mishings.
Jeng Bihu is an ancient form of Bihu Dance from Upper Assam. Only women perform this form of Bihu Dance on a moonlit night in a place far away from an inhabited area. The word Jeng possibly means an obstructive barrier between the performers and the audience.
This dance is similar to the Rangoli Bihu. The young boys invite the girls with Bihu songs, the beating of drums and the tunes of the pepa to join them in the open fields. They exchange feelings of love and affection in the season of love, Spring. The buffalo horn pipes and bamboo clappers paint a portrait of Spring that is not seen anywhere else. It is a time when youngsters meet in the fields to dance, a time when young girls in love weave handkerchiefs for their chosen ones.
The other folk dance forms of the state include:
Kahin Ghuruwa Nach
This is also a part of the traditional Rangoli Bihu Festival of Assam. Young boys and girls attired in traditional costumes perform this dance to the rhythm of the dhol. The dancers very artistically place thaalis on their bodies and strike different poses during the performance. The lead dancer places as many as twelve to fifteen thaalis on his body while dancing.
The Bodos like the other communities of Assam have nurtured their own distinctive music and dance forms. They have contributed towards upholding the cultural traditions of Assam to a large measure. Bordoishikhla, a very special folk art form of the Bodo community, is one of the most colourful and rhythmic dances of Assam. Young girls assemble in a particular area of the village to perform the dance to relieve themselves of their wearisome days’ work through singing and dancing. It is also closely associated with harvesting and is performed to welcome a good Monsoon. The dancers perform with bamboo clappers in their hands, which provide the rhythm for their movements. The colourful costumes worn by the dancers and graceful body movements make the dance fascinating. This group dance is performed to the accompaniment of traditional musical instruments like Kham, Siphung, Jotha, Charinda and Cymbals.
The Karbi tribe of Assam performs the Domahi Kikang Dance during Spring. There are two varieties of this dance, one is performed by the Karbi tribes living in the hilly areas of Assam and the other is performed by the Karbi residents of the plains. The Karbi youths carry decorated swords and present a very enchanting dance.
The Jhumur Dance is a traditional, highly rhythmic folk dance of Assam and is extremely popular with the ‘Kulis’ (people who work in the tea gardens). The dance is usually performed during Autumn. It is secular in concept and has a distinct identity. The dance is performed to the rhythmic accompaniment of the Madal. The young and old dance together in gay abandon. The costume worn by the Jhumur dancers is different from the traditional costume worn for the Bihu dance.
The Mishings are one of the largest plain tribes of Assam. Ali-Ai-Ligang is their most important festival, held every year in the month of Falgun. The dance form associated with this festival is Gumrak. The dancers demonstrate various stages of the process of cultivation through their performance. The atmosphere is charged with the music of the dumdum, pepa, siphung and gung gang. The girls perform this rhythmic dance, attired in their best Ribigaseing and Ribiyege. The festival continues for five days and during this time dancing and feasting takes place in the courtyards of the village homes. The festival concludes with ‘Dapan Tipan’ or a community feast. The last day of the festival is called ‘Lilen’.
Bisuyo Jama Dance
The Bisuyo Jama Dance is one of the most attractive dance forms of the Deori tribe of North East Assam. In the Deori dialect ‘Bi’ means extreme or excess and ‘Su’ means rejoicing. So Bisu indicates the time for rejoicing. The most important festival of the Deori community is ‘Bohagiyo Bisu’, which lasts from a week to a fortnight. Spring is an important time for the Deoris who are mostly cultivators. The young boys and girls spend the late evenings dancing to the rhythm of melodious Bisu songs. Through this celebration, the Deoris pray for the peace and prosperity of the village.
The Bodo community is known for its rich cultural heritage. The lively tunes and the colourful attire of the dancers, (consisting of the dekhona and aarnia) make this dance particularly interesting and attractive. The young girls dance to the lively beat of the Kham, a traditional musical instrument.
Langkhon Fuja Mishawa
Langkhon Fuja Mishawa is a traditional dance of the Tiwa tribe of Assam. Tiwa means Enlightened People. The people belonging to this tribe were originally known as the Laloongs and they inhabited the western part of the Nagaon district of Assam. The Tiwas observe Beusakh Bihu, Magh Bihu and many other religious festivals. All their festivals start on the first Wednesday of the related month. The Langkhon Fuja Mishawa is performed during the festivals observed in the months of November, December and January. The theme of the dances is man’s relationship with and dependence on nature. The dancers wear colourful traditional costumes and carry decorated bamboo sticks. Singing, drum beating and the melodious strains of the flute accompany this very enjoyable and choreographically interesting tribal dance forms.
(Dances of the Rabha Community)
The Rabhas believe that the souls of the dead are reborn in this world not only as human beings, but also as animals and birds. According to ancient belief, the three birds, Manchelenka, Tandalenka and Batiktika represent the souls of the departed. During the performance of the Farkanti Dance, these birds are used as symbols of friendship and trust. The Farkanti Dance is performed after the death of a person, in the presence of the kith and kin of the deceased, his friends and community. The purpose of the dance is to enliven the sorrowful atmosphere in the deceased person’s family. Through the dance, prayers are offered to show reverence and respect to the departed soul.
Hamzar refers to an age-old agricultural tradition of cultivating paddy on land cleared of forests in the hills and plains. This form of agricultural practice is known as ‘Jhum’ or “slash and burn” cultivation and has been practiced by many tribes from primitive times. It is still largely prevalent among the Rabhas. The poorer sections of the tribal community resort to Hamzar for cultivating Ahu paddy because they do not have suitable plainland to produce Sali paddy. The lure of a higher yield attracts even the comparatively well-off sections of the community to Hamzar. The tradition of Hamzar has well-defined roles for the Rabha man and Rabha woman. While the Rabha men clear the land by cutting down the trees of the forest, the women folk scrub and sweep the land. Both men and women take part in ploughing the land and sowing the seeds. The men keep vigil at night to protect the farmland. They spend the night on raised platforms known as ‘Robongs’. During the day, the women take care of the crops by scaring away the birds and insects. Both men and women folk do the reaping of the harvest. All this is very aesthetically depicted in the Hamzar Dance.
Hostilities, struggles and conflicts that ultimately culminate in battles and wars are part of human existence from time immemorial. The brave Rabha people have been faced with such situations innumerable times and have fought many battles with other hostile groups. The Dhaowa Dance is performed ceremonially just before the Rabha warriors set out for the battlefield. This dance form symbolises the bravery and undaunted spirit of the Rabha people that defies defeat or even death.
The Santhar Dance is part of the Festival of Baikho Puja in the Killa Dibi Khai tradition. The festival ends with much celebration and the Santhar Dance is an integral part of it. The dances describe the joys of youth and love. The Santhar dance is also a medium for conveying proposals for marriage.
According to tribal belief, the movement of the stars destines man’s fate. One such ancient belief is that during certain movements of the stars, the different Gods of Diseases enter the human body causing different ailments. Of the many Gods of Diseases, the most ruthless is God ‘Pangba’. When he enters the body, the person experiences immense pain. The tribal communities believe that performing a prayer dance in front of the deity can cure the ailing person. In essence, the Pangba is a prayer dance and is performed to calm down a hostile God. It is a helpless plea of man to the mysterious, unknown and sometimes hostile forces of nature.
The Sutradhari is an important character, who links the different sequences of the traditional classical theatre form of Assam, the Ankiya Nat. The Ankiya Nat begins with the entry of the Sutradhar to the rhythmic beats of the Khol. Intricate footwork and fluid dance postures are an integral part of the Ankiya Nat. The Sutradhar narrates the portions of the storyline that are not dramatised on stage and also recites the initial Bhatima, using different ‘hastamudra’ or hand gestures to explain the subject matter of the verses.
Ojhapali and Deodhani Nritya
This traditional dance belongs to the pre-Sankarite era. It is performed during the celebration of Manasha Puja. The dance has a vigorous rhythm and the dancers often go into a trance during the performance. The Ojha narrates the Manasha Purana with his Paalis. The Ojhapali is followed by the Deodhani Nritya, which cannot be performed without the former.
Nowadays, during an Ojhapali recital, stories on different social themes besides those from the Puranas are also enacted. The Ojha expresses the content of the stories through songs and gestures and the Paalis follow it by repeating the lines. In the course of the performance, they present short items depicting the movements of animals and birds. The musical instruments used are the Dhol and Khanjani (small cymbals). The Ojha wears the conventional dress of the Sutradhar. Young unmarried girls dedicated to Goddess Manasha perform the Deodhani Dance. The dance is performed in front of the deity to the accompaniment of the Jai-Dhol and Bhortal (big cymbals) with graceful hand gestures and intricate footwork.
The Kushan Pala and Kushan Dance is a folk art form popular in undivided Goalpara district of Western Assam, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar districts of North Bengal, Purnia region of Bihar, Rangpur and Mymensingh district of Bangladesh, Tuochi region of Bhutan, Jhapa region of Nepal and the Western region of Meghalaya. This ancient, traditional and religious art form draws its theme from the Ramayana. In the Kushan Pala we find a union of song, dance, narrative and dialogue.
The word Kushan is derived from the Sanskrit word “Kushilab”. Kushilab is the first preacher of the Valmiki Ramayana. It is believed that the Kushan play and dance are derived from songs from the great epic, sung by the sons of Lord Rama, Kush and Luv.
There are two types of Kushan play or dance, based on the musical instruments used — Bena Kushan and Dotara Kushan. The number of performers in a Kushan play or dance is fifteen to sixteen. They are designated by different names such as Mul or Geedal or Kushani, Pali or Pail, Dohari, Bain, Chukuri or Chokara.
The Mul or Geedal is the main singer of the Kushan play. He has to be proficient in singing, dancing, theatre and playing of different musical instruments. There are three or four Palis or musicians in the Kushan Pala. The chief Pali is known as the Daina Pali. The Dohari is the main assistant to the Geedal. The Dohari must not only be proficient in singing, dancing, acting and playing of musical instruments but should also have presence of mind. The cast also includes one or two Bayans who play the Khol or Mrirdanga. Either a young boy dressed as a girl or a young girl plays the role of the “Chukuri” or dancer.
The different musical instruments used include the Bena, Khol, Mandira, Sarinda and Bansi.
The play opens with the Kholabar or Opening Concert. This is followed by the Abahan or Ram Vandana. The dancers then perform the Saraswati Vandana. This is followed by the Saptakanda Ramayan.
Baitha Maro Dance
The river Brahmaputra and its tributaries flow through the undivided Goalpara district of Assam. The Baitha Maro Dance describes a very popular sporting event of this area — boat racing. Special songs and dances that cheer the boatmen to win the race are associated with this sport.
Songs and dances are an integral part of the lives of the people in Goalpara district. This traditional dance describes the process of harvesting. The dance, which is performed by the wives of the farmers during the harvesting season, begins with a Laxmi Baran or invocation of Goddess Lakshmi.
During the time of Shankaradeva, Muslims joined in devotional prayers sung in Hindu temples, while Hindus joined in the chords of Zikir songs (the word Ziqr in Arabic means remembering Allah’s name). The Muslim Saint Shah Milan, popular known as Ajan Fakir, who had migrated from Baghdad to Assam, composed the original Zikir songs. Generally, Zikir songs are accompanied by dance and performed by the Muslim villagers on social occasions such as community feasts and weddings.
The Sattriya Dance form was introduced in the fifteenth century A.D. by the great Vaishnava saint and reformer of Assam, Srimanta Shankara Deva, as a powerful medium for the propagation of the Vaishnava faith. He integrated art and bhakti through music, dancing and drama. His aim was upliftment of the Assamese society, which was ridden with religious malpractices. He was opposed to caste privileges and this appealed to the broad tribal base of the state. Through his simple dramas in the Brajabali language, he made the audience aware of the Bhakti Rasa and selfless devotion for the Supreme Being.
The Bhortal Dance is an innovation of the famous Sattriya Dance, the classical dance form of Assam. This invocatory dance is performed with big cymbals.