Monday, 8 April 2013

Bihu as a dance form (Deccan Herald, May 2012)

Drawn from nature

May 20, 2012
The folk dance form of Bihu is a vibrant celebration of nature, youth and romance. Juanita Kakoty finds herself mesmerised by the uniqueness of this dance form.
Driving down the highway in Assam, flanked by the green rural landscape, in April, one could catch glimpses of young men and women dancing the Bihu in fields. They gather under trees and dance in ecstatic joie de vivre that accompanies bohag (spring), the season which brings in the Assamese New Year.

“Bihu dance draws from nature,” says Sanghamitra Borgohain Bansal, an expert of the dance form and a former Bihu Rani of Assam (a coveted title conferred by the prestigious Latasil Bihutoli of Guwahati). “The dance movements, for instance, resemble a flying bird, the fluttering of a butterfly, a spinning sereki (used in handloom around which threads are wound into skeins), etc. The dance starts slow paced and ends in speedy twirls, symbolic of the bordoisila, a wild wind heralding the monsoons in Assam, that is supposed to visit her mother’s home in spring, devastating anything that comes her way.”

The Bihu, which is danced in groups, has a dress code intrinsic to it that showcases the best of Assamese finery. “The women wear the traditional mekhela chador made of muga silk (famous as the Golden Silk in international fashion circuits), one of the expensive and finest wild silks produced exclusively in Assam,” articulates Sanghamitra. “Traditional Bihu ornaments (muthi kharu, dugdugi, joonbiri, etc.) are shaped like objects in nature and are distinct from the bride’s jewelry (lokapara, golpata, etc.). The men wear muga silk shirts, knee-length dhotis, tongali (a red cloth around the waist), the gaam kharu (a smaller version of the muthi kharu that women wear), and a gamusa around the head.”

A curious element in the Bihu attire is the xasoti tucked in women’s waists. Daisy Basumatary Boro, who has been titled ‘Bihuoti’ in several Bihu dance competitions in the past, mentions, “A xasoti is a bundle which will always have paan (betel leaves), tamul (areca nuts) and a knife. A woman would wait for her lover and share a tamul-paan with him before beginning the dance.”

“Bihu dance and Bihugeet (songs) celebrate nature, youth and romance,” says Sanghamtira, to which Daisy adds, “At times, they could be phokora-jujona too, that is, a playful war of words between the men and women.” The Bihugeet are an inheritance from the past although young men and women can compose their own lyrics, informs Daisy as Sanghamitra acquaints me with the nuances of Bihu across different communities. “The Mishing have movements like reaping the paddy, fishing, sideways swaying of the hips, etc. They wear their traditional garments like the Ribi Gaseng. Then there is the Deori Bihu where dancers lift their heels while dancing. The Moran Bihu is danced in slow movements.”

Natural dancers

The Bihu is accompanied by traditional instruments like the dhol (a twin-faced drum), pepa (a flute-like instrument made of buffalo horn), taal (a type of clash cymbal), gogona (a reed and bamboo instrument), toka (a bamboo clapper) and xutuli (a clay whistle). The dance comes naturally to those in Assam. As both Sanghamitra and Daisy confirm, like everybody else, they too learnt by observing, dancing and by welcoming the husori every year. Bihu means “to ask for peace and prosperity”; and in this post-harvesting season, groups of young men and women visit households in the neighbourhood and dance in their courtyards. The idea is to bless the household; and the group that blesses is the husori.

Often, tiny tots also form groups and visit households as husori since goodies await them. “The hosts gift the Husori delicacies and some token money because it is supposed to bring positive energy to the household for the entire year,” says Sanghamitra, before sharing what many might not know. “In the past, only men were a part of the husori. So, in the public domain, Bihu was men’s dance. Women were allowed to join much later, around the sixties and seventies,” she adds, “In our grandmothers’ times, men and women always danced separately. The women would gather at far away spots in some field or behind the house, sheltered by bamboo groves or trees.” This practice, where only women participate, exists even today, and is called Jeng Bihu.


Bihu has always been about spontaneity; but in current times, there have been concerns about structure. Sanghamitra reflects, “In the 1990s, Bihu had evolved into disco-like brisk, fast paced steps unlike how it used to be — slow, rhythmic and graceful movements. To restore its sanctity, in 1998, Shankardev Kalashetra, a cultural museum in Guwahati, got scholars from places in Upper Assam like Dhemaji, Moran, Sibsagar, Golaghat, Jorhat, Duliajan and Naharkatia to recognise a standard format. These places are the traditional strongholds of Bihu.”

All said and done, spring is the time to be in Assam. The kuli and keteki (migratory birds) sing to the sounds of dhol and pepa, orchids are abloom, the muga bedazzles, and there is Bihu in your steps — a grace in gaiety which is as old as the land. 

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