Assam has a composite culture born of the confluence of various traditions. Its numerous tribes lend it a cultural identity that is multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious yet distinct from the rest of the country in terms of political history.
One factor that construes as the binding agent of the various Assamese people is its Bihu festival. Three varieties of it, the Bhogali, Rongali and Kati Bihu, the festival is a dogged representation of Assamese identity and its uniqueness. The local flavour of celebration, however, goes way beyond just the Assamese folklore with the large number ethnic tribes like Mising, Karbi, Boro Dimasa, Rabha, Tiwa, Garo, Jayantia etc. having their own distinctive cultural features, facets and forms. The sheer physical beauty of these tribal people, their intricately woven attire ensembles and the striking colors of their clothes coupled with the incredible landscape that they call their homeland makes the composition of Assam’s demography one of the most desirably diverse in the world.
Bohag Bihu: Bohag Bihu is the spring time Bihu coming at seed-time. It also ushers in the Assamese New Year. It has an alternative name Rongali Bihu or the bihu of merriment, being associated youth, joy and mirth.
Magh Bihu is the harvest festival coming in winter and featuring big bonfires and feasts because of which it has the alternative name Bhogali Bihu or bihu of enjoyment.
Baisagu: Famous for its myriad of colours and merriment, `Baisagu’ is generally celebrated by the Bodo-Kachari is in the month Baishakh or mid-April. It is the most cherished festival of the Bodos. The first day begins with the cow-worship. On the second day elderly members of the family offered respect. The supreme deity `Bathou’ or Lord Shiva is also worshiped on this by offering him chicken and rice beer. There is age bar or sex bar dancing during this festival. The traditional musical instruments that are used in this dance festival are `Kham’ (drum), `Jotha’ (mnjari), `Khawbang’ (Taal), `Gogona’ (mouth-organ made of bamboo) and `Siphung’ (flute). It is also customary at the end of Baishagu festival to offer community prayer at a particular place called, `garjasali’
Bohaggiyo Bishu: The most fascinating spring festival of the Deoris. The Deoris are one of the four divisions of the Chutiyas, which are believed to have been members of the great Bodo race. Like other springtime festivals, Bihagiyo Bishu is also observed durinf rnid-april at a stretch for seven days with unrestricted joy and merrymaking. The Bihsu must be preceded by a Than Puja and evidently it must start on Wednesday. There is also much socio religious significance and arrangements, to be made before the puja. The Deodhani dance forms the most important significant part of the festival.
Rajini Gabdra & Harini Gabra: The annual festival of the colourful Dimasa tribe. It is exclusively socio religious festival which is generally observed before the starting of new cultivation. Rajini Gabra is celebrated during the day time. The `Kunang’ or village headman, propitiates family deity by closing the village gate on the puja day. In the same night the function called `Harini Gabra’ the presiding deity is worshiped for protection and welfare of the people.
Rongker and Chomangkan: Rongker and Chomangkan are the two most important festivals of the Karbis. Rongker is basically a springtime festival and is performed at the beginning of the New year. To propitiate different Gods and Goddess for the well being of the entire village, the elderly malefolk organize Rongker so that people could be free from diseases, natural calamities for the entire year. They pray for good harvest too.
On the other hand, Chomangkan is a festival, dedicated to the dead. It is primarily a death ceremony. There is no particular time for holding this funeral ceremony. It depends upon the convenience of the community. This festival is a must for every Karbis. It is non-stop four days and four nights celebration.
Ali-Ai-Lvigang: This is a spring festival of the Mishing tribe. This colourful festival is held every year on the first Wednesday (Lvigang Lange) of the month `Ginmur Polo’ (February — March). Ali means root, seed; Ai means fruit and `Lvigang’ means sow. Dance performed by the young boys and girls characterized by brisk stepping, flinging and flapping of hands and swaying heaps.
Baikho: Although the Rabha community does not have any national festival of their own, the different groups celebrate their own festival. The `Baikho’ or the springtime festival is only celebrated `Baikho’ or `Khoksi’ puja to propitiate the goddess of wealth, `Baikho’.
|Rongali Bihu/Bohag Bihu||mid April||Bhogali Bihu/Magh Bihu||mid January|
|Kongali Bihu/Kati Bihu||mid October||Rongker and Chomangkan||mid April|
|Ambubachi||mid June||Me-Duum-Me-Phi||31st January|
|Boisagu||mid April||Bohaggiyo Bishu||mid April|
|Rajni Gabra & Harini Gabdra||mid April||Baikho||mid April|
Bihu songs and dances: Singing and dancing constitute essential features of springtime Bihu festival. The Bihu songs are mostly strains woven round themes of love and yearning.
The Bihu dance performed by young men and women, similarly reflect youthful passions and Joie de vivre. Another dance performed on the occasion of Bihu is associated with Husari in which, groups of young men N. kit households, receiving, contributions and giving blessings. The tribal groups like Mishings, the Deoris and the Morans perform the Bihu dance in their own distinctive style.
TRIBAL DANCES AND FESTIVALS
Each tribal groups has its own stock of folk dances which are attractive as much for the flowing movements as for the colouful costumes and the earthy quality of the accompanying music.
Bodo dances: Some of the important dances of the Bodos are associated with the Kherai Puja festivals are ritualistic in nature. The samanastic dances are pertbrmed by the deodhani (female shaman) in a state of trance, often with vigorous movements of the head, tossing and swinging the disheveled hair. Similar deodhani dances are in vogue among other tribal groups and also sections of the non-tribals.
A most graceful and captivating dance of the Bodos is the famous Bagurumba dance maidens. In this dance full of rhythm and vivacity, the dancers hop and swing, bend and unbend, and at times give the impression of fluttering butterflies.
Various dances are performed on the Rabha Baikhu and Pharkanti festivals. In some of these dances performed by mixed groups of boy s and girls, the dancers carry swords and shields, and in some other, peculiar wood and bamboo musical instruments with toy figures of birds that are made to flap their wings with the beating of the time.
Mishing dances: The best Mishing dances form integral parts of the two major Mishing festivals- Ali-Ai-Lvigang, and Po-rag. Hunting, fishing, arrow shooting, rowing, weaving, transplanting and harvesting etc. are artistically depicted in the Ali-Ai-Lvigang dances in which all people — men and women, young and old, married and single — dance in rows and circles. In Po-rag, there take place lively’ friendly competition in dancing and drumming.
Dances of Tiwa: While the hill Tiwas have some impressive dances connected with the Sagra-misawa. Wan-sawa and Langkhun Puja ceremonies, the most interesting dances of the plains Tiwas are adjuncts of the Barat-puja ceremony, featuring the use of a peculiar musical instrument called sarai-lau and of masks representing various gods and animals.
Karbi dances: Of the many folk dances of the Karbis, perhaps the most important are those of a ritualistic nature centering round the Chomanhkan, the elaborate death ceremony. Banjar kekan is a hilarious all male dance in which specially decorated bamboo poles figure prominently. In Nimso-kerang dance, the contents of the accompanying songs are highly erotic. In the dance, while the young men hold shields and sticks in their hands, the girls, their heads covered with black scarves. Hachcha-kekan is another boisterous group dance performed on the occasion of the harvest festival. The plains karbis have a different set of songs and dances, one of the most spectacular involving the stepping in and out of spaces between bamboo poles held and moved rhythmically on the ground.
Dimasa dances: The Dimasas of Dima Hsao (formerly N.C.Hills) district have ritualistic dances performed in ceremonies like Rajini Gabra and Harni Gabra in which the oracle takes part in a state of possession. The group dance of boys and girls in the harvest festival Busu has most interesting rhythmic and choreographic patterns fitted to the haunting music of the peculiar Dimasa pipe called muri.
Music, dance, drama
Assam has been a land of music and dance is borne out by evidences, both direct and indirect, obtainable from epigraphic, sculptural. historical and literary sources. While references to musicians and dancers are frequently met with in old inscriptions and other records, old sculptures abound in panels depicting singing and dancing scenes.
Music: Raga music must have made its entry into this area very early on. The Charyapadas composed in the Northeastern region between 8th and I lth centuries were meant for rendering in specific ragas like Pata-Manjari, Gavada, Guijari. and so on. This tradition seems to have been carried down through the centuries as can be surmised from the fact that Assamese Panchali poets of the 16th century used for their lyrical compositions a set of ragas, some of which had identical names with Charyapada ragas. The Vaishnavite saints were connoisseurs of classical music.
Oja-pali is a very old performing art form of Assam, which combines narrative singing ‘vith dancing and dramatic interludes. The music of Oja-pali has a raga system of clearly classical orientation, and the concerned dance recalls classical movements, postures and hand-gestures. The classical elements are more pronounced in the Vaishnavite variety of Oja-pali than in the Sakta variety.
Neo– Vaishnavite some of the best treasures of Assamese performing arts are associated with the neo-Vaishnavite heritage and best preserved in the Satras First, there are the Vaishnavite musical forms of which the most remarkable is a classical genre with distinctive system of ragas and talits introduced bv the great vinous sankardeva. This genre is represented by bargits- literally meaning great songs, which are highly refined devotional compositions — and natar gits or songs incorporated in dramas. Also worthy of mention is the satriya dance, so cal led because its association with the satras, which has all the ingredients of an Indian classical dance and which has gained all India notice as such.
then there is the bahona the Vaishnava dramatic performance, which owes its genesis to the dramas written and produced by sankardeva with great originality, and which is the Assamese cognate of the Yaksha-gana of Karnataka, the Kathakali of Kerala, the Bhagavatamela of Andrha Pradesh and the Ramleela and Rashleela of uttar Pradesh.
Bhaona – The ideal type of Bhona is the Ankiya Bhaona involving the performance of a play composed by Sankardeva or Madhavadeva, clearly reminiscent of the orthodox Sanskrit drama tradition. But ordinary performances have more of down-to-earth characteristics and often verge on the folk. While the Oja-pali art form also contains dramatic elements, much of these are folk nature. The Dhulias of the Kamrup region are parties of drummers who, apart from providing music on auspicious and festive occasions, perform spectacular acrobatic feats over and above, present dramatic skits saturated with wit, humour and sarcasm of a rough and ready nature. Kushan-gan and Bhari-gan are two popular folk drama forms of the Goalpara reaion, of which the former relies more on music and dance while the later is distinguished by the use of heavy
Masks – As for folk songs and folk dances for which Assam is famous, a sizeable proportion of the rich and varied fare happens to be intimately linked up with rituals, ceremonies and festivals of the various communities both tribal and non-tribal.
Assam has been a centre for art since ancient times. The earliest record of a thriving artistic tradition can be found in the 7th century Harshacharitra which documents how the king of Kamrup Kumar Bhaskar Verman, sent large samples of paintings, easles and canvases to the Gupta king, Harshavardhana, as a token of friendship.
Royal patronage determined the themes in much of the art produced in the state, such as the bulky Hastividyarnava, a pictorial treatise on the management and care of elephants in the royal stables.
The neo-Vaishnavite religion propagated by Sankardeva during the 15th century would start an artistic revolution that is clearly visible in works such as Chitra Bhagavata (1539 AD), a narrative of the life of Lord Krishna through paintings. The paintings in the 17th century Assamese translation of Gita Govinda; the Chitrapats that accompanied Sankardeva’s one-act play in the satryia tradition, and the distinctive tradition of murals adorning the satras.
Rich with cane and bamboo forests, Assam has not only the raw material but also the tine artistic sense of making the cane furniture which are highly appreciated all over the world.
Brass and Bell metal products are famous or their beauty, strength and utility. In Hajo of Kamrup district Brass is an important cottage industry. Sarthebari in the same district is famous for Bell metal crafts.
Assam’s villages are filled with artisans who are talented as only they are. The terracotta industry of (Goalpara bears eloquent testimony to the sheer handiwork of these village sculptors and craftsmen. Beautiful, hand-crafted works of art designed to serve as small souvenirs and living-room display form their main thrust of activity.
Also impressive is the craft work made from Kuhila – something that is totally unique to the villages of Assam.
The mekhela chadar, is a two piece garment with a skirt or lower garment called the mekhela and a pleated upper garment called the chadar. Traditionally made either in Muga or Pat silk, it has now adapted itself to a large variety of weaves.
Bihu dancers wear Muga mekhelas with red, floral motifs while Assamese brides wear pat mekhelas with another piece of cloth below the chadar called the riha.
Tribal communities have their own vairations of the mekhela distinguished by their designs and motifs.
The dhoti-gamosa is the traditional dress for men. Many tribes also wear shirts and turbans in additions to this ensemble.
Assam’s staple diet is rice with interestingly cooked fish and meat dishes. Many varieties of rice are produced and variously prepared here like Cheera (flattened rice), muri(puffed rice), akhoi (parched paddy grain), pithguri (pound rice), sandoh guri (fried, pound rice), komal saul and bora saul.
Fish curry is another staple of the region which is prepared as a sour dish called machor tenga. Baked or steamed fish wrapped in plaintain leaves with white mustard paste is a popular delicacy called patot diya, ‘pat’ meaning leaf in Assamese. Meat preparations include mutton, duck and pigeon fowl.
To round off a sumptous lunch or dinner, the Assamese traditionally cook a variety of ‘detoxifying’ appetizers. The most popular of them is khar, prepared by burning the stem of the banana tree or by roasting and soaking banana peels.
Simplicity and the variety of ingredients used is the speciality of Assamese cuisine. Assamese dishes are less spicy than any other Indian dishes, but carry richness of taste and health. Versatility of the Assamese cuisine is very wide. There are dozens of Khar and Tenga preparation. Assamese cuisine is generally low on oil and spices baring a few special dishes, but exotic herbs often impart strong flavour. Assamese are by and large non-vegetarian.