Music

Scent of the soil

Bihu singers Khagen and Archana Mahanta   | Photo Credit: 20dfr bihusingers

Come spring and there comes alive an entire set of traditions in the hills and dales of Assam. With the onset of new buds and shoots, the aromatic Ketaki and Kopou flowers and the happy songs of the Kuli birds, the lilt of the flute and the rhythmic pounding of the dhol waft in the air. In cadence is the shuttle of the weaver girls plaiting gamosas to be given away as Rongali Bihu gifts, and also the metrical sound of dheki (a traditional device to pound rice) to dole out a variety of pithas (sweets). Then there are those young and old rehearsing Bihu songs to be sung house to house imploring the Gods and Nature to usher in a good year.

Bihu, in fact, is a foil over traditional Assamese agro life. While Rongali ushers in the new lunar year, the other two Bihus — Bhogali and Kaati — respectively call for celebration after a good harvest, and the one bereft of it since the barn is empty and the rice is in the fields.

Of love and toil

However, the changing times have peeled some rinds off these age-old customs. The most marked change is in the modern day Bihu songs. Traditionally infused with words and situations plucked from the everyday life of love and toil, today's mass-produced Bihu songs have been reduced to renderings of mere boy-girl romance, many times using even vulgar expressions.

Celebrated Assamese folk singer and Sahitya Akademi awardee, Khogen Mahanta is pained by this shift in the name of modernity. In New Delhi to take part in the IHC Lok Sangeet Sammelan, Mahanta settles down for a conversation along with his talented singer-wife Archana to talk about it. Khogen da has been researching and singing the purest form of Bihu songs since the '60s, and Archana for the last 40 years.

“Bihu songs are the backbone of our culture. Things should not be static but change is acceptable only when it signifies the transformation undergone by the entire people of the State. Some of the old songs have expressions like ‘ukia ukia rail gari ahil'. The advent of railways in Assam brought about a change to not just those living in towns but in the rural areas too. Many farmers would hop into the local train to reach their fields some distance away instead of cycling it down. So, such words have understandably crept into the songs,” explains Khogen da. “But I have a problem if you sing Bihu songs with lyrics like ‘Pindhi tumi maxi lagisa sexy'.” Longingly he mentions the times when great Assamese writers like Nabakanta Baruah, Dhiren Borgohain, etc. used to write Bihu songs.

Considered the next big name in Assamese folk music after Bhupen Hazarika, Khogen da has been collecting Bihu songs from old rural folks. “Sometimes, I have to stay in a village for many days,” he says. Among the gems, he brought back to stage last year the women's husori (group Bihu), a dying tradition from Upper Assam. Besides, the duo has a wide repertoire of local folk forms like Bor geet, Deh Bisaror geet, Tukari geet, Sah baganor geet and Kamrupi Biyar geet besides ballads like Phul Kowarir geet and Maniram Dewanor geet, some of which they sang at the Sammelan regaling “mostly a non-Assamese audience.”

“You might not understand the wordings but music has its own language, particularly the folk beats. If you can identify with the lifestyle of the region, you will surely enjoy it,” responds Archana.

With technology, there has been the inclusion of modern instruments like the keyboard and the guitar in Bihu songs now. States Archana, “We sing only with traditional instruments like taal, khol, dhol, pepa and gogona. We use the keyboard only when the organisers can't afford to take the musicians along with us. When we record our songs, we strictly use only the traditional instruments.”

Yet another change Khogen da is increasingly noticing is “the loss of the distinct Bihu rhythm”. “Take the Bihu sapori (clap), it has the 8 beat rhythm unlike the usual 6 beat clap.”

Every March-April, hordes of Bihu CDs hit the market, some sell for over two lakh copies. “And we sell about 25,000 at the most. But I feel good that my each CD goes to people's houses while the mass produced ones are mostly played in night coaches and wedding parties.”

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 12:05:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/Scent-of-the-soil/article16137687.ece

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