Culture

Bihu Songs Celebrate Love, Nature – and the Non-Veg Food the Assamese Eat

Listen to Bihu songs – traditional and modern – that celebrate the non-vegetarian food habits of the Assamese.

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A still from the song ‘Dukmukalite’. Credit: YouTube screenshot

New Delhi: For the first time in recent history, Assam was in the news for reasons concerning food, and food habits.

Be it the “informal order” of the state government to food stall owners at the recent Namami Brahmaputra Festival in Guwahati to “not keep non-vegetarian food” (the government later denied it), or the arrest of three people, including a minor, for “hurting the religious sentiments” of a class of people because of their food habits, the character of this kind of news is certainly new in the state.

Naturally these incidents have triggered a debate, in drawing rooms and on Facebook alike, about what the Assamese eat. What comprises Assamese food? Are they predominantly vegetarian or non-vegetarian?

Listening to Bihu songs in this season of Rongali Bihu, Assam’s biggest festival, which began on April 13, and considering the collective identity of the people of the state, one can’t help but lend an ear to – for the first time – the metaphors and descriptions several have about what Assamese eat.

Several songs, including traditional gems belted out by the best that the state has produced, won’t find a place in a “vegetarian” music festival, if ever held in the barrage of festivals that the state has seen lately.

Never did one notice before that the popular Bihu song by Bhupen Hazarika, ‘Kakodongar Borali’ uses the simile of two very different kinds of fish – Borali and Kandhuli that many in the state love to have on their plate – to describe the drummer and the dancer, the dhuliya and the nasoni. Lend an ear to it.

If it is Bihu, one can’t stay away from crooning a few lines of one of the several songs that Khogen and Archana Mahanta rolled out. The duo must be given credit for the work they have done to preserve the wide bouquet of Bihu songs that Assam has had since the time of the Ahom kings. In their extremely popular traditional Bihu song, ‘Chokola Tengati Okole Nekhaba’, fish – a staple food in Assam – and fishing find a strong reference as a way of life. At one point the dancer complains to the drummer about not getting to eat fish as the river waters have receded.

One of the state’s most renowned singers, Zubeen, must also be given credit for popularising Bihu songs among the state’s youth through high quality music videos. His ‘Janmoni’ series is one such example. In this well-accepted number, ‘Dukmukalite’, he too refers to fish and fishing. If the drummer casts the fishing net in the river to have a good catch early in the morning, the dancer tries her luck for Kawoi or Puthi variety in the umpteen canals and ponds of her village to prepare a hearty meal. It also speaks of a favourite method of cooking small fish in Assam – wrapped in banana leaves, roasted and mashed with fingertips.

This is yet another extremely popular Bihu number by Chandan Dass and the versatile Dimpy Sonowal. Together they belt out a Bihu song representing the Sonowal Kachari community that the present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal belongs to. It refers to offerings of tamul paan (betel nut and leaves, considered auspicious in Assam) and pigs to the almighty on the occasion of Bihu. Besides fish, pig or pork meat is a part of Assam’s staple diet among many of its tribes. Enjoy its lilting cadence and a well-made video.

In this soulful Bihu number ‘Jakoi Lange Lange’ by Jina Rajkumari the reference to the traditional skills of an Assamese woman in fishing finds a mention throughout. The singer talks about a girl from a particular village who would not fish in the swamps and put fish on the table for the young man. Jakoi, the hand-held fishing net made of bamboo, and the narrow-necked bamboo basket tied to a fisherwoman’s waist, is a popular sight throughout the villages of Assam even today.

The video of this number may have tried to give a twist to the Bihu dance and its traditional music (a lot of experiment is happening with Bihu songs these days) but the words sung by Tapan Hazarika convey what usually comprises a fulfilling meal for an average Assamese. Besides dishes made of fish, it mentions an Assamese delicacy, duck meat made with ash gourd. No feast in another Bihu – Bhogali – held after the harvest early in the year – is complete without ‘Hahor Logot Kumura’.  The drummer asks if his beloved would cook it for him.

Throughout the month of April, Assam celebrates the onset of Bohag (Boishakh) and the Assamese New Year. Dozens of musical events are held late into the night to usher in Bohag and then to bid adieu to it (Bohagi Bidai) where top singers regale the audience by belting out a pile of Bihu numbers.

Papon, now a popular Bollywood singer, has been a permanent feature in these Bihu sanmeelans apart from Zubeen and many others. Once, it was the legendary Bhupen.

Papon may have been in the news recently for singing the theme song of the Namami Brahmaputra festival, the video of which didn’t go down too well with many in the state for falling short of representing the state’s composite culture, but in this Bihu sanmeelan held in Guwahati in 2015, the versatile young singer did what most Assamese know Assam for. He sang a medley, ‘Samorai Koliya’ that held up the common strands of rhythm between the Naam Ghoxa and Tokari Geet (has references to the Bhagavad Gita) with Zikir formulated by the 17th century Sufi poet-saint Azan Fakir who came all the way from Baghdad to settle in Assam. He also reminded the audience, “Whoever comes to Assam and becomes one with it, is Assamese.”

The young musical icon of the state reiterated what Hazarika did decades ago through his lyrics. This is the Assam Papon knows, you and me know, we all know, and want the rest of India to know.

Happy Rongali!