As COVID slowly loosens its grip on Melburnians, Australian people of Assamese origin, living in and around Melbourne gathered to ring in the Assamese New Year with as much fanfare as the minor COVID restrictions still in place, would allow.
Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu is celebrated on 14 April.
This time last year, at the height of the pandemic, it was all about family and quiet contemplation. This year we are cautiously back to the community and to fun, festivities, and feasting.
Assam is one of the seven picturesque sister states of north-east India. Today, hundreds of people from there call Australia home; they meet regularly to celebrate special occasions, of which Rongali Bihu is one of the biggest.
Rong in Assamese means ‘happiness’ and this joyous festival kicked off on a spectacular note this year with a cross cultural fashion show. It showcased traditional weaves of Assam and Kashmir to highlight the financial setback caused by COVID to artisan-weavers in India. This was followed by a colourful programme featuring song and dance.
Due to cross-cultural marriages and intermingling of various tribes, the community is gloriously diverse and on these special occasions everyone is welcome.
“I have been part of the Bihu celebrations in Melbourne for many years now and I look forward to it,” Dr Gurjit Dhillon told Indian Link. A Punjabi by birth, he has been married to an Assamese, Dr Deepali Choudhury Dhillon, for the past 44 years.
He noted, “It reminds me of Punjab’s Baisakhi which marks harvest time and the arrival of spring, with similar song and dance and of course, food.”
For Dr Richie Yumdo, who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, Bihu is not a festival but a feeling. “Celebrations in Melbourne give me an opportunity to relive my childhood days spent in my maternal grandmother’s home in Assam; dancing in the fields with the village folk till our feet bled and returning home to mouthfuls of Pitha, Laru, and Doi-Sira,” she said.
Today, Bihu has made the giant leap from the paddy fields and riverbanks to halls and auditoriums around the world with all its magic intact.
The passion for the Bihu dance though, continues unabated. This time round, Sangeeta Gogoi gave a scintillating performance of the wildly popular folk dance. A mother of two, Sangeeta is the title holder of Bihu Samragyi (Empress) – the highest honour for a Bihu dancer – at Guwahati’s Latasil Bihu Mancha. She conducts online dance classes for Bihu enthusiasts from her Melbourne home.
For Indrani Bora from Geelong, this is an opportunity to bring out the traditional outfit. “Bihu means I get to be decked up in my mekhela sador and I do not miss it for the world.” Of course, it was a sentiment echoed by all the ladies present, draped in beautiful Paat and Muga silk creations, predominantly in red – the colour of love and romance and the enduring emotion that this festival signifies.
The mantle was taken over by the second generation this year, from hosting of the show to performing; it reassured everyone that the community is in safe hands.
Dr Prashanna Gogoi, ethnomusicologist and choreographer of international repute, conducted an online Bihu dance workshop for the enthusiastic guests direct from the Bihutoli of Assam via Zoom link, in a stunning example of technology meeting tradition. He also demonstrated the use of various traditional musical instruments like Dhul (Drum), Mohor Singor Pepa (Buffalo horn pipe), Been, Gogona and Xutuli.
Sundar Sarma, a prominent member of the Assamese community and one of the main organisers of Melbourne’s Rongali Bihu celebration, told Indian Link later, “We are conscious of the fact that Covid is very much a reality in our lives. We took all possible care to keep the community safe while also enabling the celebration of the most important event in the social calendar.”
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