I asked, “This is so beautiful. What is the occasion?”
Bihu is a traditional festival of Assam celebrated thrice a year. People celebrate Bhogali Bihu in the month of January, Rongali Bihu in mid April, and Kongali Bihu in the end of October that continues till the middle of November. Irrespective of beliefs, caste and creed, all the Assamese people celebrate it in a grand manner. They pray for a bumper harvest. Since long, Bihu has been associated with farming.
Out of the three, Rongali bihu is the most popular one. Around the 14th and 15th April, spring season is welcomed by celebrating Rongali Bihu, also known as Bohag Bihu. It is the arrival of a ‘new year’ according to the Hindu calendar. The fields are ploughed and new crops are sown.
I remember meeting a group of women on one fine morning during a field visit. Runumi, Girija, Meghali, and Rina are members of a JLG. The entrepreneurs were engrossed in Bihu preparations. Sitting in the garden, they were all stitching mekhelas (a traditional Assamese saree) and arranging ornaments. The moment they saw me standing at the door with my field partner, they stood up and came closer, greeting me by folding their hands into a ‘namastey’. After a brief introduction I went inside looking around and was mesmerized by the heavenly decoration done with an extensive collection of colourful flowers and multi-colour LED strip lights.
I asked, “This is so beautiful. What is the occasion?”
Runumi, the group leader responded, “It’s a new year for us. We are celebrating Rongali Bihu, time for new harvest baido!” Baido means sister in Assamese language.
We made ourselves comfortable on a mat with tea and peettha (a popular snack made during bihu). It was delicious. Interestingly, the women are Bihu dancers who turned entrepreneurs after taking a loan from Milaap through YVU Microfin (Milaap’s partner). The dancers perform the Bihu dance twice a year but don’t make sufficient money to run the household. “Rs. 20,000 per year is anything but enough to contribute to the household expenses. What about educating our children? How will we fulfil their dreams?” Meghali said worriedly.
“Our husbands earn enough to bear the daily expenses. But we are left with no savings by the end of the month,” Rina added. So, the Milaap borrowers took a loan to earn additional income. Runumi, Meghali, and Rina run cosmetic stores to earn their daily wages. Girija, on the other hand, is a tailor by profession. She sews mekhela chador, blouse, saree and gamchha (hand woven towels). Girija is also involved in the door to door selling of the materials.
“At present we earn around Rs. 7000 per month and manage to save approximately Rs. 3000 by the month end,” Girija shared. They spend long hours of the day to earn wages and perform household activities in the evening. I was glad to meet these ambitious women.
While talking, the mekhelas and the ornaments caught my eye. I noticed, all the mekhelas were of the same colour but the design patterns differed. Also, the ornaments weren’t the usual ones. With much curiosity I asked, “Is it necessary to wear a mekhela of particular colour? The jewelry looks classic. Does it have any significance?”
Girija replied, “This is the traditional Assamese silk outfit, a muga mekhela. It reflects royalty and pride of our culture. Baido, each ornament has a different name. The thick bangle with clasp is called a gamkharu. But the earrings and neck piece vary in design, shape, size and material.” I pointed at two different pairs and asked, “What about these?” “These two pairs of earrings are thuriya and keru,” she said smiling.
The cheerful entrepreneurs perform the Bihu dance every year during the month of January (during Bhogali Bihu) and April (during Rongali Bihu). It is that one time of the year where they enjoy the day off from work to celebrate.. I not only learned about their respective businesses but also about the ritual ceremonies performed in Rongali Bihu. Post our discussion about work, Runumi took me to the backyard. Her mother and aunts were all gathered around a cattle farm. Unsure of what to do I stood still in a corner. After a while all the women went inside and circled around the cattle.
I witnessed the cattle being bathed with a paste of black gram and turmeric, and then fed with vegetables and grass. Ushering in the new year they all made ‘ulu dhwani’, a type of vocal sound. Their excitement was evident.
Runumi told me that they are going to wear new clothes and have lunch together. She even invited me but I had another visit planned for the day. Well dressed in colourful mekhelas they gifted each other hand woven towels (gamchha). Rina gifted me a ‘gamchha’ and invited me to see the cultural program the following day in evening.
This year, the Milaap borrowers had plans of performing in the famous Ulubari Shiv Mandir. I enjoyed their performance sitting inside the brightly decorated Bihu pandal. There were groups from different parts of the city who partook in the Bihu dance competition. Young men and women performed Bihu ‘geet’ (folk songs) about rain gods, harvest and spring season. A group of cute children performed a fusion dance highlighting the rich culture of Assam.
The Bihu dancers were graceful and the music was pleasing. The most amazing part was that the dancers were simultaneously singing and playing instruments throughout the performance. They sang in Assamese language and played dhol (a double-headed drum), pepa (a type of horn, gogona (a type of jaw harp) and toka (a bamboo slapstick) along. The dance was a visual treat, indeed.
Thanks to the Milaap fellowship that I could be a part of the grand celebration of the Assamese New Year. Now that it is time to wrap up and return to our respective homelands, I must admit that I’ll miss the regular encounters with the inspiring entrepreneurs and participating in the Assamese festivals and occasions. Funnily enough, I have managed to learn Assamese and can communicate in it fluently. Thankfully, I captured the golden moments in my camera to cherish the memories.