Prerana Choudhury, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
This paper seeks to explore the folk aesthetics of the springtime Bihu festival of Assam. The concept of Rasa, a significant part of the classical aesthetics found in Bharatmuni’s Natyashastra, has been outlined and illustrated through the Bihu songs- the dancing, the gestures as well as the overall ethos of the festival. A major aspect of the paper is the dialectics that form between the folk and the classical canon; an effort has been made to understand the juxtaposition of the two as well as the formation of the classical from the folk. Bihu as a celebration of eros, romance and fertility forms the core of the argument; adi-rasa and shringar-rasa form the primary essence of this celebration and this paper. This folk festival is undergoing rapid modernisation which has brought the dance form onto the urban stage that has led to the metamorphosis of the otherwise agricultural nomenclature of Bihu into a more ‘sanitised’ version of the same.
Rasa, the essence of a work of art, literally translates to ‘taste’ or ‘savour’. Theorised by the ancient sage Bharatmuni (between 200 BC and 200 AD), rasa refers to the specialised emotion inspired by the performers in an audience, which enables the viewers to relish the performance and engage with it in a manner that is deeper and more involved than in the actions of everyday living. It is what demarcates a performance, a work of art- or even a celebration- from the mundaneness of daily existence and thereby aestheticises the emotions provoked in the viewers by the ‘spectacle’ created to inspire good thought which in turn will inspire good living. The moral injunction within a classical framework such as that of the rasa theory is undeniable- it would be largely reminiscent of the question about art’s moral responsibility in place throughout history- specially in the context that the Natyashastra itself arrived at a time when society faced decadence, and it was left to the realm of the arts to elevate man from moral downtroddenness. (It is said that the four Vedas Brahma created- Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda- were not allowed to be studied by the lower castes and the women of society; so Brahma created the Natyaveda to be studied and practised by all.) Is the experience of rasa subjective or objective? Different philosophers and scholars thoughout history have provided their own perspective on it based on their philosophical stances. Although the navarasas per se are objective categories in terms of codification of the aesthetic experience through particular words themselves, Bharata stated how rasa and emotionneed to be felt in experience while words exist as the suggestions of the same. This democratic rendering of rasa stresses on the ‘experiential or subjective side of poetic meaning’ which ‘seems rather pointless, for ultimately everything is an experience, such as a colour, taste, or emotion, and can be known as it is in itself only through direct acquaintance.’
II. “The Springtime Bihu of Assam”- a Celebration of Eros
One of the seven northeastern states of India, Assam encompasses numerous ethnic communities, each with its own distinct cultural flavour, thereby negating the notion of a homogenous ‘Assamese’ identity. The contours of such a representation would be multifaceted, then; not simply as a result of diverse tribal identities but also as a consequence of the interaction between the ‘greater’ mainland Hindu influence that has seeped into the region and interacted with ‘indigenous’ tribal faiths, ensuing a process of assimilation. This can be said to have been possible because “(t)he religion described as Hinduism is a body of beliefs and customs traceable to various sources- Aryan and non-Aryan, Indian and non-Indian, modern and old. It is absorptive in character and has an attitude which has found itself expedient in dealing with people of various grades of development- from believing in a super soul to worshippers of stones and trees… Indian folklore is as much the Hindu’s as it is the tribal’s.” A melting pot, hence, Assam fuses communities that trace their origin to the Aryavarta, the Tibeto-Burmans and the Ahoms who are descendants of the Shun community from China’s Unan province, alongwith traces of Dravidian and Austric people as well….Access Full Text of the Article