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In Assam, coronavirus lockdown is breaking the chain of traditional Bihu economy

Assam has 31 reported COVID-19 cases, including one death. Since last week, authorities have been issuing diligent reminders about how to celebrate Bihu during COVID-19, with proper social distancing norms.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: April 14, 2020 12:25:56 pm
Assamese gamosa, Rongali Bihu Women weave a traditional Assamese gamosa in Assam’s Nagaon district ahead of Rongali Bihu. (PTI Photo)

For Meera Konwar, a villager in Assam’s Jakhalabandha in Nagaon district, April is the one month in the year she feels the most economically independent. The 47-year-old Konwar is adept at making pithas or traditional rice cakes — a skill that comes in handy especially during the harvest festival of Rongali or Bohag Bihu, which marks the Assamese new year. “Orders pour in and I easily make Rs 800-900. It is my own income,” says Konwar, whose husband works in a brick kiln. In the neighbouring village, Bihu would see 50-year-old Poornima Koch sell at least 200 traditional gamosas — the handwoven red-and-white cloth, a customary part of festival greeting. This time, however, there are no orders, nor are there greetings. “I almost forgot that it is Bihu,” says Koch, “It would be an understatement to say I am worried. Even the paan dukaan (paan shop) where I sell biscuits, sweets and paan is now shut.”

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Assam has 31 reported COVID-19 cases, including one death. Since last week, authorities have been issuing diligent reminders about how to celebrate Bihu during COVID-19, with proper social distancing norms. On Sunday, in another bid to get their message across to the masses, the Assam Police released a COVID-19 Bihu awareness campaign video. As early as March 20, before the nationwide lockdown was announced, 26 Bihu committees across the state decided not to hold cultural stage programmes — an important part of Bihu festivities, especially in urban areas.

While the dip in festivities might be the most conspicuous impact of the lockdown this Bihu, there is another less obvious but more significant consequence. In villages and towns across Assam, the traditional economy associated with the festival — which women like Konwar and Koch are an intrinsic part of — has come to a crashing halt. “Whether it is weaving gamosas, or making pithas or manufacturing musical instruments like dhul and pepa, Bihu has a substantial, rural economy, run by small entrepreneurs, associated with it,” explains Ankur Tamuli Phukan, a Guwahati-based academician who has worked extensively on Bihu and cultural politics of Assam. “The two months which follow [Bohag Bihu], marks the beginning of crucial economic activities for the local indigenous population.”

Take for example, Assam’s famous weaving village, Sualkuchi, located about 40km from Guwhati. While the silk hub is busy through the year, the run-up to Bihu is perhaps when it gets most business, with people placing orders for muga paat (golden silk) weeks in advance. “If you had called me at this time last year, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer your call,” says Hiralal Kalita a Sualkuchi-based entrepreneur and weaver on the phone, “This is the time when looms don’t stop, weavers work all day — now it is just silent.”

The day before Goru Bihu, or the first day of Rongali Bihu which marks reverence to cattle, Sualkuchi weavers (80 per cent of the weaver population is migrant) usually make their way back to their native villages, earnings in hand. “We go home during Bihu and [Durga] Puja. Celebrations aside, this is also the time we fix roads, do repair work in our homes with the money we have saved up. This time, however, there is no way to go,” says weaver Hiren Das, 37, whose home is in Nalbari district.

According to Kalita, Bohag Bihu is deeply entwined with cloth —be it the gamosa which people gift, or a new muga paat mekhela chador which someone wears.

Bihu Cartoon Phophopho World An artist’s portrayal of Rongali Bihu during COVID-19. Image Courtesy: Phophopho World | Facebook

Mukul Deka, Managing Director, ARTFED (Assam Apex Weavers & Artisans Cooperative Federation Ltd), says that they had a target of producing 15 lakh gamosa this Bihu. “Last year, we crossed our target of 10 lakh,” says Deka, adding that between February and March, they managed to produce about 3 lakh. “But the problem is we have not been able to sell even these,” says Deka. ARTFED functions as an apex cooperative society, with about 1,200 weaving societies under it. “While gamosa usually come from Ramdiya, Nalbari, Rangiya, and Hajo, Mekhela Chadors (the traditional Assamese attire) usually come from Sualkuchi,” says Deka.

According to Joykanto Gondhia, an authority on Bihu customs and member of Bihu Suraksha Samiti, Asom, it is only in the last 30 years that this traditional Bihu economy has come up. “Before people would do their own preparations — they had a xaal (loom) in their house, a dheki (rice pounder) in their courtyard,” he says.

bihu, bihu festival, assamese new year Artistes from Assam perform Bihu to celebrate Rongali Bihu festival in Guwahati. (File photo)

Tamuli Phukan agrees. “As townships have risen, there has been migration. Cottages, even in places like Guwahati, have given way to apartment buildings. The pitha-making economy is now run by a small network of self-help groups,” he says.

Banalata Dekaraja, in her fifties, runs Puhor, a self-help group in Guwahati. “Every Bihu, we participate in the market in the Uzan Bazar locality,” says Dekaraja, “We sell doi (curd), seera (flattened rice) and gur (jaggery) made by  village women. This time there is none of that,” she says, “It is sad because this was a good way for women in the village to become economically independent.” In Nagaon’s Saamuguri district, 39-year-old Renu Mahanta owns Kuhi, a food processing unit which produces varieties of pitha, laaru (ladoo), rice etc. “Bihu means a business of Rs 4-5 lakh,” she says. This time, however, she has a closed factory, and sacks of raw materials (tomatoes, berries and tamarinds) rotting in her godown.

“It is a business worth crores that is hit,” says Kailash Sharma, of Latasil Bihu Committee, Guwahati’s oldest committee. It was in the Latasil grounds in 1952 that Bihu in its current form — on a stage, in front of an audience — was first celebrated. “The performances go on for about four days. These also include dance competitions (Bihu Rani, Bihu Kowari), with cash prizes,” says Sharma. For this, artistes —young boys and girls — attend not just from Guwahati, but across Assam. While it is primarily an urban phenomenon, it is not uncommon for rural areas to see Bihu stage performances too. “For many artistes, who come from poor families, performances are a reliable sources of income. Bihu is something they wait for all year.”

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