Updated: April 13, 2021 11:21:20 am
For two years now, the members of the Santipur Rongali Bihu committee in Assam’s Darrang district have had to call off their Bihu celebrations. The committee, which completed 50 years in 2020, had planned a grand function spread over five days last year to mark the occasion: artistes were booked, advance money given and leaflets printed. However, along came the pandemic, and the show was called off. This year, too, as Covid-19 cases surge across the country after months of relative lull, the members have had to make the hard choice. “We are particularly sad we had to cancel twice. Bihu is a time all Assamese get together and celebrate. For us, it was even more special because it was our golden jubilee,” said Kulen Deka, president, Santipur Rongali Bihu committee, “But we had no other choice.”
The springtime festival of Rongali or Bohag Bihu, which heralds the Assamese new year, is marked by celebrations that span the entire month across the state. Apart from visiting elders, gifting bihuwan (gamosas), spring cleaning, singing husoris (songs) and dancing, an important part of Bohag Bihu, especially in urban areas, are cultural programmes organised by various committees featuring major artistes and dance groups of Assam. These performances usually happen through the night on elevated stages set up in the open grounds, with local committees planning for them at least a month in advance. Last year, all such events were banned due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
With elections ending on April 6 and state Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma going on record to say there will be no restrictions on Bihu celebrations this year, many were looking forward to celebrating the festival with fanfare. However, rising cases in the country led the Assam government to issue a standard operating procedure (SOP) last week. The rules require all functions to end by 11 pm, estimates from committees as to how many people are expected to attend, multiple entry and exit points at the venue, social distancing as well as provisions for thermal screening and hand sanitisers.
This prompted many Bihu committees to cancel their programmes altogether. “It’s better we do not celebrate at all than celebrate with these restrictions,” said Ananda Gogoi of the Kaziranga Kendriya Bihu committee in Diringi, Golaghat district. “We do not have the the resources to test all our volunteers, ensure social distancing of a crowd that can go up to thousands, or even give estimates of how many will turn up — that is simply not possible in a Rongali Bihu function,” he said, adding that they had already built the stage, printed leaflets and given advance money to the performing artistes.
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Nearby in Kohora, Nipan Sharma, president of the Kohora Basanta Utsav Committee which has been organising the function for 21 years, said the 11 pm deadline was simply not feasible. “Most artistes come from Guwahati in the evening. By the time they get dressed and get on stage its 10 pm. Now no one will want to watch a show for one hour,” he said, “Moreover, our particular Bihu programme happens in an auditorium. We tried to change it to an open air one, build a stage but it was too expensive. So we had to resort to cancelling the function.”
Sharma said they understood the position of the government but only wished that they had issued the SOP a little earlier. “Then we would not have prepared so much and faced these losses,” he said.
Others have pointed out that the polls ended barely a week ago, and none of these guidelines were in place then. “During elections, there were so many gatherings and rallies. Were the ministers and politicians not worried about Covid then?” asked Gogoi.
Across Assam, most Bihu committees are facing similar issues. Those who have not cancelled their functions are trying to get the government to modify its SOP. On Sunday, 30 committees held a sit-in demonstration in Latasil ground in Guwahati. “We will obviously follow the government’s orders and guidelines. Our intention is not to make matters worse in a pandemic. We only have a few issues in the SOP and that is what we want the government to look into,” said Kailash Sharma, who is the adviser of the Brihattar Guwahati Bihu Sanmilani Samannayrakshi Samiti, the apex body of the Bihu organising committees in Guwahati. “We are requesting the government to handle the social distancing and thermal scanning responsibilities since most committees are run based on donations and will not be able to afford doing so themselves. Apart from that, we want them to reconsider the 11 pm deadline,” he said.
Sharma is also a member of the Latasil Bihu Committee, Guwahati’s oldest Bihu committee which organises the city’s historical Latasil Bihu function. 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. “Last year, when the functions were cancelled, it hit businesses worth crores,” he said, adding that the events were not just about entertainment and recreation. “The performances include dance competitions (Bihu Rani, Bihu Kowari) with cash prizes with participants not just from Guwahati, but across Assam. For many artistes, who come from poor families, performances are a source of income,” he said.
While Assam has reported a spurt in Covid cases in the last week, the authorities have also increased testing. On Monday, the state reported 583 cases against 1.2 lakh tests.
Sharma of Kohora said that while Bihu is something Assamese look forward to all year, they do not want to take chances. “We will feel terrible if our Bihu function is responsible for the spread of infection in Assam. So cancelling the event, despite losses incurred, is a sacrifice on our part,” he said.
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