Despite the fact that Bihu has an ancient significance and practices, it has eventually become a very popular urban festival in recent decades. Most of the historians believe that the festival of Bihu originated in the pre–Aryan days around 3500 century BC. During those times, the celebrations lasted for a month or more. However, now they are reduced to a week. It is from the language of Dimasa Kacharis, an agrarian tribe that existed from many a centuries is the word ‘Bihu’ derived. There are three festivals of Bihu namely Rongali Bihu, Bhogali (Magh Bihu), and Kongali (Kati Bihu). The Rongali Bihu, with a long tradition of being celebrated in the middle of April, is the spring festival. It marks the agricultural New Year and is celebrated as the Festival of Merriment with greatest thrill. People started dancing with great enthusiasm and hence, this was called the Bihu dance. Its etymological roots are embedded in Sanskrit Vishuvam meaning vernal equinox when day and night are of equal duration. The completion of sowing and transplanting of paddies is done during the Kati Bihu whereas the Magh Bihu marks the end of the harvesting period.
Bihu is a group performance where the male dancers and musicians are the first to enter the dancing area maintain their lines and synchronized patterns. The female dancers enter late and the male dancers break their lines to mingle better with the female dancers. These female dancers who enter later, maintain their stricter formations and order of the dance. Both, the male and the female dancers have similar movements for the dance, in spite of the minor subtle differences. The basic characteristics of the Bihu dance include definite postures, movements of the hips, arms, wrists, twirls, squats and bends. The dance however, displays no jumps.
Bihu is a dance performed in the accompaniment of traditional music. Each instrument used in the performance of the Bihu dance produces original sounds and music. Drummers, also called as ‘dhulia’ are the most important musicians as they play a short and brisk rhythm before entering the dancing area. Important musical instruments used during the Bihu dance are Dhol (traditional drum made of wood and animal hide), Taal (small metallic crymbals clapped together to produce high–pitched sound), Pepa (a trumpet like instrument made from buffalo horn), Toka (bamboo clappers), Baanhi (an Assamese flute), Xutuli (a musical instrument made out of clay), and Gogona (a jaw harp–like instrument).
The spirit of the Bihu dance is fuelled by the colourful costumes that the dancers wear during their performances. The males dress themselves up with beautifully-clad dhoti which is a long thin cloth tied to the waist to cover the lower torso of men and gamocha, an adornment tied on the head. Both of these are embroidered at the corners. Women, on the other hand, are seen in their traditional attire called Mekhela and Chador; the former is cylindrical attire tied to the waist to cover the lower portion of the body, whereas the latter is a drape used to cover the upper torso. They wear a blouse below the Chador and these dresses are made up of materials like muga silk, pat silk, cotton or bamboo cotton. With gaudy jewellery, the plates of the women are filled with flowers that match the colour of their attire.
Some of the popular forms of the Bihu dance include:
- Bohag Bihu: It expresses the joys of spring and exuberance and vigour of youth. With the accompaniment of songs of erotic sentiment, virile beating of drums, and soft strains of Pepa, young boys and girls perform this dance with great enthusiasm.
- Bhogali Bihu: An important festival celebrated after the harvest is collected, Bhogali Bihu begins on the last day of the month of Pous and is actually celebrated on the first day of the month of Magh. Feasts, bonfires and social get–togethers are a significant part of this dance and most of its rituals are observed in front of Agni, the God of Fire.
- Kongali Bihu: It is usually celebrated on the last day of the month of Ashwin when new crops are not ready for harvesting and the previous ones stored in the granary are depleted.
- Moran Bihu: Practiced by the Moran tribe of Assam, it is a typical form of Bihu dance. Young boys select a place far away from the din and make a wooden bamboo–house called as the Bihu–Ghar. The house has two areas–one for the young boys and the other for girls. Love and yearning are the themes of the dances.
- Deori Bihu: As the name suggests, it is performed by the Deori tribe who originally belonged to the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. They present Bihu in a distinct style as they have preserved and maintained their traditions, religious beliefs and practices.
As discussed earlier, Bihu dance is a group dance performed both by males and females. Despite the fact that both dance together, the dancers maintain different gender roles. Females generally follow stricter line or circle formations. It is the male dancers who enter the circle first to set a mood for the dance.