Assam: This Bihu, Covid-themed bhelaghors warn people not to let their guard down

Through the week, as Assam gears up to celebrate the harvest festival of Magh Bihu, the structure, traditionally known as a bhelaghor, has become a prime attraction in the village of Aamonikhali, drawing visitors for photo-ops from surrounding areas.

Just off the National Highway-37 that cuts across Assam’s Nagaon district, stands a 25-feet-tall reality check. Made of paddy straw and dried banana leaves, a crown-shaped model of the novel coronavirus stands at a menacingly close distance from a straw-filled earth, which a man and a woman are physically pulling away. Underneath is an appeal written in Assamese: “Let’s unitedly fight the coronavirus that’s wreaking havoc in the entire world.”

Through the week, as Assam gears up to celebrate the harvest festival of Magh Bihu, the structure, traditionally known as a bhelaghor, has become a prime attraction in the village of Aamonikhali, drawing visitors for photo-ops from surrounding areas.

“Since cases have reduced, it is almost like people have forgotten about the pandemic in Assam,” said Sunmoni Dutta of Nagaon-based socio-cultural organisation Saregama Sur Bahini, which sponsored the construction of the bhelaghor. “This serves as a reminder that the pandemic is not over and we still need to fight it.”

Since November, Assam has seen a sharp decline in Covid-19 cases. As of January 12, the state recorded a positivity rate of 0.34 per cent. In Kamrup district’s Borpoloha village in Bezera, locals have built a bhelaghor to represent a Covid hospital, an ambulance, and a patient in a bid to “wish Covid way from their lives during the festive season”.

Magh or Bhogali Bihu is Assam’s biggest festival and is marked by feasting, celebration and bhelaghors and meijighors — temporary structures made of dried paddy straw and banana leaves — across the state’s rural landscape. On Bihu morning, these structures are traditionally set on fire with offerings of pitha (rice cakes) as a mark of gratitude for a good harvest.

Built over a month, the Aamonikhali bhelaghor used 150 pieces of bamboo and hay amounting to five bighas of land. “Even if the vaccine is out, it doesn’t mean that the disease will disappear. To make them aware of this reality, I chose this theme,” said Bhagwan Senapati, the Nagaon-based artist who designed the structure. Since 2011, Senapati has designed various thematic bhelaghors — from a model of the Titanic to 25-feet-tall veena.

According to Gohin Sonowal, a Dibrugarh-based culture writer, proliferation of themed bhelaghors is a recent trend. “Traditionally, these structures (called bhelaghor in lower Assam, and mejighor in upper Assam) are made three days before Bihu, in the form of an Assam-type house using straw, paddy or wood. In olden days, people would feast inside it and then burn it — this has a symbolic meaning signifying the end of trouble, miseries etc,” he said, “Now we have bhelaghors in shape of the Eiffel Tower, or the Titanic — these became popular since the mid-2000s.”

Over the years, many bhelaghors bear socially- relevant issues. “In the first few years, I made simple models of musical instruments and monuments, but switched to more socially relevant themes such as environmental protection in 2016. I realise this could be a good medium to spread awareness on various issues,” said Senapati. Last year, for example, with Magh Bihu following the Citizenship Amendment Act protests, a number of bhelaghors represented the map of Assam and were themed around the Act. “These themed structures require little monetary investment and serve as outlets for creativity for rural youth,” said cultural researcher and historian Ankur Tamuli Phukan, who has worked on Bihu and cultural politics of Assam.“So they have become a part of popular culture.”

According to Dutta, while their bhelaghor represents the novel coronavirus, it’s a metaphor for all the evils in the world. “It’s not just the coronavirus – the world has been under attack from several viruses and will continue to be. But if people unite and fight, then we will be saved. It is all about our collective efforts, and that’s the message we wanted to spread,” he said.

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