The Dance of the Maiden

Well, it’s that time of the year once again. A time when the old gives way to the new. A time when there is a certain song in the air. Of new beginnings. Of merriment. Of love. And of hope. That, dear readers, is the promise of spring. A time much awaited and celebrated with great fervor across the country.

In many parts of India, especially in the regions that are agrarian (which is practically most of it), springtime is an important part of the entire agricultural cycle. In Assam, it is celebrated (as we all know it)  as Rongali Bihu and marks the beginning of sowing of seeds. In that sense, it is also believed to be a fertility festival. It is this aspect of the festival that is particularly interesting. In earlier times, young unmarried men and women dressed in traditional finery sang and danced the beautiful and rhythmic Bihu dance in open fields. The Bihu dance form itself, with its sensuous movements of the hips and arms by young women was seen as a celebration of their fertility. It has therefore been described as a mating ritual. According to Praphulladatta Goswami in his book Festivals of Assam “ The Bihu dance seems to have sexual overtones, suggesting its association with springtime fertility cult of earlier times.”

Needless to say, the Bihu songs too are mostly based on the theme of love and “constitute a language of love”. “In fact, at one time, it was through these songs that affections were indicated and later even elopements took place.” It was almost as if, the entire process of finding a mate and the courtship that follows was given a societal sanction.

So, if ancient societies recognized and validated one of the most natural acts of creation – that of procreation, and thus giving the female its due place under the sun, where has modern society gone so terribly wrong? When did healthy flirtations and harmless acts of love (all part of the mating game) began to be perceived as perverse and shameful? When did the sensual songs of love as sung during Bihu simply disappear or change form to vulgar renditions that only seemed to objectify women? When did misogyny replace the reverence that was a prerogative of the female – from where all creation flowed?

The answers, though not that simple, are much closer to home than we may think.  For instance, how many of us may have at any point in time, reprimanded or frowned upon a teenaged son or daughter’s closeness to a friend of the opposite sex? Or worse still, how many of us continue to stereotype our daughters and women around us everyday? This is in fact the whole point of the Bal Panchayat programme in, Delhi, started in 1993 by an NGO Community Aid and Sponsorship Programme along with Plan India as reported in a leading national daily just a few weeks ago. The progressive programme reportedly “encourages young girls and boys of the locality to interact freely and bring an attitudinal change in how they perceive each other.”  The aim: to have a more “balanced view about gender roles” and help “develop a healthy camaraderie between the sexes”.

To do that, maybe we need to look into our past, and remind ourselves of our rich and meaningful customs that provided the very balance that we seemed to have lost. Look at the heritage of Assam, a state that is perhaps known to worship the feminine form like no other. Take the practice of Ambubachi, which is a celebration of the yearly menstruation course of Goddess Kamakhya, when the temple remains closed for three days. Or the practice where young girls – who once they start their menstruation – are decked up as brides and pampered and showered with gifts as a celebration of her being fertile.

These practices deeply revere the female but sadly, it is a reverence that today seems hollow and hypocritical. For while a young girl can celebrate her fertility there is no question of her exploring her sexuality till well, she is married. Or take the still prevailing practice of marrying off pre-adolescent girls in rural areas. On one hand, eleven or twelve year olds are considered old enough to handle married life but on the other hand, those who aren’t married, are expected to wear their chastity belts till they are!

This does not mean that we just let everything go. However, we do need to relook at our skewed societal values and find that balance between the traditional and modern.  We need to question our own conditioning and attitudes, rather than the actions/feelings of our children. Of course, decades of social conditioning will not be easy to undo so fast, I suspect. But a beginning needs to be made. Only then, will our beautiful songs of Bihu resonate the spirit in which they were intended.  And only then, will the maiden’s dance be truly hers.

References:

  1. Praphulladatta Goswami’s Festivals of Assam
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