‘Chhath’ and the formation of Bihari identity

by Sanjay Kumar

“From complete ignorance of 70s to vague indifference of 80s to creeping curiosity of 90s to growing familiarity of the first decade to the inevitable acceptance of the second decade of the 21st century-the perception of ‘Chaath’ outside Bihar has undergone a complete metamorphosis.

Even within Bihar, it used to be a mostly localised affair before turning into a marker of Bihari cultural identity. How and why did this transformation come about?

Historically, Bihar has been bereft of an overarching and dominant great tradition in the cultural realm. Be it dance or music or art or architecture or painting or other cultural aspects, the scale was essentially local. This could mainly be attributed to the absence of princely states in Bihar who patronized culture elsewhere leading to cultural efflorescence.

The pathological impact of the permanent settlement meant the emergence of a hierarchy of exploitative zamindars who had neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to promote culture. Rent- seeking, brutal and philistine, it was beyond them to patronize culture.

In an era of increased interaction, exposure and migration, the absence of a great cultural tradition would become a sore point. Against this background, the festival of ‘ Chhath’ with its geo-cultural specificities moved to the fore as a reference point, a rallying point to emphasise on its uniqueness and a cultural marker of Bihari identity.

The transition was also facilitated by the Bihari migration, exodus and diaspora. Denied of a terra firma beneath their feet, often at the receiving end of manifest or subterranean xenophobia and often adrift in alien and alienating places, they would cling to their cultural- religious resources with tenacity. The observance of ‘Chhath festival with its demonstrative rituals sought to fulfil this need.

Migration and politics or vote-bank politics to be precise- go together. As our metropolises became demographically more and more diffuse and electoral politics became fiercer and as the traditionally decisive core constituency lost its mojo, it was only inevitable for cultural sensitivities of the migrants to be assaulted on the one hand but pandered to on the other hand. As the former has limitations in a democracy, the latter would gain traction. The increasing primacy being accorded to ‘Chhath’ could be understood in this context.

All the same, Hinduism is a god-hungry religion with multiplicity of ever increasing beliefs and rituals marking its existence. This explains cross- cultural exchanges. If the words about efficacy of a God or even a Godman spread around, the instinctive response is of acceptance and not resistance or rejection. It is as much true in the case of Sai Baba as Nirmal Baba. The same holds true for Chhath too. With insistence on the purity of observances and wish- fulfilling intimations, its appeal only gets magnified even for those who have had nothing to do with it.

The crystallization of Bihari identity around Chhath gained critical mass in the 90s. As Bihar remained politically adrift in the turbulent decade and as the jokes went around that Pakistan could take Kashmir but with Bihar as collateral liability, there would be inevitable closing of ranks. The festival of ‘Chhath’ with emphasis on community and togetherness of solidarity fulfilled this need.

And social media with its demonstrative effect, dissemination of news, views and images and popularization of exotica does the rest. As the non- Biharis wait anxiously for their Bihari friends to return with ‘thekua’ likening it to hard-sweet cake and even donuts, it becomes increasingly clear that the transformation of a little into a potentially great tradition is well underway.”

Awaam India

Awaam India

Awaam India is online platform founded by researchers and senior students of Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Awaam stands for dissemination and promotion of progressive and constructive ideas in the society.

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