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Modern Messages from Traditional Festival

By H H Mohrmen

A journalist friend from Shillong called me on the morning of July 3, which was the last day of Behdieñkhlam and said that he expected that the dominating theme of the Rots or the Rongs during this year’s festival will be around the World Cup 2018. In a way he is right because every four years when the celebration of the Behdieñkhlam festival coincides with the football World Cup the popular stories and players during the World Cup competition figure prominently in the Rots prepared by the different communities celebrating the festival in Jowai. But this year it was different.

The penultimate part of the Behdieñkhlam on the fourth and the last day of the festival culminates at the sacred Aitnar pond. It is the time when different communities bring their Rots for display to a large spectator coming from far and near. Traditionally Rongs were made just to add colour to the festival but of late the communities that make these Rots also make sure they have messages which are relevant to contemporary society.

The Rot, rath or rong is an item which was incorporated into the festival not so long ago and it is an idea which is borrowed from our neighbours in the plains, which is now Bangladesh. This information was revealed to me by Woh Chaimon Pyrbot an elder of the town when I interviewed him about a decade or so ago. The prayers and rituals which were part of the Behdieñkhlam were quite dull and colourless and it is the Rots which add colour to the festival to give it a more vibrant look. This also demonstrates how open Niamtre is to ideas even if they come from outside the tradition as long as it adds colour and festivity to the festival.

In Jowai, traditionally Rots are made in a spire shaped square with wooden planks and coloured papers only but as time passed the shape and sizes of the Rots also changed. At the top of every typical Rong are a bunch of flowers again made of coloured paper and one can still see quite a few of these typical Rots on displayed at Aitnar Jowai in the last Behdieñkhlam. 

Not only were the Rots made to add colour to the festival but in the very recent past certain communities also made Theng-theng effigies of male and female human figures. The Theng-thengs are effigies with the upper half bearing a human body made of sliced bamboo and cloth. The Theng-thengs are similar to the effigy of Ravana which is burnt with fireworks during the Dusshera festival of the Hindus. Although the Theng-theng has no religious significance but it has become part of the Behdieñkhlam. But this year the spectators missed this small part of the festival because none of the community made any Theng-theng to add colour to the celebration.  

Behdieñkhlam had an unpleasant history during the fag end of the British raj when the powers that be then; for reasons best known to them, prohibited the community from celebrating the festival for about a decade or so. It was only when the country attained its independence and the Sein Raij Jowai (SRJ) was formed that the festival of Behdieñkhlam was again revived. And since then, under the stewardship of the SRJ, the communities have never turned back and continued celebrating the Behdieñkhlam and also improvised the manner in which the festival is presented to the audience.

 For a person who regularly attends the celebration and one who also observes it from a very close quarters, the festival always has an element of surprise every year. This in itself demonstrates that Behdieñkhlam not only evolves with time but as time passes the spectators are even provided with messages which are relevant to the society today.

Although it was not intentional but the messages are rather like a sermon in a typical Christian hymn and worship service which tries to bring out to the open, the issues which are of a great concern to the society. After all the rituals, the drum beats and the sound of the flute unlike in a church service or a Namaz of the Muslim, the messages are painted or cut out of colour papers on the Rongs brought by the communities. In a way Rots also reflect the concerns of the community on the social issues or evils that plagues the society and true to the spirit of Behdieñkhlam the effort is to rid the community of these evils. 

To my journalist friend’s dismay; World Cup Football 2018 in Russia was not a popular theme amongst the Rot makers this year. In fact it was something more profound which caught the attention of the public. Three messages come out prominently in the Rong presented by the communities at Aitnar this year; the influence or rather the power of technology over human life, the evils of human greed when it exceeds their need and which is the root cause of every evil and there was one depicting how the silence of the majority helps aggravates the problems at hand.    

The prominent message which has caught the attention of most of the spectators is the domination of technology in the life of the people which is also a current theme we are all grappling with today. The evil unleashed by the army of trolls and the spread of fake news through social media which has taken away many precious  lives is a cause of concern for everybody and the simple Rong made by the people of the Loomkyrwiang community aptly depicted this dilemma that we are facing today. Technology is a good servant but a bad master say’s the inscription on the Rot and on the top was a figure of a man chained to smart phones, ipads, tablets and what have you.

There was also a Rot emblazoned with the famous saying of Gandhi on greed. There is a figure of two farmers, one is trying to pluck oranges and is using a ladder to climb the tree while the other already has a khoh (a cone-shaped basket that farmers use to carry their produces) full or oranges and he is trying to cut the ladder and the tree with a saw. The message is clear; there is enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.

Last but not least is a saying by the former Member of Parliament in England, Edmund Burke, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men do nothing,’ which was prominently inscribed in one of the Rots. In a world where stories about evil men and anti-social elements are dominating every available media platform, the message or rather the question from this particular Rong is whether we can continue to remain mere spectators to the unpleasant things that are  happening around us.

There were altogether twelve Rots presented by as many communities at the Aitnar pond but every Rong had its unique message. The Rong prepared by Iawmusiang locality is on the evils caused by drugs and alcohol abuse issue which is afflicting the society today. By depicting their respective messages, the Rots in their own way have brought to light the social evils plaguing the society today. The objective was to provoke and make people think on these very important issues.

Therefore the closing day of the annual Behdieñkhlam is not only meant to be a feast for the eyes for the spectators or simply to witness colour and joy in action (ka rong ka tamasa) but it is also a  feast for the soul. True to the meaning of the festival which is to rid off evil, the messages on the Rots are a clarion call to everybody of the need to fight against the evils prevailing in society.

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