“Chhatth ke argha taa deyli babua,
Tabhiyo Bihar naa sudhri…”
(I’ve done the devotionals of Chhatth, young one,
But even so Bihar shan’t redeem itself)
— play on the refrain of a popular self-deprecating Bhojpuri ballad
For far too long Bihar’s name was, in good measure, infamy. It exported hungry migrants, bad news and an outcrop of civil servants. The first two did Bihar little credit. The third came at such a premium it became not a Bihari thing but exceptional of Bihar — they were uber-Biharis, those that had overcome Bihar rather than come off it. Bihar: boondock of malignant cargo.
That unseemly signature has begun to cure itself lately, and may already have become a stylized curl along fringes of water across the land. From the Juhu beachfront in Bombay, to the Ganga ghats of Varanasi and Calcutta, to the shallow moats of Delhi’s Boat Club and punctuations of rivulet, stream and pond strewn betwixt, an iridescent frill has erupted and put new colour and contour to what Bihar or Bihari might mean — pre-Vedic Chhatth has brought to its devotees the gift of a post-modern consciousness, the opening of a grand frontier of their mostly hard-pressed migration.
It’s what N.K. Singh, technocrat, politician and notarized fellow of Bihar’s ruling elite, calls a “cultural watershed” in the annals of his people. “The journey of Chhatth out of Bihar and to far places is, finally, evidence of the confident assertion of Bihari identity,” he says, “It represents a phenomena far beyond migration, this is high-value migration. Like Diwali has travelled to the White House, Chhatth has taken others parts of India in its sweep.” What Singh picks out as most remarkable is that “Chhatth is not something Biharis are sheepish any more to observe outside their domain, they are doing it with pride wherever they are.”
The just-concluded annual assignation is no more some obscurantist rummage that Bihar’s milling underclasses quietly get over with; it has become a vibrant sub-national fiesta whose echo is ringing from corporate boardrooms to high society parlour rooms to starchy white collar corridors.
Biharis fill in many more home-leave applications for Chhatth than for Diwali. During the three days preceding the commencement of festivities, the foot-fall on New Delhi railway station burgeoned over three times to 36 lakh people, the majority of them Bihar-bound on regular or special trains. Suman Sinha, vice president of a Mumbai firm, says there can be no compromising on Chhatth: “I have been going home to Patna for Chhatth for the past 10 years. I apply for leave two months ahead, I take pride in telling my Mumbai colleagues about the rituals we perform.”
There might be good reasons churning this rediscovery, some conscious, some subliminal. The week post Diwali each year — the first days of the lunar month of Kartik, of which the sixth, or chhathhi, marks Chhatth — spurs the sense among Biharis that their thing of pride isn’t only remote or historic, it need not merely be the frozen textbook legacy of Buddha and Mahavir, Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka. It is equally what they give unto themselves each year, an extant and organic force-of-nature practice that touches off the sublime in what may seem only mundane — the unceasing flow of the great river, the undying cycle of the sun, and looped between them, the eternal circle of life itself.
Attached to Chhatth too are temporal values that belie stereotypes that often tarnish Bihar; it eschews the effete. It is not a caste-ridden enterprise, as too many others in Bihar can be. Dalit and Bhumihar, Yadav and Brahmin descend alongside into the waters at Chhatth, and lift an offering to the skies. It can, if only for part of a week, smother Manuwadi discriminations. Chhatth is not sectarian either; Muslims in parts of Bihar are known to have joined in and made a Chhatth a peoples’ tableau; there’s no idol worship involved, only an invocation of nature and its elements. As Pavan Varma, culture adviser to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, puts it, “The salient feature of Chhatth is that it unites a people across categories, and brings Biharis into a oneness. That Chhatth has become celebrated beyond Bihar is symbolic of the new Bihar itself, its new confidence in itself. Chhathh has become almost an exemplar of rooted Indian celebrations.”
It is probably simplistic to reduce the observation of Chhatth to sun worship; the Hindu cult is broader, and often more complicated, than the prescriptions of Hindu religion. Stripped of brahmannic and consumerist embroidery, Chhatth is an animist validation of life that pre-dates the scriptures — water offered in thanksgiving to the sun, preserver of life given over to life’s progenitor. It cannot be Chhatth not a fertility ritual as well, not with the sun involved. We have all been told what happened when Kunti went prostrating herself before Surya; Karna came as consequence. “The beauty of Chhatth lies in the utter simplicity of its reason,” says Prabha Chaudhary, a biology teacher from Patna who has performed the rites for more than 40 years, “It is that we live and we thank what makes life possible.”
And yet, Biharis may have surprised themselves with the expanding constituency of Chhatth’s embrace. In Mumbai, it has trampled over parochial nay-sayers of the Sena and swelled its ranks year after year. “Earlier, about two lakh people would come to Juhu beach because Chhatth was opposed by some political parties,” says BJP leader Amarjit Mishra, shy to name his Sena allies as culprits, “But this year about five to six lakh people have performed rites.” Among them, not merely the denigrated “bhaiyyas” from Bihar and UP, but a fair sprinkling of Marathi speakers too.
In Calcutta, Chhatth has earned endorsement from chief minister Mamata Bannerji’s office. A restricted, or “sectional” holiday for staff, elaborate bandobust along the ghats overseen personally by Mamata, notice on the chief minister’s Facebook page and a message of felicitation for “all my Bihari bothers and sisters”. A senior officer at Lalbazar set out Chhatth’s new status thus: “I do not remember any Bengal chief minister visiting ghats to oversee preparations. The moment the chief minister becomes so involved, the festival automatically attracts attention, both in terms of security arrangements and publicity.”
In Delhi, Chhatth broke through barriers that have long remained shut to the capital’s high and mighty — the Boat Club along the central vista of Raj Path. For close to two decades now, the lawns have been off limits for large gatherings; Chhatth made an exception. It could well be that impending assembly elections nudged the government to opening the Boat Club pools in addition to 72 ghats along the Yamuna, but a precedent has now been created for Biharis to insist on in future years.
Chhatth is going places, more places than could fit your reckoning. Look at the picture from a greater remove, look at the globe as a Google map would represent it. Look at how wide the empire of Chhatth lays itself — from the Atlantic waterfronts of Guyana and Suriname to the far Pacific isles of Fiji via Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. And it isn’t as if its conquests at home have ceased. Delhi University social scientist and spokesman of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, Manoj Jha, speaks of Chhatt as a “sensibility creeping closer” by the year. “My family has no history of celebrating Chhathh, but for some reason, I can feel it is beginning to overwhelm us,” Jha admits, “Not in any religious sense but as a cultural identifier and binder. If you are Bihari, Chhatth must be part of your calendar and your discourse.”
In sheer numbers of devotees, Sachin Tendulkar may well have outdone the Sun this Chhatth week. But come the next, Sachin will trail into the sunset; the sun itself will lift itself again on the dark horizon and urge another Bihari to renewing the vows of new-found pride.