The Assamese poet’s repertoire of songs is firmly anchored in his environment.
By Avirook Sen
The structural engineer in Alaska turned the heat on full blast inside his car and hummed to the strains of Moi eti jajabor (I am a wanderer). The road was endless, he was cold, there was no one at home to talk to. But at least, on the music system, there was Bhupen Hazarika. And listening to him sing wasn’t very different from conversation. So the Assamese engineer picked up the phone and called the man in Dibrugarh: “Dada, your music is what keeps me going …”
Says Hazarika: “I never met the man, but I knew he was warm.”
From Alaska to Assam, to those who understand the several languages in which he sings — the Japanese don’t, but have their own version of his humanist ballad Manush manusheri jonyo — Hazarika’s songs could be any of several things. They could be letters from home. They could be promises of revolution.
They could soothe, exhort, excite or simply entertain. But whatever they do, there’s a face to it: benign, dreamy eyes under a lined brow, half covered by the trademark Nepali cap.
In the North-east, everyone knows that face (and that Rs 16 cap). More than that, they acknowledge he is the humane face of a disturbed region. In May, you will see him on television, travelling through the North-east and telling people elsewhere in the country that bad news isn’t all there is here. At 72, his wanderlust evidently hasn’t waned. The 13-episode series for Doordarshan,
Misty Lands of Seven Sisters — North-east India, has already taken more than a month’s gruelling travel to shoot. Hazarika is still on the move.
It’s been a long road. Hazarika wrote and performed the first of more than a thousand songs at the age of 10. At 13, he sang about building a new Assam and a new India. Precocious thoughts, but growing up in Tezpur, Assam, he would catch snatches of adult conversation. Eavesdropping on talk about Trotsky’s murder and the Indian freedom movement between grown-ups. These were filed away in a then unadorned head and used in lyrics.
Lyrics that promised change. And raised expectations in Assam. He found out during his recent travels that if he were a weaker man, the burden of that expectation would give him a stoop: “I met a man in Nagaon this time and he broke down in front of me, saying ‘You promised so much for us in your songs.
You made us hope. But life has been nothing like your songs’.”
It’s tough being Bhupen Hazarika in Assam. During the Assam Movement of the early ’80s, Hazarika was looked upon by an entire generation of agitating students as an inspiration. His music was their sustenance. He wrote and sang for them, drawing on the experience of singing with Paul Robeson in the US (he even went to jail briefly in America for his participation in civil rights’ rallies). As he had promised in his songs, change came. But not the kind of change he, or the people, wanted.
But we’re getting ahead in the story. He was trained in the arts at Banaras
Hindu University where he also got his first formal lessons in music. “I recall an incident after a college function where I sang. Ghanshyam Das Birla, one of the institute’s patrons, called me and gave me a Rs 50 note. He said,
‘Gana mat chodna (don’t stop singing)’.” Maybe he sensed Hazarika was about to become a lawyer and settle in Guwahati; after all music brought in just the odd 50 rupees. But things changed.
In 1948, after a stint as a producer at All India Radio, Guwahati, Hazarika left for the US on a scholarship to study Mass Communication at Columbia
University, New York. The main attraction, even then, wasn’t an Ivy League education. It was the chance to slake his thirst at Greenwich Village’s several watering holes for artists and performers. So he sang with American musicians, but most of all, he soaked in American folk music like a sponge.
Yes, there is evidence of American folk in his own work. But he mostly sings the folk tunes of his immediate environment. This is what makes him the consensus candidate, so to speak, for the post of emissary of the North-east.
There’s an amazing convergence of opinion about Hazarika all around the region: everybody likes and respects him. Something he is aware of: “If I wanted to be chief minister of this state, I could have ruled for 20 years without questions being asked.” He’s actually contested the assembly elections once (in 1967) and won comfortably as an Independent. Candidates in the recently concluded parliamentary elections went around canvassing, armed with
“certificates” from Hazarika (“I did it for people I liked personally, not for their party affiliations”). Even Paresh Barua, “commander-in-chief” of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has been known to call him up.
Hazarika has offered to mediate between the banned group and the Government, provided the ULFA agrees to drop its secessionist demand. “Barua and I talked about stopping this madness, but their position is intransigent and I am too
Indian to discuss the secession of my own state,” says Hazarika.
But what is a man with these credentials doing in Bollywood? “It’s a crazy place,” says Hazarika, “but it is one way of reaching people.” (Remember Dil hum hum kare from Rudaali?) But even in films, he started pretty early: in
1939, he was a child artiste in the second talkie film to be made in India,
Indramalati. More than 50 years later, in 1993, the film industry conferred its highest honour on him: the Dada Saheb Phalke award.
Time to retire? Not for Hazarika. There’s a film to be completed. Songs to be sung. Centuries whiz past at a Stonehenge-like mausoleum of the Jaintia tribesmen of Meghalaya. He walks through them for the camera. A tune is hummed. Stone warriors stand proud and listen. Their women lie with their ears to the ground. Hazarika is in concert.
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