8 September 1926 - 16:37 IST, November 5th, 2011 ; 

A Song and its Singer

October 20, 2005 – 10:52 am

It’s the same voice: rich, highly emotive, beautifully timbered, sonorously resonant. The voice that age has not managed to fell or even to lay low, the voice that entire generations of true-blue Assamese boys and girls have grown up on, the voice that has had men and women across all social strata in our part of the world humming the tunes that he created, for several decades now. Only, this time, the format is different: MTV, no less!

For a septuagenarian singer who cut his first scratchy album on a 78 RPM disc deep in the last century, when his voice was still a clear soprano, this is indeed a long haul. From shellac discs, through cassettes, to Compact Discs, from the lamp-lit auditoriums of his youth to satellite TV, the man has truly come a long way in his artistic journey.

And yet, amazingly, in spite of the fact that Dr Bhupen Hazarika has always been so much a bard of contemporaneous events, he is also, unequivocally , a singer for all seasons, a poet and lyricist whose vision has always been uncompromisingly humanistic. It is no doubt for this reason that his music has always been relevant, no matter at what point of time the lyrics were originally penned, no matter what language they have been later translated into, no matter what culture, away from the once-tranquil, now turbulent lifestyle beside his beloved Luit (the Brahmaputra), those songs are subsequently metamorphosed into.

The MTV offering, “Ganga”, is a fine example of this universality of his vision. As we all know, the original river in the song was not Ganga at all, but Luit, the raging, ferocious Red River that carves its tumultuous way through our valley. The only “male” river in India, it is truly the son the Brahma, Brahmaputra, in the ferocity of its power as well as in the all-pervasiveness of its influence over the lives of the people who live here. But the Luit of his song is Burha (old), perhaps with wanning powers, impotent as it flows nisobde, nirobey, (quietly) down, even as battles rage on its banks, and injustice piled on injustice breaks the backs of the less privileged. Is the river weary of, or merely indifferent to, the mayhem taking place on its banks? When the song was translated first into Bengali, then later into Hindi, the need to match the universality of the sentiments of the song made the transference of the river, from Luit to Ganga, an imperative. For it is Ganga, not the Brahmaputra, which is the quintessentially “Indian” river. And the quiescence of the water in the song is perhaps better portrayed by this “Mother” figure of a river, she who collects, absorbs and washes away all the sins of an entire nation as she flows forgivingly down to her ultimate destination, the sea. Even the anger of the bard, his repeated questionings about why this powerful, life-giving river should continue to proceed calmly on its way, tolerating the many acts of injustice being committed on its very banks, is couched in more universal terms once this cultural shift, from Luit to Ganga, is carried out. The MTV visuals are powerful, and extremely apt. But the scenes portrayed there have always been present in our minds, have they not, expertly evoked without the help of technology, by the singer himself, as we listened to that potent, unforgettable voice soaring and dipping in the many Bihutolis of our youth, making them– the song as well as the singer-such an inseparable part of our growing-up years. In its avatar as “Ganga”, even before the Virgin Records offering which is now being aired on TV, the song has been extremely popular. Throughout the country, it has been movingly sung, and recited by several well-known artistes. The noted Kathak danseuse, Uma Sharma, has also included it in her repertoire. Her interpretation of the song’s poetry and its music has been seen and greatly appreciated by the cognoscenti all over the country.

And yet, for the people of this valley, it is still the original song that haunts us. And today, it is, if anything, even more apt, even as Kalashnikovs blaze on the banks of the Luit, and injustices escalate, though in ever-different guises.

But, having said that, it remains a fact that it would have been a great pity if Dr Hazarika’s astonishing genius had remained confined within the boundaries of the Assamese language and culture. The language and place that he was born into were small. Thankfully, fine translations of his lyrics have ensured that they reach a wider audience, as they deserve to do.

Who hasn’t been moved by Dil Hum Hum as it was sung in Rudali? The masterly transcreation of that song was given the recognition that it merited. The original Buku Hom Hom has been printed into the psyche of the Assamese people. It is heartening that the time and the voice are now part of the repertoire of unforgettable melodies that together make up the collective musical consciousness of a nation.

Actually, we have always been so enamoured of the Voice and the totality of the Song, that sometimes we tend to forget the astonishing beauty of so many of Bhupen Hazarika’s lyrics. Working in a language that is neither as well known nor indeed as rich as some other Indian languages, he has used the medium in a masterly manner to portray a variety of moods, thoughts and emotions. This purely literary quality is one that is rare in a singer/composer. To be a musician of the finest ilk is no mean achievement– to be a song-poet in addition to being a singer and a composer is a feat indeed.

So many of the lyrics are effulgent with a luminous beauty, that it is difficult to pinpoint even one. Theme, sentiments and language mesh into such a cohesive whole that it seems they were made for each other. Many are the result of intensely personal stimuli, such as the passionately sung Modarare Phool Henu. But always, the bard rises above the immediate to the universal, taking his listener with him.

The songs themselves portrary a variety of themes. There are the love-songs, which embody mostly a young man’s passions. Indeed, so firmly ensconced in our culture have these songs become by now, that it is practically de rigeur for youthful, courting men to regale their willing sweethearts with a few judiciously chosen Bhupen Hazarika love songs. Which young lady, no matter how hard-boiled her outlook, (or, indeed, how offkey the soulful rendering by her suitor!) will remain unmoved by the caressing tenderness of the song Mitha Mitha, Bohagor?

There are the charming songs of nature, as seen in this valley with its astonishingly beautiful flowers, landscapes and its dominating riverine scenery. These songs give many of us an insight into our own surroundings, which is something that only a poet of the highest calibre is ever successful at.

But Bhupen Hazarika has never been a poet singing his songs in isolation of contemporary society. Intimately associated with several of the region’s many Movements, he is a bard with a social conscience, a troubadour who mirrors society, musically, but relentlessly. In a community riven with fractious discord, his has always been the voice of moderation, of the need for harmony among the many peoples, tribes and races who live here. But there is also anger in many of his songs of this genre, a deep and genuine anger against social injustices. Though left-wing ideas appear in certain guises in several of his songs, the bonds of ideology never circumscribe his abiding concern for humanity. This is why, though socialism has been overshadowed in our country today, and capitalism is the flavour of the day, these songs remain as relevant today as they were in the sixties and seventies.

Bhupen Hazarika is the first truly “modern” Assamese poet and singer, in the sense that he has given form and voice to many subjects that were previously not thought of to be the “proper” subjects of singing at all. Tirap Simanto, Shillongore Godhuli — these are no doubt songs of nature, but which singer before him–, or, indeed, how many singers today– can give them that particular twist that places them firmly in the genre of “modern” songs? There was a time some decades ago when “Modern” songs in Assamese were heavily influenced by Bengal. The flavour of Rabindra Sangeet was obvious in much of the work of several eminent composers of the last century. Bhupen Hazarika, who has his roots in that period, has nevertheless firmly shaken off that effect, and evolved a “Modern” style that is uniquely his. It is also, inevitably, the fruition of many influences that are unequivocally “local”. Folk airs unique to this region, where several cultures meet and mingle, weave in and out of his compositions, combined with his own musical imagination. He does not hesitate to work in Western airs, either. Yet the effect of all this blending is never jarring. Always melodious no matter how eclectic and varied the influences, there is a homogeneity in his style which is distinctive and also quite unique.

That velvet voice has also given melodious tongue to quite a few songs. Bhupen Hazarika has presented the enchanting beauty of such lyrics such as He Mai, Josowa He and Kanai Paar Kora He in a beguilling manner. Indeed, credit must go to him for helping to revive our folk music in this way at a time when much of our indigenious songs, especially Kamrupiya lokageets, were in danger of being lost. As a genre, many of these songs are singular, for they are a fusion of the pure folk tradition with a dash of Vaishnavite philosophy thrown in. Decades ago, — except in a few notable cases, by a few notable singers– the presentation of these traditional songs was mainly too unsophisticated to appeal to urbanites as well as to those with a trained ear for music. The folk songs that Dr Hazarika sang in his own inimitable manner showcased the scintillating beauties inherent in the music as well as in the lyrics of these songs. One of the innovations that contributed to the success of these particular offerings was his decision to sing them not in the Kamrupiya dialect, which is sometimes difficult to understand, but in his own chaste Asomiya pronunciation.

If the whole nation is today humming “Ganga”, one remembers a time when one’s parents did the same, way back in the sixties and early seventies. Indeed, tunes such as Sagor Somgomot, Akasi Gonga, Natun Nagini Tumi and so on are an integral part of that era.

As though being a top-notch lyricist or singer are not enough, Bhupen Hazarika has always composed his own tunes. The melodies of most of his songs are simple, but easily hummable. Several are based on folk airs, one or two, such as the effulgent Snehe Amaar Soto Shrabonor are based on classical Raags. Always, lyric and tune meld seamlessly, to provide the perfect end product.

The nation is today bestowing its top awards for artistic distinction on this bard par excellence. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, being appointed the Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi– these are no mean achievements for a person from this remote region. To rise above one’s immediate milieu to straddle the nation, musically, like a colossus, is indeed impressive.

Without question, the Assamese today are proud of his achievements. Yet they seem slightly bemused, as well. That “one of us” has actually achieved such stature, that, too, through this music that we have been humming for years, seems rather unbelievable to many. Assam is no doubt proud of him, but in rather a low-key sort of a way. Why, one wonders, is that?

Actually, Bhupen Hazarika, in spite of being the great artise that he is, has always been extremely accessible, especially to the people of his home state. His stage performances are punctuated by chatty asides which has the audience eating out of his hand, making them feel that they are sharing some part of his life. Indeed, the way he is usually addressed, “Bhupenda” shows the affection that people hold him in, as well as his own unassuming ways. Starry airs and tantrums are alien to him. There is no hype surrounding him, none of that carefully-cultivated mystique that many lesser artistes take such great pains to acquire. There is a palpable air of genuine humility about him that is not only endearing, it is also, given his stature, quite astonishing. He has never shut himself up in an ivory tower of creative isolation. Just as his source of inspiration has been the people, it is to the people whom he goes, always, with his musical offerings. His failings are the human failings that any ordinary man can have. Success, and an unconventional way of thinking and living, has always bred enemies. And it has been inevitable that in a small society such as ours, this great artiste should have bred the worm of envy in many lesser hearts. Lesser mortals would have perhaps sunk under the burden of the many obstacles that he has had to face in his life. But like a river that cannot be impeded, which flows gently, but inexorably around whatever barriers may be placed in its path, the artistic progression of this musical genius has indeed been unstoppable.

Aware, no doubt of the many difficulties that artistes face, Bhupen Hazarika himself has always been extremely encouraging to other performers, especially to younger people, whom he treats as his own siblings. He often takes younger artistes who are yet to achieve fame with him in his stage shows, thus giving them an important boost and an invaluable leg up in their artistic careers.

Like many highly creative people, Bhupen Hazarika has also tried his hand at other artistic forms, with success. A film-maker, music director, writer, and editor or a popular journal– he has been in his time, all of these, and more. Yet it is through the medium of his astonishing voice, and his lyrical pen, that he has poured out his soul.

Mitra Phukan

Courtesy: The Assam Tribune

  1. 2 Responses to “A Song and its Singer”

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