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

Old man river… keeps rolling along

November 4, 2002 – 10:27 am

You don’t have to be a rich man’s son to move around the world. You don’t have to compromise on your principles to carve out your own following in Bollywood. You can just be Bhupen Hazarika and watch fate take you places. ZIYA US SALAM speaks to the veteran composer, still singing aloud the song of life… .

Photos: V.V. Krishnan.

Bhupen Hazarika… good old times, good old melody.

IT SHALL remain one of the delicious ironies of fate that Anu Malik – now Maliik, now Mallik, now Annu as per convenient numerology – remains Bollywood dream merchants’ favourite, notching up double digit films every year while an infinitely more talented Bhupen Hazarika still has to rely on “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” from “Rudaali” (1993) to establish an acquaintance with posterity. Malik might copy “Come September,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and others with bravado bordering on impudence, yet for the common man, he remains the king of Bollywood, probably its most identifiable music director after A. R. Rahman and Nadeem-Shravan. Yet, the original continues to languish in relative obscurity, working in an odd Kalpana Lajmi film here, an odd M. F. Husain film there. In niche cinema lies his following. As a well-known wit said: “One composes for the classes, the other for asses!”

In New Delhi recently, Bhupen Hazarika is picture of dignity and content. “I am happy with life. After all these years of struggle and all the awards and felicitations that have come my way, I have no regret. I never visualised it when I started out. I wanted to be a journalist, though I was a serious student of music. I am at peace with everybody, with the world. Now, I have just one message for the new generation: Simplicity always wins. You don’t have to be the son of a rich man to see the world. You can be a schoolmaster’s son and still be able to see the world. I may not be a rich man even now but I have never worked 9-5, never had to worry about the income tax. But whatever I have should last me for the rest of my life.” Incidentally, Hazarika, 76, himself is the son of a schoolteacher and set out to see the world when India was just keeping its tryst with destiny.

“I have done 122 films in Assamese, Bengali, Hindi. I have got love from all over. I have got Dadasaheb Phalke Award after `Rudaali’. I cannot compose songs like `Khatiya’ and `Choli ke Peeche’. I was happy when `Dil Hoom… ‘ beat such songs in the countdown shows. Film music is not marriage video or a Punjabi party. Movies have become a consumer product. Now, even when they talk of patriotism in Hindi cinema and the NRIs coming back home to the homeland, it is like commercialisation of patriotism. I cannot do that.”

Yet, he is no old man yearning for retrospective contentment while cribbing about the present. He showers praises on Ilaiyaraja and A. R. Rahman. “I love all good things of life. I find Rahman and Ilaiyaraja on the right track. Whenever they go off the track, they know how to come back to the right path. I sang once for Rahman, he just told me to do what I wanted! I tell him to take it easy, take a break, avoid repetition of tunes. That is the way to last longer. He agrees but then there is the problem with directors. After one hit song, all of them want similar <243>songs!”

How come the man whose Assamese songs have been translated into Japanese, Nepalese and many other languages, is not seen more often in Hindi cinema: “I love Hindi but nobody brought me here. When I started out I did not have the money to stay in Delhi or Mumbai for a month and wait for work. Until one day Atma Ram – Kalpana Lajmi’s uncle – gave me `Aarop’. I composed the song `Nainon Mein Darpan Hai, Darpan Mein Koi’. It became a hit. To tell you the truth, it is originally a cowboy song in the North-East. I heard this from a boy in Khasi Hills. I immediately learnt the tune but I did not copy it. I preserved the soil, the soul of the song and brought it to a wider audience. I basked in the glory of `Nainon Mein Darpan’ for sometime until `Rudaali’ happened.”

Well, “Rudaali” too was sheer accident. “I was in the Capital with other film personalities, meeting at the National School of Drama. There Lajmi had sent her film proposal for `Rudaali’ with my name as the music director and I did not even know! I did the film for free, actually one rupee which again, never came my way!”

Yet, again the man given to frequent bouts of nostalgia, lapses into the past. “The tune, `Dil Hoom… ‘, was actually composed way back in 1962 for an Assamese film `Moniram Dewan’. I used that tune for `Rudaali’,” recalls this student of Jyotiprasad Aggrawalla, the man who made the first Assamese film in 1935, whose ancestors had shifted from Rajasthan to the Hill State in the early 19th Century.

Recalls Hazarika, a product of Cotton Collegiate Higher Secondary School in Assam, “I wanted to do many things when I started out. I wanted to be a journalist, so I did Ph. D in Mass Communication from Columbia University. I wanted to be a lawyer and sing in the bathroom. So I went ahead and did M.A. in Political Science from Banaras Hindu University. There I also learnt music for four years from Sangeet Bhuvan without having to pay any fees. I was enamoured of the rhythm and melody of the hills and the plains. I met luminaries of Indian People’s Theatre Association and music possessed me. I did not know Marx but my first song was on Shankara Deva. Then and there I realised that a slogan could not be a song, it must reach out to the heart. Ragas cannot be distorted, they are the soul of music. In Guwahati, I was an Assamese. In Kolkata, I became a Bengali but I became an Indian after coming to Uttar Pradesh, particularly BHU. I was lucky to get in touch with people like Jyotiprasad and Narayan Menon who guided me.”

I went to America in 1949. I went via Paris where I met my idol Picasso. I did not know how to react when I met the legendary painter. He wanted to know if I were really his follower and asked me about what quality I liked the best in his works! When I replied I liked the `Blue period’, he was convinced. I had no camera, there was no proof of that morning meeting. I wanted to touch Picasso and his words stay with me: `Hazarika goes to America’! In America, I washed dishes, wrote commentary for short films in New York for 250 dollars. It was a lot of money for me. I became a Leftist in the land of Capitalism.”

In America, he met another idol of his – Paul Robson and the rest, is `Old Man River, You Don’t Nothing, You Just Keep Rolling Along… ‘ The song stayed with him and was transliterated into almost every Indian language. In Assam, the river was called Brahmaputra, in U.P. it was called Ganga by Narendra Sharma – `Oh Ganga Behti Ho Kyon…’

Though his memory is failing him and he frequently falls into the wistful lap of the past, he is still full of life, full of humour. In one interview, he gives you sufficient matter for a chapter or two of an authorised biography. Cool, composed, soft-spoken man from a family of singers – his brothers, sisters and even the next two generation members of his family are singers – is now busy wooing the next generation in Kalpana Lajmi’s “Kyon”, based on the problems of growing up and the responsibilities of parents. “I am also planning an Assamese film. It should be ready by the end of the year,” informs the man who has composed for films like “Saaz”, “Daman”, “Mil Gayi Manzil Mujhe” and “Gaj Gamini” in the past. “Well, like `Rudaali’ `Gaj Gamini’ also happened by chance. M.F. Husain called up from a press conference in London to tell me that I was doing the film. I was not even given time to think. He just decided for me!”

Well, if life is an accident, this humble man with lofty deeds has had some sweet things happening to him. “No complaints. I am happy,” signs off the man who has been at the helm of affairs of Assam Sahitya Sabha, Sangeet Natak Akademi and has also dabbled in politics.

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