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

Genius of Bhupen Hazarika

March 9, 2012 – 10:17 am

Genius of Bhupen Hazarika

Arupjyoti Saikia

Bhupen Hazarika (1926-2011) emerged as a central figure in Assam giving voice to the aspirations and imagination of Assamese nationalism. Despite his deep-rootedness in his own cultural context, his music and ideas were universal and constantly engaged with the people in a dialogic process.

I too wanted to be a singer with the power to change society – Bhupen Hazarika

It is not often that a musician’s works become synonymous with the political and cultural aspirations of a nationality. Bhupen Hazarika, the versatile Assamese singer was that kind of rara avis. The world of Assamese imagination was associated, since Independence, with the songs and music of Bhupen Hazarika. His music was responsible for reinforcing the cultural aspirations of various communities during this time. That he was one of the central elements in the world of Assamese imagination was again proven when Hazarika died on 5 November. In a rare show of public mourning, more than a million people in Assam paid their tribute. They were joined by others across India.

Hazarika’s death and funeral turned out to be a memorable occasion, showcasing Assamese collectivity. The centrality of his songs to this region became even more obvious at this moment. This is partly because many now realised that there are very few Assamese singers who deserve to be considered in similar light. Tributes were paid by hundreds of thousands of people – poor as well as rich, nationalists and others – for all of whom, it seems, Hazarika had sung his songs.

The state, often under siege of political protests, saw something unusual. A tribal organisation, which earlier had announced a bandh, postponed its protest, while several unions deferred their strikes. A rickshaw-puller composed a poem written with care. As a mark of honour, he also offered his day’s earnings to an
orphanage. While similar public mourning is not unusual in India or elsewhere, the occasion was a unique experience for Assam.

What made Hazarika different? Probably two factors contributed to the expressions of such spectacular public grief. First, while his life in music was widely appreciated by a wide cross-section of people, his works had received extensive recognition amongst the diverse and often politically divided communities in the region. Ethnic mobilisation since the 1990s and the resultant political polarisation could not displace this wider recognition. This was so because his public life in music was drawn mostly from shared political and economic aspirations of the communities living in the region. Second, Hazarika’s public life was also seen, by the nationalities in the region, as an important instrument for substantiating their cause. His works acted as a medium for introducing the cultural landscape of the region to the wider national life.

Cultural Modernity and Assam

Bhupen Hazarika.s middle-class family origin had limited choices to offer him. His traditional Assamese family was trained in both Vaishnavite and nationalistic traditions. His father introduced him to the cultural ambience of the 1930s. The second quarter of the 20th century experienced several layers of intellectual and cultural experiments in Assam.

The Assamese nationalists, through experiments in language, literature, history and antiquity, had already laid out the scope for the institutions that they had struggled to build. In the last decades of the 19th century they had undertaken several experiments picking up from the experiences of Calcutta in the issues of language, literature, their past and heritage. By the 1930s, a tiny but educated and largely urban Assamese middle class began to speak confidently on behalf of their community.

This was the time when the liberal- humanists and communists, though small in number, made their mark in public life. In the 1930s Assam.s agrarian economy underwent rapid transformation. Indebtedness increased manifold and a majority of the Assamese peasantry were at the mercy of traders. This was soon to bring failure to the agrarian economy. Against this backdrop local resources were now being shared with migrants.

This was also the time when the Assamese youth learnt communism. Like eastern and northern India, this communist experiment took several forms: from organised party politics to radical experiments in existing cultural practices. This initiation into communism slowly resulted in a fresh look at varieties of social and literary institutions. As part of their struggles to mobilise the distressed peasantry, the communists also experimented with social and cultural practices. The communist impact continued to be deeply felt within Assam right up till the 1960s.

All these streams interacted with the larger political developments. The new Assamese nationalistic experiments created sufficient democratic space from the second quarter of the 20th century and drew in a wide array of tribal cultural practices which found engagement with liberal and communist politics. Most of these practices had imbibed the ideas of democracy and liberty but spelled them in different languages.

Changing social dynamics also meant challenges to the post-Vaishnavite institutional orthodoxies. Vaishnavite reforms had already created a cultural space for the larger public but institutional orthodoxies were still a drag on these democratic processes.

The 1930s was also when the first Assamese film was produced and new experiments in cultural life exposed the urban Assamese to a complex cultural experience. Along with this new cultural life there emerged new political ideas and nation alism. By now Assamese modernity was firmly rooted in local culture and its political landscape.

The modern experiment in Assamese music was rooted in this liberal . left as well as nationalist . social milieu and Hazarika learnt and performed his songs drawing from it. Several of his mentors in the middle decades of the 20th century were leading Assamese cultural icons located within this left liberal tradition. Amongst them Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla had strong sympathies towards communist political programmes. Similar was the stand of Bishnu Rabha, the Marxist. Hazarika was also inspired by the works of leading Assamese writer Lakshinath Bezbarua. Though he often composed his own songs, he also drew on the lyrics and songs of other poets and writers. Sensitive to the complex cultural mosaic and nationality question of the region, his mentors drew equally from the Vaishnavite as well as the complex tribal and folk traditions.

Becoming a Singer

Hazarika had boyhood encounters with this cultural world. While Hazarika never accepted the larger orthodoxies, he remained culturally indebted to Vaishnavite traditions and these inevitably got reflected in his songs and tone. He knew the Vaishnavite literature well and could recite most texts in full. It was in this context that he sang one of his first songs at the age of 10 and soon became part of the liberal-left-nationalist cultural world of Assam.

In the United States, as he pursued his masters and doctoral studies on mass communi cation at New York.s Columbia University, he came in close touch with the Afro-American political tradition. The civil rights movement, and the cultural mobilisation associated with it, surely would have impressed and influenced someone like him who had gone through years of engagement with Indian nationalist and communist politics. Later this experience led him to compose some of his most popular songs, freely drawn from Paul Robeson, the most acclaimed Afro-American singer.

His tenures with the All India Radio and Gauhati University were both shortlived. These early uncertainties were largely conditioned by his romance of being antiestablishment.

A political career with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA), mostly during the 1950s and 1960s helped him engage with the left political programme. Hazarika with his fellow cultural workers converted the IPTA experiment into a truly mass movement in Assam. The IPTA, under their leadership, became a major platform for social and political dialogue, especially during times of political crisis like those emerging from the language debates in the 1960s. Further, his association with IPTA also led him to critique the elites and rich. He visualised emancipated social institutions in Assam free from extant feudal practices like when he immortalised the anger and frustration of the palanquin carrier in the iconic song “Dola”.

A life in left-wing cultural activism also resulted in trips to communist countries. Thus, in February 1972, he and his gifted singer brother Jayanta Hazarika (1943- 1977) sang at the Berlin International Festival of Political Songs . an annual event of radical songs that continued until 1990. This even gained more popularity amongst the communist workers from the middle of the 1970s. Leading political singers across the world began to attend. Hazarika carefully chose the songs for this festival, one recognised the newly born nation of Bangladesh and the other portrayed a confident Assam.

A brief spell in electoral politics did not interrupt his life in music. He became a member of the Assam assembly in 1967 as an independent candidate. He lost in 1971. Politically the most unsuccessful moment in Hazarika.s life came in 2004 when he contested the Guwahati parliamentary seat as a BJP candidate. The right-wing Hindutva party hoped to use his stature as a representative voice of Assamese nationalism to further its own support base but this was a failure. For many this proved once again that Assamese nationalism did not have a strong connection with right-wing Hindutva. It seems that Hazarika was passionate about any political .line., whether hard core left or Hindutva. His shift from cultural left to regional left to nationalist-rightist may be a mere reflection of this non-committal personality of his. Early in the 1980s, Hazarika succumbed to aggressive nationalism and showed a clear shift from his leftist leanings, which could not restrain him for long, and he moderated some of his lyrics to suit the needs of the Assamese ultra-nationalists. In this he was not alone. Several Assamese communist leaders had brief and sometimes prolonged careers in regionalism.

Rebuilding Nationality

Hazarika was adept at telling histories of the land, nature, landscape and contested political ambience through his lyrics and songs. Hazarika sang in standard Assamese and combined gravitas and passion. His attention to the careful use of words and correct pronunciation of the same was phenomenal. Many educated Assamese, trained in the urban Anglo-Assamese milieu, would turn to him for learning .the correct pronunciation. of an Assamese word. His songs would take an Assamese listener back and forth through her past, present and future, while his emphasis on space was crucial for the making of a collective sense of nationality. Despite his attention to nationalist values, he constantly reminded his Assamese listeners about the ideas of universalism.

His songs reflected the political dimensions of culture and Assam.s national narrative. He often reconfigured the lyrics of his songs to suit the demands of new political conditions and was successful in giving voice to the optimisms, ambitions and disillusionments of the Assamese in their tryst with the new Indian nation state. It is also unquestionable that his works emerged as contested resources for appropriation by a range of political experiments.

His songs often became tools of nationalist mobilisation. Motifs in his songs act powerfully in binding together the Assamese nationality and the Indian nation state. His songs are then essentially a reflection of the Assamese experience of modernity and embody the inherent complexities of this particular nationalist experience.

There was a life in journalism – through his association with Amar Pratinidhi which played a crucial role in directing the taste and sensibilities of the Assamese elites. Often political in nature, this cultural magazine tried to bridge the gap between the emerging taste of the Assamese elites and other forms of experiments elsewhere.

There will be little disagreement that the very constitution of Assamese beingness includes a substantial element of Hazarika.s songs. He responded to almost all major and small social and political events of Assam of the last 70 years by singing a memorable song. As a balladeer he was a raconteur par excellence.

His key role in the making of Assamese nationality did not go unnoticed. Towards the later stage of his life, the Indian government tried to appropriate his place within Assamese society by making him chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy. The Sattriya dance form, associated with Srimanta Sankardeva, got national recognition during his tenure.

Reconfiguring Nationalism

Though most songs of Bhupen Hazarika were rooted in the Assamese landscape, they nonetheless transcended regional boundaries and often acquired a universal character. He could connect the regional to the larger national and international landscape. Often it was through this transcending landscape that an Assamese would associate with the political canvass of the nation. His association with Hindi films . for instance, his use of folk songs from Rajasthan . gave him an ability to strike a chord with an audience beyond eastern India. Equally, his songs had an audience amongst most communities in north-east India. His appreciation of emerging Bengali identity and praise for newly born Bangladesh gave him permanent recognition in eastern India.

He was sensitive to the complex tribal aspirations and tried to reinforce them through his engagement with the Assamese nationalism. On several occasions his songs dis agreed with Assamese nationalism.s stand on the tribal question, which viewed them as marginal to its location Hazarika.s songs often disagreed and recognised their distinct political independence.

Similarly, he went against the positions of Assamese nationalism in his portrayal of the social history of tea plantations, which was expressed through the voice and emotions of tea garden workers. The tea plantation had emerged, despite the travails of tea garden workers, as a soughtafter romantic space in the minds of the Assamese intelligentsia and his songs subverted this.

Music for the Poor

His songs became the “weapons of the weak”. His commitment to the cause of the plebeians were mostly reflected through his songs and public life. His songs gave dignity to the poor and downtrodden. His songs were carefully considered, deeply serious documents about people and their troubles. He reminds his listeners about the hungry daily wage labourers, the mighty Brahmaputra, the political potentiality of the poor, and the subaltern identity of the Assamese nationality. A common Assamese villager was introduced to the world of political ideals through his songs.

Not only his songs but his writings spoke on behalf of the poor. Some of them were responses to the contemporary crisis in the rural world. Several of his writings ridiculed the failures of the government to address peasant hardship.

Never a puritan in his private or public life, his fans and critics are both legion. His critics primarily came from amongst the nationalists. Hazarika sang in Bengali equally. He chose those songs to render in Bengali that had both universal appeal and were rooted in the Bengal landscape. Many Bengalis even claimed Hazarika as of Bengali origin resulting in unwarranted public controversies. The cultural contest between two linguistic communities had not disappeared when such claims and counterclaims began to surface. Die-hard Assamese nationalists condemned Hazarika for his failure to contest such claims made by his Bengali listeners. Thus it is difficult to categorise Hazarika. While deeply rooted in Assamese traditions and cultural milieus, he was equally at ease in other traditions and languages, particularly Bengali. While being often seen as close to Assamese nationalism, he still managed to bring a universalist tone to his music. His politics too varied across the spectrum. However, his travels enriched both his music as well as his listeners by making them see the world in new ways even when he reached a dead end and had to restart his journey. That was the genius of Hazarika.

Arupjyoti Saikia (arupjyotisaikia@gmail.com) is currently a fellow at the agrarian studies program of Yale University, USA.

Published @ COMMENTARY
December 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 51 EPW Economic & Political Weekly 30

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