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

Bard of the Brahmaputra

October 25, 2005 – 11:30 am

A few weeks ago, in the northern Assam town of Tezpur, a small group gathered in the elegant drawing room of the Goswamis, a prominent doctor couple, sipping drinks and listening to a long- time politician recount one of his favorite anecdotes in the Assam Assembly.

The politician spoke of how a mischief-making MLA had got another opposition member, who was quite easy to sway, to challenge the then leader of the opposition, Dulal Baruah, in the House on a point of order. An outraged Baruah thundered at his backbencher to shut up, but the instigator was not done yet. “Press on a point of order,” he hissed at his wavering colleague.

“Point of order!” yelled the member, now defiant, but once again stumped when the Speaker asked him, quite legitimately, “On what grounds?”

He fumbled, but then his friend whispered again, “Say, bad grammar.”

“Bad grammar, sir,” suggested the legislator.

The House dissolved in laughter as Dulal Baruah turned purple with rage and gazed balefully at his two tormenters.

The name of the assemblyman is not important, but there is much to be said of the mischief-maker, who was no other than Bhupen Hazarika.

Bhupenda, as he is lovingly called by millions, is recognised by many as one of the greatest cultural figures that Assam has produced, next only to Sri Sri Sankaradeva, the Vaishnavite preacher of the 15th century, and Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, the early 20th-century singer-composer.

Bard and balladeer, poet and politician, journalist, singer, lyricist, musician, filmmaker, writer — but Bhupenda is much more than all this. He is a communicator of romance, passion, universalism and humanism. He has gathered awards aplenty: for his contribution to cinema, to music, to culture, and to the vigour he reinstilled in the Assamese, jostling them awake through song, and forcing them to rethink old attitudes. In 1994, he was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the highest award in India for contribution to films.

Hazarika is cherished in Dhaka as much as he is in Guwahati. His song on the war of Bangladesh’s freedom, “Joi Joi Naba Jata Bangladesh” (hail the newborn Bangladesh), is a stirring marching tune which was on every Bengali’s lips during those harrowing days. His songs are not limited to Assamese and Bengali, and Bhupenda’s rich baritone is equally at ease with Hindi, Urdu and English.

Hazarika’s internationalism (or ‘regionalism’) goes further than his vocal chords, as is evident when he talks of his special relationship with Nepalis. He was born in Tezpur, a town that has quite a significant number of them. The black Nepali cap, which is his signature, he began wearing, he says, when his father died many years ago and someone in the neighbourhood gave him a topi to wear. The khukuri pin that adorns his topi is a gift from Hazarika’s friends and admirers in Nepal.

Bhupenda is without doubt one of the greatest living cultural communicators of South Asia. He has swayed millions with the power and passion of his voice, and the message of universal brotherhood and humanism, which comes through in his songs. He has a genius for weaving a magical tapestry out of traditional Assamese music and lyrics, breathing new life into the language, synthesising old and new strands of music, and instilling a sense of pride among the inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley.

Hazarika showed signs of early musical genius even before he started singing on All India Radio in 1937, at the age of eleven. As a young adult, he swiftly made his mark as singer and composer. Later, Hazarika travelled to New York, where he earned a doctorate in audio-visual and mass communications from Columbia University. He served in the Assam Assembly in the 1960s as an independent MLA. He has also headed the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the literary bastion of the Brahmaputra valley’s dominant civilisation.

Few know that, during his time at Columbia University, Hazarika was a friend of Paul Robeson, the great black American singer, actor and civil rights activist. Robeson’s passionate crusade for social justice and black pride has permeated Bhupenda’s own worldview. Inspired greatly by Robeson’s powerful rendition of the song “Ole Man River”, Hazarika created his own moving ode to the Brahmaputra.

The waterways of Assam have been a the source of inspiration for Hazarika’s songs and lyrics all these years. “The Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam,” he says. One of his notable collaborations for Doordarshan was Luit Kinare (by the banks of the Luit), a mosaic of ordinary tales that is both cheerful and poignant. (The Luit merges with the Dibang in Arunachal to create the mighty sea-like expanse of the Brahmaputra.)

Whereas he had been a legend in Eastern India for decades, it was his compositions for the film Rudali which won Hazarika recognition across the Subcontinent. At the age of 70, he retains the energy of a much younger man, and he is presently working on a television serial on the freedom movement in Assam.

Perhaps the best example of the humanistic ideals that imbue his works is the song “Manuhe Manuhar Babe” (for man), composed in 1964:

If man wouldn’t think for man
With a little sympathy
Tell me who will– comrade.
If we repeat history
If we try to buy
Or sell humanity
Won’t we be wrong –comrade?
If the weak
Tide across the rapids of life
With your help
What do you stand to lose?
If man does not become man
A demon never will
If a demon turns more human
Whom shall it shame more–comrade?

S. Hazarika is Delhi-based correspondent for the New York Times and an author with special interest in the Indian Northeast. Bedabrata Lahkar of the Assam Tribune helped research this article. Translation of “Manuhe Manuhar Babe” by Pradip Acharya.

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