By Utpal Borpujari
In Assam, there is every likelihood that among the first sounds a baby would hear immediately after birth would be a Bhupen Hazarika song. Sounds like an exaggeration, but ask any Assamese you know, and you will be told that it’s a fact. I first met the legend when I was around ten, but much before that I knew that Bhupen Hazarika is almost a god for us. His uniquely deep baritone voice, and his easy-on-the-ear compositions that quite often culled out finer nuances of classical ragas and the huge variety of folk music of North-East India, were already deeply ingrained in my subconscious by then. It was much later that his lyrics – the meaning of the words and the mood they created – could mean anything to me.
In those days of no television in the late 1970s, we knew him from his photographs in newspapers and magazines, everyone of them with the Nepali cap on his head, reportedly presented to him by the King of Nepal. And of course, from his voice that almost every day wafted in from the local All India Radio station. So, there was no scope for confusion when I saw him, sitting in the living room of our neighbour Nirode Chaudhury, one of the greatest Assamese writers ever whose short story had a couple of years before had been converted in the classic Assamese film “Chameli Memsab” (which got Hazarika the best music director’s honour at the National Film Awards in 1975).
The first thing I noticed about the man, who much before that, by the time he was in his mid 20s, had become a hugely popular man in Assam, was his twinkling, smiling eyes. When Chaudhury, whom I used to fondly call “mama”, introduced me to Hazarika, he left whatever he was discussing and started talking to me. And it went on for quite some time. Later, I learnt that he was not just being playful with a kid. That was the way he was – he would have time for every person who would approach him for a chit chat. Till the time his health having major problems after he suffered a stroke while performing live on a stage in a Guwahati locality in 2006 during the Rongali Bihu (Assamese new year) celebrations, this trait of his never changed.
Indeed, his innate belief in the power of communication to break barriers among individuals got reflected through not only his personal demeanour or his songs, films, writings and live performances, but also his selection of use of cultural and mass communication as a tool for the spread of education as the topic for his Ph.D from the Columbia School of Journalism in the US in teh early 1950s, when hardly anyone in India would have heard about the term “mass communication”.
His natural instinct for making everyone feel at home with him, combined with innate capability of documenting the society and through his creative work, made him connect instantly with the most intellectual and the most illiterate. With his Left-leaning idealism (something that started changing after the Chinese aggression in 1962), which saw him become a close associate of the likes of Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni and many others in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement, Hazarika used his art as a medium to reflect the ills of the society and the concerns of the downtrodden. It was almost with a missionary zeal that he wrote songs capturing almost every important social and political development of North-East India, starting from the Second World War to the ULFA-induced insurgency. Even in his films, one sees the same trait. In “Era Bator Sur” (Song of the Deserted Path), he told a story of vanishing folk cultures, while in “Chikmik Bijuli” (The Lightening), he told a story in the backdrop of transformation of Guwahati from a small town to a big city.
The fact that Hazarika, who was encouraged as a child (he wrote his first song as a seven-year old, with deeply-meaningful lyrics yearning for the rebirth of the 15th century social reformer Saint Srimanta Sankardev to cure the society of its ills) by cultural icon Jyotiprasad Agarwalla to hone his skills was a major reason why he became the cultural activist that he was all through his lifetime.
A born humanist, his most iconic songs have been about the loss of innocence in the mankind. Through songs like “Bistirna Parore” (later translated into Bengali and Hindi – “Ganga Boicho Keno”/”Ganga Behti Ho Kyon”), in which he blasted his favourite river Brahmaputra for being flowing silently despite all the inhumanity on its banks, or “Manuhe Manuhor Baabe”, which spoke about the need to be compassionate to each other, he constantly pushed for the message of universal brotherhood, like his inspiration and friend, civil rights activist and singer Paul Robson of the US. Unfortunately, much of Hazarika’s genius – he was not only a composer-lyricist-singer-filmmaker but also a journalist-author-painter-politician (having served one term in the Assam Assembly as an independent legislator in the late 1960s and making a failed bid as a BJP candidate to enter the Lok Sabha much later) and much more – remains unknown outside North-East India and Bengal / Bangladesh because most of his lyrics, because of their cultural rootedness, a fact that Gulzar spoke about while introducing Hazarika’s Hindi album “Main Aur Mera Saaya”.
In his later life, he was deeply concerned about the atmosphere of social unrest in Assam – he more than once told me that he wished people would understand and use the “power of the Gaan” (songs) than that of the “power of the gun” to resolve problems of the society. In fact, if one dream of his that remained unfulfilled was his plan to make a feature film that would speak about the need to forsake the path of violence in the society.
(An edited version of this was published in the Outlook Magazine, issue dated 14th Nov, 2011)