Utpal Borpujari

November 14, 2011

The Bard of Brahmaputra (Tribute in Outlook Magazine)

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)


November 8, 2011

Bhupen Hazarika: A personal tribute

Filed under: Assam,Cinema,Film History — Utpal Borpujari @ 7:22 pm

By Utpal Borpujari

It’s quite an irony that obituary reports in the media largely have been identifying Dr Bhupen Hazarika as the “music maestro” and the “legendary balladeer”. He was, of course, both of these, but the kind of impact this genius has had in the socio-cultural-political space of a huge geographic region comprising the North-East India, West Bengal and Bangladesh would be hard to grasp for anyone who do not understand the Assamese and Bengali languages.

For the rest of India, Dr Hazarika (the “Dr” is not one of those bestowed upon cinema, cultural and political personalities by universities whose administrators are usually keen to rub shoulders with the recipients, but one had earned by completing a Ph.D from Columbia University in the early 1950s on how cultural tools can be used to spread the reach of education) is known for his fabulous music in Kalpana Lajmi’s “Rudali”, particularly that in the song “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” (based on his 1960s composition “Buku Ham Ham Kare” from the Assamese film “Moniram Dewan”), and his song “Ganga Behti Ho Kyun” (an adaption of “Ol’ Man River” by his friend, inspiration and civil rights activist-singer Paul Robson).

But what would remain unknown to music lovers outside Assamese and Bengali-speaking communities is Dr Hazarika’s immense capacity to write, compose and sing songs for nearly 75 years (he first sang as a 10-year-old kid in cultural doyen Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s second film “Indramalati” in 1939, also the second Assamese film after Agarwalla’s “Joymoti” four years before that) reflecting virtually every social issue, every political development, every season, every community, every emotion of the entire North-East and its neighbourhood – not to forget his numerous songs surrounding the subject of the river Brahmaputra, his lifelong inspiration.

Whether it was the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle – the government of that country has already announced the Muktijoddha Padak, the highest civilian award there, to him posthumously, while despite a long-pending demand from the entire North-East India as well as a unanimous resolution passed by the Assam State Assembly, the Indian government could not confer the Bharat Ratna to him while he was alive – the 1962 Chinese aggression, the establishment of the Gauhati University in 1948, the carving out of the states of Meghalaya and Nagaland out of Assam, the anti-foreign infiltration movement of the early 1980s or the ULFA-induced insurgency, Dr Hazarika has a song for everything. And each of these songs can be hummed along by any Assamese almost word to word, such evergreen classics they have been, just like probably over 95 per cent of the over 1,500 songs he wrote, composed and sung, some of them together with his highly-talented brother Jayanta Hazarika, who died young in the mid-1970s, and who too like his elder brother had become a legend by the time he was in his late 20s.

One reason why Dr Hazarika’s songs did not travel much outside the Assamese-Bengali-speaking areas were their cultural rootedness, even though his compositions always had a universality about them (to get a sense of what I am trying to convey, please listen to his songs in Assamese and Bengali available on Youtube and many other platforms on the Internet). Even Gulzar, while translating some of his classics into Hindi for HMV (now Saregama)’s album “Main Aur Mera Saaya” had spoken about this aspect of Dr Hazarika’s lyrics.

What would also remain outside the geographies mentioned is also the fact that Dr Hazarika was not just a lyricist-composer-singer. He was also a filmmaker – one who in 1992 was conferred with India’s highest honour in cinema, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award – a prolific writer, a painter, an editor who for years edited a highly-popular magazine “Amaar Pratinidhi”, a politician who served one term in the Assam Assembly as a Left-leaning independent politician in the late 1960s (in contrast to his failed attempt to enter the Lok Sabha much later as a BJP candidate, which was a rare and only failure in the public arena for him, and a classic example of how an entire community rejected the political face of a legend even while never stopping to shower him with love in his avatar as a creative artiste), a children’s literature writer, a cultural ambassador (he served as the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi), and a relentless crusader for social harmony.

What made him even more unique was his innate quality of being accessible to any and everyone of his fans. During his live performances in numerous open-air stages every April for over five decades all over Assam during the Rongali Bihu (the Assamese new year festival every mid-April), thousands would get into a virtual reverie listening to his songs and the conversations he would have with the crowd in between.

Personally, it was sometime in 1977-78, when as a 10-year-old, I first met Dr Bhupen Hazarika in person, and in really close quarters. We used to stay in one half of a rented accommodation in Guwahati’s Rajgarh locality, the other half being the residence of the late Nirode Chowdhury, one of the most popular Assamese writers whose stories “Chameli Memsab” and “Banahangsa” had in the previous couple of years had been made into highly-popular films with music by the maestro. Nirode Chowdhury’s house was virtually an extension of our house and as a kid I would often be found rummaging through his great collection of books. Like every Assamese would be, I too had been indoctrinated automatically into his fan club by that age, quite clearly beyond the capacity to understand the import of much of his lyrics but enthralled by the mellifluousness of his compositions. For a young kid of that age, he was “Bhupen Mama”, the name he had assumed as a writer of children’s literature, particularly some fun poems through which he had made learning the alphabet and words easier for us. Despite his literary-musical sessions with Chowdhury, he would indulge us kids, sometimes asking interesting questions, sometimes teasing us, sometimes saying something funny.

Later, in the late 1980s, as an over-enthusiastic college student, I put up some (now looking at it, very amateurish) photographs of landscapes I had shot with my automatic camera in a first-ever Kala Mela in Guwahati, which had the participation of some of the top painters and photographers of Assam. Looking back, I can clearly see that the organisers were more than encouraging to allow me to participate in that event, given the standard of my photography. But Dr Hazarika, who came in as a special visitor to the art fair, spent quite a few minutes praising my photography (by then, of course, he did not remember the little me he had met a decade before). Looking back, I now understand that it was his way of encouraging an enthusiastic youngster to pursue his interests. It was his style, to make everyone feel at ease and one’s own.

Later, in my avatar as a journalist and film critic, I met him many times in both Assam and Delhi, sometimes professionally and sometimes personally. Most of the time, his words would have me eat out of his hands, even as he would make me share his lunch or dinner. An eternal prankster, he even did not forget to pull my leg when I met him during one of his Delhi visits days after I had been declared as the winner of the Swarna Kamal for the Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards in 2003. “You have always been interviewing me, now get ready to be interviewed when you next visit Assam, now that you have become the first person from the North-East to win the Best Film Critic’s Award,” he joked as his long-time companion and filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi and senior journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap of the Indian Express enjoyed my discomfiture. It was during that visit that he had shared with me his plans to make a feature film with Assam’s insurgency as the backdrop. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, he started keeping unwell, and that film never got made. I am sure if it had got made, it would have been a strong rebuttal against violence and a call for survival of humanity, something he had strongly believed in and had got reflected in his song “Manuhe Manuhor Baabe, Jodihe Okono Nabhabe” (“If human beings don’t take care of the mankind, who will”).

As I write this, it is past 1 AM on the 8th of November. About 12 hours ago, his body arrived in Guwahati from Mumbai. It took his body nearly 8 hours to travel about 25 kms to his home in the Nizarapar locality, as lakhs of people thronged the route to have a glimpse of the maestro earlier in the day. Now his body lies in state in the Judge’s Field, a location where he had sung numerous times. And even at this late hour, a queue of people – comprising kids to senior citizens – several kilometres in length is slowly, and in a very remarkably disciplined manner, moving ahead for a last glimpse of the maestro before his body is cremated within the next 24 hours. As I see this in the continuous live telecast in news channels from Assam on my DTH system sitting at my home in Delhi, I can see that it is his message for humanity mainly through his music that is drawing in the multitudes. Quite clearly, the genius of Dr Bhupen Hazarika will live on through his songs, and in the hearts of his fans.

I don’t know if a river cries, and even if one does, I don’t know if its tears can be seen in the flowing waters. But I am sure, the Old Man River, the Brahmaputra, is today quietly shedding a tear, just as quietly it flows, having lost a genius born on its banks. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Dr Hazarika’s last recording to come into the public domain would be a poem on the river that remained his permanent inspiration. The poem is being used as a prelude in young filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky’s under-production bilingual feature film “as the River flows…” (Hindi) / “Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipaare” (Assamese), being produced by the National Film Development Corporation. At a personal level, it will be an honour to share credits in a film with the legend, having been associated with it as a script consultant. What more can an eternal fan ask for!

(Published on http://www.dearcinema.com and madaboutmoviez.com, on 08-11-2011)



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