Utpal Borpujari

November 18, 2012

Keeping Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s Legacy Alive

By Utpal Borpujari

A year has gone by since Dr Bhupen Hazarika passed away. It seems only yesterday that lakhs and lakhs of people queued up patiently to have a last glimpse of his body at Judge’s Field in Guwahati. It was a scene never seen in Assam before, and it is doubtful if anyone else’s death would elicit such unprecedented level of public mourning.

But as the state commemorates the first anniversary of the great singer-composer-lyricist-filmmaker-writer’s death, instead of playing into the hands of sentimentalism-driven empty rhetoric, we as a society would do well to analyse whether we are in the right track to preserve his legacy.

This is important more so in the light of the fact that the Assamese society – here I am referring to all inhabitants of Assam, rather than the only Assamese-speaking people – is inherently infamous about its ability to forget its great sons and their deeds. And let’s put it bluntly – the people, the society, the government, the media and various institutions – all are to be blamed for this trait of ours. Come to think of it – how many of us can recall the birth and death anniversaries of great leaders like Gopinath Bordoloi, Tarun Ram Phukan or Nabin Chandra Bordoloi, or know the work of intellectuals like Krishna Kanta Handique, Anundoram Barooah and Banikanta Kakati, or have adequate knowledge of the creations of cultural stalwarts like Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, Bishnu Prasad Rabha or Phani Sarma? (I remember reading long time ago in the Prantik magazine how when someone went to look for Bishnu Prasad Rabha’s house in Tezpur and asked a youngster for directions, he got the shocking counter-question: “In which department does he work?”)

Given the fact that the Bhupen Hazarika’s songs, if not other creations, are too deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the Assamese society to be so easily forgotten for at least the next 100 years, especially in this digital age when the virtual technology has made preserving and accessing artistic creations much easier (for example, the cultural website http://www.enajori.com has archived links to many old Assamese songs which in the pre-Internet and pre-digital age were impossible to access). But Bhupen Hazarika’s legacy is much bigger than his songs – his ideology, his creativity and his connect with the masses are the aspects that need to be preserved as a whole. Hence, just constructing a memorial at the site where his body was cremated, or having a museum at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra and instituting an award in his memory, while being essential steps, would not be enough to do that.

So, what should we do? The list can be long, but achievable. And it can include probably many more interesting ideas apart from those sought to be discussed below. But the fact is, if plans are not formulated and gradually implemented in a time bound manner, we will still be lamenting after 50 years that we have failed to preserve his legacy, like we do in case of many other luminaries in their birth and death anniversaries. Hence, my effort below to prioritise some of the things that we need to take up as a society – all of which can be initiated by the government with the involvement of appropriate experts from the various required fields:

1. The Memorial: The Bhupen Hazarika Memorial, which is planned to be constructed at his cremation point in Jalukbari, will be a “world standard” one, according to the state government’s announcement. While the details of the project are still not in public domain, it can be hoped that the government means what it is saying. But one thing is sure – it must not be just a well-designed concrete structure with flower beds and pathways around it like most of the memorials in India end up as! The memorial must enable any visitor to experience the whole life and creativity of Bhupen Hazarika. To do that, we must have a museum dedicated to him at the site (if need be, the museum at the Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra should be shifted to this location), an audio-visual presentation (comprising video, still photographs, audio of his songs and speeches), and a light-and-sound show (something which is being planned at the Kalakshetra should ideally happen at the memorial) at the site giving the visitors an opportunity to experience the life and times of the bard, and a memorabilia shop selling his music, his books, replica of his paintings, his photographs, CDs of his films, T-shirts, mugs, note pads, pens, bags, caps and anything else that can represent his creativity and can attract all sections of people. This sort of tactics are used by museums and memorials all over the world to not only make a great person’s legacy relevant all the time but also to generate revenue to run the place efficiently. Of course, the place would need ample parking space and other amenities like a cafeteria and rest rooms. But would the present available space allow such a huge infrastructure – that is the question one will have to consider.

2. House as tourist destination: World over, the houses of great personalities act as superb tourist destinations. Be it William Shakespeare or Jules Verne or even the fictional house of Sherlock Holmes, tourists throng such places in hundreds and even thousands. Bhupen Hazarika’s house – at least a wing of it since other family members continue to live there – should be put on the tourist destination map of Assam. The idea of a memorabilia shop and an audio-visual tour can be replicated here also.

3. International chair in a centre of educational excellence: A chair can be instituted in Bhupen Hazarika’s name at perhaps the Columbia School of Journalism, his alma matter, and a prominent Indian university like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, dedicated to the study of impact of culture in society building, given the fact the Bhupen Hazarika’s songs always reflected the society around us. An appropriate grant can be secured by the state government from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, to institute these two chairs.

4. The award: The state government has already made the highly-welcome announcement about instituting an international award in the field of music in memory of Bhupen Hazarika. But if the award has to be a really international in its scale, the government will have to appoint a body comprising international musical stalwarts to identify suitable awardees from various parts of the world whose musical philosophies reflect that of Bhupen Hazarika. Just giving the award to some ‘famous’ names who won’t have even heard Hazarika’s name would not mean anything. The state’s Culture Ministry has a huge role to play in it, which hopefully it will.

5. Museum: While the aspect of museum has been discussed above, the idea of it must reflect everything about the great artiste. It should have everything related to him – original EP and LP records of his songs, posters of his films, photographs, his clothes, his pens, his note books, samples of his handwriting – and everything else that one can put on public display.

6. Annotation of songs: This is what must be taken up at a war footing. We still don’t have annotations of Jyoti and Rabha Sangeet that can be accessed by international musicians. Only recently, media reports said that for the first time ever English annotations of some of Jyotiprasad’s songs were being prepared. This is a real shame. While it’s the duty of the State Culture Ministry / Department to prepare annotations of the songs of such great artistes, it’s even more important to get on the job as far as Hazarika’s creations are concerned, given the hug e number of songs he wrote, composed and sang. Proper annotation is a must if we want his songs to travel to various parts of the world.

7. English translation of all his songs by a panel of experts: This is again a must. While it may not be possible to have quality translations of his lyrics in a way that they can be sung in English, given the fact the high rootedness of them in the cultural and social milieu of Assam, they can be academically translated into English so that researchers and music lovers from the world over can access their meaning in the true sense.

8. Translation of all his writings to English and other languages: The same applies to his other writings, that are already available in collection forms.

9. Recognition of Bhupendra Sangeet as a legitimate school of modern music like Rabindra Sangeet: Again, the state government and non-governmental organisations will have to play a leading role in making the Centre take this forward. Bhupen Hazarika’s music has its own unique style and idiom, and that will be scientifically preserved only if gets nationally recognised as a school of music.

10. Proper collection, archiving and public accessibility of all his films (both fiction and documentaries), plus films that he scored music for (Assamese, Bengali, Hindi): Like many old Indian (including Assamese) films, most of Bhupen Hazarika’s work in cinema (as director) are inaccessible to the masses. In contrast, his work as a composer in cinema as relatively better accessible. However, a concerted effort is needed, perhaps under the aegis of an organisation like the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation, to collect all his cinematic work (as director and as composer), whether in fiction or non-fiction, and across languages, and properly archive them and make them available for public consumption. While some of his films are in the National Film Archives of India and the State Film Archive, quite a few of them might be already lost. Urgent action is needed to preserve whatever is remaining.

But all this and perhaps more will be possible when the government, people and the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust will work in tandem. Given the present circumstances, where the legal heir of Bhupen Hazarika’s intellectual property is still to be decided, it seems that will still take some time. And that means some precious time will be lost. One can only hope that the legacy of Bhupen Hazarika will not get lost in some silly fight over ownership of his creations. Because ultimately, what he created is the common heritage of Assam, India and the whole world.

PS: The last paragraph comes from the author’s own small (and sad) experience. Senior journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap and the author had conceptualised a documentary film relating to Bhupen Hazarika’s songs, and Kashyap wrote one email formally to the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust and also spoke to Trust member Sunil Nath more than once on the mails which had sought certain information regarding the use of Bhupen Hazarika’s songs in the film. That was nearly a year ago. We are still awaiting a reply!!! If something seeking to take Bhupen Hazarika’s philosophy to the world elicits no response from the quarters that supposedly holds the rights to his creations, how can one expect these quarters to keep the legacy alive?

(Published in Assam Information, November 2012 issue; as well as Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, on 16-11-2012 & 17-11-2012)




April 19, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: Freedom of expression, anyone?

By Utpal Borpujari

This is the Rongali Bihu season, and the whole of Assam is under the spell of a joyous mood. It is also the time when everyone would be proudly wearing his or her Assameseness / ethnicity on his/her sleeve. Intellectuals and cultural personalities, inaugurating Bihu-related events, would be proudly – and rightly – be proclaiming how colourful and diverse our culture is. And, of course, everyone would be posting Bihu-related photos on their Facebook page. But no one would remember that less than three weeks before the Assamese New Year celebrations, a shameful chapter was written in Assam’s cultural history – and more shamefully, the state government played a co-conspirator’s role in it.

Yes, I am referring to the forced cancellation of the staging of the comedy play “Mahabharator Bhool” (The Mahabharat’s Mistake), written by Tarun Saikia, in what is probably the first-ever example of moral policing in the cultural arena of the state by a bunch of self-styled protectors of religion and culture who are unlikely to have any idea about the content of the play. Of course, the issue is not about the content of the play, but about freedom of artistic expression and also of the administration’s duty to safeguard that right. Unfortunately, the administration itself played a partner in this crime by promptly withdrawing permission to stage the play by the Rongmahal theatre group from Nagaon.

The sequence of events went like this roughly – Rongmahal was scheduled to stage the play at Guwahati’s Rabindra Bhavan, the state cultural affairs department-owned auditorium, on March 31. But the ‘guardian’ of Hinduism, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) whose only calling card in last so many years has been moral policing, objected to the name of the play, saying it was against the dignity of the great epic. The department, according to news reports, facilitated a meeting between the playwright/director of the play and VHP representatives, following which the name of the play was changed to “Bholanathar Sapon” (Bholanath’s Dream). This too was objected by another group of VHP activists and the Sattra Mahasabha. And the department withdrew the permission to stage the play, citing possible law and order problems.

Now, organisations like VHP exist across religions and they, in the name of protecting their respective religions, indulge in such cheap publicity-seeking activities. Such groups, claiming to represent the respective religions whose values they claim to protect from any dilution or pollution, playact the role of moral guardians of the society mostly to get publicity in media that are over-eager to give space to them for the sensationalistic value that coverage of such events have. I am sure those who raised the protests are not even aware of the content of the play and decided to criticise it simply because the title of play implied that there was a ‘mistake’ in Mahabharat. These are the organisations that would force an artist like M F Hussain to leave the country or an author like Salman Rushdie to call off his participation in a literary festival or a filmmaker to delete scenes that, according to them, might offend sensibilities. It is their way of existing in public consciousness. Therefore, the issue is not about VHP or any other group indulging in activities like the one related to “Mahabharatar Bhool”. Incidentally, it is also curious that the objections came only when the play was to be staged in Guwahati, while it has been staged earlier in places like Tezpur and Nagaon. Perhaps, the fact that various TV channels and newspapers of the state are headquartered in Guwahati was a factor here.

The issue is more about the state government’s complicity in this assault of freedom of cultural expression. Just at the whiff of a threat, that too from an organisation that has mostly noise value, the cultural affairs department became so worried about the possibility of law and order situations that it cancelled the permission for the staging of the play. And it is the same state government that would bring out all security paraphernalia if an organisation like the ULFA calls for a ‘bandh’ against say the Prime Minister’s visit to the state but would still go ahead with the official programmes scheduled for him. Now, of course, it would be too much to expect any government to give the same level of importance to the Prime Minister’s visit and the mere staging of a play by an amateur theatre group. But the fact of the matter is that it is the government’s duty to protect the right to freedom of expression of every individual, big or small. Cultural affairs director Madhurima Barua has been quoted saying that the permission to stage the play had been cancelled because of the possibility of potential law and order situation.

“We received complaints regarding the play that it might hurt sentiments of Hindu religion. We work for healthy culture and the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium is for meaningful theatre. We cannot allow staging of something that might lead to controversy at the venue,” she said. Now the question is, was there any input from security agencies if there could actually be a law and order situation, beyond maybe a few slogan-shouting gatecrashers who could easily have been kept at bay keeping in view the cultural centre’s secured entry-exit points? Or, was it that the department chose to just take the easy way out, thus giving legitimacy to a fringe group’s demands? Was there any independent assessment that the play “might” hurt Hindu sentiments? If Hindu sentiments had been hurt, there would have been definite objections raised during or after the earlier stagings of the play, common sense says. The director also very interestingly has been quoted as saying that Rabindra Bhavan is meant for “meaningful theatre”. Did the department find out that the said play was not meaningful only after VHP and the Satra Mahasabha raised objections? If it was not meaningful theatre, why the department had given the permission in the first place? The play’s director Pabitra Pran Sarma has been quoted saying that the name of the play had been changed “acting upon VHP’s complaint and cultural affairs’ insistence”, following which “we had in fact changed the name of the play to Bholanathor Hapon under protest”.

Going by it, it seems the department was more eager to please VHP than protect the rights of a theatre group of the state. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered. Come to think of it, we have a government of the Congress party that is ideologically opposed to the philosophy propagated by organisations like VHP. But then, the Congress, while parroting the cause of secularity ad nauseum at every possible platform, is also known for not taking any strong measures against such religious rabble-rouser lest it upsets what it perceives as its vote banks. As a reporter covering the All India Congress Committee (AICC) for several years spanning the NDA and UPA governments, this writer was witness to Congress spokespersons during the NDA regime demanding a ban on VHP for exactly this kind of activities. I particularly remember how once the then AICC spokesman, and now union commerce minister, Anand Sharma had displayed at the regular media briefing what he claimed were sharp weapons being distributed by VHP to its workers in some parts of the country, and demanded an immediate ban on the Sangh Parivar organisation. Like any other such demands that parties raise for the sake of attacking those with differing political views, that demand was promptly forgotten once the NDA paved the way for the UPA at the Centre in 2004.

The point actually is also not about the Congress being in power – for any political party, protecting cultural freedom comes as a last priority unless they see some political mileage about it (note the absolute silence from all political parties in Assam about this case of moral policing). But strangely, apart from individual cultural personalities and amateur theatre groups, there has not been a murmur of protest against this first-time extra-constitutional censorship in Assam even by organisations like the Assam Sahitya Sabha or popular, mass-based Bhramyoman theatre groups, or by the ‘Jatiya Sangathans’ like the All Assam Students’ Union or the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, even though this is a clear attack on Assamese culture. By not taking a stand against this incident and thus failing to create an effective mass movement against such intolerance, all of them have lost an opportunity to once again highlight the spirit of tolerance that Srimanta Sankardev had so thoughtfully propagated while culturally uniting all the ethnic communities of the state. Probably, we are better off being only ‘Bihu Boliyas’ – people who go crazy, even if metaphorically, during the spring festival – without actually respecting our own culture. And don’t be surprised if this is taken as an example by other such fringe groups to become selfstyled moral police of the society, every time in indirect connivance of a pliable government.

(Published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 18-04-2012)


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