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)



May 18, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: To be a Northeasterner (Part II)

By Utpal Borpujari


Recently, there was a three-day festival, the Northeast Junction, organised by web portal assamtimes.org at the capital’s Dilli Haat. Sometime back, the newly-formed Northeast cell of Hindu College had organised a Northeast cultural and food festival to encouraging response. A couple of years ago, the capital’s people got a sampling of Assam’s famed Bhramyoman theatres in the form of three nights of performance by Kohinoor Theatre, with many non-Assamese theatre enthusiasts in attendance. Screenings of films from the region attract a sizeable non-Northeastern crowd if the event is publicised well, as we had seen when the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation had organised a festival of award-winning films from Assam a couple of years ago at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. Jakoi in Assam Bhawan is one of the most written-about ethnic food restaurants in the capital, and others like Delicacy at Assam House, Nagaland’s Kitchen at Green Park Market, Bahi at Gurgaon, Kaziranga (for Assamese cuisine) and Bamboo Hut (Naga cuisine) in the Delhi University area in north Delhi are some of the outlets where people of Delhi are getting introduced to culinary delights from the Northeast, slowly but surely. This is apart from the state food stalls at Dilli Haat, which also offer reasonably good cuisine.
The point I am trying to make is that the best way to introduce a culture to another community is through its performing arts and food. Communities from the Northeast, and ministries like Doner and home should use their funds earmarked for such purposes in organising more and more events related to the Northeast in various parts of the country. This is an age where if anything is marketed well, it sells. So why not package the Northeast — as a geographic entity as well as individual states — in various formats and promote it aggressively in various parts of the country, not just in metros and big cities, but also in smaller towns? I am sure everyone will agree that this will help in integrating the Northeast with the rest of the country, more so when there is so much misconception about the region outside it.

Failure of politicians

More than blaming Delhi, as is the tendency amongst the media and various organisations in the Northeast, the major share of the blame for the region still being so unknown has to lie with our own political leaders over the years. If we know so much about a Kerala or a Rajasthan, it is because the political class, despite their usual politicking, has had the vision to develop policy that has made these states so visible internationally in various spheres. But when it comes to the Northeast, no one outside knows our history, culture, literary traditions, culinary delights…the list can go on and on. If our politicians had the foresight to do a little bit for the region, the Northeast surely would not have been the blind spot for others as it is now. Our politicians barely see the larger picture in this context, and are content with raising the pitch only when there are incidents like the recent ones.

Educational tours

This is one aspect that can supplement ideas explored in the education and advocacy heads mentioned before. Schools, colleges and universities across India can be encouraged, with the Central government coordinating on this with various states, to have educational tours to the region’s states on a regular basis. Village and home stays, meetings with our region’s writers, performing artistes, tours to places of historical and cultural interest, interactions with peer groups in local educational institutions can be part of this. Living with people and sharing one another’s experiences are the best process to develop understanding, and such an initiative can work wonders in the long run.


Before one thinks of trying to sensitise the common people about the Northeast, the focus should be on sensitising those in various government departments, particularly police personnel. We all know how during the recent BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit in Delhi, while in their effort to curtail protests by Tibetans against the Chinese President, Delhi Police had harassed a whole lot of Northeasterners just because of the way they look. Earlier, in 2007, Delhi Police had brought out an obnoxious advisory for Northeastern students, advising them not to eat ‘smelly’ food and avoid dressing in certain ways. I won’t doubt the positive intention of whoever had formulated that advisory, but the fact is that the way the whole thing was written was condescending towards the food and sartorial habits of peoples from the region. Certain food items — especially those fermented — do smell, but if one can have no problem with a smelly European cheese, then what’s the problem with Nagaland’s akhuni (fermented beans) or Manipur’s dry fish? India is a nation of a thousand cultures, and just because one section does not eat something or finds someone’s food smelly, it can never be a point of objection for the former if we really call ourselves a land of diversity. If one stops being oneself just to ‘fit into’ a milieu, as a bright, young politician from Assam had virtually suggested in a Facebook exchange of opinions with me following the NEIim survey, only the majoritarian views would persist and opinions and lifestyles of smaller communities would no longer matter. Bureaucrats and policemen, especially in metropolitan cities having sizeable Northeastern population, and armymen sent on postings to the Northeast must be given basic courses about the diversity and complexities of the region so that they have some understanding about why the people from the region feel alienated from the rest of the country. I am sure this will lead to much better handling of many situations.

These are but a few ideas that could work towards removing some of the misconceptions about the Northeast and its peoples in the rest of India. There could be many more if there is a serious brainstorming about long-term solutions to the issue. But while doing that, we the people of Northeast also have to look within. How much do we know about ourselves even after 65 years of independence? Does an Assamese know Manipur’s history or vice versa? Does the average Assamese, traditionally, not have a massive superiority complex over a Naga or an Arunachali? Do the media of our region not take a strong jingoistic stance when it comes to reporting inter-state border disputes? Aggressive and even provocative headlines are a common practice by the Assamese media following any development regarding disputed areas along the state’s borders with Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh. How many of us visit one another’s states as tourists? Questions like these are uncomfortable, but important.

The NEIim study found that among the respondents, 87% working professionals cannot name all the states of the Northeast, but the fact is that most of them would not also be able to name all the states of India. Of those surveyed, 91% have no knowledge about the Northeast Industrial Policy, but I can bet they would be equally in the dark about industrial policies in most of the other states. So these, according to me, are not really important findings, and were only expected. What is more important is that 52% of the respondents have a negative perception about the region. Frankly speaking, if the figure had gone up as high as 90%, I would not have been surprised. But the fact that 48% of the respondents do not have a negative perception is really interesting, given the information gap relating to the region. It is important that we build upon this and change the image of the Northeast. For this, the governments of the region and the Centre, social organisations, community organisations both within and outside the region, and common people would have to work together, both at institutional and individual levels. Let’s do it. When boys and girls from the region are shining in the service, media and entertainment industries, apart from sports, let’s adopt an aggressive but positive strategy to tell the world that we look different, dress different and eat different, but we are no less Indian than anyone else. If we succeed in doing that, we won’t have Mizoram chief minister Lalthanhawla being asked to show his passport in a Mumbai hotel, or sometimes get ‘complimented’ — like I was by a journalist colleague in PTI in the mid-1990s, for “not looking like one from the Northeast”!

Meanwhile, we can hopefully chalk out and implement an action plan incorporating the above and other such interesting ideas to narrow the information gap vis-à-vis the Northeast. Let’s at least start off with a strong campaign — and I urge all the eight state governments of the region to unitedly make a pitch for this — to banish the derogatory term ‘chinki’, just as the words ‘chamar’ have been made unlawful in India and ‘negro’ in the United States.


(published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 17-05-2012)


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