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)

http://sevensisterspost.com/keeping-bhupendas-legacy-alive/

http://sevensisterspost.com/keeping-bhupendas-legacy-alive-ii/

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February 13, 2011

Reading the North-East

By Utpal Borpujari

Is there a distinct literary stream that flows from North-East India as compared to literary trends in the rest of India? As literature from North-East India, a region still far removed from the national consciousness unless it has to do with negativities such as insurgencies, corruption and natural calamities, is slowly but surely getting more and more visible, this is the question that is raising its head.

A region with rich literary traditions – whether in written form or in the oral traditions of numerous tribes – the written word from the North-East is suddenly attracting the attention of big publishing houses and even legendary agents like David Godwin like never before. Authors like Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who resigned from the Indian Administrative Service to become an author, or Temsula Ao from Nagaland, have been published more than once by publishers like Penguin and Zubaan and got noticed for their strongly rooted writings.

And while writings like them who write in English, a language that traditionally has been a strong point with North-East Indians, are getting their place under the sun, the rich literature in the local languages and dialects, and even those carried from generation to generation as part of the oral storytelling traditions among the numerous tribes, has started attracting the attention of the outside world through increasing translations. While authors like Dai has recreated stories from oral traditions in English, the powerful writings of prominent authors such as Bhabendranath Saikia, a physicist-turned-author-playwright-filmmaker who is considered among the greatest of Assamese creative brains ever, and Jnanpith Awardee Mamoni Raisom (Indira) Goswami are getting appreciated by readers across India in their translated versions.

These and particularly a recent publication by Oxford University Press (OUP), the two-volume “The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India” comprising fiction, essays and poetry by both prominent past and present writers as well as young authors and poets, has been in a way a pointer to a distinct literary strain in the region – distinct from the rest of India. The OUP publication, for the first time, has brought within one single cover writings of some of the most brilliant authors from the region, such as Navakanta Barua, Hiren Bhattacharya, the first Jnanpith Awardee from the region Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya, Saurabh Kumar Chaliha, Dai, Ao, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih et al. While much of the content in the publication have been reproduced here from various publications, what this has done is to enable the reader to have a first-hand journey into the literary minds of the North-East in one single place.

While original English writing has come out into the mainstream only recently, literature in Assamese and Manipuri has histories going back to centuries. But thanks to increasing translations, even North-Easterners, leave alone book lovers from rest of India and the world, are discovering literature from within the region. And with that the distinctiveness of the literary trends of the region. As Tilottoma Misra, the editor of the OUP volumes, puts it, “An intense sense of awareness of the cultural loss and recovery that came with the negotiation with ‘other’ cultures is a recurrent feature of the literatures of the seven north-eastern states. Each small community or linguistic group has responded through its oral or written communication to the encounters with the majoritarian cultures from either mainland India or from outside the borders of the country, in its own distinctive manner.” This is exactly what perhaps makes literature from the region different, as the writings not only tell a story but also reflect the unique histories, cultures and heritages of each of the multiple communities there.

Aruni Kashyap, who is the first author from the North-East to be represented by Godwin, and whose debut novel “The House With a Thousand Novels” will soon be published by Penguin, agrees with Misra’s view. “Due to the troubled relationship with the narrative of the Indian state which north-east shares with India, the writers have something very different to say than the other Indian-English authors. Apart from having a different sensibility, it’s the political nature of these writings which make them different. The fraught relationship most of the North-Eastern states have with the Centre often gets reflected in the literature, be it in  English, Assamese or Bodo. The fact that literary circles have been discussing ‘literature from NE’ as a different body of work, attests that it is developing in opposition to Indian-English writing, which probably mirrors the fraught relationship NE has with Delhi,” says Kashyap, two of whose poems feature in the OUP publication.

Indeed, much of the original English or regional language literature, that has emerged from the region at least in the last two decades or so, either have strong political backdrops or recreates stories from the history of the North-East that ‘mainstream’ historians – be it those writing school or college history books or those who have been known as prominent historians – have always bypassed while telling the ancient, Medieval or modern history of India. If Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s 1979 Jnanpith Award winning novel “Mrityunjaya” fictionalised the large-scale participation of North-Easterners in the Freedom Struggle of India, something that has never been given its due space by ‘mainstream’ historians, Easterine Kire’s recent “Mari” (Harper Collins) or Siddhartha Sarma’s award-winning “The Grasshoppers Run” (Scholastic) have brought to the mainstream stories of times when the region had become a major theatre of the Second World War. The OUP publication itself has “Samiran Barua is on his way”, a translation of a story by young author Manoj Goswami that has already achieved a cult status in Assamese literature for its strong political content. But apart from this strong tilt, stories from the region are also getting the attention for being able to reflect the societies of North-East that are unknown to the rest of the world, for example those by Arunachal Pradesh’s Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, Assam’s Rong Bong Terang, Manipur’s Yengkhom Indira or Mizoram’s Margaret Ch Zama.

Urvashi Butalia of publishing house Zubaan, which has published several women authors from the region, explains the scenario thus: “When publishing writers from the North-East it is difficult not to look at the political nature of that writing – virtually everyone writing from there is somehow or the other rooted and involved in the politics of the region. It is difficult to find writers from the North-East who, importantly, are not scared – as often writers of fiction are – of saying they are political. I’d say that is a key difference, and personally I find that much writing from the region has a strong sense of place. I expect that over the years, North-Eastern writers will begin to transcend borders and write about things that may not necessarily be rooted in the North-East, but for the time being it is this that makes the writing so distinct and unique.”

Siddhartha Sarma, whose travelogue on the region, “East of the Sun” (Tranquebar Press) has just hit the stands, believes that while every part of the world has a fascinating collection of story mines – and so does North-East India – but says there are some distinct markers about literature from the region. “The ethnic/tribal/linguistic interplays, tensions and interactions are possibly a little more pronounced, even edgy, in the region, than elsewhere. The more complicated the scene on the ground, the more fertile the ground is for harvesting stories. Viewed in that light, the North-East contains within it the kernels of some of the richest stories that can be told. I also like to believe that in many ways, the region contains some distinct attitudes to life and living. There is a degree of innocence and simplicity which runs through our lives. Part of it has to do with the fact that the region has stayed away from the mercantile approach to living that appears to have permeated the rest of the country so definitively. One still meets artists and craftsmen in far greater number from the region who practise their craft out of love for it, not so much for profit or publicity.”

Norway-based Kire, who taught at Nagaland University for some 18 years and did her PhD in English literature from Pune University, has an interesting viewpoint to offer. “The North-East has always been under-represented because all literary output from it has been hitherto overshadowed by the political conflicts that plague the region. We have had to make our own mark in the Indian literary world by forming The North East Writers Forum and showing the rest of India that there was much more to the North-East than political literature.” She also strongly believes that literature from the region has its own uniqueness, “The entire cultural base of the North-East is different from the rest of India. We may have some shared folk stories with some of the other states of India but otherwise, what the region has to offer is a wholly new literary experience. Its myths and legends are tied to the land, the hills and the rivers. Both the natural world as well as the spiritual world are always alive and real to the North-Easterner. What the North-East has to offer is this spiritual apprehension which is unlike anything that the other states have in their cultures.”

But Atreyee Gohain, who is currently pursuing her PhD in English literature at the Ohio University in the US, and whose translations of various authors have been published in the OUP anthology as well as by Penguin and Sahitya Akademi, has a slightly different viewpoint to offer. “I am not sure. I don’t know if there is a NE literature, same as I am not sure if all the diversity of literature in India can be categorized under Indian literature,” she says. But like all others, she too is happy that literature from the region is starting to get its due at last. “The ignorance of the rest of the country regarding writers and writing in North-East is not just limited to literature. It is heartening now to see our writers getting their dues.We have good translators, and publishers are just about beginning to explore the richness of writing in the North-East,” she says. The rays of the North-Eastern literary sun is for sure lighting up new horizons.

(An edited version of this article was published in The Times of India Crest Edition, 05-02-2011, http://www.timescrest.com, 05-02-2011)

http://www.timescrest.com/culture/recognition-for-north-east-writers-4689

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