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 3, 2010

Gauhar Jaan: An extraordinary life brought alive

By Utpal Borpujari

December, 1911, Delhi: Emperor George V is crowned the absolute monarch of British India and simultaneously its capital formally shifts from Kolkata to Delhi. The special event is marked by the performance of two special artistes, one of whom sings “Yeh jalsa taajposhi ka mubarak ho mubarak ho!” (congratulations for this coronation), to huge applause from the gathered royalty from all over India. The two singers are specially presented to the Emperor, who gifts them with a hundred guineas. One of the them was Janki Bai. And the other, well, she was the first singer from India to have a gramophone record, on which, after every song, she used to flamboyantly announce her name: “My name is Gauhar Jaan!”

April, 2010, Delhi: Vikram Sampath, a young finance management professional working with a leading software company from Bangalore, proudly watches as Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari unveils the result of his painstacking research: My Name is Gauhar Jaan – The Life and Times of a Musician (Rupa & Co).

Nearly a hundred years separate the two events, but this much time was enough to obliterate from public memory one of the most versatile classical singers of those times, who was known as much for her talent and beauty as for her flamboyant lifestyle during the course of her lifetime that spanned between 1873 and 1930. Sampath, in a way, has done something remarkable by unearthing a treasure trove of information about Gauhar Jaan, who died so much unheralded in Mysore, where she had taken shelter as a guest of the king of Mysore in her last days on a measely pension, that noboby even knows where she was buried.

Gauhar Jaan was an exceptional beauty but her talent made her even more beautiful for people of that era. Added to that was the way she led her life – records say that she did not even wear the same jewellery set twice, and would travel on Kolkata streets on a horse buggy when Indians were forbidden from doing so, defying the rules set by the British and paying a fine for it but continuing to do so. She was born as Eileen Angelina Yeoward to an Anglo-Indian mother and Armenian Christian father. Her maternal grandfather was a British soldier and grandmother a Hindu, and when her mother married a Muslim gentleman from Azamgarh after her marriage fell apart, she converted to Islam and took the name Badi Malka Jaan, and the yougn Eileen became Gauhar Jaan. A young Gauhar learnt the basics of music in Varanasi, where they were settled initially, and later, when Malka Jaan shifted to Kolkata, Gauhar honed her musical skills in the culturally-vibrant city, and they became favourites at the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the Lucknow nawab who had shifted to the city. It was here that in 1902, Gauhar was chosen as the first Indian artiste to have a gramophone record by Frederick William Gaisberg, the Gramophone Company’s first India agent.

Sampath has broguht alive the forgotten and eventful life of Gauhar Jaan in his meticulously-researched book that would surely be marked as a milestone in research into forgotten musical heritage of India. Combining facts and legends about her life, Sampath has come up with a narrative that makes for a fascinating reading about not only the life of a person but also the socio-cultural scenario of that era. But it was not an easy task to find out details about the singer who had 600 records in 20 languages, which had her sing Thumris, Dadras and Ghazals apart from songs in Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Telugu and even French. The book is uplifting and at the same time melancholic as it records how personal fortunes swung from one extreme to another for Gauhar Jaan whose life goes for a downward spin after the death of her paramour Amrit Keshav Nayak, a famous actor and musician in Mumbai of those times, and how dies a lonely death in Mysore.

Sampath, just about 30, says he got immense help from Suresh Chandvankar, an avid record collector in Mumbai, as also quite a few other people during his research that first started when he read a document with Gauhar Jaan’s name duirng his research for his earlier book on the Mysore royal family. “She was the first artiste to have a record in India. What drove her to settle down in Mysore on a measely pension in her later life – that propelled me to find out more about her,” says Sampath, who carried out his research with his money. “The process was quite difficult but fascinating because she was someone who was such a celebrity of her times but now is almost unknown. There were enormous amount of gossip about her, like the one on how she threw a party to 2,000 people when her cat had a litter of five kittens.”

What made the research even more difficult was lack of documentation about earlier artistes. As he says, “The tendency in those times was to treat art as larger than the artistes themselves, so documenting lives of artistes did not seem important, which is why very little is known about the artistes of those times. Also, the artistes were very self effacing. Of course, now it is the other way round. Then the tendency was more so with women artistes, especially after the anti nautch campaign, because of which live stories of all those women got obliterated.”

Sampath, who is a trained Carnatic vocalist who occasionally performs, had himself had to go through a learning process during the research as he had no idea about the nuances of Hindustani classical music, which Gauhar Jaan practiced. “It was a great journey into her life that saw the heights of success and the depths of misery,” he says. His only regret is that he was not able to find her grave. “There is no account of her grave. I got records of her hospital bills, even the death certificate copy, but no details of her burial,” he says with a tinge of regret. “She certainly deserved much more, which is why I wanted to bring back her authentic memory. She was the one who devised the formula of presenting a classical piece in three minutes to suit the needs of records, which was later copied by all. She has not even got that much due. She had so much drama in her life that a movie can be made on it,” he says.

Sampath, who has just received a fellowship from the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin to work in a multi-disciplinary environment and study early gramophone artistes of India in Germany, is, however, happy that he by sheer providence got copies of some exquisite Urdu poetry written by Malka Jaan from the British Museum, which he has included in the book, which has the added attraction of a CD of Gauhar Jaan’s original recordings. “Imagine, 600 records in 20 languages – it is sheer genius,” exclaims Sampath. No less extraordinary has been his effort to bring that life alive, for sure.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 02-05-2010)

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