Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Interview with Bhupen Hazarika

TUNES from deserted paths

Bhupen Hazarika’s ‘Manush manusher janne...’ was recently voted the ‘Best Song Of The Millennium’ by the BBC’s Bengali service. In a free-wheeling interview, the celebrated singer-composer-filmmaker whose entry into the BJP has triggered off much resentment in his state, takes a stroll down memory lane to justify his decision to change colour

Your decision to join the BJP has sparked off disappointment and dissent in the state with Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi openly dubbing you an “opportunist”. How do you react to the antagonism?

I’ll convince everyone, including the Chief Minister who has respected me for so long, that my motives are altrusic. I’m not in politics for material gain. You can check my bank balance. The little money I made from Kyun? went to the income tax department (Smiles). My only reason for joining active politics is to work towards the betterment of the North-East. I’m not interested in how states are run, I only want to save the land of my birth from neglect and ruin. To quote from one of my songs, Ami ek jajabar...I am an eternal traveller. But that doesn’t mean that I have to be homeless. My home is North-East India where all development work has virtually come to a standstill. And only if I’m in Parliament, can I open up the treasury and ensure that the money allotted to the state is properly dissemated.

This is not your first brush with politics. In ’67 you were elected to the legislative assembly as an independent candidate and immediately announced a a three-point agenda...

Yeah, the agenda was to set up a film studio for the North-East, to lay the foundation for the Jatya Natya Shala to preserve Assam’s drama tradition and construct a National Art Gallery. Despite ethnological differences, the problems of the state are not so much political as cultural. In two years, I was on the way to accomplishing my goals. Then the Indo-Pak war broke out. I went with the Indian army to the border town of Naubohisha where in the olden days boats used to be built to vanquish the Mughals. In the early ’70s, it was a refuge for fleeing East Pakistan refugees. They were seething from the ruling party’s indifference towards them. I fought to safeguard the lives and interests of these Bangladeshi refugees and earned the fond endearment of ‘Qawwali Babu’. A song I composed at the time, `Joi joi naba jata Bangladesh...’ on every Bengali lips.

Yet, you lost when you contested the ’71 elections and were even held responsible for the defeat of Hem Baruah, Assam’s well-known politician.

(Smiling) That was part of a well-planned political strategy.

You’re expecting to be back into power after being away for over three decades?

I hope I do win because you may be doing good work outside Parliament but unless you are a giant in political circles, you have little power to bring about social change.

So what’s your three-point agenda this time?

The BJP has assured me that I will have full freedom to identify problems in the state and seek solutions. I’ve already started studying and analysing the ten constituencies in my ward that stretches into Meghalaya and skirts the borders of Bhutan. I’ve met rebel tribal groups and their leaders. They have assured me of their support. I’ll be bringing out an album of eight songs in Bodo bhasha soon. My writings ... my poetry will be translated for them. I know they’ll be able to identify with my thinking. Certain political parties may be belittling my efforts and my popularity with my people, but within my party consensus is strong. The other day a prominent BJP leader openly declared that North-East India doesn’t belong to either the BJP or the AGP. It was the legacy of Bhupen Hazarika.

Yet, it was the same BJP who denied you a nomination to the Rajya Sabha last year, dropping you from the list at the last minute. And at the time it was the AGP and the Assam Students Union who backed you, vehemently protesting your humiliation.

What happened last year was unfortunate. Without my asking for it, my name was announced as a probable Rajya Sabha candidate, and then withdrawn. People were hurt by the “injustice”. I shrugged off the episode with a laugh. Even this time, I didn’t send out any feelers. I was invited to join the party by the Prime Minister, the Deputy PM and Sushma Swaraj.

What prompted you pitch in your lot with the BJP?

My idea of the BJP has changed in the last five years. It began when I was offered the honorary post of President of the Sangeet Natya Academy. It was an honour but I was apprehensive, fearing government pressure. Things were in a bad way at the academy. As I told the President, till now there was only dust and rust. Murli Manohar Joshi gave me the go-ahead to clean the organisation and assured me that the only colours I would be wearing were my own. In two years we were able to popularise neglected dance forms like the Jhau Nritya of Orissa, the Shankar Dev Kshatriya dance of Assam and uplift Kerala’s age-old Kodiattam, give them the status they deserved. I was able to successfully take Indian culture to countries like Egypt, Korea and Yugoslavia. I took the Sangeet Natak Academy from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the streets of Mumbai, Telangana, Guwahati and Imphal. People from Nagaland, Kashmir and Ladakh wrote to tell me that for the first time, thanks to our efforts, they were made to feel a part of India. My work with the Sangeet Natak Academy is my biggest success to date and proved that the ruling party doesn’t impose its views on everyone. Their objective is to do good work. Period.

The buzz is that you will be contesting from Tejpur?

No, I’ll be contesting from Guwahati. Guwahati is not a simple town, it’s a growing city, politically significant on the world map because it is the gate to South-East Asia. (Smiling) When I was in Guwahati recently, I was asked if I would be having tea with Sonia Gandhi. My answer was that I had had breakfast on the plane and Sushma Swaraj had given me puri bhaji for lunch. My stomach was too full to accept an invitation to tea.

You’ve never been a supporter of the Congress. One remembers you singing ‘Ganga behti hai kyun...’ in the presence of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then PM, as a seething rebellion against the system.

(With a misty smile) That was in ’67. A policeman escorted me to a meeting, informing me on the way that Mrs Gandhi wanted to hear me sing. I sang ‘Ganga ...’ and it amused me to see top Congress leaders clapping for a fiery Marxist who using the Ganga as a metaphor, was ranting against prevailing injustices.

So, how did a Marxist shrug off his Red ideologies and allow himself to be saffronised is the question uppermost on many minds?

I’ve never served any political party, only humanity at large. I’m a sarva bharatiya...a vishwa Bharatiya. As someone once said, an international figure. The influences on me have been too many and varied to subscribe to any one particular ideology. I was born in Sadia, the meeting place of Burma, China, East Pakistan and India. By the time I was nine, I was penning songs, drawing my muses from the different cultures as also the trees, the mountains and the rhythm of the singing brooks.

When did the son of a school teacher become a singer?

Beaming proudly) I sang my first song when I was 5-years-old and Laxmikant Bezbarua, the doyen of Assamese literature, described me as the second Madan. Master Madan was a 10-year-old musical prodigy whose ghazals had the whole country in a thrall then. My mother was also a very good devotional singer. I used to go to sleep listening to her lullabies.

Didn’t you use one of those lullabies in Rudaali?

(Nostalgically) Yeah, ‘Betain na betain na raina ...’. My mother sang like a gramophone record... Harimoti kirtans and Rabindra sangeets. She was greatly influenced by Bengali literature. We spoke Bengali as fluently as Assamese. For me Bengal is my second home. I’m even on the state’s voting list. It was here that I met Salil Chaudhury whose ‘Na jeeyo na ...’ remains one of my favourite songs even today. He was brought up in Assam. SD Burman was also from a neighbouring state, Tripura, and another of my role models. I bumped into Satyajit Ray at many of the small stores lining the streets outside Lighthouse Cinema, browsing through records and books like me. I was a part of the pro-Pather Panchali camp. Ray loved my first film, Era Bator Sur (Tunes From The Deserted Paths). He gave me a pat on the back and said, “So neo-realism has come to Assam too.”

What was the film about?

It was about the dreams and hopes of tea garden labourers. My hero was greatly moved by their plight. The film was in some ways autobiographical and shot in real tea gardens. It took one year to make and cost me Rs. 60,000. I would sing songs to buy negatives. The film’s message is that music can be an instrument for social change. That’s my political motto today. Give me a harmonium, a tabla and a microphone and I’ll talk to a lakh of people in the language of society. In the North-East I am fondly called manu ...man.

Has the endearment sprung from your popular song, ‘Manush manusher janne...Insaan insaan ke liye...’ that was voted the ‘Best Song Of The Millennium’ by the BBC Bengali service?

Yes. I sang the song for the first time in ’64. The North-East was burning at the time. Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur ... there was rebellion everywhere. The Christians invited Reverend Scott from Scotland to calm the hot-headed youths. The Chief Minister and Jaiprakash Narayan, an important national leader, did their bit too, without any success. Finally, the CM sought my help. I was singing for peace in some jungle. I arrived in Kohima, surrounded by cops. Through the security cordon I spotted a man staring at me. I beckoned him over. He bended enough to tell me that the rebels didn’t like me being a house guest of the CM. Without a moment’s thought I got on the scooter with him and he took me away.

Where to?

To a small rebel village where I was flooded with requests for a song. I had penned this song, ‘Manush manusher janne...’ in Assamese. I got a Naga boy to translate the song in Nagamese which is a mix of Assamese, Urdu, Hindi and even Bambaiya Hindi. I told the assembled gathering that I had been sent by the government of India to initiate peace talks. Then I sang the song. The next day news was buzzing that Manu had sung. And all was quiet on the Eastern front. My people are not unreasonable. They’ve fought for India’s independence and after ’47 not misbehaved on the language issue as other states. If they are upset today it is because their sentiments have been hurt. The BJP has assured me that Assam’s identity will not be harmed. It’s development is the party’s priority. I think I’ll sing this song on the election trail. ‘Manush manusher janne...’ Aastha rakho, keep the faith, Manu is coming...

Along with music, politics has also been an enduring interest. I’m told you have a degree in political science from the Benaras Hindu University.

That’s right. I took academic degrees like that (Snaps his fingers). I wasn’t interested in getting first class. But I had to be in the top five amongst the second class students. Those were heady days in Benaras. There was little money, just Rs 60 a month to take care of all expenses. Early mornings I’d cycle to the ghat, sitting at a distance listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan do his riyaaz. In the evenings it was the temples, to hear Siddeshwari Devi sing. I was like a boy possessed, collecting a garland of tunes. After BHU, I went to the Columbia University in the US to do a course in rural education and mass communication. This was in ’49, and on the way, I was allowed a three-day stopover in Paris. I was determined to meet Picasso. I did. He was a very good-looking man. We had a conversation on his art and he was impressed when I told him I liked his paintings from the Blie Period. I was reminded of that encounter when I was composing the music for MF Husain’s Gaja Gamini. Husain told me to think of my songs as paintings on the celluloid canvas.

Did Husain approach you for Meenaxi—A Tale Of Three Cities too?

He did, but I was very busy then. We enjoyed a great rapport during Gaja Gamini. I want him to work on my film. (With a naughty twinkle) And I’m not going to pay him much because he didn’t.

You’re planning a film?

Yeah, Joymoti will go on the floors soon after the elections. It’s a historical set in 1779. A huge academic project that has the backing of three financiers - a doctor, a professor and a secretary in the Home Department, Government of India. The love story of a 16-year-old Naga girl and a 54-year-old Assamese king, it will combine the simplicity of Nagaland and the aristocracy of Assam’s Ahum rulers. I’ll hire the best cameraman, the best set designer who can rebuild the ruin cities of Assam and yes, may be Husain. The four films I directed have won the President’s Gold Medal. I’ve presided over several international juries. I have given music to 122 Indian films. The experiences should come in handy now. Though in the ancient Assamese dialect, it will showcase the North-East to the world.

One last question. Though you’re better known for your fiery revolutionary songs, your songs of nature and your soothing ballad, in Assam your love songs have become a part of the courtship ritual. Which is your favourite love song?

‘Shoishobe ami tumare shange khele chilam...’ A young man is remembering the happy days of his childhood with his loved one. The beloved he spotted from afar at the bihu festival more recently. It was hard to recognise her though because she was covered in gold ornaments. She had betrayed her dream lover to marry a goldsmith. The betrayal still hurts but he refuses to cry or contemplate suicide. “I’ll live and build a society where a man’s worth is more than gold,” he tells her. I think I’ll sing this song when electioneering.

Does it bring back any memories?
Yeah, of a 16-year-old girl I met at the radio station.

And you married her?
No, she married someone else.

So, how did a Marxist shrug off his Red ideologies and allow himself to be saffronised is the question uppermost on many minds?

I’ve never served any political party, only humanity at large. I’m a sarva bharatiya...a vishwa Bharatiya. As someone once said, an international figure. The influences on me have been too many and varied to subscribe to any one particular ideology. I was born in Sadia, the meeting place of Burma, China, East Pakistan and India. By the time I was nine, I was penning songs, drawing my muses from the different cultures as also the trees, the mountains and the rhythm of the singing brooks.

When did the son of a school teacher become a singer?

(Beaming proudly) I sang my first song when I was 5-years-old and Laxmikant Bezbarua, the doyen of Assamese literature, described me as the second Madan. Master Madan was a 10-year-old musical prodigy whose ghazals had the whole country in a thrall then. My mother was also a very good devotional singer. I used to go to sleep listening to her lullabies.

Didn’t you use one of those lullabies in Rudaali?

(Nostalgically) Yeah, ‘Betain na betain na raina ...’. My mother sang like a gramophone record... Harimoti kirtans and Rabindra sangeets. She was greatly influenced by Bengali literature. We spoke Bengali as fluently as Assamese. For me Bengal is my second home. I’m even on the state’s voting list. It was here that I met Salil Chaudhury whose ‘Na jeeyo na ...’ remains one of my favourite songs even today. He was brought up in Assam. SD Burman was also from a neighbouring state, Tripura, and another of my role models. I bumped into Satyajit Ray at many of the small stores lining the streets outside Lighthouse Cinema, browsing through records and books like me. I was a part of the pro-Pather Panchali camp. Ray loved my first film, Era Bator Sur (Tunes From The Deserted Paths). He gave me a pat on the back and said, “So neo-realism has come to Assam too.”

What was the film about?

It was about the dreams and hopes of tea garden labourers. My hero was greatly moved by their plight. The film was in some ways autobiographical and shot in real tea gardens. It took one year to make and cost me Rs. 60,000. I would sing songs to buy negatives. The film’s message is that music can be an instrument for social change. That’s my political motto today. Give me a harmonium, a tabla and a microphone and I’ll talk to a lakh of people in the language of society. In the North-East I am fondly called manu ...man.

Has the endearment sprung from your popular song, ‘Manush manusher janne...Insaan insaan ke liye...’ that was voted the ‘Best Song Of The Millennium’ by the BBC Bengali service?

Yes. I sang the song for the first time in ’64. The North-East was burning at the time. Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur ... there was rebellion everywhere. The Christians invited Reverend Scott from Scotland to calm the hot-headed youths. The Chief Minister and Jaiprakash Narayan, an important national leader, did their bit too, without any success. Finally, the CM sought my help. I was singing for peace in some jungle. I arrived in Kohima, surrounded by cops. Through the security cordon I spotted a man staring at me. I beckoned him over. He bended enough to tell me that the rebels didn’t like me being a house guest of the CM. Without a moment’s thought I got on the scooter with him and he took me away.

Where to?

To a small rebel village where I was flooded with requests for a song. I had penned this song, ‘Manush manusher janne...’ in Assamese. I got a Naga boy to translate the song in Nagamese which is a mix of Assamese, Urdu, Hindi and even Bambaiya Hindi. I told the assembled gathering that I had been sent by the government of India to initiate peace talks. Then I sang the song. The next day news was buzzing that Manu had sung. And all was quiet on the Eastern front. My people are not unreasonable. They’ve fought for India’s independence and after ’47 not misbehaved on the language issue as other states. If they are upset today it is because their sentiments have been hurt. The BJP has assured me that Assam’s identity will not be harmed. It’s development is the party’s priority. I think I’ll sing this song on the election trail. ‘Manush manusher janne...’ Aastha rakho, keep the faith, Manu is coming...

Along with music, politics has also been an enduring interest. I’m told you have a degree in political science from the Benaras Hindu University.

That’s right. I took academic degrees like that (Snaps his fingers). I wasn’t interested in getting first class. But I had to be in the top five amongst the second class students. Those were heady days in Benaras. There was little money, just Rs 60 a month to take care of all expenses. Early mornings I’d cycle to the ghat, sitting at a distance listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan do his riyaaz. In the evenings it was the temples, to hear Siddeshwari Devi sing. I was like a boy possessed, collecting a garland of tunes. After BHU, I went to the Columbia University in the US to do a course in rural education and mass communication. This was in ’49, and on the way, I was allowed a three-day stopover in Paris. I was determined to meet Picasso. I did. He was a very good-looking man. We had a conversation on his art and he was impressed when I told him I liked his paintings from the Blie Period. I was reminded of that encounter when I was composing the music for MF Husain’s Gaja Gamini. Husain told me to think of my songs as paintings on the celluloid canvas.

Did Husain approach you for Meenaxi—A Tale Of Three Cities too?

He did, but I was very busy then. We enjoyed a great rapport during Gaja Gamini. I want him to work on my film. (With a naughty twinkle) And I’m not going to pay him much because he didn’t.

You’re planning a film?

Yeah, Joymoti will go on the floors soon after the elections. It’s a historical set in 1779. A huge academic project that has the backing of three financiers - a doctor, a professor and a secretary in the Home Department, Government of India. The love story of a 16-year-old Naga girl and a 54-year-old Assamese king, it will combine the simplicity of Nagaland and the aristocracy of Assam’s Ahum rulers. I’ll hire the best cameraman, the best set designer who can rebuild the ruin cities of Assam and yes, may be Husain. The four films I directed have won the President’s Gold Medal. I’ve presided over several international juries. I have given music to 122 Indian films. The experiences should come in handy now. Though in the ancient Assamese dialect, it will showcase the North-East to the world.

One last question. Though you’re better known for your fiery revolutionary songs, your songs of nature and your soothing ballad, in Assam your love songs have become a part of the courtship ritual. Which is your favourite love song?

‘Shoishobe ami tumare shange khele chilam...’ A young man is remembering the happy days of his childhood with his loved one. The beloved he spotted from afar at the bihu festival more recently. It was hard to recognise her though because she was covered in gold ornaments. She had betrayed her dream lover to marry a goldsmith. The betrayal still hurts but he refuses to cry or contemplate suicide. “I’ll live and build a society where a man’s worth is more than gold,” he tells her. I think I’ll sing this song when electioneering.

Does it bring back any memories?
Yeah, of a 16-year-old girl I met at the radio station.

And you married her?
No, she married someone else.

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