Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bard of the Brahmaputra, minstrel of the masses, Dr Hazarika departs

Source : The Sunday Guardian , 13 Nov 2011

Musician and Padma Bhushan Bhupen Hazarika died on 5 November, but he leaves behind a body of work and a cultural and political legacy that is impossible to quantify, writes Mitra Phukan
Dr Bhupen Hazarika, singer, composer, lyricist, poet, filmmaker, author, one time legislator and editor, passed away in Mumbai on 5 November. His long-time companion, filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi, was at his side. Two days later, Hazarika's body was brought back to his native state of Assam, where it lay in Guwahati for two more days before being cremated with full state honours. The pyre was lit by his son, Tej Hazarika. An unprecedented number of people — lakhs — attended the funeral, disciplined and patient even in their grief, to pay their last respects and express their love and gratitude to a legend, for giving them the kind of music, films and poems that he did.

Bhupen Hazarika was no ordinary singer. For the Assamese people in particular and the Northeast in general, he was a colossus. Born in 1926 in remote Sadiya, he went to school in Assam and then studied political science at Benares Hindu University. He also acquired a PhD in Mass Communication from Columbia University. By the time he died, he was beloved of the masses, an iconic figure in the land of his birth.

Through his music, films, lyrics and writings, he garnered admirers all over the nation and the world. Besides his native Assamese, Hazarika sang in several other languages, including Bangla and Hindi, which endeared him to many in Bengal and Bangladesh as well. Through his melodies, he built a musical bridge connecting Assam to the rest of the country and the world. And even though he sang mostly in his mother tongue, Assamese, a language spoken by a comparatively small number of people in the country, by the time of his death he was "Bhupenda" to the entire nation.

Hazarika's melodic, literary and artistic sensibility was firmly rooted in this land. He took music out of the region and showcased its magnificence to the world. While doing so, he succeeded in heralding a revival of several musical forms of astonishing beauty that were on the verge of dying due to lack of patronage. He took inspiration from folk songs, from the Sattras (socio-religious institutions in Assam), and even songs from the numerous tribes in the state, to create fresh melodies of his own. In addition, he brought in whiffs of melodies of other lands, of more "mainland" music as well as from the West, all creatively blended with his own musical imagination to produce songs of great aesthetic value.

Beginning with his first stage performance at the age of five, he went on to write over 600 lyrics, sing over 1,000 songs, make a dozen films, and score music for over 70 more. He has authored 20 books and edited a magazine for 18 years. Honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1992), the Asom Ratna (the highest civilian award in Assam, 2009) and the Padma Bhushan (2001), he was also the Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1999) for five years, and President of the Asam Sahitya Sabha (1993), the premier literary organisation of Assam. But these myriad honours sat lightly on him. Hazarika was a humble man.

For decades, he poured his heart out in the Bihu pandals and functions of the land, singing with only a harmonium and tablas and sometimes a guitar as accompaniment. He was always accessible to the public, their dearly beloved "Bhupenda", and he never held himself apart from the people of the valleys even when he was extremely busy with work in Kolkata and Mumbai. He made it a point to be home for the Bihu season, visiting cities as well as remote villages of the land, when people thronged the Bihutolis till late at night, to listen to him singing old favourites and new songs especially composed for that season.

An intriguing aspect of Hazarika's music was that the majority of his work in Assamese was not film-based. Though he sang for films, he did not depend on them to popularise most of his songs: an unmistakable pointer to the fact that his music was very much in tune with the pulse of the masses.

He composed lyrics that were often about contemporary events, though they all soared to universal heights. He was a bard, a troubadour, who sang of peace and amity in his troubled state. The land, the beauties of its landscapes, the uniqueness of the tribes and communities were dear to him. But it was of the river, the Brahmaputra, or Luit, that he sang, over and over again. For him it was a metaphor of life. While in the US, he had met Paul Robeson, whose "Old Man River" influenced him greatly. Hazarika's powerful and passionate songs about his own beloved rivers, the Brahmaputra and Ganga, came out of that.

His humanistic bent of mind, combined with his empathy for the sufferings of others, ensured that his singing was always of universal joys and sorrows, love and longing, peace and brotherhood. His love songs were delicately evocative, his songs of nature vividly descriptive, his patriotic songs passionate and vigorous. They touched the heart of every listener and remained fresh even after repeated listenings. The rich body of his musical creations in Assamese is known as Bhupendra Sangeet, and is taught carefully and performed as a specific genre.

His unique voice, warm with feeling, a rich baritone that was timbered to a heartstopping texture, and his musicianship, earned him accolades also in Bengal, and later Bangladesh, which took him into its own warm embrace. His song Joi Joi Nobojato Bangladesh celebrated the creation of the new country. Later, his songs in Hindi such as Dil Hum Hum Kare (Rudaali, 1993) and Ganga went on to become classics.

As a filmmaker, he directed, sang in and was music director for several award-winning films such as Era Bator Xur (1956) Pratidhwani (1964), Chikmik Bijuli (1969) and Chameli Memsahib (1975). A three-time National Award winner for the best filmmaker (Shakuntala, 1960, Pratidhwani, 1964 and Loti Ghoti 1967), Hazarika was also an award winning music director of many Assamese, Bangla and Hindi films, including Rudaali, Aarop (1973), Gajagamini (2000), Daman (2001), etc.

As a member of the State Legislative Assembly (1967-1972), he was largely responsible for installing the first state-owned film studio in Guwahati. As a Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, he brought into focus the need to revive the Sattriya dance and music traditions. It was during his tenure that the genre was officially acknowledged as a major dance form of the country.

Cremated on a site donated by Gauhati University, the government, taking into account the wishes of the people, plans to convert the place into a Samadhi Sthal, archiving the maestro's works in its planned library and museum. His ashes have been sent with honour to all the district headquarters of the state, so that people can pay homage, after which they will be immersed in the main rivers of each district.