Friday, November 11, 2011

The bard’s global bonding

PRANAB BORA , The Telegraph , November 10, 2011

It was as if the song was waiting to sing itself, a song that has wafted across the lonely skies of Assam like its first wintry cirrus this harsh November.

Yet, even as guns boomed 21 times and reversed, and a people bowed their heads before a soldier of life, one couldn't help but wonder: does Moi jetiya ei jibonor maya eri gusi jam… (When I have left the maya of this world), mark the true emotions of a man who created it? It probably doesn't.

Many mornings ago, Bhupenda had in the course of an interview on All India Radio said: "Moi penpeniya premgeet negao…"(I don't sing silly syrupy love songs…) And then we had Moi jetiya…So, how did that happen? And it wasn't as if he had been ill.

"You're right," he told this correspondent in 1990-91, "I should not have written it… I have been scolded by friends who say I will live for many more years…" The song, he'd have us believe, was a mere poetic foray into the inevitable twilight of life.

Another time, he would say that the song was written for his brother Jayanta, who died young.

So would it be that the true resilience of the scorned lover is hidden in the lines of, say, Xoixobote dhemalite...?: Tomar obihone seepjorilom buli jodi tumi bhabisa, bhul korisa xonjoni mor olik xopondekhisa… (If you think without you I will take my life, you think wrong, you dream…)? We will never know.

Yet, as the sun once again rises above the golden rice fields of Assam that he so loved, one thing holds: that in the contradictions of Bhupen Hazarika often lies the content of both the man and his music.

The Bihu made him the Assamese he was, as he so often said, but he changed its rhythm to a four by four in Piriti piriti piriti piritimitha sura doi… as opposed to the traditional six-eight.

The genius in him, though, was to ensure that its notes were to endure, the golden exception to the rule. Others were to follow as if to create a genre within the genre, of Assam's famed song of spring. Bhupen had turned walking the edges of musical expression into a fine art, and yet had kept the faith.

"The Soviet Union's very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on colour or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation," Paul Robeson once said, an admirer and ardent supporter of Communism.

A red world order, if given the space it demanded of humanity, he believed, could finally release his people from the bondage of the white man. He was Bhupen's coloured guru. If Robeson were to turn his anger on the Mississippi, the old man river that said nothing to save the black man, Bhupen would rebuke the Brahmaputra, for silently watching the travails of the commoner on its banks.

If the image of the emaciated hand on deck, weary and sick of tryin', tired of livin an' skeered of dyin', were to be Robeson's symbol of the exploited Negro, Bhupen would recreate from the depths of despair the Indian and Assamese palanquin bearer in Dola edola. Like Robeson, Bhupen was to be the recognised Communist: "I am a Leftist because I have seen life," he would say.

All the while, he would be Robeson's voice in the east, having adapted "We're in the same boat brother" to his harmonium, spreading the message from every stage in sight.

And yet come 2004, and Bhupen turned mascot for the right-wing BJP in Assam. "What could I have done? I wanted to do something for the people, but the Communists had no money," he said.

Robeson was still his guru, but tokenism was out.

The human condition, unchanged, undernourished and underprivileged would provoke the creative mind across continents.

Bhupen borrowed from the most unlikely. If Bob Dylan, 15 years his junior, gave the world an anthem of humanity with Blowing in the wind in 1963, Hazarika gave the east Manuhor manuhor babe in 1964, his undying improvisation of the Kingston Trio's Tom Dooley, and for the east an enduring prayer for mankind.

And yet even as on the other side of the world the king or protest poetry adopted the electric and rock, having given a go bye, it is said, to what his strongest influence Woody Guthrie had fought for the people with — an acoustic guitar and a voice — Bhupen on stage was to stick to the very end to the simple harmonium, guitar and a pair of tablas, the spartan musical signature of this bard of the east.

(Other men of stature such as his brother Jayanta Hazarika and YS Mulki, and later others were often credited with the musical arrangement of his songs in the earlier years.)

Bhupen would keep it strict and simple. A statement of the power of music as an instrument of social change, though, was a constant: Guthrie, born in 1912 and also a known Communist, did his shows with a slogan on his guitar — "This machine kills fascists," it said.

Growing up in distant Assam, Bhupen had as a youngster penning his first songs had promised: Norokonkalor ostro xaji xoxonkarik bodhim… (I will make a weapon of human bones to kill the one who exploits…).

It was there though that he drew the line. Though a citizen of the world, this bard of the east, however, stayed an Assamese and an Indian.

He sang Joi joi nabajato Bangladesh, an ode to a new country that India had carved on the face of the earth in the seventies.

Yet as the Assam Agitation peaked and hundreds died, the bard would change one of his songs that originally said in 1968 Proti Oxomiyai ki kora usitupodex diboloi nai Lachit… (There isn't a Lachit Barphukan to tell the Assamese should do).

In 1979, the song had a new line: Aji Oxom morileamio morim buli koboloi shohido ase (Today there are our martyrs to tell us that we die if Assam does).

In the midst of it all came Bhupenda's love songs and his songs of and for the people and the world.

And of time. Xomoyor ogrogotirpokhirajot uthi, jam moi natun digontoloi, hahi mukhe (In the chariot of time's eternal flight, I will transcend newer horizons with a smiling face…)…

In between came Ghorir kata nai, xomoyor goti nai…(The watch has no hands, time no pace). Long before the end the bard had contemplated on the direction of the life he would take.

Lonely as he may have been in his moments, he set his sights on a life often beyond love.

What begins as a lament in Xoixobote dhemalite ends on a different note: one where love transcends all things material. Jiyaithaki ekhon xomaj gorhibor mor mon ase jot xonotkeo manuhor dam olopholeu besi ase… (I would like to live to create a world where man is priced at least a little above gold)…

In his life of Bhupen the bard, people prevailed. Above all.