Monday, November 14, 2011

Bhupen Da done in by the popular

Bhupen Hazarika was an activist and he invested his Assamese songs with his revolutionary-humanist politics. While at Columbia University in the early 1950s, Hazarika met Paul Robeson, the legendary black American singer, actor and civil rights activist. Robeson’s crusade for social justice and black pride permeated Hazarika’s worldview. Hazarika’s most well-known song, Bistirno dupare (Ganga) was inspired, in musical score and in tenor of lyrics, by Robeson’s powerful rendition of Ol’ Man River. The folk is often subsumed by the popular. The times are a testimony to this erasure. Hazarika’s music underwent scandalous translations in Hindi films; they were browbeaten to adhere to demands of the lowest common denominator.

A good example of his activist song writing mode is the ’60s song Prothom nohoy, dithiyo nohoy, tritiyo shrener jatri moy, a classic Communist march lyric enlisting Hazarika with the third class wayfarers of the world — a good example of how in translation, the socialist resistance in rhythm is diluted to a lively romantic number in Daman, an Assam-based movie: Bahar hi bahar hai/Phiza mein khumar hai.

One notices the same dilution in the popular Dola. The Bangla translation was a rage in Calcutta of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The lyrics mirrored the Osomiya original, if not actually capturing the swaying rhythm of the palanquin bearers with greater effect. In the original, the context is centred on palanquin-bearers, their sweat, exploitation and labour. The person inside the palanquin is a Raja. The lyrics borrow the subaltern voice (Bhalor chele tar ulongo shorere, ekti jama nai tar). And then there is a classic revolutionary denoument (hotath jode pichlea pore/aar dola jabe nah ko tola). Against this rousing lyric, there is the diluted Hindi rendition, picking up the rhythm but locating the controlling metaphor inside the carriage. The toiling load bearers lose their identity and are mere faceless choric voices. The lyrics trace the journey of a newlywed bride to her in-laws, eagerly awaiting her naya ghar, naya gaon, naya tola.

The popular dilutes the original, rustic voice of palanquin bearers. In his film music, the specifics of his folk lyrics slide into the syrupy universality of the popular. Wherever the specifics of the local cannot be accommodated within metropolitan sensibilities, the lyrics undergo an almost unforgivable transformation.

Hazarika was a humanist and he stressed the syncretism among the multiethnic demographics that inhabit the North-east. He foregrounded traditional cultural icons like Shankar Dev, the 12 BuraGohains (Ahoms), Lachit Borphukan and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala to insist on a compassionate framework that could accommodate the diverse ethnic communities of the region under the rubric of humanism. This is exemplified in an exceptional ’70s song Manuhe mnuhor babe, the Bangla version of which was rated as the No 2 song among Bangladeshis, after their national anthem. In loose translation, it reads: “If man does not think of man/With even just a little empathy/Tell me who will comrade/If we buy or sell humanity/If we repeat history/Won’t we be wrong comrade?”

While the Bangla version remains true to original lyrics, the Hindi version in Daman is ludicrous. Tum hi tum ho hamare/hum hi hum hai tumhare... It does still talk about human beings, but extends the courtesy to just self-obsessed silly romance. This is the second Hindi translation. The first, done for the film Siddharth, had the lyrics largely follow the original Insan insaniyat ke liye.

In Darmiyan, there is a song by him that speaks of Pighalta hua yeh samah/Hawayoh mein yeh narmiah/Phizawoh main khulta nasha/Yeh hum agaye hai kaha. In the original lyrics, the singer is the heroic revolutionary, lending his voice and blood to the poor and the downtrodden. The Hindi version begins with a soft soothing tone, mirroring the original. When the rousing activist lyrics are anticipated, all one hears is mujhe pyar tumse bhi, pyar tumse bhi hai, suggesting successful courtship! I remain a diehard fan of Dr Hazarika. His songs will always nourish my soul. However, his Hindi film songs are forgettable. The folk is best kept at a distance from the popular.