Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bhupen Hazarika: His message lives on - By Sanjoy Hazarika

In every household in Assam, a lamp has burned these past few days to honour the greatest figure that most people of this beautiful but blighted state, locked away in India's eastern borderland by distance, lack of growth and conflicts, have known in perhaps hundreds of years. Why just in Assam? Across India, South Asia and the world, many who are Assamese and many others who are not, have done the same and sung, wept and prayed out of shradha for Dr. Bhupen Hazarika., whose lyrics keep running around in our heads, on radio stations and television channels. I am one of them and although I did not know him as well as those who were close to him, there are many memories of the man I called "khura" or uncle.

But before we get into reminiscences, I wish to say something about the extraordinary outpouring of spontaneous love and affection for this man whom we called the Bard of the Brahmaputra and the Living Legend. For many Assamese, he was a creative genius with his extraordinary songs proclaiming the rights of people, of brotherhood in that rich, velvety baritone which would reach into your innermost recesses, sending shivers down your spine and getting the hair on your arms to stand.

Millions of people, young and old, the rich and the poor, the fit and the fat, the infirm and the healthy, stood in line patiently for hours through the day and night to pay homage. Many wept but many more were singing his songs of humanity and equality, his political signature tunes, which have become part of our folklore and history. They came not just from every corner and isolated village of Assam but from towns and hamlets across the north-east and further. Songs were played through day and night over public address systems on every street of Guwahati from the time of his death.

It was as he had sung, in his unforgettable Sagar Sangame or "At the Confluence of Seas," where he had never tired of swimming. I was unable to go personally but a senior office staff member, who waited and walked for over two hours to reach Bhupen Hazarika's sealed coffin at 1am to pay his last respects, wrote the following to me: "People in the queue came from different NE states, districts of Assam and from areas around Guwahati. Most of the people were heard singing "Bhupendra Sangeet." A group near me who had come from Dhubri, which included elderly persons and the young, was singing with such melody all through, especially one person who was over 60 years in the group. Some young boys were shouting "Bhupenda Amar ho!" The Dighalipukhuri park (Shanti Udyan) where Dr. Hazarika's statue is located had live concert of (his) songs sung by different artistes young and old throughout, starting from morning till the time when I was returning home."

As a 21-gun salute was offered by the Assam Police, doctors and forensic experts took his foot impressions for posterity. I do not know if these footprints will now be carried around the Assamese and north-eastern countryside for more to pay their respects and homage but I worry about a cult-like situation developing about this man whose political message was equality, who loved simple home cooked food and the company of friends to have addas, create his compositions (sometimes on the back of an envelope or a scrap of paper) and express his concern and love for his own people, although for decades he lived in Calcutta and Mumbai, cities which, in his middle and later years, gave him both dignity and financial stability.

To millions he was simply "Bhupen da," including those of the younger generation who have never seen him barring on television nor heard him live -- but on CDs and DVDs. I was privileged to call him "khura," partly because of his closeness in the 1960s to my parents, the late Chaitanya Nath Hazarika and Maya Hazarika of Shillong, and their mutual respect and affection. One of my mother's fondest memories is singing with him (and she was a trained, fine singer) at All India Radio in Guwahati which used to be the great Mecca of music and aspiring stars in the days when television had not seized us with its ugly embrace.

Some years back, I was especially privileged to work with him and Kalpana Lajmi, his companion of many years and partner in many creative ventures, who took care of him with fierce affection, in a documentary series for Doordarshan on the north-east. My collaboration began when the great man called and asked me to help. Could anyone say no to him? He was quick to put me at ease, listening to my ideas with close attention, and used them extensively as I proposed the script and discussed concepts. It was a lesson in humility.

His haunting melodies torment yet inspire us. They fly across the world, on our mobile ring tones, in our personal collections, our memories and experiences.

Many of us called him the Bard of the Brahmaputra. But he was more than that -- he was a passionate fighter for rights, for the poor (notice how both his early and also the later songs drive home the messages of equality, humanity and brotherhood even in times of pain and tragedy) and who believed in the importance of means over ends. But he was also an incorrigible optimist and even a prankster, with an impish sense of humour. That was as much part of him as his ability to give love and his creative abilities.

Elsewhere, I have said that Bhupen Hazarika wove the virtues and capacities of several centuries and a handful of truly great Assamese into his life and his compositions as the currents of the Brahmaputra carried the values and traditions of the Vaishnav reformer Srimanta Sankardeva of the 15th and 16th centuries; the valour and call to arms of Lachit Barpkukan, general of the 17th century when Assam defeated a mighty Mughal invasion; the richness of prose and composition of Lakhinath Bezbaruah; the humanity and creativity of Jyoti Prasad Aggarwalla and Bibhnu Rabha; and then the political steadfastness and courage of Gopinath Bardoloi, Assam's premier of the 1940s, who stood alone with Gandhi against his own Congress party and the Muslim League, refusing Assam to be absorbed into Bengal and thus into East Pakistan.

The Bard of the Brahmaputra may be silent but the river flows on. It may be centuries before it finds another. But till then, it will flow and so will his music. His ballads will sustain the river, his true muse, and all of us, for without the Brahmaputra, there can be no Assam or north-east or lands beyond our borders.

The writer is a Journalist, Author, Researcher, Documentary Film-Maker and Field Worker. He is founder and Managing Trustee of the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research which works extensively in Assam along the Brahmaputra ( and is Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair and Director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.