Monday, November 14, 2011

The boatman's missing melody

Author: Chandan Mitra , The Daily Pioneer, 12 Nov 2011

With the passing away of Bhupen Hazarika a slice of India's oral tradition and folk music has bid adieu, slowly pauperising indigenous creativity

My acquaintance with Bhupen Hazarika was in a context far removed from what made him a legend in his lifetime. Entrusted with the task of persuading him to contest the 2004 Lok Sabha election on a BJP ticket, I approached his companion Kalpana Lajmi who agreed to revert after assessing his preliminary response. When I spoke to him over telephone, Bhupenda seemed to be in two minds. He was concerned about Assam’s identity and culture being swamped by illegal immigrants, acknowledged that the BJP was the only national party ideologically committed to combating infiltration from across the border, but equally uncertain about his suitability to plunge into the heat and dust of electoral politics.

After some persuasion he agreed to meet me in Delhi and accordingly I went to the Grand (then Grand Hyatt) in Vasant Kunj to convince him. We chatted for nearly two hours, during which he first agreed to contest but insisted on being fielded as an Independent candidate. Some more effort later, he admitted that the party symbol mattered and relented. Delighted, I called Arun Jaitley from his hotel room to proclaim my mission was accomplished and set up a meeting with him that would clinch the issue.

In retrospect, I think we made some mistakes. First, it would have been better to let him remain an Independent candidate for that would have spared him sniping from his erstwhile Leftist associates, who were joined in their rants by Assamese chauvinists accusing him of “selling out” to “Delhi”. The charges were hurtful to Bhupenda, but once he jumped into the fray he remained unfazed. The other mistake was our insistence that he contest from Guwahati. For various reasons, adjoining Mangaldoi would have been better in terms of voter composition and before nominations were filed, he indeed sought my intervention to get his allotted seat changed. But at that stage we felt the singer had a cosmopolitan appeal that would yield better results in an urban constituency. Bhupenda deferred, saying “You people understand politics, I don’t. So I will go along with what you decide”.

In the event, his instincts proved sounder than ours. Bhupen Hazarika lost from Guwahati in the face of an aggressive campaign by his detractors much to our shock and dismay. The very next day he announced his resignation from the BJP and also his decision to quit politics forever. I don’t know if he got over what was undoubtedly a deeply embarrassing moment in his otherwise glorious career. I wish subsequent Governments had honoured him with a Presidential nomination to the Rajya Sabha, a position he richly deserved. In Parliament he would undoubtedly have emerged as a champion of endangered Assamese identity and articulated the angst of a beleaguered culture.

Although that was not to be, he remains even in death the most potent symbol of Assam’s struggle to retain its individuality. That probably explains the huge turnout for his funeral procession and the outpouring of grief from every corner of the State. But to relegate Bhupen Hazarika merely to being an Assamese icon would belittle his contribution to Indian nationhood. In his death India has also lost the last living link with the earthiness of its robust popular culture.

We will particularly miss the strains of the boatman’s song now heard but infrequently across the Gangetic Delta spanning Assam, Bangladesh and West Bengal. Bhupenda like his contemporaries was a product of both the Brahmaputra’s masculinity and the Ganga’s ample maternal bosom. If Sachin Dev Burman popularised Bhatiali compositions of boatmen of the riverine East, Bhupen Hazarika experimented successfully with folk strains and native instrumentation. The resonance of his baritone lent incredible depth to his myriad compositions spanning several languages, the comparatively recent “Dil hoom hoom kare” from Rudaali being my firm favourite.

Dada Burman was a master of fusing the boatman’s song with the simplicity needed to popularise such music across India. But his own renditions of Bhaitiali-based numbers like “Mere saajan hain us paar”, which retained the original flavour of the oarsman’s solitude, left an indelible impression on India’s music lovers. His son, Rahul Dev, despite being a purely urban product, inherited a lot of his father’s talent for folk, particularly from the North-East. Anybody who can recall “Nisultana re”, the title song of Pyar ka Mausam; “Kanchhi re, kanchhi re” from Hare Rama Hare Krishna, or “O majhi re” from Khushboo will easily agree with my contention.

Hindi film songs of the 60’s and 70’s often brought alive the flavour of riverine music, sadly missing from compositions today.

Even composers like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, despite their own urban background made “Sawan ka mahina, pawan kare shor" from Milan a national rage and later composed the less popular but soulful “Majhi naiya dhoonde kinara” for Uphaar. Kalyanji-Anandji's “Nadiya chale chale re dhara” from Safar was an instant hit despite the film featuring other melodious numbers.

If the boatman’s melody has gone missing from our popular music it is probably not just because today’s composers are techno or bhangra obsessed. It is a fact that the boatman too has gone missing from India’s rivers and coastline. Driving powerful trawlers into the sea or ferrying people across rivers in boats equipped with Yamaha outboard engines is not quite the same thing as rowing. Arguably, mechanisation has made the fisherman’s or the ferry owner’s job immensely less strenuous, but in the process we have lost a slice of culture forever. A rowboat needs more hands than those powered by outboard machines and there are fewer young men following their elders’ footsteps into this profession.

In fact, it is costlier to run a rowboat as I discovered on a visit to Kerala some years ago. During a weeklong tour of the State to write for a sister publication, we were to journey from Allapuzha (Alleppey) to Kumarakom on Vembanad Lake through Kerala’s resplendent backwaters. The boat arranged for us was strictly traditional, complete with oarsmen, while every other tourist houseboat that sped past us was motorised, spewing diesel or petrol into the water and atmosphere. Our guide lamented that the boat arranged for us was probably the last of its kind: “When you come next time, maybe there won’t be any left.”

At night as we anchored on the shallow Vembanad, I could hear songs wafting over the still waters that shimmered in the glow of the full moon. The boatmen’s voices were powerful enough to rise above music being played on other boats through two-in-ones. I didn’t realise then that we were on the verge of consigning a chunk of our oral tradition to the predatory foray of mechanisation and so-called modernisation.

This is not to lament the passing of unequal social or economic processes of the past. I am not suggesting that we preserve the rowboat and oarsmen to marvel at their powerful voices and sinews, denying their children economic opportunities in a rapidly surging India. But India’s cultural Czars owe it to the nation to preserve whatever is left of a vanishing culture so that succeeding generations at least know how rich our tradition was.