Friday, December 23, 2011

The Bard of Lohit was also a prankster - By Sanjoy Hazarika

Some years back, I was privileged to work with Bhupen Hazarika and Kalpana Lajmi, his companion of many years and partner in numerous creative ventures, who took care of him with fierce affection, in a documentary series for Doordarshan on the Northeast. My collaboration began when the great man called and asked me to help. Could anyone say no to him?

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

He was more than the Bard of the Brahmaputra. A passionate crusader for rights, for the poor (notice how his early and also later songs drive home the message of equality even in times of pain), he 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 a part of him as his ability to give love and creativity.

Let me recall an evening, some years ago in Tezpur, where a small group gathered in the elegant drawing room of the (now late) Dr Robin and Dr Laksmi Goswami (Baideau), a couple who were very close to Bhupen Hazarika, sipping drinks and listening to a long-time politician recount of one of his favorite anecdotes in the Assam Assembly. The politician spoke of how a mischief-making MLA had got another Opposition member, who was quite easy to sway, to challenge the then Leader of the Opposition, the late Dulal Baruah, in the House on a point of order. An outraged Baruah thundered at his backbencher to shut up, but the instigator was not done yet. "Press on a point of order," he hissed at his wavering colleague.

"Point of order!" yelled the now-defiant member, who was once again stumped when the Speaker asked him, quite legitimately, "On what grounds?" He fumbled, but then his friend whispered again, "Say, bad grammar." "Bad grammar, sir," suggested the legislator.

The House dissolved in laughter as Baruah gazed balefully at his two tormentors. The name of the questioner is not important, but there is much to be said of the mischief-maker, who was the storyteller himself — none other than Bhupen Hazarika.

Whereas he was a legend in Eastern India for decades, it was his compositions for the film Rudali which won Hazarika recognition across the subcontinent, a recognition which came very late in life. As head of the Sahitya Kala Parishad, he ensured that the Sattirya dance form of Assam was given its rightful place as a classical dance form of India and his own sangeet became immortalised as a new genre, a new school of music, the Bhupendra gharana.

Perhaps the best example of the humanistic ideals that imbue his works is the song Manuhe Manuhar Babe (for man), composed in 1964: If man wouldn't think for man/With a little sympathy/Tell me who will, comrade?/If we repeat history/If we try to buy/Or sell humanity/Won't we be wrong comrade?/If the weak/Tide across the rapids of life/With your help/What do you stand to lose?/If man does not become man/A demon never will/If a demon turns more human/Whom shall it shame more, comrade?

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 on the currents of the Brahmaputra, flowed the values and traditions of the Vaishnav reformer Srimanta Sankardeva of the 15th and 16th centuries; the valour and call to arms of Lachit Barphukan, 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 Bishnu 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 has fallen silent but he remains among us through his songs, his music, his films, his convictions and his love for Assam. Just by being amongst us, he enriched us — and single handedly did more for Assam and the region than all politicians, agitators and "underground" groups, media and all of us collectively. Like many others, I have spent these days listening to his music and songs and realising how mighty a figure has fallen and how little we comprehend that he is irreplaceable. And that such a person may not come again for centuries.

The Lohit still flows and rumbles, but where is its singer and interpreter of its maladies? Perhaps the jajabor (wanderer) has, finally, found a resting place. The Bard is immortal.

This is the second of a two-part article on Bhupen Hazarika