Friday, December 23, 2011

The Bard’s ballads will sustain Brahmaputra

Source : By Sanjoy Hazarika , The , 13 Nov 2011

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. Bhupen Hazarika's ballads will sustain the river, which was his true muse. There are very few of his truly great songs which do not have a strong resonance of and reference to the Lohit or the Brahmaputra. He wrote 1,500 lyrics in a creative journey that began 72 years ago when he was 13 in tiny Sadiya, near Tezpur, in North Assam.

For those of us from Assam and the Northeast, there is one fundamental truth —without the Brahmaputra, there can be no Assam or Northeast or lands beyond our borders. It is our lifeline, one of our most defining assets and entities.

It would be no exaggeration to say that in every household of Assam, a lamp has burned these past nights to honour the greatest figure that most people of that beautiful but blighted state have known. Across India, South Asia and the world, many of us who are Assamese and many others who are not, have done the same and sung, wept and prayed out of shradha for Bhupen Hazarika, whose lyrics keep running around in our heads, playing on radio stations and over television channels. 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.

The outpouring of spontaneous love and affection for him was nothing short of extraordinary. Millions of people, young and old, the rich and the poor, the infirm and the healthy, stood in line patiently for hours through the day and night to pay homage. Many wept, but others sang his songs of humanity and equality, his political signature tunes, which have become part of our folklore and history. Everyone used their mobile phones to click pictures; they wanted a piece of him, or history.

They came not just from every corner of Assam, but from across the Northeast and beyond as songs played through the day and night over public address systems on every street of Guwahati.

It was as he had sung, in his unforgettable Sagar ­Songramat or "At the Confluence of Seas", where he had never tired of swimming. For many Assamese, he was a creative genius with his songs proclaiming the rights of man, of brotherhood in that rich, velvety baritone.

In that expression of their affection, the Assamese showed the rest of India their true face and spirit — not of anger and disappointment at neither being deceived by Delhi time and again, nor resentment and suspicion at being slighted by its failure to honour him adequately or any other great figures from the region for that matter. It was this: "What can you do for or to us — we have chosen our path and you yours. So let us walk separately." Sending a rookie politician with aspirations or pretensions of being Prime Minister just because he happens to bear the Gandhi name, who could not even get to the cremation in time, shows how far Delhi is from understanding that respect. There is a demand for the Bharat Ratna for Dr Hazarika. But as one of my relatives recently blogged, "Let the mandarins of Delhi keep their awards and wear them round their necks, if they so wish."

They've missed the opportunity to share respect, failed again to move in time to accord him the dignity that the people of the region — and I include the larger region here, of the NER, Bangladesh, West Bengal and Nepal — have always given him. Everything will be too little, too late — as usual.

In contrast, Dhaka's recognition of Bhupen Hazarika by honouring him with the country's highest civilian award shows how misconceived and prejudiced have been Indian comprehensions of our neighbouring country. We have failed to distinguish between the agendas of government security agencies and the goodwill of people. But why Bangladesh?

It was his marching, stirring compositions for the Bangladeshi freedom struggle: Joi Joi Nabajata Bangladesh, Joi Joi Mukti Bahini, which was on every Bengali's lips as that momentous struggle for liberation gathered strength and inspired that battle for freedom. And when Bangladesh was born, he was welcomed there like a hero.

As the cremation took place, 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 Northeastern countryside for more to pay their homage, but I do worry about a cult-like situation around a 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 Kolkata and Mumbai, cities which, in his middle and later years, gave him both dignity and financial stability.

To millions he was simply "BhupenDa", including those of the younger generation who have never seen him barring on television and the small screens nor heard him live — but only on CDs and DVDs. So, there are two classes of people today — those who knew him personally and those who did not.

Yet, as one Assamese student said the other day, Bhupen Hazarika spanned generational distances seamlessly: "It was the distance between the television screen and your heart — that was how instant the connection was."

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 was singing with him (and she was a 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. He used to visit us occasionally whenever he happened to be in Shillong, lighting up days and lives.

This is the first of a two-part article on Bhupen Hazarika Some years back, I was privileged to work with him 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 do 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 first of a two-part article on Bhupen Hazarika