Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bhupen Hazarika: the minstrel-nomad

Written by Prof. S. Chatterjee , Source :
When Bhupen Hazarika joined the BJP, we were shocked. He lost our respect, lost the election, left that party and admitted that it was a mistake on his part. I remembered him as the “Lost Leader”, the way Robert Browning had described William Wordsworth! Indeed, with his recantation, we welcomed him back and wished him to be “pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne”. Of course, the one, who sings Ghalib from the minars of Tashkent and reads Gorky sitting next to Mark Twain's tomb, can never be disowned by us. For, this nomad has not only looked in bewilderment at the tall sky scrapers but also had seen the homeless sitting on the streets in the shadow, cast these by these buildings. These were the lyrics, with which he composed his music and often sang them himself.

Like his guru, Paul Robeson, Bhupen Hazarika was a many splendoured genius: lyricist, composer, singer, writer, actor, film director, political agitator and activist. I know him only through his songs and have never heard him live.

Now, after his passing, I and my family kept on playing many of his Bengali numbers. His words were rich, asking us not to despair, even if we are surrounded by evil. “Fight on”, he would tell us through his songs, just as his “guru” Paul Robeson had said to us all along or as his contemporary, Pete Seeger continues to tell us, most recently to our friends occupying Wall Street.

Bhupen Hazarika was truly a minstrel nomad, as he had described himself. Assam was his own but Bengal too would claim him: how can we forget the felicity with which he sang his Bengali numbers, like “shobar hridaye Rabindranath chetonaye Nazrul...” ( Rabindra Nath is in everyone's heart and Nazrul in our thoughts..) and declare, “Ganga amar ma, Padma amar ma...” (Ganga, you are my mother, so are you too, dear flowing Padma” (Ganga in India and Padma in Bangladesh). Of course, his own Brahmaputra must have been his greatest inspiration but he felt the bond with Mississippi and with the Volga. However, the eternal question remained, “while gently flowing, why do you not hear the sighs of the oppressed on your either bank and why do you not steel them with their courage to fight the brutalities?” The spirit of “Ol' man river...” of Paul Robeson is thus revisited, all over the globe. And many too will revisit this question.

I had an occasion to see for myself this wandering minstrel's musical charm, though I have never seen him live! Nor have I ever met anyone, who was close to him. I was in Trieste, Italy, at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, for a three month long workshop. One other participant was Jayanti-didi, from Dibrugarh. A very graceful young lady, with a musical voice, she looked most charming, when she would dress herself in a cream coloured Mekhala, woven out of the Assamese muga silk. Thus dressed, in wonderful elegance, she came with me one afternoon, for a walk from the Adriatic coast of Miramare up the hill towards the village of Prosseco. Midway, two young girls, in their twenties, joined us. In fact, they were staring at us for a long time and then casting aside their shyness, came over to Jayanti and said, "Bellissima! Molto bellissima!" ( You are beautiful! Very beautiful!). We invited them to come along with us.

They joined us. After a cup of coffee at the local inn, in Prosseco, we walked back again, this time down the hill towards Miramare. I suggested to them, “Why do you not sing?” in my barely intelligible, personal-type Italian.

“No, she should sing first” they said.

Jayanti immediately agreed and flinging her arm in the air she burst into the famous number:

“Aji jibon butolibi olai olai aah; “ You will find the zest of life today, come running

Aji maran paharibi olai olai aah You will defeat death today, come running

Hahathiloi aah aru bahatiloi aah: Come with your laughter and with your flute

Aji ashar notun digontoloi olai olai aah...” To the new horizon of hope, come running, here...”

The two girls immediately sprang up into a dance. So did Jayanti, spontaneously, singing, dancing down the hill, with her arms up in the air. The girls followed her just behind, while I remained behind all of them, watching them, dancing down the slope, singing.

Music, it is said has no geographical or cultural barrier. I saw it to be so. Little did the traveling minstrel know, that he broke the barrier for us in that memorable afternoon, in a foreign land.

How I wish, I could tell him this when he lived. But that does not matter, for he must have known it himself. Men and women all over the world will sing, rejoicing the glory of life, warding off the darkness, for we are after all, “in the same boat brother”