Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bhupen Hazarika: ‘Culture is a way of life, a vision’

Rini Barman reminisces about Assamese bard Bhupen Hazarika, who strove to keep Assam’s pluralistic identity alive, vs the politics of cultural appropriation that paints him as a ‘national treasure’ for obvious reasons.

Rini Barman  6th Sep 2014Source sunday-guardian.com

I find the phrase "national treasure" to be a bit of a back-handed compliment for artists. When an artist's body of work is preserved only to suit nationalistic understandings (often restricted to a certain class of society), there is a tendency to overlook the subterranean contexts of his or her work. One such case is that of the late singer, poet, filmmaker, activist and composer Dr Bhupen Hazarika.
 
The constitution of a "national" identity lies at the crux of much of the havoc witnessed by the people of the Northeast of India. This is especially true for the population along forests, river banks, tea gardens and so on, who had to "assimilate or die" in a compulsory social homogenisation through the Census (which again had the backing of the ruling classes). But Hazarika was a man truly ahead of his times. He believed that Assam was one colourful gamusa ("A handwoven piece of silk cotton cloth, generally adorned with patterns and motifs along the borders") with multiple threads and colours binding themselves together.
 
His music draws from the melody and melancholy of those very people who weave these strands, in all its diversity. The identity of being Assamese was never exclusive. In Bhupen-da's songs, a repertoire that spanned folk, modern and historical traditions, fusion occurred spontaneously, like the meeting of rivers. Sung in many languages and often containing dialects and words of the marginalised sections of society, his uplifting lyrics are an embodiment of the happy heterogeneity that unites people in Assam and the states of the Northeast. His politics were not nationalistic essentialism, for he was aware and scornful of the divisive politics of the nation-state.
 
The Mishings, the tea tribes, the Bodos, Tiwas and Khasis had perhaps loved Bhupen-da most of all. One of his great contributions was bringing their words and their songs to a cultural set-up that was hierarchical and believed in the binary of "us and them". Bulu O' Mishing Dekaati, a song retelling the tragic love story of Jonkey and Paanei (based on Rajani Kanta Bordoloi's Miri Jeeyori) brings to light how petty social fractures (both within the Mishing community and in antagonism to the Assamese people) were responsible for marking an end to the young couple's future. Hazarika urges Disang youngsters of that time to look at the waters of Disang uniting in the Luit as an example of peace and co-existence in nature. He He He Dhole Dogore is another case in point. Based on a Khasi folk tale (lok gatha), this song seeks points of cultural intersection between Meghalaya and Assam. It skilfully elevates the flute of a Khasi farmer to Krishna's flute in Hindu mythology, equalising the commoners with the ruling class. Similarly, the golden threads of Muga silk of Assam that make up the beautiful Khasi female attire Jainsem find themselves alive in these lyrics.
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The identity of being Assamese was never exclusive. In Bhupen-da’s songs, fusion occurred spontaneously, like the meeting of rivers.

Influenced by American civil rights activist and singer Paul Robeson early in his career, his leftist ideas led him to the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). With respect to literary craft he was attached to Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, both of whose compositions were rich in revolutionary ideas. Today, he is revered for carrying their legacy forth beyond the Northeast as well.
Nabina Das, author of the recent short-story collection House of the Twining Roses, comments on her love for Hazarika's songs. "The famous Dola, Hey Dola is an anthem for progressive writers, activists, students all over India. For me, particularly, Bhupen-da's lesser known Bangla songs such as Aaj jibon khunje paabi are unique in that they marry Bangla lyrics to the Assamese "Bihu-xuriya", complete with the pepa (horn pipe) tune and effusive claps of the hands."
 
Das reminded me of the forgotten songs of the tea garden tribes. The romances of Jhumur dancers are immortalised in Bhupen-da's songs. Shameli, Loshmi, Sompa and many other women in his songs spoke directly to their lovers and the society in general; even this was radical for its time. Axom Dekhor Baagicare, Jigi Jagi Jau and Jonokpuror Janokiye all throw light on the lives of the hardworking tea garden community; their hopes, disappointments and their irrevocable determination to continue the celebration that is life. As they left their homes and settled in Assam, they also dance to the tunes of Husori, Bihu, Borgeet and Bagrumba. According to Bhupen Da, who explored their part of the story in the making of Assamese identity, they would love to be called "Assamese".
 
"A united world may be a myth, but not the desire for it" elucidated Nabina further, "Especially as a world traveller in his songs, Bhupen Hazarika stands out as a peoples' poet and singer. If one looks at songs like Aji Idor Majhlisot (today, in this Eid gathering) or Romjanore Roja Gol (Ramzan's fast is over), Hazarika's oeuvre acquires a special dimension. Addressing subcontinental minority traditions for him is not a ritual, but a seamless part of his music subtext. Similarly, Hindi movie compositions and much older songs of his are notable for their freshness."

"Aji Eid majhlisote ekeloge bohise
Aji Eid majhlisote Rahim Chacau bohise
Aji Eid majhlisote Fatema Pehiyu bohise...
Insaaniyat loi mehfilot aamiyu bohusun"
Today in this Eid gathering, they have all come together
Today in this Eid gathering Uncle Rahim too has come
Today in this Eid gathering Aunt Fatema too has come
Let us all gather with humanity, in today's mehfil
 
Sung along with Mohd Rafi, Jasho Bora, Meera Singh and others, this song blends Persian/Arabic elements into the Assamese language, much like the ghazals he had composed, a very famous one being Shamma Thakile Zaroor Zaroor. Aji Eid Majhlisot was featured in a film called Lotighoti in 1966.
 
Today, in honour of his compositions, Tezpur University in Assam funds a Bhupen Hazarika fellowship awarded for full-time research on performing arts of the region, ethnicity and indigenous cultures. Some of his other lesser known-works are his attempts to revive the Debodaxi (Devadasi) dance of Assam, his contribution in consolidating the identity of Goalpora people and Muslims through Lokageet (folk songs) and his work on Azan Fakir's Zikirs (a form of devotional song).
For three years now on every 8 September, I feel the restlessness of Kans grasses ("Kohua Bon") and imagine how Bhupen-da would have reacted to the current atrocities committed against some of the communities he championed. He had, after all, realised this danger many years back when he sang "Manuhe manohor baabe, jodihe okonu nabhabe, bhabibo kunenu kua?", a rather prosaic translation of which would be, "If we don't look out for each other, who will?"
 
I am blessed to have heard from Bhupen-da himself, many years ago in school, "Just as language cannot be defined merely by some syllables...culture doesn't only comprise of songs, dances and moral dictums... culture is a way of life, a vision... (Sanskriti eti jibon drishti)".