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Identity, music & Bhupen Hazarika: The man who united Assam, talked inclusivity

Bhupen da’s songs stirred nationalism and sub-nationalisms during language riots & ethnic conflicts Assam. On Thursday he was awarded the Bharat Ratna.

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New Delhi: On a rainy April evening in 1998, the crowd swelled under a Bihu pandal in Guwahati’s Dispur capital complex. 

The downpour was doing little to dampen the spirits of the gathering, with some holding umbrellas under the leaking makeshift structure. 

Others waded through slushy ground to get a closer look of the stage. 

The reason for the concerted efforts to brave the elements became clear soon as minutes later, Bhupen Hazarika arrived, wearing his trademark Gorkha topi, a black kurta and pyjama. Another few seconds and his baritone voice rang out:

“Manuhe manuhor babe

Jodihe okonu nabhabe

Okonu xohanubhutire

Bhabibo kunenu kua?”

(If humans wouldn’t think for humans with a little sympathy, Tell me who will, my friend?)

One of Northeast’s most famous cultural icons, Hazarika wore many hats. He was a singer, lyricist, activist, filmmaker and a poet who brought the region together, across physical and emotional barriers. His songs not only stirred nationalism and sub-nationalisms during the gloomy days of language riots and ethnic conflicts in the state — starting from the 1960s – but also inspired the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which sought Assam’s secession from India.

Hazarika was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna Thursday. While the only criticism so far has been that it has come a little too late (he passed away in 2011), the timing of this award can hardly be ignored.

Assam has been in the throes of yet another identity debate with the date for the final draft of the National Registrar of Citizens inching closer. Not to forget his brief dalliance with the BJP, when he contested and lost in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

ThePrint takes a look at the life and work of Bhupen da (as he was fondly known to the masses), his bohemian identity and powerful lyrics.

Also read: No, Bhupen Hazarika wouldn’t reject Bharat Ratna even if he opposed Citizenship Bill

Meeting Paul Robeson at Columbia University

Born in 1926 in Upper Assam’s Sadiya to Nilakanta and Shantipriya Hazarika, he was the eldest of 10 children. Hazarika once said that he had inherited his “singing skills” from his mother who sang lullabies for him.

Growing up, he lived in the Bharalumukh region of Guwahati, Dhubri and Tezpur. It was in Tezpur, at the age of 10, that he first met Jyotiprasad Agarwala, the renowned Assamese lyricist, playwright and Assam’s first filmmaker, and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, the revolutionary poet.

Having come in contact with Agarwala and Rabha in his formative years, Hazarika understood music’s instrumentality early on in life. He wrote “Agnijugor firingoti moi, notun Asom gorhim” (I am the spark of the age of fire, I will build a new Assam”) at the age of 16.

With a musical career this vast, Hazarika’s academic achievements are seldom discussed. But it was at Columbia University – where he had gone to do his PhD – that he had befriended civil rights activist Paul Robeson. This was to be one of his most life-changing experiences. With Robeson, Hazarika realized the importance of incorporating folk music into protest songs.

Robeson’s “Ol man river” resonates years later in Hazarika’s masterpiece “Bistirno parore” (Of the wide shores).

The Bengali and Hindi versions, ‘Ganga behti ho kyu’ (O Ganga, why do you flow?), of this song are no less popular.

Last year, a Nepali rendition of the song ‘Bristrit Kinarako’ (On your wide mighty banks) became the voice of the Gorkhaland agitation.


Road tripping for peace

Hazarika came back from the US and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a leftist theatre group, in the 1950s. He wrote songs such as ‘Parashi Puwate Tulunga Nawote’ that tells the plight of a fisherman who goes out to the sea and drowns and ‘Dola he Dole’, which talks about palanquin bearers.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah, in his book India Against Itself, explains how Hazarika rewrote one of Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s (one of the pioneers of Assamese literature) poems in 1968 to reflect the political mood of the time — the fears of cultural colonialism in the wake of illegal immigration.

While Bezbaroa’s poem goes “We Assamese are not poor/In what sense are we poor?”, Hazarika song says, “It won’t do to take solace in the words that we, Assamese, are not poor; today’s Assamese must know themselves”.

His brand of nationalism, however, was bound by humanism – not letting it stray into jingoism.

During the language riots of 1960, when Bengali speakers were pitted against the Assamese, Hazarika began a road trip along with Bengali poet and activist Hemango Biswas.

Together, they wrote the song Haradhon-Rongmon Katha in Bhatiali and Bihu folk forms of Bengal and Assam. The lyrics talk about an Assamese and a Bengali peasant, both of whom have lost their homes in the riots.

Egging the youth on

The 1980s saw him voicing and mobilizing mass support for the Assam Movement. In his song, “Aai o aai”, Hazarika laments the breakup of Assam into seven states.

Baruah, however, argues that the lyrics celebrate a reunion of these states in a “new emotional unity” that is more powerful than “state-drawn boundaries”.

He also points out how this sentiment is underscored years later when ULFA and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) signed a MoU on 20 May, 1990, seeking to establish an independent ‘entity’ consisting of the Northeastern states.

His songs had healed people but Assam remained fragmented – both culturally and politically. In the later years, Hazarika had even offered to act as a mediator between the Union government and the ULFA.

In an interview, Hazarika recalls a phone conversation he had with ULFA chief Paresh Baruah: “He (Paresh) asked about the new song I had written. I told him that I still had to set it to tune. The song means ‘If our destination is sunrise… why are you running towards the sunset’. All I said was that I want peace”.

Also read: Bhupen Hazarika: The ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’ who took Assamese music to the world

Defeat in elections

Hazarika surprised many when he decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections as a BJP candidate from Guwahati in 2004. Despite his massive popularity, he didn’t win the polls. Nearly non-existent in Assam at the time, BJP was also a party “with closed notions of identity”.

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  1. In the lyrics of his song ‘Bistirno parore’, he expresses his disappointment over the mighty Brahmaputra for witnessing the poor, illiterate, and oppressed people since ages beautifully complementing nationalism and music together.

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