It’s quite an irony that obituary reports in the media largely have been identifying Dr. Bhupen Hazarika as the “music maestro” and the “legendary balladeer”. He was, of course, both of these, but the kind of impact this genius has had in the socio-cultural-political space of a huge geographic region comprising the North-East India, West Bengal and Bangladesh would be hard to grasp for anyone who does not understand the Assamese and Bengali languages.
For the rest of India, Dr. Hazarika (the “Dr.” is not one of those bestowed upon cinema, cultural and political personalities by universities whose administrators are usually keen to rub shoulders with the recipients, but one had earned by completing a Ph.D from Columbia University in the early 1950s on how cultural tools can be used to spread the reach of education) is known for his fabulous music in Kalpana Lajmi’s “Rudali”, particularly that in the song “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” (based on his 1960s composition “Buku Ham Ham Kare” from the Assamese film “Moniram Dewan”), and his song “Ganga Behti Ho Kyun” (an adaption of “Ol’ Man River” by his friend, inspiration and civil rights activist-singer Paul Robson).
But what would remain unknown to music lovers outside Assamese and Bengali-speaking communities is Dr. Hazarika’s immense capacity to write, compose and sing songs for nearly 75 years (he first sang as a 10-year-old kid in cultural doyen Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s second film “Indramalati” in 1939, also the second Assamese film after Agarwalla’s “Joymoti” four years before that) reflecting virtually every social issue, every political development, every season, every community, every emotion of the entire North-East and its neighbourhood – not to forget his numerous songs surrounding the subject of the river Brahmaputra, his lifelong inspiration.
Whether it was the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle – the government of that country has already announced the Muktijoddha Padak, the highest civilian award there, to him posthumously, while despite a long-pending demand from the entire North-East India as well as a unanimous resolution passed by the Assam State Assembly, the Indian government could not confer the Bharat Ratna to him while he was alive – the 1962 Chinese aggression, the establishment of the Guwahati University in 1948, the carving out of the states of Meghalaya and Nagaland out of Assam, the anti-foreign infiltration movement of the early 1980s or the ULFA-induced insurgency, Dr. Hazarika has a song for everything. And each of these songs can be hummed along by any Assamese almost word to word, such evergreen classics they have been, just like probably over 95 per cent of the over 1,500 songs he wrote, composed and sung, some of them together with his highly-talented brother Jayanta Hazarika, who died young in the mid-1970s, and who too like his elder brother had become a legend by the time he was in his late 20s.
One reason why Dr. Hazarika’s songs did not travel much outside the Assamese-Bengali-speaking areas were their cultural rootedness, even though his compositions always had a universality about them (to get a sense of what I am trying to convey, please listen to his songs in Assamese and Bengali available on Youtube and many other platforms on the Internet). Even Gulzar, while translating some of his classics into Hindi for HMV (now Saregama)’s album “Main Aur Mera Saaya” had spoken about this aspect of Dr. Hazarika’s lyrics.
What would also remain outside the geographies mentioned is also the fact that Dr. Hazarika was not just a lyricist-composer-singer. He was also a filmmaker – one who in 1992 was conferred with India’s highest honour in cinema, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award – a prolific writer, a painter, an editor who for years edited a highly-popular magazine “Amaar Pratinidhi”, a politician who served one term in the Assam Assembly as a Left-leaning independent politician in the late 1960s (in contrast to his failed attempt to enter the Lok Sabha much later as a BJP candidate, which was a rare and only failure in the public arena for him, and a classic example of how an entire community rejected the political face of a legend even while never stopping to shower him with love in his avatar as a creative artiste), a children’s literature writer, a cultural ambassador (he served as the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi), and a relentless crusader for social harmony.
What made him even more unique was his innate quality of being accessible to anyone and everyone of his fans. During his live performances in numerous open-air stages every April for over five decades all over Assam during the Rongali Bihu (the Assamese new year festival every mid-April), thousands would get into a virtual reverie listening to his songs and the conversations he would have with the crowd in between.
Personally, it was sometime in 1977-78, when as a 10-year-old, I first met Dr. Bhupen Hazarika in person, and in really close quarters. We used to stay in one half of a rented accommodation in Guwahati’s Rajgarh locality, the other half being the residence of the late Nirode Chowdhury, one of the most popular Assamese writers whose stories “Chameli Memsab” and “Banahangsa” have in the previous couple of years been made into highly-popular films with music by the maestro. Nirode Chowdhury’s house was virtually an extension of our house and as a kid I would often be found rummaging through his great collection of books. Like every Assamese would be, I too had been indoctrinated automatically into his fan club by that age, quite clearly beyond the capacity to understand the import of much of his lyrics but enthralled by the mellifluousness of his compositions. For a young kid of that age, he was “Bhupen Mama”, the name he had assumed as a writer of children’s literature, particularly some fun poems through which he had made learning the alphabet and words easier for us. Despite his literary-musical sessions with Chowdhury, he would indulge us kids, sometimes asking interesting questions, sometimes teasing us, sometimes saying something funny.
Later, in the late 1980s, as an over-enthusiastic college student, I put up some (now looking at it, very amateurish) photographs of landscapes I had shot with my automatic camera in a first-ever Kala Mela in Guwahati, which had the participation of some of the top painters and photographers of Assam. Looking back, I can clearly see that the organisers were more than encouraging to allow me to participate in that event, given the standard of my photography. But Dr. Hazarika, who came in as a special visitor to the art fair, spent quite a few minutes praising my photography (by then, of course, he did not remember the little me he had met a decade before). Looking back, I now understand that it was his way of encouraging an enthusiastic youngster to pursue his interests. It was his style, to make everyone feel at ease and one’s own.
Later, in my avatar as a journalist and film critic, I met him many times in both Assam and Delhi, sometimes professionally and sometimes personally. Most of the time, his words would have me eat out of his hands, even as he would make me share his lunch or dinner. An eternal prankster, he even did not forget to pull my leg when I met him during one of his Delhi visits days after I had been declared as the winner of the Swarna Kamal for the Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards in 2003. “You have always been interviewing me, now get ready to be interviewed when you next visit Assam, now that you have become the first person from the North-East to win the Best Film Critic’s Award,” he joked as his long-time companion and filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi and senior journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap of the Indian Express enjoyed my discomfiture. It was during that visit that he had shared with me his plans to make a feature film with Assam’s insurgency as the backdrop. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, he started keeping unwell, and that film never got made. I am sure if it had got made, it would have been a strong rebuttal against violence and a call for survival of humanity, something he had strongly believed in and had got reflected in his song “Manuhe Manuhor Baabe, Jodihe Okono Nabhabe” (“If human beings don’t take care of the mankind, who will”).
As I write this, it is past 1 AM on the 8th of November. About 12 hours ago, his body arrived in Guwahati from Mumbai. It took his body nearly 8 hours to travel about 25 kms to his home in the Nizarapar locality, as lakhs of people thronged the route to have a glimpse of the maestro earlier in the day. Now his body lies in state in the Judge’s Field, a location where he had sung numerous times. And even at this late hour, a queue of people – comprising kids to senior citizens – several kilometres in length is slowly, and in a very remarkably disciplined manner, moving ahead for a last glimpse of the maestro before his body is cremated within the next 24 hours. As I see this in the continuous live telecast in news channels from Assam on my DTH system sitting at my home in Delhi, I can see that it is his message for humanity mainly through his music that is drawing in the multitudes. Quite clearly, the genius of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika will live on through his songs, and in the hearts of his fans.
I don’t know if a river cries, and even if one does, I don’t know if its tears can be seen in the flowing waters. But I am sure, the Old Man River, the Brahmaputra, is today quietly shedding a tear, just as quietly it flows, having lost a genius born on its banks. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Dr. Hazarika’s last recording to come into the public domain would be a poem on the river that remained his permanent inspiration. The poem is being used as a prelude in young filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky’s under-production bilingual feature film “as the River flows…” (Hindi) / “Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipaare” (Assamese), being produced by the National Film Development Corporation. At a personal level, it will be an honour to share credits in a film with the legend, having been associated with it as a script consultant. What more can an eternal fan ask for!