Bard of Brahmaputra, Bhupen Hazarika; The legend lives on in his everlasting and timeless compositions

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

Paul Robeson the great American radical showed in his songs how ordinary people mattered more than stars – a lesson which today’s celebrities could do with learning. Much has been talked about the power of music. In a similar way, Bhupen Hazarika’s name might mean much to the present generation of song lovers who need social content rather than entertainment. Bhupen with his baritone voice with a rough edge added to it was charismatic, spellbinding and could sing regularly in three major Indian languages – Assamese, Bengali and Hindi, besides many other languages he sang in. His 276 distinct songs made a wonderful mixture of many styles including Americana popular standards, classical music, European folk songs, political songs, poetry, and spoken excerpts from plays. Such a flavour is available in the songs of Bhupen Hazarika who was influenced greatly by Paul Robeson.

Like Paul Robeson and Bengali artist Nachiketa Chakraborty, Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Brahmaputra inspired the Assamese people with his life-oriented songs. Today his songs are being sung all over the globe in different languages and remixes. It is really wonderful to know that even one single song like ‘Bistirno Dupare’ ‘O Ganga’ could give him lifetime fame. Songs of Bhupen Hazarika convey a forceful message as we find it in the song of Bob Marley or Paul Robeson. He was a civil right activist, and like Paul Robeson he envisioned a classless society under the influence and guidance of Bishnu Rabha and Jyotiprasad Agarwala and enchanted his audience with songs that had overt social content. Since his first recording for Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s film Joymoti, at the age of 10, Bhupen remained unstoppable. Kalpana Lajmi’s ‘Rudaali’ gave him pan-India reach. Paul Leroy Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ in 1936. It was in 1999 Bhupen Hazarika sang the song on Doordarshan ‘Bistirno Duparer, oshonkho manusher Hahakar suneo, nishobde nirobe, O Ganga tumi! Ganga Boicho keno? (Stretched on two shores where crores of people’s life, you hear their cries in silence and oblivion, O Ganga, you! Ganga why do you keep flowing in silence?”) Brahmaputra always came to his mind, as in 1950 the river changed its course and devastated a large part of Sadiya where he was born ninety four years ago. Later, Ganga became a part of his song and he reached millions of Indians. ‘Ganga behti ho kyo’ is the other record-breaking song that made him the most popular singer of our time. Bhupen Hazarika sang this song in Bangla, Hindi and Assamese as ‘Bistirno Dupare O Ganga tumi boicho kano” Ganga Behti ho kyo’, Purabi Mukherjee sang the songs in a fusion of Robeson and Bhupen ‘Ol’ Man River’ (it just keeps rolling along). Paul Leroy Robeson was an American bass baritone concert artist and his songs on humanity and poverty of mankind irked many in the US and he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

This Indian playback singer, lyricist, musician, singer, poet and film-maker widely known as Sudhakantha is also acknowledged to have introduced the culture and folk music of Assam and Northeast India to Hindi cinema at the national level. He received the National Film Award for Best Music Direction in 1975. Recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987), Padmashri (1977), and Padmabhushan (2001), Hazarika was awarded with Dada Saheb Phalke Award (1992), India’s highest award in cinema, by the Government of India and Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (2008), the highest award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama. He was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award in 2012. Hazarika also held the position of the Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi from December 1998 to December 2003.

In one after another song even philosophical or religious, Bhupen is above everything a humanist. ‘Sagar Sanghamat’ is a song where he is saddened by the devastation of the new creations caused by the mechanical giants (naba naba srisitir doita danabe kare nisthur aghat abisranta). The image of daitya and danob occupies the imagination of Bhupen and this is from the Assamese folk culture. Assam’s ancient rulers are known for the interesting myths and legends. Mayong, believed to have originated from the word maya or illusion is famed and feared as a land where sorcerers and magicians have held sway for centuries and the legacy continues. The onslaughts of demons and monsters, and many tales of men being converted into animals, or beasts being magically tamed, capture the imagination of the Assamese people. Bhupen saw in the destruction of human values and sufferings of common people the hands of demons and monsters which he called,’ daitya and danava’. In ‘Manuhar Dehate’ he sang ‘manuhe manuhok khai’ (Man devours man). In ‘Jiban Jadi Herale’ Bhupen, warns: “gharti jadi bhagile tor batot no hol thai” (If you demolish the house, you won’t get shelter on the street”. Even in a lyrical song O Bideshi Bondhu he heard the echoes of weeping (Protidhhoni Huni kandonor). He was proud of being Assamese all his life and in a song Ami Asomiya he does not accept the lackadaisical attitude of the people of his state. They must know themselves or everything will be finished (nohou dukhiya buli santana lobhile nohobo ajir asamiyai nijok nisinile asom rakhatole jabo). Brahmaputra always attracted him and in a famous song Jivon Nadir Luitor paror he hears the heart rending cry of sadness (hahi aru kandonere kun hahakar!) Prochondo dhumuha is another fantastic song where he as Wordsworth imagines in his Lucy poems thinks of Nature giving him the best education, values and thunder giving him his baritone voice. His patriotism expressed in many songs reveal his deep love for Assam and in songs like ‘Axom Amar Rupohi he beautifully expresses it: There is no end to the virtues in this land of sunrise (gunoru nai sesh Bharatore purbo dikor surjyo utha desh. His inspiring songs still create ripples in the mind of the Assamese youth and rouse a patriotic feeling in their heart in songs like ‘Akou jadi jabo lage saraighat loi’. In this song Bhupen expects the Assamese youth not to waste time in poetic romanticism or enjoying the beauty of the river Brahmaputra. They must be ready to fight the danav. Again, the same imagination about the evil power which in Bhupen’s eyes are just monsters and giants. (Luitor paror  deka bondhu Ne thakiba roi  dishe dishe chuke kone danabatar gan saralata manabata aji mriyoman). He feels sad that the values of human life, simplicity, humanity are all getting suppressed and subverted each moment.

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