By Dr. Hasinus Sultan
Great men of the past who dedicated themselves to the betterment of society, art and culture lived their lives in their deeds. They stand head and shoulders above others by their ideals and vocations and earned laurels for their brilliant accomplishments. Bishnu Prasad Rabha was an illustrious figure in the domain of art, literature and culture, was a dancer par excellence. This fetch him the rare honour of ‘Kalaguru’, the doyen of arts in his lifetime. But, putting him merely on the pedestal of art and calling him ‘Kalaguru’ would perhaps do little justice to the humanist and revolutionary self that he himself valued most in his life. This would be like thinking of a giant tree without its deep roots.
The first thing that would perhaps strike one about the piquant life of Bishnu Rabha is that it is full of varied and versatile experiences. During the course of a sixty-year-long eventful life, Bishnu Rabha was a brilliant a sportsman, a singer, a lyricist, a dancer, a playwright, an actor, an accomplished literary figure, a businessman, an artist, a humorist, a politician and an orator – all rolled into one. It was distinctive of Rabha that he could become friends with all section of people be it a scholar, intellectual academician, or any common man.. He could get along comfortably with Bengali, Bihari, Nepali, Bhutanese with same warmth as with an Assamese. A deep love for people across castes and ethnic roots coupled with an undying quest for knowing people of diverse communities by a close rapport made him a polyglot genius too.
Rabha was gripped by a fiery revolutionary zeal right from the formative days of his student life. He started his college life in Kolkata. He first got himself admitted to ISC at St. Paul’s Mission College in Kolkata. After passing ISC he went for his B.Sc. degree at Ripon College, Kolkata. That was the time when India’s struggle for freedom from the yoke of the British imperialism reached its height. Tens of thousands of students joined the struggle for India’s freedom. Rabha also flung himself into action for freedom. The British army kept a watchful eye on the student leaders who were presumed to be plotting against the imperialist rule. Rabha was disturbed in his studies by the frequent raids on the hostel he used to board in. Eventually, he was compelled to leave Kolkata for Cooch Behar where he got himself admitted to the famous Victoria College. During those days, Cooch Behar was ruled by a native but oppressive ruler. Two imperial officials, one of them a British and the other a native Indian, helped in perpetrating the repression. Rabha rose against both of them and awakened the Indians by putting up a placard that read:
There are two billy goats the country:
A black and a white.
If you care for the well-being of the country,
Sacrifice both of them.
These admonitory words speak volumes for the kind of freedom Rabha stood for. By freedom, Rabha did not simply mean liberation from the bondage of British rule. He was equally aware of the menace of the native oppression. Rabha knew that freedom without an end to native treachery was of little avail. Freedom must bring a change in the fate of the downtrodden, the marginalised peasantry and the have-nots. Or else, it would mean a mere transfer of power form one class of exploiters to another.
Rabha felt that the fruits of this real freedom could be achieved only by adopting the Marxist model of society founded on justice and egalitarianism. This is the reason why he found that the paradigm of society espoused by the Indian National Congress was a poor help to the common mass of the people and turned to the liberating ideology of Marx and Engels. But, Rabha was no theorist. He was a communist both in letter and in spirit. He was born into a well-off family. His father Gopal Chandra Rabha was a Major Subedar in the British army. Bishnu Rabha inherited from his father a plot of two thousand and five hundred bigha land at the heart of Tezpur town. He could have chosen to wallow in an opulent life by making a personal use of this vast land. But, such was his veneration for a pro-peasantry ideology and the extent of his generosity that he donated the entire land to the poor peasants, whom he believed to be the true owners of the land: ‘hal jar, mati tar’ (One who ploughs the land ought to own the land). In song after song, Rabha gives the peasantry and the working masses a clarion call to action against the exploitation of the capitalist class:
Come O’ Come
The peasant force!
O’ the working class comrades
Let’s march ahead!
Wake up O’ wake up
The working-class youth!
A true Marxist Rabha felt in his heart of hearts that political freedom sans economic freedom was at best like a tree without fruits. Rabha’s call for freedom surpassed the limits of geographical and temporal frontiers, too. His ideological stance for freedom in a particular context rises to a universal quest for emancipation of humanity from the yoke of feudalism and capitalist exploitation.
It is interesting to note that while Rabha discovered the ideal structure of society in Marxism, he found the finest superstructure of art and culture in the teachings and writings of the Great Saint Srimanta Sankardeva, the versatile genius, who was a spiritual leader, a social reformer and a prolific writer. Rabha believed that is was Sankardeva who laid the cornerstone of Assamese culture, and preached a faith that would stand for new values based on fraternity, equality, and egalitarianism. In one of his remarkable speeches, Rabha said that long before Marx spoke of equality, Gandhi advocated equality, Sankardeva had preached and practised it.
Bishnu Rabha was fascinated by the compositions of Sankardeva. He learnt the Borgeets and infused a new significance into them. He attempted a revival of interest in the glorious compositions of the Vaishnavite cult upheld by Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva, and inspired the youth by singing:
Kirtan, Dasam, Nam-Ghosa
Let them be our pride…
Move ahead, O’ the youth of Assam!
Rabha, thus, eulogised Sankari culture and held Sankardeva in high esteem for the latter’s unparalleled role in uniting the different ethnic communities of Assam on the strength of art, culture and literature.
Rabha was an artist, an actor, a composer, a singer and a dancer par excellence. Today, he is best known as the ‘Kala Guru’, the master of art. In so far as this acclaim does justice to the artistic distinction of Rabha, it is all well and good. But, at the same time, this must not limit our assessment of the great genius. Rabha was as much a revolutionary apostle of equality, peace and harmony as he was the ‘Kala Guru’. It is sad but true that today many of us would judge Rabha only by the yardstick of his aesthetic excellence in the spheres of art and culture, and forget the message of his life, art and ideology. Rabha was a great artist, but he never shut himself up in the ivory tower of art. It is in the crowd of the masses that he sparkled brightly as an artist. If Rabha was a great artist, it was only because he drew his inspiration from the ordinary mass of the people. If he was a great orator, it was because he yearned to inspire the masses with an urgent message for a change. If Rabha is a cultural icon of Assam, it is because he was passionately interested in the glory of Assamese folk culture and the folk ways of Assamese life. Rabha was an ideal human being with a definite calling, and at the core of his life and ideology was the image of the common mass of the people.
At a time when Assam is ominously engulfed by ethnic differences and when corruption is endemic in every walk of life, Bishnu Prasad Rabha’s life and ideology can indeed go a long way towards inspiring us to root out the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of harmony and cripple our progress. To ensure this, we need go beyond just organising Bishnu Rabha Divas once a year to delve deeper into the true spirit of the oeuvre of Rabha’s artistic creation. It is in this way that we can make the best sense of Rabha’s life and ideology.