The soulful voice of the masses: Dr. Bhupen Hazarika

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By: Dr. Hasinus Sultan

Bharat Ratna Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, who became a legend during his lifetime, lives in our hearts as a singer of the masses. Much more than anything else, he was a distinctive singing voice of the mass of the people. The greater bulk of his songs become singular by their appealing celebration of humanity. He makes his singing mission quite clear when he pronounces convincingly:

My songs

Against the whole loss of trust

Be a song of trust.


My songs

Against the luxury of reveries

Be a hymn to truth.

And we ask: ‘What is this truth?’ only to discover that this ultimate truth is that we must think delve deep into the plight of the helpless masses of the people. This call for service of humanity becomes all the more appealing when Dr. Hazarika sings inspiringly like an angel:

If one human wouldn’t

Think a little about the other

With an iota of sympathy

Who would think about them, comrades?

…      …      …

If the weaker masses

Sail across the rushing river of life

By your courageous spirit

What would you lose?

When Dr. Hazarika sings of the people, he sings neither of the kings and the queens nor the indolent upper class people living blissfully on the labour of the working class. He holds the ideals of compassion for the common people high on the echelons of society, and becomes a champion for the cause of the underdog, the underprivileged lot as he sings in a scholarly vein:

Historians in the past wrote

About the kings and emperors,

Historians today write

About the emancipation of humans.

…      …      …

Casting into oblivion what history

Had to say about the feudal age

In this brave age today I would write

About the emancipation of humans.

This song speaks volumes not only for the singer’s genuine interest in history, but also for his awareness of the ideological shift in focus of history from the deeds and stories of kings and emperors to the common mass of the people as makers of history.

An apostle for the emancipation of humans, Dr. Hazarika was also full of compassion for the marginalised working class peasants. His heart goes out to the hard-working peasants when he sings passionately:

In a wintry moist night, a moist wintry night

In the husk-fire of the broken hut

Of some peasant in tatters

May I be the red-hot warmth aglow…

In a wintry moist night…

The song is unique by virtue of its rhythmic expression of the conditions of the poor peasants in our country. Continuing in the same vein, Hazarika sings still poignantly:

Deep in the heart

Of the flames of hunger

Of some starving day labourer

May I be a

Bolt of lightning

Sparkling in a sudden flash

May I be bolt of lightning…

In a wintry moist night…

Dr. Hazarika was no less aware of the fragile inner workings in the minds of the minority people who are often pushed callously into the margins of society. The deep-seated sense of insecurity felt by the minority lot is couched memorably in the following words of the very same song. What, however, distinguishes Dr. Hazarika from other singers is that he himself craves reassuringly to shield the insecure minds from the assailing worries and anxieties.

The muffled cry

Of the craven mind

Of some minority community

May find a voice in me!

May I be a sense of security…

In a wintry moist night…

All this goes to attest that Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was a singer with a definite calling. What Nelson Mandela did to free his people from the curse of apartheid through progressive politics, what Charlie Chaplin sought to serve through his comic performances, what Mother Teresa wanted to do by dedicating her life to the service of the downtrodden, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika yearned to do that through the magical power of his songs.

It would be worthwhile to note here that this reformist zeal did not come to Dr. Hazarika out of the blue. No great singer or artist can scale a towering height without some powerful formative influences. Bhupen Hazarika’s close association with the revolutionary souls of Assam like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Phani Sarma had greatly influenced him to compose and sing songs for humanity. His father Nilakanta Hazarika and his mother Santipriya Hazarika had a progressive outlook which also shaped his mind. Later while pursuing his Ph.D. in Columbia University, he came in close touch with the legendary singer Paul Robeson. A good number of Bhupen  Hazarika’s songs bear the stamp of Paul Robeson’s humanitarian zeal. Besides, Dr. Hazarika was also deeply influenced by the progressive ideals of Marxism and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The pro-people and anti-establishment tenor of his songs owes much to such profound influences in his life. Even as an octogenarian, Dr. Hazarika, in an interview published in the Dainik Asam on 5 March 2007, admitted his deep indebtedness to the ideological passion championed by Marxists like Dr. Amalendu Guha and Hemanga Biswas.

It is in this broader spectrum of all the influences and the unfailing message of his songs that the ‘Bard of the Brahmaputra’ Dr. Bhupen Hazarika may be best appraised by us. It is sad but true that many of us would today tend to assess Dr. Hazarika as a mere nationalist voice and judge him only by the yardstick of his aesthetic excellence in the spheres of art and culture, and forget the message of his songs, art and ideology. While a close-minded appreciation of such a towering personality may lead us to a narrow corner, an objective assessment may pave the way for peace and harmony in our society. At a time when Assam is ominously engulfed by a loss of trust and communal differences, the abiding message of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s songs can indeed go a long way towards healing the wounds in human relationships. To achieve this noble goal, we need go beyond just portraying Dr. Hazarika parochially as a nationalist icon and delve deep into the real spirit of the oeuvre of his artistic creations. It is in this way, again, that we can make the best sense of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika as a true singer of the masses.

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