Renaissance man

Print edition : December 02, 2011

Bhupen Harzarika singing Bihu songs at a Rongali Bihu celebration in Guwahati on April 17, 2003 . - RITU RAJ KONWAR

Through haunting, lilting, often joyous melodies, Bhupen Hazarika (1926-2011) communicated his passionate love for humanity.

POET, musician, lyricist, film director, writer, thespian, artist, winner of the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1993 and the Padma Bhushan in 2001, Bhupen Hazarika, who died on November 5 at the age of 85, was the quintessential Renaissance man. Although he was instrumental in bringing about a revival of Assam's music and cinema and showcasing the State's culture before the world, his far-reaching achievements meant that Assam could no longer claim him as its own. By the time he died, Bhupen had become the cultural icon of the whole of the north-eastern region of India and a jewel in the pan-Indian cultural crown.

Through haunting, lilting, often joyous melodies, some with cerebral and philosophic depths that transcended the bounds of mere entertainment, he communicated his passionate love for humanity. On a cold, wintry night/ Let me be a smouldering fire/ Warming the tumbledown cottage/ Of some poor, unclad peasant such simple yet powerful words convey humanism, which breeds greater trust than any rhetoric could. I have saved/ Life's tears to myself/ I have given away instead/ Life's laughter this was the mission of an artist who effortlessly communicated to his audience his innate zest for life while camouflaging the struggles he had to undergo to attain the stature he had. The sky gave me boundless vision/ And the tempest its terrible power/ The thunder gave me its resounding voice/ And the courage of righteousness/ Armed with the voice of thunder/ And the power of tempest/ I shall make the horizon/ Tremble with my singing. Surely few cultural personalities in India or elsewhere have packed such fiery emotions into words, simultaneously inspiring people and emerging as a beloved cultural father figure.

Bonding with rivers

Bhupen jocularly called himself a jajabor, or a nomad. I have been a nomad since my birth, he wrote in his autobiography. I have no fixed address. A flighty wandering life has been written on my forehead. Strangely enough, the township of Sadiya in Assam, situated close to the India-Myanmar border, where he was born on September 8, 1926, was completely swept away when the Brahmaputra changed course during the great earthquake of 1950. It was as if his beloved river had conspired with fate to wipe away all traces of his birthplace and enhance the rootless, nomadic nature of his persona.

His father, a teacher, migrated to Guwahati in 1929 in search of better prospects. Their home was situated near the Brahmaputra, and carefree days of childhood spent upon its banks, or swimming in its waters, forged an eternal bond between Bhupen and rivers. Whether it is the Siang, the Padma, the Ganga or the Volga, rivers appear constantly in his lyrics as living presences, not only carrying memories of the civilisations erected on their banks but also watching over the destinies of communities. For instance, he repeatedly referred to the Brahmaputra as a unifying element among the astonishingly variegated ethnic communities of the north-eastern region. The mighty Brahmaputra, he wrote in one of his lyrics, Holy site of the great synthesis/ Has for untold centuries been propagating/ The message of unity and harmony.

WHEN HIS BODY arrived in Guwahati from Mumbai on November 7.-PTI

As his father had joined the Revenue Department, the family constantly moved to different places where he was posted. At Dhubri, the first posting, young Bhupen met Pramathesh Barua, the legendary director of Devdas, who was there for a while shooting a film called Mukti with Kanan Devi. This encounter led to a life-long fascination with films, and it was no coincidence that years later he returned to Dhubri to shoot his film Mahut Bandhure aided by none other than Pramathesh Baruah's son, Prakitish. At Dhubri, which was a meeting ground of Assamese and Bengali cultures, not only did Bhupen become proficient in Bengali but he also added new tunes to his childish repertoire, particularly the unique Bhatiali songs of the fishermen, later to be incorporated into many of his compositions.

In 1935, his father was transferred to Tezpur. The most significant phase of the young and impressionable Bhupen's life began there. Tezpur at that time was the springboard of a revivalist movement in Assamese literature, music and theatre, led by two titans of the region's cultural scenario, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla and Bishnuprasad Rabha. The two took him under their wing, becoming mentors in the broadest sense. Intensely idealistic, both considered themselves as belonging to the tradition pioneered by Mahapurush Sankardev, the Vaishnav saint-poet who in the 15th century brought about a socio-cultural renaissance in Assam. The Jyoti-Rabha duo revealed to young Bhupen the most important facet of Sankardev's achievements that he used music, dance, drama and literature to bring about social reform.

Artist of the masses

A fire had burnt in me since childhood, Bhupen wrote in his autobiography, to change society that fire is still burning. I was greatly influenced by Sankardev. The first lyric I ever wrote was for him. It expressed juvenile anguish at the hatred and violence in society, as also the desire to guide it towards love and brotherhood. Jyoti and Rabha at that time were on a mission to rejuvenate Assam's moribund socio-cultural scene and enlisted Bhupen as their youngest foot soldier. Jyoti instilled in him the aesthetic philosophy that was later to be the cornerstone of his poetic and cinematic creations, revealed to him the strength and beauty of words, and taught him the subtler nuances of his craft. Rabha, a communist, shaped the revolutionary instincts of the impressionable lad and deepened Bhupen's innate love for ordinary people, thereby helping him to become a gana-shilpi, or an artist of the masses, later.

At that time the duo was planning to make a gramophone record of a musical play titled Joymati, a heroine in Assam's history. Since there was no recording studio in Assam, the 10-year-old lad accompanied the duo to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1936. The recording at Aurora studio was so perfect that the Senola Company recorded a solo album by Bhupen, making him stand on two wooden boxes so that he could reach the microphone. His name on that maiden solo album was printed as Master Bhupen Hazarika (amateur) and the publicity blurb described him as The youngest artiste of His Master's Voice of India. Jyotiprasad and Bishnuprasad belonged to an earlier period of Assamese cultural renaissance. Bhupen soon detached himself from that phase and forged his own distinct identity to usher Assamese culture into the modern era. Having matriculated from Tezpur in 1940 and passed his Intermediate in Arts from Cotton College, he enrolled in Banaras Hindu University in 1942. His stay at BHU broadened his horizons. My entire thought process changed after I went to Banaras, he wrote. Whenever I met a Marathi or Gujarati student, I realised how similar they were to me. Among my fellow students were Africans, Indonesians, Japanese a Muslim friend of mine was even studying Sanskrit! It was then that the seed of universal humanism was planted in me. By the time he returned to Assam in 1946, he had developed an all-India sensibility.

At the inauguration of the Dr Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Museum at Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati on January 25, Bhupen playing his old harmonium. The museum will display about 4,000 items owned by him.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The IPTA connection

After teaching for a while, he joined All India Radio (AIR) in Guwahati in 1948 and also began composing lyrics and setting them to music. In 1948, he joined the Indian People's Theatre Movement (IPTA), an organisation of theatre and film personalities, musicians, artists and intellectuals with the objective of bringing about social change through fine arts. Although the movement failed because most of its members were lured away to lucrative careers, Bhupen was one of the few all-India figures who remained true to the original ideals of the movement and retained his identity as a singer of the masses.

The roving minstrel next went to the United States in 1949 after receiving a scholarship from the prestigious Columbia University, New York, where he completed his M.A. in mass communication and later secured a doctorate. There were two significant happenings in Bhupen's life during his stint in the U.S. He fell in love with a Gujarati girl named Priyambada M. Patel. Following a whirlwind courtship, he married her in 1950. His son, Tez, was born in 1952. In the same period, Bhupen developed intimate contact with the legendary African-American singer Paul Robeson. He was a social-singer with the power to change, Bhupen later wrote. Like Jyotiprasad and Bishnu Kokaideu (brother), he was responsible for moulding my philosophy of action. I too wanted to be a singer with the power to change society.

Bhupen with his son, Tez (left), and grandson, Akash, in Guwahati in 2007.-ANUPAM NATH/AP

Back in Assam in 1953 along with his wife and child, Bhupen was confronted with the harsh realities of life. AIR fired him for overstaying his leave, and for two years he earned his livelihood by singing at functions until he got a job as a lecturer at Gauhati University. However, it proved to be a short stint for he resigned in protest when the university deducted three days' pay because he was late in returning from a peace conference in Helsinki. This was the last straw for Priyam, who came from an affluent family and could not live in an atmosphere of perpetual poverty. She left him and went back to her paternal home. The separation was a devastating personal blow. Yet, perhaps, it was preordained. To be shackled with familial ties had perhaps been a handicap for the jajabor.

Pain, wounded pride, conflict with detractors, monetary problems and the ceaseless struggle to establish himself as an artist all these brought about a stupendous explosion of creativity within him. His life from that point to almost the final moments became a fascinating meander. Composing lyrics and setting them to music, cutting albums or singing on the radio, editing journals, writing books and for the print media, making films scripted and directed by himself, delving briefly into politics, Bhupen left very few avenues untrodden. Accompanied by his brother, Jayanta, another singing genius, he toured the length and breadth of Assam and other north-eastern States, entertaining and enlightening audiences in cities, townships, rural hamlets.

He touched the soul of his audiences as he sang about the day-to-day realities of common people's struggle for existence. He envisioned for them a classless society where there would be no oppression and injustice and where tribal and non-tribal people, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, would live in harmony thereby becoming a voice of the mute multitude. The flame of genius, overcoming constraints of place and milieu, always enlarges the space upon which it sheds its lustre. Gradually, his meanderings took him all across India and abroad; his ability to sing in Bengali and Hindi enabled his cultural contributions to take on pan-Indian dimensions even as he achieved international fame.

Recording a cassette in Guwahati in 2002.-PTI

It would require tomes to portray the multifarious achievements of the Renaissance man who strode like a colossus across the cultural scenario in the second half of the 20th century. He was a rare amalgam of lyricist, composer, vocalist and instrumentalist. He wrote over a thousand lyrics in various languages, of immense thematic and emotive power and rendered them in innovative music, many of which retain the simplicity of the folk tradition. His lyrical compositions possess the syntactic magic, metaphorical endowments and philosophical depth of great poetry. His classic lyric, Sagar Sangamat Katana Saturilu, is a brilliant example:

Dadasaheb Phalke award

His cinematic creations accompanied his musical and intellectual pursuits. Beginning with Era Bator Sur in 1956, he directed over a dozen films and documentaries, including classics such as Pratidhwani, Chikmik Bijuli, Siraj, Miri Jiyori, Mahut Bandhure (Bengali), and Mera Dharam Meri Ma (Hindi). He won the President's National Award for best film three times and also the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award for life-time achievement. He sang and composed music for numerous Bengali films, which made him a household name in Bengal and Bangladesh.

His musical compositions for award-winning Hindi films such as Ek Pal, Rudaali, Papiha and Pratimurti took him to dizzying heights in Hindi film music. His all-India status was reflected in the legendary artist M.F. Hussain's request to him to render the music for the film Gajagamini. You paint with your songs, Hussain had told Bhupen. I try to sing through my brush. If the two of us get together, maybe we would be able to produce something unique!

The timeless elements of Bhupen's craft, its variety and vastness, the mingling of the aesthetic and the altruistic, place him in the tradition of poet-reformers such as Sankardev, Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Jyotiprasad and Bishnuprasad. The final decades of his life brought him numerous accolades, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Indira Gandhi Smriti Puraskar, the Padma Bhushan, the Sankardev Award and Asom Ratna. He sang in concerts in cities across the world, including New York, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, London and Tokyo. From regional to national and then to international limelight, the Renaissance man who was born in the easternmost tip of India travelled far indeed.

The millions who thronged the route of his last journey in Guwahati, the homage paid to him from every nook and corner of the State and the north-eastern region, testify to the sense of loss that engulfed the region at his death. Yet, Bhupen's demise is not merely a loss to this region, it is a loss for the entire nation.

People paying respects to Bhupen's statue in Guwahati after hearing the news of his death on November 5.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Arup Kumar Dutta is a writer and a columnist.

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