Through enchanting melodies, Sarma touched hearts across the country and became a cultural ambassador.
For close to 70 years, the powerful and mellifluous voice of Sudakshina Sarma enchanted and enthralled not just the people of Assam, but music lovers across the country. On July 3, this legend of Assamese music passed away after a prolonged battle with age-related illnesses. She was 89 years old and is survived by her daughter. The artiste, who sang evergreen hits such as “Kotha Aru Shur”, “Jetuka Bolere”, “Sharatkalor Rati”, and others, left an irreparable void in the world of Assamese music with her death.
Expressing his grief, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on social media, “I am saddened to hear of the passing away of Sudakshina Sharma, a bright star of the cultural world of Assam and a prominent musician. She enriched the world of music by gifting it with songs that touched the heart, and her death is an immense loss to the state’s cultural and social spheres.”
A legend in her own right
Though often overshadowed by the towering genius and iconic image of her older brother Bhupen Hazarika, Sudakshina was a legend in her own right. In a career that spanned over eight decades, starting from the mid-1940s, she carved out her own immortal niche in the world of Indian culture and music with her quiet and unassuming manner.
Born in Guwahati on August 8, 1934, to Neelkantha and Santipriya Hazarika, Sudakshina’s original name was Nirupama. She was the fourth of ten children and was nicknamed Queen. In fact, Queenie Hazarika was the name by which she was popularly referred to for a long time in her musical career. It was only after she got married to the celebrated singer and composer Dilip Sarma in 1954 that she changed her name to Sudakshina at her husband’s request.
Nirupama was just 10 years old when she burst onto the music scene in 1944. Her mentor, the legendary Bishnu Prasad Rabha, took her to a Kolkata (then Calcutta) studio to record two songs, “Nahar Phule Nushuwai” and “Biswar Chande Chande”—both composed by Bishnu Rabha. The two songs, which she sang with Assamese actor and music director Kamal Narayan Chowdhury, became instant hits.
In the same year, she recorded two more hits—“Duronir Hou Rini Rini,” written by Anandiram Das, and “A’ Moina Ketia Ahili Toi,” composed by her father, Neelkantha Hazarika. However, it was not these hits that mattered most to Sudakshina; it was singing for Mahatma Gandhi in front of a massive crowd at Jubilee Garden in Guwahati in 1946 that remained one of the greatest moments in her life.
“I can never forget that special moment in my life. Gandhiji wanted to listen to an Assamese bhajan. Then Gopinath Bordoloi asked me to sing a song, and Bishnu Rabha suggested ‘E Joi Roghunandan’,” she later remembered. Two years later, she would sing again for Gandhi, but this time after his assassination, when his ashes were being ceremoniously placed in the Brahmaputra at the Shukhreshwar Ghat. Sudakshina sang “Prithibir Shirot Bajrapat Porile”, a song composed by her elder brother Bhupen Hazarika.
Being eight years older than Sudakshina, Bhupen Hazarika was a major influence on her artistic growth. “I grew up listening to Bhupenda and used to accompany him to various functions in Dhubri, Tezpur, Sonitpur, and Mangaldoi,” Sudakshina later said.
Being Bhupen Hazarika’s little sister also exposed her to the highest level of artistic activities in Assam and allowed her the opportunity to interact with giants of Assamese culture such as Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, playwright Phani Sarma, and others. More opportunities opened up for her when, in 1948, All India Radio opened its unit in Guwahati. “I cleared the audition and have been singing ever since,” she later said in an interview. Apart from singing solo and collaborating with her brother, Sudakshina also took part in plays and dance recitals.
Preserving Assamese music
In her own way, she helped in the preservation of traditional Assamese music by recording various genres including “Borgeet”, “Kamrupi”, “Goalparia”, “Bongeet”, “Biyanam”, “Bihunam”, and others. In 2002, she and her husband received the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for their contribution towards the research and practice of the State’s folk music and Jyoti Sangeet.
Sudakshina was prolific, and her talent was multifaceted. She did playback singing in LP records of drama, lent her voice in a number of Assamese films, including Chik Mik Bijuli, Pargat, and Abuj Bedona, directed by her husband Dilip Sarma, and was equally brilliant in folk as she was in classical and modern genres.
Her marriage to Dilip Sarma in 1954 ushered in a new phase in her artistic life. Not only did they record great albums together and produce hits like “Moyu Bane Jao Swamihe”, “Nahar Phule Nushuwai”, “Kamalkuwari More Praneswari”, “Rati Puwaelre Kuruwai Pare Rao”, “Ur Ur Ur Neel Akashat”, and others, but they also travelled far and wide across the country and abroad, singing songs to spread the message of love, peace, and tolerance. They were also active members of the Assam unit of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
Even after she retired from singing in public, Sudakshina continued to teach music until old age and illness forced her to stop. Interestingly, as a little girl, she initially wanted to be a nurse—an ambition inspired by a book she had read about Florence Nightingale. But her professed ineptitude in mathematics prevented her from pursuing studies in science, and in her own words, her “dream fizzled out in no time”. The world of music and culture gained enormously from this.