DECEMBER 2, 2011

Renaissance man

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Bhupen Hazarika. He grew to become a cultural icon of the north-eastern region. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

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.

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.

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.…”

“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.” Jyotiprasad Agarwalla and Bishnuprasad Rabha, two titans of the region’s cultural scenario, 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”.

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.”

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. 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.

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 lifetime achievement. He sang and composed music for numerous Bengali films, which made him a household name in Bengal and Bangladesh.