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Hemango Biswas’s Historic Peace Road Trip Comes Alive in Singer’s Mission

Hemango Biswas’s daughter Rongili’s unique journey to Assam attempts to shed light on an era of artistes and their fearless campaign against injustices.

Surma Valley Cultural Squad Programme around 1946-47, Hemango Biswas at the second row, extreme right hand corner, Nirmalendu Chowdhuri, Sandhya Das and other artists are in the photo as well. Credit: Facebook/Rongini Biswas

Surma Valley Cultural Squad Programme around 1946-47, Hemango Biswas at the second row, extreme right hand corner, Nirmalendu Chowdhuri, Sandhya Das and other artists are in the photo as well. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

It’s been a road trip of a different kind. One that builds a bridge back into history. A history that has pain and protest both wound around it in layers. Rongili Biswas, an economist by profession and singer by passion, has undertaken the arduous task of reconstructing the spirit of the time when her father, the eminent poet and singer-composer Hemango Biswas, and the stellar singer-composer Bhupen Hazarika had embarked on a peace initiative to counter the linguistic riots of 1960 in Assam. Along with it, Rongili has also been unraveling archival material hitherto unknown, from Biswas’ letters and other records. In all, it is the tale of a journey within and without.

Rongili’s conviction is that the troubled times of the past can be documented through the artistic and poetic resistance of Biswas and Hazarika in order to present itself as an antidote to current sociopolitical maladies we see in India. Hence, her long ride on the route that the older singer-poets traversed, was marked by great adventure, artistic discoveries, and humane revelations.

Rongili undertook the journey, a project under the India Foundation for the Arts, in Assam from January 8-20, 2016, then again from October 12-November 3, 2016. She has been documenting her findings since then.

The vast archival material of songs and writings, as well as the audio-visual resources, have the potential for storing memories of the historic time, and is a researcher’s delight; points out Rongili in a telephonic conversation.

Her father Hemango Biswas was a well known Bengali poet, singer and political activist born in 1912. His musical oeuvre was extremely diverse but he is especially revered and remembered for drawing from popular and folk music of Assam and Bengal, especially the form Bhatiali.

Bhupen Hazarika has gone down in history as the bard of Assam. A singer, composer, activist and film maker, he was posthumously awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, in 2012.

Other than composing scintillating poetry and song lyrics, the most important contributions of Biswas and Hazarika jointly was their role in confronting the linguistic riots in Assam in 1960. Biswas led the movement by forming a cultural troupe involving dramatists, singers, musicians, writers and artists of Assam that included Hazarika and other renowned persons of various ethnic origins.

When the riots broke out in the summer of 1960, Biswas sent a telegram to Hazarika who was in Kolkata at that time. Both of them reached Shillong (now the capital of Meghalaya) and wrote the song ‘Haradhon-Rongmon Katha‘ together, and organised a programme in Shillong Club on August 27. “It was hugely (and a little unexpectedly) successful,” Rongili says.

Then the duo started thinking how to take the troupe to the plains of Assam. Serendipitously, at that point, Assam’s chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha made an offer saying the eminent singers would be provided all help from the government if they took up such a mission.

“Chaliha, as you know, knew Hemango Biswas from their collective prison days in Nagaon jail, and I have quite a few photos of that place,” Rongili says.

The song ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Katha’ is a story of two peasants – one Bengali and another Assamese – both of whom had lost their home and hearth in the riots. The singers set the song to tunes using the Bhatiali and Bihu folk forms of Bengal and Assam, respectively. The troupe travelled throughout Assam, especially the riot-torn areas, during August and September of 1960. There’s probably not another instance in Indian history where a cultural troupe was actually able to help abate riots by using performance as intervention.

After the third Assam IPTA conference, from left Bhupen, Hemango, Salil, Niranjan Sen, in front of the Indian Airlines office in Guwahati,1955. Credit: Facebook/Rongini Biswas

After the third Assam IPTA conference, from left Bhupen Hazarika, Hemango Biswas, Salil Choudhury, Niranjan Sen, in front of the Indian Airlines office in Guwahati,1955. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

Hemango Biswas’ journals

All of Rongili’s trip was a voyage of discovery along the very path taken by her father. Biswas left behind his journals on the road trip which are a delight for history buffs. He mentions that on chief minister Chaliha’s invitation for the troupe to come to Guwahati, some of his comrades had expressed doubts.

“Some comrades started saying why would you go with the help of the Congress government? Besides, it is the good-for-nothing administration of the Congress government that should be held responsible for this riot. How would the artistes from the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) cooperate with them?”, writes Biswas.

But he also mulls that in that stark situation, it would have been “a truly mean step” to refuse such invitation from the chief minister.

Realising this was an opportunity that might never come again, Biswas geared up for his trip with Hazarika, beginning with Guwahati, and then proceeding to Nagaon.

In Nagaon, Biswas was a little worried, for this place had registered one of the most widespread riots.

“I clearly remember, after the program, three students came to me and confessed with much remorse that they participated in the riots. One of them was a lead worker of student federation,” Biswas writes.

Apparently, no Bengali turned up at the programme.

Hazarika and Biswas toured the whole day and met a few Bengali leaders. But that could not reassure them much, neither could the artists bring any comfort to the injured minds of the Bengali leaders.

The troupe’s next target was Dhing Bazar, close to Nagaon. Most of the market in this part were arsoned. On reaching Dhing, Biswas says he could “feel the latent tension still prevailing there”.

The Bengali school in Dhing where around 300 students studied was completely gutted down. The same fate had befallen all shops owned by Bengali proprietors. A Bengali-owned shop where almost all gramophone records were of Assamese songs – ironically, most of them Bhupen Hazarika’s songs – was also burnt down. Another such shop, whose specialty was selling costumes for the Assamese rural theatre form bhaona, had been arsoned. That year, bhaona could not be staged due to the unavailability of costumes.

“That day, Bhupen and I got some new elements to incorporate in our speeches to the audience,” writes Biswas.

Some peasants from nearby villages were present in the audience for their performance, which assured the troupe that no trouble will ensue. From Borgeet to Rabindrasangeet, “through our endless singing”, and finally through ‘Haradhon-Rongmon Katha’, the artists “crushed the atmosphere of fear completely”, writes Biswas.

Next in Jorhat, the troupe performed at the well known Bengali theatre hall.

Both Assamese and Bengali audience filled up the hall, quite unexpectedly, sitting side by side, something unthinkable at that time.

Biswas then goes on to recount a story about a local dhol artist who he went to look for in his village to have him join the performance.

“From this point onwards, Moghai Ojha’ s dhol would be the clarion call of our troupe,” writes Biswas.

Ojha was the finest representative of Assam IPTA in India, according to Biswas. Regaling everyone with his dhol beats, Ojha himself composed and sang which Biswas presents in his journal:

The country is weeping
And its people cry
You are powerful because those people have given you that power
Why  do you  people forget this?
Or the intensely satirical one:
Brothers fight among themselves
The enemy is rejuvenated
When husband and wife fight
Home becomes exile.

As per Biswas’ journal, throughout these visits, stalwarts like poet and revolutionary leader Kalaguru Bishnu Rabha, and young Turks such as Jayanta Hazarika, Khagen Mahanta, Keshab Mahanti – all top artists in later years – and several others made their voice heard, which lent a much-needed fillip to Biswas and Hazarika’s mission.

They continued to Sibasagar, then Dibrugarh, the latter being the home of the then president of IPTA, the towering poet Jyotiprasad Agarwala.

“While we were on the road, Bhupen composed ‘manuh‘ (manuh manuhor baabe),” writes Biswas about Hazarika.

The song has been translated into Bengali as the highly popular ‘manush man usher janya’ (We humans are for each other).

In Tezpur, before the programme started, Rabha gave a speech about the prevailing situation in his deep resonant voice, Biswas recounts. The troupe had decided not to venture into the topic of the current unrest directly. But Biswas says, “Bishnu Rabha had that right.” The troupe had the privilege of Rabha accompanying them to Mongoldoi as well.

Biswas’ journals hold more. The volatile times and the mission of the singers come alive in each word. For Rongili, visits to all these above places was re-living history.

A photo of the 1960 peace mission. Hemango Biswas, Bhupen Hazarika, other team members and locals after a performance, September, 1960, Assam, exact place unknown. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

Epistolary exchanges

“Local and national journals covered this event extensively,” Rongili says.

She mentions that more information about the troupe’s journey can be gleaned from Biswas’ letters and memoirs.

“In Jironi (which means ‘resting place’ in Assamese), Biswas’ residence in Naktala, Guwahati, we’ve built a small museum that contains his published and unpublished writings, papers, diaries, books and notes,” she adds.

This also includes records, cassettes, table diaries, important old photographs and Biswas’ everyday things. There are folk instruments that Biswas used on a regular basis (dotara, ghunghur, even a set of torn maracas) or those that he collected, e.g. a samisien brought from China whose base is made from alligator skin.

“Time’s inexorable proclivity for destruction had taken the life out of them, but I’m sure the structures of such instruments will help future research on folk music,” Rongili says.

Biswas was an avid communicator, she points out.

“I need to talk about his letters separately.”

A part of his epistolary exchanges with renowned Rabindrasangeet singer Debabrata Biswas has been published in the book Ujaan Gaang Baiya.

“Those letters were written in the dialects of Sylhet and Mymensingh. What is especially noticeable in the letters is the fact that amidst the discussions about politics and society at large, what gets exchanged is a sense of humour steeped in regional flavour.”

Any qualified reader is bound to be delighted by these. But there are other unpublished important letters which Rongili hopes to soon be able to bring out in one of the volumes of Biswas’ collected works.

“I found one such letter by Shankar Guha Neogi (political activist) the other day. Hemango Biswas made an entry at the very end of his table diary regarding a visit to Neogiji in 1987. This was supposed to be a professional visit to Chhattisgarh with his music troupe.”

Biswas finally did not get a chance to visit since he passed away on November 22 of that year.

Music and collaborative work

The volume of collected folk songs of Hemango Biswas is none too small. And they span many regions, states and countries. This collection has given the archive an added dimension.

“Many of these songs he has quoted in Ganer Bahirana,” mentions Rongili. Ganer Bahirana is Biswas’ famous theoretical book on folk and ethno-musicology.

There are other songs over and above those, including songs from various regions of India as well as from China, Central Asia, and the erstwhile Russia.

“A person called Kalu Singh used to come to our house. He had a mellifluous voice. My father collected many Nepalese Jhaore and other folk songs from him. There was a direct influence of those on the song ‘Birpradhano’ that he and Kalu Singh composed for Utpal Dutta’s drama Tir.”

Residents of Park Circus, one of the few multi-ethnic places of Kolkata, the Biswas family has seen people from many regions with different religious and linguistic backgrounds coming to their locality.

“(In Park Circus), maybe someone had come to visit his relative’s house from a rural place in Bihar, my father would invariably bring him over to our house so he could learn Bhojpuri folk songs. I still clearly remember once, while singing a beautiful Bhojpuri tune that is usually sung during marriage ceremonies, a big built man broke into tears because it reminded him of his own daughter who he had married off a few days back,” Rongili recounts.

Because she has listened to them innumerable times, and because of the training her father’s students and Rongili herself had received in his folk music classes, they remember many of the songs from this invaluable collection. But apparently that’s not even one-third of the entire set. To perform these songs in these nearly-forgotten styles constitutes one of the major reasons for building up this archive post her road journey, according to Rongili.

“In that sense, it’s a living archive where unending search and excavation assume no less importance compared to preservation and cataloguing.”

Reconstructing her father’s collaborative period with Bhupen Hazarika is one such venture Rongili has embarked upon on completion of her road trip.

“An excavation of sorts. I’ve already interviewed people who were part of the peace team,” she says. “I’ve made field trips to Assam as well. This will help me reconstructing the IPTA and Surma Valley Cultural Squad period of Hemango Biswas in Assam (1943-1957), and contexualise the project.”

Rongili is now working on an album with eight or nine songs that include the ones Biswas and Hazarika sang during the trip. Other than the quintessential ‘Haradhon-Rongmon Katha’, these songs are the very well-known Kauri Pore sang by Khagen Mahanta and Biswabijoyi Nowjowan, along with eminent poet Shonkho Ghosh reciting his Shokoler Gaan. In fact, in this album, Rongili is planning to include poetry, narration, songs as well as dhol beats by the legendary Moghai Ojha.

She informs that a few other very well known songs of those times such as ‘Pothe Nama‘, ‘Jhaak jhak‘, ‘Protidhwani‘, along with ‘Manuh’ and ‘Xagor Xongomot‘ would also be documented separately. A full documentary film on the journey of 1960 is also in the works besides a monograph comprising all communication of Biswas and Hazarika.

Rongili Biswas’ unique journey

The elder artists’ journey down the road as well as down memory lane have literally resulted in a treasure find. Rongili recounts her moments of high emotion at Maghai Ojha Kalakshetra in Jorhat with Bagai Ojha, Ojha’s student. Bagai was a little boy when he played with Ojha at the 1955 conference.

Rongili at Maghai Ojha Kalakshetra in Jorhat with Bagai Ojha - Maghai's student. Credit: Facebook

Rongili at Maghai Ojha Kalakshetra in Jorhat with Bagai Ojha – Maghai’s student. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

“Bagai gave us an unforgettable interview, describing how the drummers (dhulis) were treated as untouchable artists.” Rongili says. “In marriage ceremonies, etc., they were needed but they had separate places to sit and sleep, separate utensils to use. People used to laugh at them.”

IPTA was the first platform that gave them respect. Maghai Ojha was discovered by Hemango Biswas, and revered by Bhupen Hazarika and the other artists. Although Ojhas (dhulis) are almost all very poor, they enjoy more respected these days. In fact, Maghai Ojha earned international reputation after his exposure through IPTA.

In front of his memorial stone. Credit: Facebook/Rongili Biswas

In front of Maghai Ojha’s memorial stone. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

Rongili visited his memorial stone (kept at the back of Ojha’s original house where his descendants still live) in October 2016.

“For the rest of my stay in Assam, I could not extract myself from the tremendously powerful effect this memorial place had over me,” she reminisces.

She recalls her meeting with Bina Hazarika, another significant personality of that time. Bina Hazarika was 12 years old when the 1960s riots happened in Dhing Bazar near Nagaon. Her father, Ghanakanta Hazarika, had saved many Bengalis from the rioters’ wrath. One of them was Kalidas Deb, a very talented and enterprising musician based in Dhing, who left the place following the riots.

Currently, a famous doctor at Golaghat, Assam, Bina Hazarika, her husband and others came all the way down from Golaghat to Bokakhat, in October, 2016, to see Rongili and share memories.

Bina Hazarika, her husband and others at Bokakhat, October, 2016. Credit: Facebook/Rongili Biswas

Bina Hazarika, her husband and others at Bokakhat, October, 2016. Courtesy: Rongili Biswas

Snippets of such encounters have rendered Rongili’s unique journey a milestone in the cultural mapping of modern India, and particularly in the north-east. Once all her work is documented, there would be more light on an era of artistes and their fearless campaign against injustices.

Nabina Das is a poet.