Bhupen Hazarika at 91: A Trip Through His Lesser-Known Songs

Hazarika, who would have been 91 on Friday, wore many hats throughout his lifetime. What was uncanny, however, was his ability to bring the world to the people of Assam, long before globalisation made the word smaller.

Bhupen Hazarika, a voice of northeastern unity, would have been 91 today. Credit: PTI

Bhupen Hazarika, a voice of northeastern unity, would have been 91 today. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In 2011, Assam lost a voice in faraway Mumbai.

It was a voice that was not just Assamese alone but also northeastern, pan-Indian and global. An unparalleled talent, the likes of which still haven’t been discovered in Assam till today.  

The voice that went silent on a November day in 2011 on a hospital bed sang – over the course of his entire life – about a world bound together by that infinite ocean that we call humanity. On September 8, 2017, Bhupen Hazarika would have been 91.

Throughout his lifetime he wore many hats – writer, poet, academic, singer, composer and film director. What was uncanny however was his ability to bring the world to the people of Assam, long before globalisation made the word smaller.

A childhood memory of mine, which still registers as if its brand new even though several decades have elapsed, is illustrative of this. It was a summer morning. Perhaps a Saturday. I might have been 9 or 10 then. Bhupenda had come home to meet my grandmother, a relative by marriage to one of his sisters, also a namesake (both were called Rose at home), and also an elder he was said to be fond of.

A devout Brahmin widow, my grandmother spent most of her time going to the family temple, often followed by seven grandchildren of varying ages. That morning, if my memory holds true, was the day of one of those umpteen fasts that she kept for reasons I never cared to know.

Apparently, on learning this, Bhupenda chose to hum a few lines for her from ‘Ei mai joxuwa’, one of his famous songs where Lord Krishna complains to mother Yashodha that she doesn’t love him enough.

For reasons I can’t recall (though an older cousin once said it was because the grandmother asked him to tell her something about his travels from the world), Bhupenda also chose to regale us with tales of Nelson Mandela and his fight in faraway South Africa. As little children, we huddled around him and listened intently when he spoke of Mandela’s struggle and long years of incarceration in Robben Island.

Years later, I stumbled upon a ballad he wrote on Mandela in Assamese and since then have heard it quite a few times and have often reminsced fondly over that childhood memory. Hazarika reportedly sang the song at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens in the presence of Mandela.

On the occasion of Bhupenda’s birth anniversary today, here are some of the less-heard songs that he crooned in Assamese, Hindi and Bengali (the languages he mostly composed songs and sang in), I can’t help but begin with ‘Zindabad Mandela’, a song close to my heart but qualifies in this listing also because it never became as popular as so many of his other numbers went on to be.

True to the genre he was primarily known for – the ballad – Bhupenda used music to help the listener sympathise with Mandela’s great fight, the 27 years and seven months that he spent in jail before breaking out of the darkness to be a new, free African. He who never compromised to bring to his oppressed people what they craved for; he who defeated apartheid by non-violence and became a symbol for the world for freedom and equality.

Though most of his Assamese songs were translated to Bengali, I am yet to come across a Bengali version of this number. Here goes the Assamese one.

Bhupenda’s affection for Africa and the uphill battle of its people against race-based discrimination comes out in some of his other songs too.  While the number ‘Muk ejon boga manuh diya jar rokto boga’ (Give me a white man whose blood is white) – translated into Bengali as “Amay ek shada manush dau jar rokto shada” – got quite popular both in Assam and Bengal, his other number on Africa didn’t. It is unclear whether ‘Zindabad Mandela’ was translated to Bengali. ‘Krishnakaya Africa Krishnakoli ma (loosely, dark-bodied Africa, a mother as dark as Krishna) is also a song that I have heard only in Bengali so far.

In the song, he says, “Tumai dekhe mone kore aamar mayer muh” (Mother Africa, I think of my mother when I see you).

Associated with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA), Bhupenda was also a musician celebrated for his protest songs, a genre nearly dead in most parts of India today (not true of northeast though as many young singers practice it).

While his compositions like ‘Bristirna dupare’ (‘Ganga behti ho kyun’ in Hindi) continue to move and inspire people (it was translated recently  into Nepali and has become the anthem for the ongoing Gorkhaland agitation), the one he wrote about the conflict-ridden Assam assembly polls of 1983, ‘Juye pura tirasir nirbasonor bosor’ (The violent 1983 was an election year) is hardly heard in many tributes paid in Assam to the beloved singer these days, even though the message it conveys still holds true.

Translated to English, the song begins thus:

The violent 1983 was an election year

My brother has vanished

I have no news of him

Have you got any?

Do you know what happened to him?

It then goes on to say:

“One day demons surrounded us

Shot us by the shores of the Luit (Brahmaputra)

Many bodies went floating by the river

With me was Rongpi, Pegu, Gogoi, Basumatary

Rohim…Chettri, Tiwari

Harbansh was a follower of the great guru Tegh Bahadur

The demon took all of them away

O’ have of heard about it?”  

Here goes the chilling number in Assamese that shall keep alive the turbulent times that election year brought to the state.

A raconteur of the times, a true artist whose work canned the era he lived in, Bhupenda also sang two songs about two particularly important historical events that touched the northeast and the region adjoining it. Sadly, these songs never became as popular, as well-known as ‘Dil hoom hoom kare’ (from the film Rudaali) or ‘Ganga Aamar ma’.

The first song is about the liberation of Bangladesh, “Joi Joi nobojato Bangladesh, joi joi Mukti Bahini; Bharatiya xonyor xote rosila moitrir kahini” (“Hail newly born Bangladesh, hail Mukti Bahini; you created a chapter of friendship with the help of the Indian army”).

First sung in Assamese, it was later translated to Bengali. Bhupenda sang the Assamese version with his brother Jayanta Hazarika in the Festival of Protest Songs held in Berlin in 1972, just after the creation of Bangladesh. Many music lovers in eastern India have heard of The Beatles number ‘Bangladesh’ but not the one belted out by Bhupenda. Here goes both the Assamese and the Bengali versions:

The other song I referred to was ‘Arunachal Hamara, written in Hindi to mark the creation of Arunachal Pradesh from the British-contoured North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) on January 20, 1972.

Written for Mera Dharam Meri Ma, a film he directed in 1977, the song is not the only one he composed and sang about Arunachal. His Assamese number ‘Siang ore galong’ is quite popular in Arunachal and Assam.

It is interesting how the song ‘Arunachal Hamara’, which he sang with Ila Bose and Ruma Mukherjee, begins in the film with the announcement of the news about India giving a new name to NEFA by the BBC, considered then the ultimate medium to let the world know about a historical event.

Enjoy, ‘Arun kiran sheesh bhushon; kantha him ki dhara; Arunachal Hamara.

There is also another song, in Bengali, which I don’t think has been written or sung by him in Assamese, titled, ‘Aami London jabo hawai garite, aaj bikele (‘I shall go to London in an airplane this evening’). A particular set of lines that stands out for me is the irony about the middle-class dream in the 1980s of going to London and making one’s life as a first world citizen. At the same time however Kolkata was being modernised with its underground rail service and as a singer, he wasn’t sure whether he should stay back. 

Finally, much as one finds romance – for one’s lover, and the motherland – as well as problems such as growing poverty, greed and the imbalance of power and opportunity in Indian society in Bhupenda’s songs, he will also be recalled by future generations for the need to stand with each other, for a greater Assamese identity that includes all tribes. His work also stands for a larger northeastern identity as seven sisters of the same mother bound intimately by filial love even though each may grow wings and decide to fly on their own.

Be it his ‘Protidhoni xunu moi’ (‘The echo I hear from afar’) or the Nagamese version of ‘Manuhe manuhor babe; jodihe okonu nebhabe, bhabi bo kune nu kuwa mur bondhu’ (‘Man for man, if you don’t think about each other, tell me who would, my friend?’), each carry a message that is clear about co-existence and the need for each other.

The little known ‘Ai o Ai’ (Mother O’ Mother) is also one such song, the moving lyrics of which qualify it to be translated to every northeastern language simply for that determined message it conveys – that no outside force, come what may, should be able to break the unity of the people of the region belonging to different linguistic, religious and tribal groups.

A loose English translation of the first paragraph of the Assamese song goes like this:

“Mother O mother

We are seven sisters

Grew up by the side of the Brahmaputra

We basked in the sun sitting by it

Mother o mother…the day I could stand on my feet

I began to be called Meghalaya

Mother o Mother…”


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  • The Wire

    you are right. Fixed.