It was a rainy afternoon in the mountain town of Kohima. Sheets of clouds were slowly enveloping the peaks around the town as I fumbled through my phone, looking to play a particular Bhupen da song that my Naga host had requested.
As clouds were gently drifting into the house, Bhupen Hazarika’s baritone voice rang out.
Mur gaon’ore xeema’re,
nixar siyortir protidhoni xunu
protidhini xunu moi… prothidhini xunu….
(From the end of the horizon of my village, from across the hills, come drifting to me echoes of the cry of the night.)
Such is the legacy of Hazarika that it reminds you of a parallel, both inside and outside Assam.
Hazarika (1926-2011) or Bhupen da to the masses, wrote over 1,500 songs and sang each one with all his heart. What colour was to Claude Monet, music was to Hazarika – his ‘day-long obsession, joy and torment.’
This past week, the many events organised within and outside Assam to mark his 90th birth anniversary were a reminder that people have not forgotten him or his music.
The older generations in the various fragments of what was once undivided Assam (bor Axom) – like my uncle in Kohima – fondly remember Hazarika’s visits to the hills in the 1960s – amidst tension and violence – to sing in both Assamese and Nagamese.
If man wouldn’t think for man with a little sympathy
Tell me who will, my friend?
If we try to buy or sell humanity, won’t we be wrong, my friend? (Manuhe manuhor babe)
What is it about his songs that continue to bind together people across regions and across physical and emotional barriers? An answer would be that his songs contained the man himself.
Hazarika was a self described jajabor – the roving minstrel, “flitting, floating, shifting, drifting and never seeking a home”.
More importantly, he was a vagabond with a dream.
…many wanderers are aimless drifters
but I keep a goal in sight,
wherever I see life’s joyous colours
I want to share the light (Moi eti jajabor)
Hazarika remained a minstrel for life, but one who was rooted to his land and its culture in the widest sense possible. In fact, often, his songs largely defined and shaped the culture of the land in its crucial junctures.
Political scientist Sanjib Baruah locates its influence in the intertextual capacity of his songs in representing Assamese imagination in its conversation with the state of the nation. His music thus reflected and constituted the Assamese national imagination. However, this was an imagination born with numerous interventions.
He began with a dream of building a ‘new Assam.’
I am the spark of the age of fire
I will build a new Assam
will bring back everything to those who have lost everything
will build a new Assam (Agni Jugor Phringoti)
For several decades, Assam and the Assamese have been identified with these songs. Not only were his lyrics conscious of its social responsibility, as an artist, he too was the embodiment of this consciousness. It was a responsibility rendered with ease and zest. He was a people’s singer par excellence, always in direct communion with his audience.
Salute to the multitude of my audience,
I but try to smile at your joys
and share your tears (Mur ganor hejar sruta)
An important subtext to most of Hazarika’s songs was an unwavering love for humanity: “Sky is vast, sea is vast, but vaster is the heart of mother” and sympathy for the downtrodden as he sang, “not of the first, not of the second, we are travellers of the third class… towards the destination together”.
However, what is striking about most of his songs are their ability to cross over across the emergent fault lines of the state at the time with ease and earnestness.
Hazarika sang through the gloomy days of language riots and ethnic conflicts from the 1960s. In fact, looking back, one can say that his was a classic Brechtian act of dark times producing timeless music on the very maladies and resistance of those times.
In a sense, the period marked the beginning of the challenge to the idea of Assam that saw much violence and strife. Hazarika’s songs in that period were a response to some of it.
It is not sufficient to tell ourselves that we Assamese are not poor.
Assam will go down the path of misery
lest the Asomiyas today recognise themselves.
many nationalities and sub nationalities coming together
had made this land of Assam
lest we put aside differences and divisions
and build this land anew with the labour of our own hands
Assam will be cease to exist. (Ami Axomiya)
River Brahmaputra had a sublime place in his lyrical imageries and his projection of the cultural imaginings of Assam. The river is a thread with which he tried to bind not only Assam, but also the seven sisters.
With the trumpets of celebration
and warmth of our hearts.
wrought together by the bondage invisible
we are drawn to the great Siem at the hill top
just like the the torrential clouds from Cherrapunji
lovingly embraces our Luit
in the form of rains. (He he he dhole dogore)
This, and many more motifs on the river, are present throughout his lyrical journey. In the middle of the student’s movement in Assam (1979-85), he sang,
The great river Brahmaputra,
a pilgrimage of harmony
flowing across ages
as a message of assimilation
hundreds came caught on the storm of river Podda
and the banks of the Brahmaputra welcomed them as guests …
take some, give some, to melt into each other said Rabindranath too (Mohabahu Brahmaputra)
Hazarika was constantly conflicted between his cosmopolitan moorings and his provincial concerns.
There was a constant attempt to reconcile with the sub-nationalistic demands of the Assamese youth that his songs legitimised ‘dictates of Lachit’ (Lachit Borphukan was a venerated war hero and general in the Ahom kingdom, who was often projected as a symbol of Assamese pride) to that of accepting the multicultural realities of changing Assam – one of his songs said “those who have come from afar and have called the land of the Luit mother are the neo-Assamese.”
These apparent contradictions are bewildering at times. But the minstrel was after all a romantic, who once lamented the breakup of Assam and the growing divisions amongst the ‘seven sisters’ by reminiscing the ‘past’: “Mother, we are seven sisters who once played together in the sunny sands of the river Luit.”
Extreme social fragmentations around linguistic identities had emerged as a social reality even in the hey days of his singing life. The jajabor was aware of the need to break out of this straightjacket. His substantial foray into Bangla and Hindi during the peak of his creative years brought out the best of his genius. It was a sublime musical transcendence of time and space when the sighs of Piyoli Phukan, the first anti-colonial martyr of Assam in the song ‘Buku hom hom kore,’ found its melancholy echo in the poignant bemoaning of a Rajasthani Rudaali in ‘Dil hum hum kare’.
Coming back to the question of the continuing charm and relevance of his music, Hazarika also lives on through the kaleidoscopic genius of his songs. His music was a lyrical foray into the different hues of what Assam is and was made of. The songs of the balladeer continue to be some of the exhaustive references to the geography and folk culture of Assam.
His wide range of songs beautifully covered the life stories of Nepali settlers living in the many islands of Brahmaputra, looked into the sweet romance in the everyday life of the river-based Mishing tribe and the bittersweet innuendoes in the daily lives of adivasis/tea tribes engaged in tea gardens.
Undeniably, there was an element of romanticisation and naivety here along with an element of commodification. We see traces of the same when he sang songs of optimism regarding marriages across castes in Assam and about a harmonious past between Muslims and Hindus. After all, the divisions in the Assamese society became much more entrenched right under his nose.
However, it is also important to understand the way his songs worked as an expansion of the Assamese cultural grammar. Hazarika opened up new cultural lexicons for looking at his surroundings to entire generations of people in Assam and beyond. His songs were tools for understanding the many ethnic lifeworlds one saw around oneself in multi-ethnic habitats like Assam.
By doing it, Hazarika moved to the space that was outside the cartographic frames of borders and boundaries. He rose above the binaries of inside and outside. His was the sole voice that musically crossed over the fault lines across eastern India and beyond, including Bangladesh. He was the bagpiper who helped this vast borderland connect through shared aesthetics, superseding the colonial demarcations.
Despite Hazarika, Assam went down a path of fragmentation, not only physical, but also emotional. Brutalities amongst men at an ever growing scale is being unleashed in the entire region. His is a voice that is needed now more than ever. His music could not stop all ethnic carnages before, but it healed. Healing is powerful and sometimes empowering as well. If collectives are about shared experiences, Hazarika remains one of the few shared cultural experiences for the people of Assam across ethnic groups. A symbol of harmony that had emerged from the lived experiences of people, the ‘voices from below.’ His was a voice carried forth by common people, “people carrying the palki of the big people through the zigzag roads, shedding their sweats on the ground” (Dola he dola’).
Bhupen da’s shifting political positions in his later years was a disappointment to many. The balladeer who once sang, “I swam countless, yet not fatigued, in the confluence of oceans,” seemed to have been snubbed by the cultural politics in the state in his later days.
It is extremely significant that a gigantic cultural phenomenon like him was rejected when he contested elections from the platform of Bhartiya Janta Party, which was at the time largely seen as a party with ‘closed notions of identity’ in Assam. It paradoxically reflected the very strength of ideas of openness and harmony that his songs had been spreading. In his own defeat, Hazarika was a winner.
The Assam he sang passionately about was not an ‘Axom’ in an exclusive territorial sense, just as the ‘Axomiya’ in his songs was not a closed identity. Renewed scrutiny of his songs keeps the different possibilities alive. Can we take his constant reference to the river life – to his Burha luit – to mean that he was his hinting at building coalition of larger identities around nature? If the idea of Assam and India his songs refer to has to be placed beyond and beside the spatial and chimerical identities of our times? This element of eternal hope is the final and most valuable legacy of the bard of the Brahmaputra.
Kaustubh Deka is a Delhi-based academic and writer.