Benign, dreamy eyes under a lined brow, half covered by the trademark Nepali cap-this is what the face of Assam looks like. It was christened Bhupen Hazarika about 85 years ago and now lies still in the midst of millions mourning its loss.
The Bard of the Brahmaputra, the Minstrel of the Masses, the Voice of the Voiceless and the uncrowned king of North-Eastern India’s cultural world- Bhupen Hazarika has lived past his times and has managed to become a legend for generations to come. A renowned poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author, film-maker, political activist and a cultural icon in north-eastern India, he has so much to his credit that no single person could achieve in a lifetime. I would refrain from enlisting them here for the fear of reducing him to an encyclopedia entry. His unique, deep baritone voice and his easy-on-the-ear compositions, which quite often culled out finer nuances of classical ragas and the huge variety of folk music of the North East, are hard to forget for anyone who hears them.
Born in 1926, in Sadiya, Assam, Hazarika studied in Guwahati and Banaras Hindu University before going on to receive a Ph.D. in mass communications at Columbia University in New York in 1952. At the age of ten, he was discovered by Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha who made him sing a Borgeet taught by his mother at a public function. In 1936 Bhupen Hazarika accompanied them to Kolkata where he recorded his first song at the Aurora Studio for the Selona Company. His association with the icons of Assamese culture was the beginning of his artistic growth and credentials and there was no looking back. At 13, he sang about building a new Assam and a new India. Growing up in Tezpur, he would catch snatches of adult conversation, eavesdropping on talk about Trotsky’s murder and the Indian freedom movement between grown-ups. These were filed away in a then unadorned head and used in lyrics. Achievements sang their way to Hazarika till he cared no more for them. What mattered to him were his principles and ideologies and the pain of his people to whom he dedicated his life.
Hazarika's contributions went far beyond cinema for which he was conferred the Dada sahib Phalke award in 1992. For him, music was an instrument of social change. From early in his life, he was at the forefront of a social battle against the entrenched forces of casteism that sneered at a member of the ‘Dom' community. Gutsy and avowedly anti-establishment, Bhupen Hazarika was a musical genius who put Assam on the country's cultural map through his compositions and songs and his contribution to the development of Assamese cinema. He was named best composer in India in 1977 for his music for the Assamese film Chameli Memsaab. He was a prolific and popular songwriter; his songs connected with the masses because the lyrics often touched on important social issues or promised a bright future. He received the government awards Padmashree in 1977 and Padma Bhushan in 2001.
Hindi audiences took much longer to appreciate his worth. It came, courtesy “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare”, a song extremely melancholic and soulful. The song, in director Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali, was not exactly in Hindi but its mournful music and soul piercing rendition by both Lata Mangeshkar and Hazarika ensured a place for it in everyone’s hearts. According to popular journalist, Arnab Goswami, “A legend in Assam and an icon in Calcutta, he became my role model for the multicultural identity that I too wanted.”
For Bhupen Hazarika music has always been his first love. During the Assam Movement of the early ’80s, Hazarika was looked upon by an entire generation of agitating students as an inspiration. His music was their sustenance. He wrote and sang for them, drawing on the experience of singing with Paul Robeson whom he met and became closely associated with between 1949 and 1955 in USA.
His humanist song “Manuhe Manuhor Babe” which was also translated into Bengali, talked of pulling down man-made barriers, and was to get Hazarika recognition across the world. His compositions though included Assam's famous Bihu songs, both patriotic and romantic.
Early on in his career, when he was associated with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, his Leftist leanings came to the fore with songs like “Dola” where, through the voice of a palanquin bearer, he speaks truth to power, telling the rich that their world would not run without the sweat of the poor.
Almost all through his career, he composed anti-establishment songs, using his own rich baritone to voice them powerfully. One of his most popular songs, ‘Bistirno dupare', loosely based on Paul Robeson's ‘Ol Man River, spoke of the travails of the Ganga and questions it for being a mute witness to the sufferings of mankind through the ages.
Hazarika espoused universal brotherhood throughout his life and even in his films one sees similar messages to those in his songs. In Era Bator Sur (Song of the Deserted Path), he told the story of vanishing folk cultures, while in Chikmik Bijuli (The Lightning), he looked at the transformation of Guwahati from a small town to a big city.
His health began deteriorating after a stroke he suffered during the Rongali Bihu (Assamese New Year) celebrations in Guwahati in 2006. Estranged from his first wife and son, Hazarika met Kalpana Lajmi in 1971 and they have stayed together ever since, though never got married. Throughout the period of his ill-health, Lazmi took care of him, till he breathed his last early morning on November 6 this year.
As a singer, Hazarika was known for his baritone voice and diction, as a lyricist he was known for poetic compositions and parables which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political commentary and as a composer for his use of folk music. Every role he took up, he fulfilled with honesty and for his people, his motherland.
However, one cannot help but notice Hazarika’s painstaking efforts at voluntarily taking up so many roles as if trying to prove a point throughout his life.