Bhupen Hazarika: Voice Of The People

-- Anju Barkataki

An avalanche seemed to have burst on the streets of Guwahati. For three consecutive days from the 7th of November, wave upon wave of people kept flowing night and day towards a common destination – Judges’ Field, where lay the mortal remains of the man who had found a place in the hearts of all the people of the North Eastern part of India, especially his homeland, Assam.

Born at Sadiya in Upper Assam in 1926, Bhupen Hazarika spent his formative years amidst the tumult of the freedom struggle. He also came in contact with two of the greatest cultural personalities of Assam – Jyoti Prasad Agrawal and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, who were a crucial formative influence on Hazarika as an artist.

His first composition, written while still in his teens, was ‘Agni yugar firingoti moi’(I am the spark of the age of fire). It was an expression of his revolutionary thinking. As a student in Columbia University, in the USA, he met Paul Robeson, who told him that the guitar is not just a musical instrument; it can be a social instrument, an instrument for change. His interaction with Robeson and Richard Wright, the great cultural activists, left a lifelong mark on Hazarika.

Even before his encounter with Robeson, Bhupen Hazarika had come into contact with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) and the great figures of Assamese folk and progressive culture like Hemanga Biswas. He called upon cultural people to resist the forces of reaction, and sang of socialism and equality. This did not go well with the reactionary forces, who prevented him from singing his songs at the Bihu Sanmelan at Latasil Field in 1952. The next day, Hemanga Biswas, then IPTA Secretary, had all the songs printed and then distributed them among the people.

In his lyrics, we meet the barely clothed farmer and the poor fishermen. Every aspect of Assamese life and society, and all the communities of all other states of the seven sisters, find a place in Hzarika’s songs. That explains the outpouring of respect and honour from states like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and others. During the language conflicts of the sixties, he toured the state with an IPTA group towards peace and reconciliation.

The Luit has a special place in his songs, it was his strength. He said, “Just as there would be no Paul Robeson without the Mississippi, so there would be no Bhupen Hazarika without the Luit.He had special soft corner for the month of Bohag (mid April-mid May), describing it as the life line of the Assamese people.” He described Marx, Gorky, Lenin, Paul Robeson, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as his ideals. He sang about Nelson Mendela, and about racial discrimination. He himself had been a victim of caste discrimination. He was prevented from marrying the woman he loved because of his caste, and he was taunted by some as ‘modar ‘, a flower which is never used in any religious rituals.

He regretted his brief dalliance with the BJP, late in life. His political missteps notwithstanding, what Bhupen Hazarika will be remembered and revered for is for being a voice of the common people.

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