Popular Assamese singer Sudakshina Sarma talks about the genius of her brother, the legendary Bhupen Hazarika, who passed away last week.

She was only nine years old when one of Assam's cultural icons and revolutionaries, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, took her to Kolkata to can songs on gramophone record. One of the four songs sung by this little girl to make two gramophone records, a great privilege in the 1930s, was composed by her father Nilakanta Hazarika. The tune of the song was given by her elder brother Bhupen Hazarika, barely 13 years old then.

The little girl grew up to be a popular singer in Assam, as Sudakhshina Sarma, someone who had been a close witness to the rise of Bhupen Hazarika as a musician whose popularity went thousands of miles beyond the shores of Brahmaputra. Sudakshina, the eldest of the celebrated balladeer's sisters, was also acompanion in his musical journey that spanned over seven decades. In a chat in Guwahati where she lives, Sudakshina, in her 70s now, takes the readers ofThe Hinduthrough the journey that made Bhupen Hazarika a legendary mass singer. Edited excerpts:

Bhupen Hazarika inspired millions when he was alive. A sea of people in Assam, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, had come out of their houses to receive him even after his death. What made him such a popular singer?

Bhupenda's close association with the cultural icons of Assamese society — Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Natsurjya Phani Sarma — had greatly influenced him to compose and sing songs of humanity. They portrayed the real world before him. Besides, our father late Nilakanta Hazarika and mother late Santipriya Hazarika had progressive outlook which perhaps influenced Bhupenda a lot. They used to tell us to know the world and make friendship will everyone to know them. Wherever Bhupenda went he used to come back home picking the folk tunes and learn songs of various tribes and communities and would teach us. He used to compose songs and use various elements of folk music and folk culture which perhaps made his songs closer to the hearts of people belonging to different tribes and communities. This also helped bring various cultures closer to each other. He was a real lover of mankind and his deep love for humanity was reflected in his compositions and singing. Later when he had gone to do his Ph.D in Mass Communication in Columbia University, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala asked him to meet the legendary singer Paul Robson there. Bhupenda's love for humanity increased manifold after meeting Robson the reflection of which is seen in the songs composed and sung by him in the subsequent period and these songs took him closeer to a wide sections of people.

How far his close association with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) influenced his music ?

The golden seven decades of the musical career of Bhupenda was also the golden decade of IPTA (1952-1962) when he became closely associated with it. I travelled with him and sang in many places. It is in this period that he composed and sang some of the most popular numbers like “Dola Dola”, “Paneir Punakon”, “Rongmon Macholoi gol”, etc. in which he sang the sufferings of the downtrodden. After his return from the United States in 1953, Bhupenda came into close contact with Hemanga Biswas and other IPTA activists. However, because of his association with IPTA, Bhupenda was not allowed to sing in the annual Bihu function at the popular Latasil playground of Guwahati. Then Hemanga Biswas published a small booklet and printed some of Bhupenda's songs and distributed in the Bihu function.

To what extent he was associated with IPTA?

The Guwahati chapter of the IPTA was formed in 1944.

Then Jyoti Prasad Agarwal was the President, Hemanga Biswasthe Secretary and Bishnu Prasad Rabha was the vice president of IPTA. Bhupenda became associated with IPTA in 1946. When he had returned from America Jyoti Prasad Agarwala had already passed away. Bhupenda became more active with IPTA then. Bhupenda was the secretary of the Reception Committee of the third All Assam Conference of IPTA held in Guwahati in 1955. Bhupenda also designed the conference venue gate. He was then working as a Professor in Gauhati University and brought the famous actor and IPTA activist Balraj Sahani as the chief guest of the conference on his scooter from the airport to the conference venue. It is through his association with IPTA that I met my late husband Dilip Sarma who was also an IPTA activist and a popular mass singer.

Would you share some childhood memories with Bhupenda?

Bhupenda was the eldest among our 10 brothers and sisters. He was ten years elder to me. He was very caring but used to rule us like a responsible guardian. He used to buy cakes and biscuits from Sheikh Brothers bakers ( a popular confectionary in Pan Bazaar, Guwahati) with the money he had earned from All India Radio. He was only 13 years old when he composed and sang one of the most popular and powerful song, “Agni Jugor Firingoti Moi, Natun Axom Gohim.” (“I am the spark of the revolutionary era; I shall build a new Assam”.)