Politically aware and deeply compassionate, Hazarika used his songs to awaken society to truth
Gutsy and avowedly anti-establishment, Bhupen Hazarika, who died in Mumbai on Saturday after a prolonged illness, 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. For all his accomplishments, however, he remained, for the rest of the country, an unsung hero.
Not quite a household name beyond Bengal, his multi-faceted talents as a singer, music director and producer are relatively unfamiliar to the wider Indian audience.
Hazarika's contributions went far beyond cinema for which he was conferred the Dadasaheb 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 making it as a musician of note, and kept him away from the upper-caste Brahmin woman he had loved.
Eventually, when the spirited Hazarika did marry, it was to a Brahmin woman, his revenge of sorts against a caste-ridden society.
His guts stood him in good stead when he contested, and won, an election to the Vidhan Sabha as an Independent in 1967. However, later, when Hazarika joined the Bhartiya Janata Party and his constituency deserted him, showing an ability to make a fine distinction between the ace artiste and an opportunistic politician, he admitted privately that he had made a political mistake, and concentrated on composing songs that challenged the political order.
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. His thesis was on the use of cinema for mass education – he had himself sung for Jyotiprasada Agarwala's 1939 film, Indramalati, as a child – and it was to the movies that he returned. Closely associated with the emergence and flowering of Assamese cinema as a singer, composer, producer and director, Hazarika also strived to encourage the arts throughout the North-east.
Acutely aware of the political dimensions of culture, Hazarika used his music to rouse the Assamese gentry during the bhasha andolan. Clearly influenced by Bishnu Rabha, Hazarika derived happily from folklore for his craft. 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 which has been witness to poverty and oppression through the ages.
Particularly notable were the songs in which he raised his voice against ULFA, which he regarded as monster. 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.
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 oeuvre though included Assam's famous Bihu songs, both patriotic and romantic.
Hindi audiences took much longer to appreciate his worth. It would remain one of the sad ironies of his life that Hazarika had to wait almost sixty summers for a lasting relationship with India's Hindi-speaking world. It came courtesy “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare”, a song with melancholy as its middle name. 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 that many hummed it without being really able to truly appreciate Gulzar's lyrics. It was to become Hazarika's calling card for the next many years. Ironic that an artist from Assam had to rely on a Rajasthani song to strike a chord with a larger audience.
In fact, Rudaali was not Hazarika's first foray into Hindi cinema. Some 20 years earlier, Hazarika had composed the music for the Vinod Khanna-Saira Bano-starrer Aarop.
Its song “Naino Mein Darpan Hai” with Bano on a cycle with Khanna introduced Shillong – then the capital of Assam – and its scenes to Hindi cineastes. Then in the mid-1980s, Hazarika was at it again. This time with Lajmi's Ek Pal which was shot in the tea gardens of Assam. Later, he used his genius to guide Lajmi during the making of the National-Award winning Daman.