Bhupen Hazarika and Hemango Biswas: The soulful music that calmed Assam six decades ago

Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika during their 1960 tour.  

With cracks resurfacing in the relationship between the Assamese and the Bengalis due to the updation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, a documentary intends to serve as a reminder of how music brought peace to Assam during the language riots of 1960.

The documentary has been made by Rongili Biswas, daughter of legendary Bengali singer Hemango Biswas. As a precursor to the film, she has released online a music album, titled ‘Hemango-Bhupen: A Song for Everyone — Tales of the 1960 peace initiative against the linguistic riots in Assam’.

The tracks play in the background while stills — many of them rare photographs — tell the story of the 1960 riots, which broke out after Assamese was made the State language. This triggered large-scale violence and arson across Assam, home to many Bengalis.

It was then that Bengal’s Hemango Biswas and Assam’s Bhupen Hazarika (singer-lyricist recently honoured with Bharat Ratna) travelled with a peace caravan to pacify the mobs.

The cover of the album on the 1960 tour of Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika, which has been released online.

The cover of the album on the 1960 tour of Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika, which has been released online.  


The duo travelled with a 30-member caravan across undivided Assam. “The artists came from all walks of life, representing a very rich folk tradition of various communities of Assam. Predominantly, they were from the Assam chapter of the leftist cultural movement IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), which completed its 75th year in 2018,” said Ms. Biswas, an academic and musician in her own right.

Ms. Biswas made the documentary, ‘A Song for Everyone’, with a grant from the Benguluru-based India Foundation for the Arts. The title has been borrowed from a poem on the mission, composed by the Bengal poet Shankha Ghosh. “But I need to re-edit the film,” Ms. Biswas said.

Many hurdles

In the film, Ms. Biswas has interviewed many of the dancers, singers and musicians — now mostly in their late eighties — associated with the 1960 caravan. They narrate how the caravan slowly evolved, overcoming obstacles.

“It was not an easy situation,” recalls Uma Dutta, a danseuse with the troupe, in the film. “A local person told us before our performance in Goreswar (in northwest Assam), one of the worst-hit areas: “You Bengalis (there was another Bengali dancer, Sandhya Das) have come to perform here. Don’t you know how Bengali women were tortured here a few days back?’”

Hemango Biswas noted in a small piece, ‘Let Us Meet – A report on 1960 Peace Mission’, that at almost every step of organising the event, for which he summoned Bhupen Hazarika from Kolkata, the team had to negotiate hurdles: “…both the communities tried to dissuade us. Some even made fun of us.” But the show – which had artists from Khasi, Jayantia, Nepali, Assamese and Bengali communities – was a resounding success.

Rongili Biswas, daughter of singer Hemango Biswas.

Rongili Biswas, daughter of singer Hemango Biswas.  


Shillong Observer had noted, “Out of the gloom of riot-torn life we emerge as brothers, each with distinctive culture and language orchestrated into a magnificent harmony united in creative labour for a prosperous future.”

The high point of the performance was a song, specially produced for the occasion by Hazarika and Biswas, Haradhan-Rongmon Katha, a conversational ballad that narrated the story of two farmers Haradhan and Rongmon, one Bengali and another Assamese, who had come together to survive in the backdrop of a fratricidal riot.

“Just as Bhupen’s sensitive and mellifluous voice resonated with the sorrows of Haradhan, perhaps the meandering strains of Bhatiali in my voice too echoed Rongmon’s grief. The audience was overwhelmed,” noted Biswas.

Strikes a chord

“I remember after the programme in Nagaon, one of worst riot-hit areas, as Hemangoda and Bhupenda came down from the stage, with arms around each other, many people started crying,” recalls Ruby Hazarika, a team member. “The Gopinath Bordoloi Hall was chock-a-block and the song had a huge emotional impact,” remembers Gyanada Bora, who attended the performance as a school student.

Bhupen Hazarika, who joined the BJP much later in 2004, joined IPTA after his return from the U.S. around 1952 and was “one of the most active and creative members of IPTA”, noted Hemango Biswas.

Their friendship consolidated as they jointly organised the third Assam conference of IPTA in 1955, when the likes of Balraj Sahni, Salil Chowdhury and Hemanta Mukherjee participated, among others.

So in 1960, “Bhupen arrived as soon as he received the telegram” to initiate his battle against fratricide. No wonder, his U.S.-based son Tez Hazarika’s initial comments on hearing that Bharat Ratna was conferred on his father echoed the sentiment: “Awarding Bhupen Hazarika with the Bharat Ratna is a win for humanity, diversity and India as a secular democracy.”

The caravan — with the 30 performers in three cars and a jeep — moved from one district to another as the audiences started swelling. Not only the locals (some of whom were engaged in the conflict) joined, but many requested a performance in their localities.

“[In] rural areas, especially school students…blocked our path and force us to perform. Such a programme was held in Bokakhat [where girl students] were busy cooking for us,” wrote Biswas in the article on the peace mission. Many even confessed to their mistake.

“After the [Nagaon] programme, three students came up to me and confessed with much remorse that they had participated in the riots. One of them was a lead worker of the student federation,” he wrote.

In Tezpur and later in Mongoldoi, Assam IPTA’s president and cultural icon Bishnu Prasad Rabha “demonstrated how the [British] colonial rule created a division and rift between different ethnic and linguistic groups” and the post-independence Congress government continued the “legacy forward.”

Interestingly, it was the Congress government which arranged for the peace tour after the caravan’s maiden performance in Shillong, realising that the Assamese-Bengali conflict was spiralling out of control.

“Bhupen and I got an invitation from the Chief Minister [Bimala Prasad Chaliha] and administrative responsibilities were delegated to Home Minister Fakhruddin Ali Saheb (later President of India),” noted Biswas.

Hazarika noted in an essay that the Chief Minister confessed that he had “lost the battle” against linguistic nationalists. “You do whatever you can. Killings are rising with each passing day,” Chaliha told Hazarika. Then Home Minister Ahmed promised “everything” to make the peace caravan a success.

“After so much of travelling we, the members of the Let Us Meet cultural troupe — who hardly used to know each other in the beginning – became one unit, a family,” Hazarika says in the film.

Ms. Biswas plans to bring out, by next summer, a book containing short memoirs of Hazarika and Biswas, their letters, the songs and poems performed on the tour and small essays by them on each other. “Perhaps this is the most fitting time to revisit their works as the situation is appearing to be more complex than ever in Assam,” she said.

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 4:19:28 AM |

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