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Bob and Bhupen, two of a kind

As Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win a Nobel Prize in literature, the feats of Bhupen Hazarika come to mind for the very simple reason that what one did through music for the English-speaking world the other did for Assamese and Bengali.

Bhupen Hazarika was born in 1926, and Bob in 1941, both basically singer-songwriters. If Bob Dylan created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition, Bhupen Hazarika did the same within the great Assamese folk song tradition. Both started their careers with folk music.

What sets apart both of them is not that their songs are fundamentally different from other songs. What makes them the greatest musicians they are is the fact that they transformed music into hope for humanity with their powerful lyrics and unique voice. They wrote lyrics, tuned them in accordance with the themes and sang them so much better than anyone else. In them, we can see the confluence of two autonomous territories: music and literature. Their use of language in their songs must be recognised as of central importance. Every word in the songs is precisely selected. That is why most of their songs are recognised as beautiful poetry. To make the themes of their songs come to life, they use appropriate imagery in them.

Some people may argue about the rightness of bestowing the biggest prize for literature upon Bob Dylan on the ground that his celebration does not particularly help the publishing industry. Some poets may argue that his lyrics don't have much intellectual appeal. But no one can deny the simple fact that with his powerful lyrics on the burning problems of the world, Bob single-handedly transformed music into hope for humanity in the 20th century English-speaking world. He has drawn the people of his generation into thinking whether the reality of the generation needs to be changed. He, in his chosen genre, has persistently tried to the best of his ability to wash the dust of lives off the souls of people. In the process, he has created a myth for his people to live by; he has compelled his people to feel the complexity of life in the 20th century setting so that they realise in the right perspective the path to progress. This explains why he is a household name across the globe.

At last, the Swedish Academy had to acknowledge that. The academy rightly says that he has “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. His songs inspire the highly intellectual class and the common people alike.

His songs are not just songs. Through them, he tried to awaken society to truth. They have the ability to invoke an emotional as well as intellectual reaction from the listeners. The songs alter the way in which the listeners perceive the world. They have the positive message for personal or social change; the listener gets the prompt to become a better person for building a good creative society. At the same time, his songs are great musically.

All these things can be applied to our beloved Bhupenda. Dr. Hazarika, who died in 2011, held up to his listeners a faithful mirror of life. His songs have universal appeal. They are always relevant, no matter when the lyrics were composed, no matter what language they have been later translated into, no matter what culture those songs subsequently metamorphosed into. His powerful lyrics brought poetic complexity. Almost all his songs are characterised by a reflective tone. In his songs, he has shown an uncanny ability to mirror, in everyday metaphors and toe-tapping rhythms, all the aspects of human emotions through the imagery of northeastern India. Very adroitly, he portrays the comedy of ordinary lives of the region. But in every song, there is always a universal touch. He is, at the same time, sensitive to the burning problems that tend to enshroud society. He perfectly mirrors them in his songs, but not at the cost of musical beauty. He wrote songs on patriotism, communism, against exploitation, poverty, class struggle, struggle of life, nature, love , death ,physical love, communal harmony, children and on what not? But in all these songs, there is always a note of optimism.

I would like to draw a parallel between Bhupenda’s sublime song Bistirna Paroreand one of Bob’s most famous songs, Blowin ’ in the Wind.

In Bistirna Parore, Bhupenda scolds the mighty Brahmaputra for apathy towards the terrible sufferings of the people on the banks. Here he uses the Brahmaputra as the symbol of a worthless leader. The people are poor and illiterate, and the river has been witness to poverty and oppression through the ages. They are all the time in the middle of encircling gloom. So he asks the mighty river if it is the real offspring of Brahma (the creator).

The tune of the song is in conformity with the flow of the mighty Brahmaputra. Therefore, there are frequent ups and downs in the tune. It begins in bass, and then at some points, when it comes to the expression of extreme anger, it goes to highest pitch in a superbly controlled way, then again it comes back to bass. Every word of it is strong, meticulously chosen.

In the Hindi and the Bengali versions of the same song, he scolds the mighty Ganga in the same way. Inspired by Paul Robeson’s song Old man river, Dr. Hazarika’s cry in the song is the cry of the helpless people. This is a protest song. And the tune of the song is so appropriate, voice so infectious, that it instantly creates an upheaval in the heart of any sensitive listener. Then, slowly the upheaval calms down. Listening to this song is, thus, a mind-blowing experience. The listener is provoked to think about society. Most important, in it the art of music is at its best: it has wholeness, harmony and clarity. He composed, gave tune and rendered most of his songs in this way.

In Blowin ’ in the Wind, Bob poses questions after questions. Of course, they are rhetorical questions. In the first stanza of it, Bob presents the image of a man who has experienced the ups and downs of life in a world plagued by violence, and, then asks how much a person must endure through his or her life before getting life’s final justice. Then he asks how long it will take for a mountain to be washed away by the sea. The implied question is: can man ever be truly free? Why the leaders of the world are apathetic towards the disasters in society? Crores of people across this world are suffering every day from hunger, homelessness, violence and inequality. Will they get justice one day? The answer is “blowing in the wind”. Through the phrase “blowing in the wind”, he reveals that there is no tangible answer to all these questions. In other words, the answers to his questions are out of his reach. We can just hope for justice. With that hope, we can wait and wait. Though its words seem to be very simple, it is one of his strongest songs which questions the moral fibre and exposes the harsh reality of life. In it, there is an appeal to the people at large for justice and fortitude. It is also a protest song.

The biggest difference between Bob and Bhupenda is that while Bob has got the highest award of the world, Bhupenda has not got the highest award of his country for doing the same thing.

(Professor Saikia is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Biswanath College, Biswanath Chariali, Sonitpur; professorsaikia@gmail.com )


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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 1:53:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Bob-and-Bhupen-two-of-a-kind/article16074000.ece

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