One had to travel through rural Assam’s greenery and at that very instant listened to Bhupen Hazarika singing somewhere around to appreciate what Gulzar meant when he said Assam’s nature oozes through Bhupenda’s voice. A particular combination of opulent tenderness, seductive nasality and inexhaustible vocal melody, not uncommon among Assamese folk singers, assumed a different proportion in Bhupen Hazarika through his specific style of singing. What factors contributed to acquiring that style will require a different space for fuller discussion, but certainly, his years of training as an activist/singer/composer in the IPTA was one of the most important ones among them.
Sudakshina Sharma – Queen as she is lovingly called – Bhupen’s sister and a veteran singer gave me an interview in which she reminisced about his initial years as an IPTA activist:
“When Bhupenda returned from America – that was way back in 1953 – Hemango-da (Hemango Biswas) brought him into the fold of the IPTA. Hemango–da was by then one of the chief organisers of Assam IPTA and he was quite close to our family which has always been a family of singers and musicians. We used to live in Kharghuli – up in the hills – where Hemango-da was a regular visitor. Bhupenda and Hemango-da travelled together to distant places in Assam for organisational work. I remember once while returning from such a place halfway through they realised they had not a single anna left. The evening was descending, at a corner of a street they started singing impromptu, you can understand the effect of these two voices singing together. After they finished, people from the crowd started giving money to them thinking they were a group of itinerant street musicians. Whatever they gave was sufficient for the team to get back to Guwahati.”
It was much before that that Bhupen came into contact with Jyotiprasad Agarwal and Bishnuprasad Rava, doyens of Assamese culture and the two most important names of the Assam chapter of IPTA. Jyotiprasad made him sing in his film Indramalati (1939) when he was just 12 years of age. When Bhupen Hazarika returned from America, upon finishing his Ph.D., Jyotiprasad had passed away. But IPTA by that time went from strength to strength in Assam, after its first and second conference in Silchar (1947) and Dibrugarh (1949) respectively.
IPTA was the first organisation that spoke about the need of highlighting the syncretic nature of its culture in a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state like Assam. In the first conference in Silchar, the two hundred odd representatives who participated consisted of artists from Tripura hill tracts, Jayantiya, Bodo, Manipuri, Dimasa – Kachhari, Miri and other ethnic communities along with Bengalis, Assamese and tea- plantation labourers.
IPTA in Assam held on to this tradition and to the spirit of the draft proposal that declared that it is meant to be a platform where every ethnicity is part of a larger collective in which it contributes voluntarily, knowing that its own cultural distinctiveness will not be compromised or co-opted in the process.
Many people have discussed at length how Bhupen Hazarika was influenced by Paul Robeson whose acquaintance he made during his stay in the USA as well as by Pete Seeger’s protest songs. The initial years when Bhupen started composing songs for the IPTA, certain signs of their influence were undoubtedly pronounced. And yet, the way he used Assamese traditional music (Bihu, bangeet, borgeet or jhumur) at that point and throughout his later life was something extremely unique.
He could pull off a melodic structure with major notes and a strong rhythmic pattern like ‘Nami Axa’ and another with predominantly minor notes and zero or soft rhythm like ‘Haradhon Rongmon katha’ (co-composed with Hemango Biswas) with equal ease and elegance. Even when one keeps in mind the rich oeuvre of Jyotiprasad, Bishnu Rava, Parbatiprasad Barua or Anandiram Das whose pioneering creations influenced IPTA artists in composing their own, it is not difficult to see why Bhupen Hazarika’s place in Assamese modern music is still singular on many counts.
As Hemango Biswas writes, “ In the musical milieu of Assam, IPTA ushered in a new legion of songs about life and revolution. In this work, the musical tradition of the revered Jyotiprasad was our chief inspiration. Works of our folk composer Anandiram Das, the late Hemen Thakur and later those of Abdul Malik helped us. But the true architect of this genre was Dr Bhupen Hazrika. The ordinary lives of Assam like that of the lumberjacks, the stone breakers, the train drivers, tea-plantation worker Jagnu, farmer Rongmon, weaver girl Rodoi and palanquin bearer Dolabhari – these characters succeeded in sweeping aside the impersonal genre of music devoid of social consciousness that had been prevalent thus far.
Newer expressions and styles made their presence felt in the creation of the tunes. The local musical form remained intact, but its narrow structures were broken down in a fresh attempt to showcase a new reality. Numerous songs of the IPTA spread to various cities and villages. This metamorphosis in Assamese music is a widely acknowledged fact today.”
Nothing perhaps better describes how in Bhupen Hazarika such diverse musical styles had found their easeful co-existence beyond the usual divides of traditional, modern, eastern or western forms. As a singer, his internalisation of this was so complete that anything that he performed: From kamrupi folk to bangeet, from ‘sa banuar geet’ (tea- plantation songs) to Bihu, from lullabies to protest songs – he seemed to be a natural denizen of all the territories he travelled.
His talents as a poet, lyricist, composer, vocalist, and film director have been talked about repeatedly. So, has been the extremely prolific nature of his creativity. It is generally believed that there is nothing quintessentially Assamese that Bhupen has not touched upon in his compositions. Hemango Biswas has written somewhere that Bhupen was a beautiful painter too. What has rarely been discussed, however, is his ability as a cultural organizer. Despite increasing state repression that included the infamous firing at the second conference of Assam IPTA at Naliapul Rail Colony, Dibrugarh, leftist cultural movement was gaining strength in Assam through IPTA’s activities in the early 50s. In 1955, IPTA was to host its most prestigious and successful conference in Guwahati. Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika, among other notable artists and activists were the two most crucial organizers of this event. The fortitude and courage with which the organizers faced a hostile and intransigent state bureaucracy and the unending troubles neatly manufactured by them have been discussed in details by Hemango Biswas in his report on the 1955 state conference (Sidelights and Snapshots, Unity, 1955). The report brings to the fore the fascinating partnership between Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika – a comradeship not limited to music alone. They were often co-organisers and co-strategists handling the ground reality. This exercise in building up organizational prowess in the formative years of IPTA went a long way in constituting the famous cultural squad of the duo.
In 1960 linguistic riots broke out in Assam. Hemango Biswas who was visiting Assam at that point was caught in the simmering tension around the issue of making Assamese the state language. Trouble had already broken out, but the riot reached its peak in July and August. Unable to sit still, Hemango Biswas sent a telegram to Bhupen Hazarika and on his arrival they jointly called a meeting in Shillong, asking other artist friends to join in. It was after this meeting and the huge success of their first performance in Shillong on 27August, that the idea of a peace initiative with an all-artist troupe emerged. Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha knew Hemango Biswas since their prison days in Nagaon jail in the early 1930s. He came forward with the promise of logistical help. The 1960’s peace initiative was, in many ways, the high point in Hemango-Bhupen’s joint creative endeavour. There is not probably another instance in Indian history where a cultural troupe was actually able to help abate riots by using performance as intervention. Hemango Biswas’s description of this journey was published twenty years later in the journal Epic Theatre (1980, No 5-7, ed. Utpal Dutta). There as well as elsewhere he gives credit to Bhupen Hazarika for Bhupen’s courage in the face of rioters’ threats. To quote him
“Once, because of certain conflicts between various inhabitants of Assam, relationships between communities became strained. People stopped visiting each other’s localities and businesses had almost ceased functioning. In this situation I went to Shillong and sent a telegram to Bhupen. Bhupen arrived as soon as he received the telegram. Then we discussed among ourselves and hosted a programme in Shillong’s European club. We composed a song – I became Haradhon and Bhupen Rongmon. In the song Haradhon and Rongmon ask each other who is responsible for this divide among them. While singing we discovered that many people were in tears. We also took in a few Assamese and Bengali artistes in our troupe. The situation in Assam was so bad that it was not possible to sing even Tagore’s songs. That’s why we started to make the Assamese artists sing Bengali and Bengali artists sing Assamese songs. Impact of that programme spread all over Assam. Soon we had spread across Assam, in part due to Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha’s request. People started saying we had constructed a moving unit. Once, before a programme, I told Bhupen to be careful since the situation was not at all congenial. Bhupen said resiliently, ‘Don’t be scared’. I want to say without the slightest bit of hesitation that it was because of Bhupen’s personality that no one dared to create any trouble that day. Though in the initial days this of this journey we did face some uncertainties later, in Shivasagar for instance, people welcomed us with a shower of petals. We were welcomed as warmly in Dibrugarh too. The kind of excitement that was generated by this relentless one-month-seven-day journey could not ever be imagined by anyone who was not there to witness it. It was during this journey that he composed his famous song ‘Manuh manuhar babe .”
It is true that Bhupen Hazarika’s political views took a significant turn in his later life and in many ways he became the cynosure of conservative politicians of different hues. We should add to it our collective misfortune that there is no dearth of politicians in this country who can appropriate a cultural capital towards a political end and turn it to material/ military/ electoral gain- a very recent example would be the inauguration by the political who’s who of the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge in Assam which is supposed to be the longest bridge in India (not undisputedly, though).
But because of this very reason, it seems all the more necessary to document Bhupen’s immense contribution to the leftist cultural movement in India – his long and hard creative years in Assam, Bengal and outside of those before he finally moved to Bombay. Perhaps we got to remind ourselves now that that period also coincided with the genesis of many of his greatest creations the history of which needs to be written urgently.
A version of this essay published in WIONNEWS