Hemango Biswas was one of the foremost musicians and composers of his time. Known for his writing and political activism Hemango Biswas was a pioneer of the lefitist IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), especially in Assam. He formed the Surma Valley Cultural Squad around 1943 that toured Assam and Sylhet, staging revolutionary songs and plays. He became the chief organizer of the Sylhet chapter of the Progressive Writer’s Association in 1943-1944, and throughout the late ‘40s and ‘50s the Assam chapter of IPTA. In 1942 that he left his father’s ancestral home in Sylhet on ideological grounds. His father happened to be a small but powerful zamindar in Mirashi village of Habigunj sub-division in Sylhet. By that time, he had served several terms in British jail and during one such term, he contacted tuberculosis which was not curable in those days. His commune life started after he left home and for the next fifteen years, with occasional bouts of serious illness, he stayed mostly in party communes/ IPTA offices, sometimes also in sympathetic party comrades’ or relative’s houses in Sylhet, Guwahati, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Shillong and other places in Assam and the North East. It is therefore fascinating to read about his Shillong days. Shillong as an administrative centre has been historically portrayed as a hill station with elite cultural sedation. Therefore, it is fascinating to read Hemango Biswas, the communist rebel poet… To know why Raiot obsesses over Hemango Biswas, do read this piece by his daughter Rongili Biswas –MY FATHER’S UNDERGROUND DAYS IN SHILLONG. Having lived and loved as a communist in Shillong, Hemango Biswas’s writing tries to steer clear of the usual nostalgic claptrap, Shillong usually gets blessed with. Rongili Biswas introduces the poems and the letter.
During the winter of 1948,’ 49’ and early ‘50s there were widespread movements of the peasants and the sharecroppers in Assam, especially in certain areas, bordering present-day Meghalaya. These movements were led by the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, and their branches Krishak Banua Panchayats (KBP) and Krishak Sabhas (KS). The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) also joined the struggle in a major way (A detailed history in ‘ A century of Protest : Peasant Politics in Assam since 1900, Arupjyoti Saikia, Routledge, 2014). Many tribal peasant leaders emerged from the area of Beltola in Guwahati which became a flash point in that struggle. Kuladhar Basumatari (referred to as Kulakhura in the following poem) was one of the most important figures of that movement. He led the Beltola uprising in 1848 during the season of harvesting (when sharecroppers refused to pay the rent to the absentee landlords). The courtyard of his house became the meeting place of many important activists in the late ‘40s /early ‘50s including Dhireswar Kolita, Nandeswar Talukdar and Hemango Biswas. Regular performances by the activists also took place there.
An annual celebration takes place even today at the courtyard (which is much changed now and has become a shrunken space because of new constructions). Last year Shyamanta Basumatari performed in this space along with many others. He used to go to the meetings of the ‘40s and the ‘50s regularly. He has recently passed away at the age of 104.
Kula Uncle’s Courtyard
Translated by Dibyojyoti Sarma
Crossing the night’s beauty of the crop
in Beltola field, wrapped in moonlit-fog,
slowly we find the clear dawn –
Kula Uncle’s courtyard.
In this courtyard,
plans for farmer revolution,
Uncle is the leader.
Inside the dark hut,
in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp,
I ask, Uncle, how’s your health?
Pressing his throat with a thin finger,
he lets out
just one muted sentence:
Terrible trouble, comrade.
Soaking in the troubles of the exploited
through the ages,
Uncle is Nilakantha today.
Bringing forth Lakhimi breaking Basu-Mata’s womb
through the ages,
Uncle is Basumatary;
writing dazzling poetry on the tip of the plough
through the ages,
Uncle is a poet’s poet.
Chasing the armies of exploiters
through the ages,
brave Basumatary is war-fatigued today.
Kula Uncle is no more.
No news items in the papers.
Uncle has no place in today’s headlines.
Because Kula Uncle is not
the man of the week
or of the year.
Kula Uncle is of the century, of eternity.
he is not news,
he is history.
From Hemango Biswas’s collection of Assamese poems ‘Kulokhurar sotal’ (Sribhumi Publishing Company, 1970)
In 1960 during one of the worst periods of political unrest in Assam, chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha urged Hemango Biswas to organize a peace mission. Under the leadership of Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika, a cultural troupe travelled the length and breadth of Assam including several badly riot-hit areas. The troupe included Khasi, Jaintia, Nepalese, Assamese and Bengali artistes who performed at those places, often involving local artistes as well. Hemango Biswas remained in Assam for almost three months starting from 6th of June till the end of September. His wife was pregnant then. During those troubled times the only form of communication between them were letters, although even those were irregular and uncertain because of the riots and the strikes’ should be corrected as ‘Letters were the only form of communication between them during those troubles times, although even those were irregular and uncertain because of the riots and the strikes
This one, certainly, is not a letter in that sense. Or is it?
The Letter from Shillong
(Translated by Rongili Biswas and Meheli Sen)
Here the layers of the towering green
The deep blue
Dissolving into the deep dark blue
vanishes into black clouds.
Rain appears suddenly,
In their tawny eyes:
Sliding the slope of the
The vermillion cascades.
Water droplets, tattered
Rent asunder by waiting stones
Spill in the parched
Menstruating valley of the Luit.
Your letter arrived :
Wrapped in a blue envelope
Crimson alphabets in wounded silence
Harvest’s musical score.
Hemango Biswas loved Shillong. Even before he left his parent’s house in Mirashi, Habiganj, now in East Bengal and moved to Assam in 1940, Shillong was part of his growing up. He worked in Shillong, organized, performed, lived and loved there. One of the women who came in his life has been immortalized in his long poem ‘Ma tumi shiggir phire eso’ (Mother, come back soon). The following short one talks about another woman, perhaps her name was Snopmon (could be Sngapmon).
Bird of a Storm
(Translated by Meheli Sen and Rongili Biswas)
She came in suddenly
Like a gust of wind
Bird of a storm.
From the silver sprinkler of sunshine
Emerges the demon of smoky clouds
Water droplets fall steadily from
Her Tapmohkhlieh headscarf
Down her apple-red cheeks
‘Do sit’, I said
She did not.
‘What’s your name?’
She set her anxious eyes on me
From under her flying -bird- eyebrows.
I was alone in an empty house.
She left suddenly
Just as she had come
From the bosom of the rain.
As she was about to flee
I called out:
Hey, wood nymph
I am not a lovelorn Apollo
I had not cupid’s arrow
All I had was a flute, from an overcast day
Hey, wood nymph
I am not a lovelorn Apollo.
(Last two poems are from Hemango Biswas’s Bengali book of poems ‘Simanta Prahari’, Prantik Prakashani, 1961)
Hemango Biswas’s letter to his wife Ranu during the language riots of 1960 dated 21/08/1960
Tip Top Hotel
Today is Sunday. Every day is the same to me. The crimson of Sunday morning’s calendar still adds a dash of colour to my thoughts. But the air is heavy with the clash between the Bengali and Assamese communities. I wrote to Bhupen and brought him over. I am trying to organize a joint cultural programme of Bengali, Assamese and other ethnic groups. The people of Assam cannot even sing in an unrestrained way nowadays. Let us see if we can create an impassioned evening with the tunes of bihu and bhatiali – maybe then these bloody days will die a natural death and only that evening of intense harmony will live on forever. That’s why we held the first meeting yesterday. I got very exhausted because I had to wander around the whole day. So, I did not go out this morning. I am resting instead.
After yesterday’s heavy rain, Shillong is looking strangely untainted and serene in the pristine sunlight of the morning. The autumn sun makes me very homesick. I never had that much of a connection with the people at home but the courtyard of fallen sheuli, the call of the kaash flowers that grew beside the pond at home and the swaying of the green paddy fields often take me back to those days, so much so that I experience terrible heartache.
My familiarity with the Shillong hills is not new. Probably Shillong will remind you of Amit and Labanya of ‘Sesher Kobita’ (the last poem). But however great a poet Rabindranath may be, there is no fitting image of Shillong in ‘Sesher Kobita’. The reason for this is that he never developed a kinship with Shillong. However, Rabindranath being an intelligent person, by naming it ‘Sesher Kobita’ he meant it to be a poem rather than a novel. If someone wants to write a novel, one cannot do it by excluding the inhabitants of Shillong, especially hill tribes like the Khasis. In his description and in the treatment, there is absolutely no flavour of Shillong.
Shillong has a connection with me, with every phase of my life. I wish I could write all that to you. But I do not have the ability to write so much. As you know, writing a lot at a stretch gives me a headache. Nevertheless, please don’t be annoyed if the old film gets repeatedly disrupted while trying to flash a sequence of my past life.
I was only nine years old then, the pampered progeny of a landowner-father. I had come to the Shillong Hills for the very first time, thanks to a mad dog. Within the whole of Assam, Pasteur Institute was the only place for treatment for dog-bites. Today’s Shillong does not bear even the slightest resemblance with the Shillong of those days. Both man and nature have changed. I put up at the Polo ground. From there, the panoramic view of the green valley with the Umkhrah river forming a necklace around it turned the place into a fairy-tale land in my young eyes. The Khasis were the beautiful denizens of that land who crossed the hills with utmost ease carrying huge loads on their back in thapas. I loved looking at that from a distance. Wandering around the nearby Spread Eagle or Sati falls gave me an uncanny feeling, as if nothing is ever to be known. I cannot use my pen to portray today, even if I try very hard, the kind of capricious colours of a child’s art that were painted on my mind’s canvas by the shivering of the pine forests, mingled with wonder, awe and love.
Then another chapter. I came to Shillong to recuperate as a young man whose body and mind had been broken in prison. That was the year 1933. I stayed at the top of the Laban hill at my brother-in-law’s place for quite some time. My mind had, by then, come out of its infatuation with Gandhism. It was looking restlessly for newer avenues. On the other hand, a very promising academic career was calling me back, leaving me at a sort of a crossroads. A cascade of anxieties, no less strong than the majestic Beadon Falls here, crushed my heart. Although I came for rest, in the wooded environs I roamed about like a hunter.
I came here again in 1937. I stayed in the Lummawrie hills of Laitumkhrah. I was recuperating after the treatment in Jadavpur, but the more important thing was that I had found a new direction. I was a full-fledged communist then. At this time I befriended a Khasi girl. I was learning Khasi from her. Her name was Snopmon and she was only 15/16 years old. Snopmon truly came close to my heart. She could not help coming over to me in the brief intervals of her work. But one day, suddenly afflicted with cold, she caught pneumonia and passed away within three days. It caused me immense grief and I fell sick. I shifted, coming to the peak of another hillock in Laitumkhrah. There in my house, communist friends from Sylhet used to come over to stay sometimes. I had a friend staying with me, a close friend from Kolkata, Joygopal Mukhopadhyay. Under my influence, he became a communist. He was from Chandannagar. Later, he used to work there among the jute mill labourers of Gondalpara. I seldom had such an enthusiastic, lively and intelligent friend in my life. He died an untimely death in Chandannagar itself. My reincarnation as a communist had not till then involved severing of the umbilical cord to my roots. The pampered child of a landowner father remained as such. I used to get regular remittance from home.
Then I came to Shillong again after severing that cord with a scalpel in a cruel fashion. It was in 1942. I was then the discarded son. Sick and penniless, I starved for days at a time. But I thought I was indomitable and unassailable. Shillong had seen only three communists then. But their love kept me alive. I got acquainted with Lochu etc. around that time. Then it was the communist Anjali Das who inspired me. Lochu’s mother, our aunt, used to send food for me in tiffin boxes. I have told you all this. Lochu’s family filled up the void created by the family I had left behind.
I got acquainted with Ibondi in those days of crises – whose name is there in my poem, ‘Mother, return home soon.’1
Then, during another moment of crisis (when all local committee members were arrested), I went underground. Confined in a small bathroom on a sick bed for 10 months I had a complete nervous breakdown. Amidst this, the dearest person of mine left me. You know that. A person…he prepared my food in a cooker, put me with it in the bathroom and locked it from outside. He used to return only in the evening.
Then, in 1946, I was the ‘triumphant hero’. I was the leader of the new cultural movement in Assam. My songs had spread all over Assam and Bengal. I was travelling in Assam with a troupe of cultural crusaders – this gave a new lease of life to the post-war state. After coming back, I stayed here in Buridi’s house for a long time surrounded by her love and affection. Buridi’s brother Bijon and sister Khuku were the people who spurred me to compose songs.
Then I came again in 1953-54 – bringing Bhupen, Dilip with me, with the IPTA troupe – determined to rejuvenate Assam. Everyone saw that no one had managed to silence the music of the broken-winged bird.
And now I am here again, in the time of another catastrophe. No one has ever seen a greater blight than these murderous, fratricidal days in Assam’s public life and cultural arena. I came for rest. But I am spending my time in unhappiness and unspeakable pain. I have never been so shattered before – still, if I keep mum, then others in this crisis, especially the Bengali artistes, will have a complete breakdown. Besides, the future of Assam’s cultural movement and the IPTA movement will be shrouded in an even greater darkness. So, I sent a telegram and brought Bhupen over here. Next Saturday we are going to hold a programme for peace and harmony with artistes from various communities including the Bengali and Assamese here. Chief minister Chaliha called Bhupen and me to discuss this. The situation is such that we cannot ignore government help. In our group, we are welcoming Khasi, Nepalese, Assamese, Bengali. Most of them work with the government.
I will try my best to return in September. Don’t worry about me. I am surrounded by the love of innumerable Assamese friends. Love…