Known at the ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’, Bhupen Hazarika, a singer, poet, musician and more, died on November 5, 2011. One of the greatest cultural icons of Assam, Hazarika, who wrote songs mainly in Assamese, was also a political activist and filmmaker. His songs, known for their themes of humanity and empathy, have been translated into several languages, especially Bengali and Hindi.
The eldest of 10 children, Hazarika was born on September 8, 1926 in Sadiya, Assam. His mother, Shantipriya, was an early musical influence on him. “Although listening to the rhythms of tribal music growing up developed my love for singing, I inherited my voice from my mother, who regularly sang lullabies to me as a child,” he once said.
When he was just 10 years old, he got to know Assamese lyricist, playwright and film-maker Jyotiprasad Agarwala, and poet Bishnu Prasad Rabha, both icons of Assam. In 1936, Hazarika recorded his first song at Kolkata’s Aurora Studio. He entered the world of films when he sang two songs in ‘Indramalati’, Agarwala’s 1939 film. When he was 13, he wrote his first song, Agnijugor Firingoti Moi.
The young Hazarika was attracted to the Indian freedom struggle. He would attend secret meetings with other freedom fighters and intellectuals, and the “revolutionary” in him was born. His music and, later, his films “portrayed that ethnic anger I suffered from”.
Soon after securing a Masters degree from Banaras Hindu University, he went to the United States on a scholarship. In New York, he became friends with civil rights activist and singer Paul Robeson. Hazarika’s song Bistirno parore was inspired from Robeson's Ol' Man River, and spoke about how the Ganga had to witness poverty and injustice through the ages. Through his music, he would inspire his state’s people during the bhasha andolan.
Explaining how Hazarika’s songs were “weapons of the weak”, Arupjyoti Saikia wrote in the Economic & Political Weekly: “His commitment to the cause of the plebeians was mostly reflected through his songs and public life. His songs gave dignity to the poor and downtrodden. His songs were carefully considered, deeply serious documents about people and their troubles. He reminds his listeners about the hungry daily wage labourers, the mighty Brahmaputra, the political potentiality of the poor, and the subaltern identity of the Assamese nationality. A common Assamese villager was introduced to the world of political ideals through his songs.”
He met Priyamvada Patel at Columbia University, and married her in 1950. When he returned to Assam, he taught at Gauhati University for a while. He then went to Mumbai to work in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. There he managed to convince Lata Mangeshkar to sing a song for his first film as director, Era Bator Sur. Over the decades, he worked in Assamese films in various capacities, as producer, director, composer and singer. These include ‘Era Batar Sur’ (1956), ‘Shakuntala’ (1960) and Pratitdhwani (1964).
In February 1972, he and his brother Jayanta sang at the Berlin International Festival of Political Songs. Hazarika’s songs were about the newly-created country of Bangladesh and the positive spirit of Assam — in keeping with his credo as a politically-conscious singer.
Hazarika met Kalpana Lajmi in 1971 when she was 17, and they would live together till his death. She went on to become a critically acclaimed director, making films such as ‘Rudaali’, ‘Daman’, and ‘Chingaari’. Recalling the time she first met him, in an interview she gave to IANS when Hazarika was 82, she was quoted as saying: “When I saw this frail, skinny man wearing a striped orange shirt, I was charmed.” After 1986, Hazarika focussed on collaborating with Lajmi for Hindi films she directed. He would often compose the music and be the playback singer in her films.
He had short stints with politics too, serving as an Independent MLA from 1967-72 in Assam, and in 2004 contesting (unsuccessfully) as the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Guwahati constituency.
Hazarika won several awards in his long career, including the Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Padma Bhushan, Asom Ratna and Padma Vibhshan. He was conferred with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1992 for his contribution to cinema; and the Muktijoddha Padak, the highest civilian award by the Bangladesh government, posthumously in 2011.
He remained enthusiastic about his work and music till the end of his life. “I feel very young. In fact, I have never felt younger,” he told The Telegraph in 2009, two years before his death. “And I have lined up several projects which I will complete one by one.”
Hazarika died in Mumbai of multi-organ failure, following a prolonged illness. An estimated 5 lakh people attended his funeral in Guwahati.
Putting Hazarika’s lifelong work in context, in an article in The Hindu after his death, Ziya Us Salam wrote: “Gutsy and avowedly anti-establishment, Bhupen Hazarika […] 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.”
Also on this day:
1917 — Banarsi Das Gupta, chief minister of Haryana, was born
1930 —Arjun Singh, Union Minister and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, was born
1952 — Vandana Shiva, environmental activist, was born
1955 — Karan Thapar, journalist and television commentator, was born
1988 — Virat Kohli, Indian cricketer, was born
2008 — B.R. Chopra, director and producer of movies and television serials, passed away