By Hindustan Times
To not know Bhupen Hazarika is like living in a dark dungeon of a dark continent in the dark ages. But to merely know or recognise him as a gifted singer is plain folly. Bhupen Hazarika, my beloved fellow Assamese, the Bard of the Brahmaputra, was a man who would always remind man to be human.
Hazarika was a civil rights leader who spoke of minorities long before they could speak for themselves. It is this contribution of Bhupen-da that repeatedly tugs at my heart-strings today.
Bhupen Hazarika was not the quintessential artiste whose raison d’etre was to merely regale his people. He wishes to be — as he says in the hauntingly rendered Xitore Xemeka Rati — the “anchor of safety and security of some vulnerable minority community (“Xonkhyaloghu kono Xomprodaiyor…nirapota hou).”
Of course, he also wanted to be the magician who would turn the “leaping flames from a half-naked poor peasant’s burning hut into glowing warmth of comfort for him” (Bostro bihin kunu khetiyokor, Bhagi pora pojatir tunh jui ekurat, Umi umi joli thoka, Raktim jen eti uttap hou.)”
In another instance, his mission was to turn the fires in a daily-wage labourer’s empty stomach into electrifying power for his empowerment. (Khadyo bihin kunu din majoor’or, Prano’te lukai thoka xudha agoni’r, Hotathe bhomoki utha prosondo jen, eti pratap hau). You cannot accomplish all this by being a mere musician; you must come close to being a magician.
Music and poetry were the perfect outfit for Hazarika’s quest for an egalitarian and classless society. That his music was timelessly soulful only helped his mission. That his truthful singing voice was infused with homespun sincerity only made Hazarika flow like blood in the veins of those who heard him. His music and voice were both infused with the familiar scent of raw earth.
He once said he wanted to “live like the sun” without explaining the metaphor further. But, knowing the Bard of the Brahmaputra, that could have only meant blazing an endless trail, energizing Goliath-like men and women, and constantly upholding those who formed the core notes of his life-song – the underdogs of every nation and society.
Translation can never do his poetry justice, but it is worth trying. Take for instance these lines from an ever-inspiring song: “Mur gaan ho’uk bohu aasthahinota biporite ek gobhir aasthar gaan (Let my songs, in the face of vast cynicism, be a deeply reassuring leap of faith).
It is difficult to think that such a man ever existed. To know Hazarika would require us to know Assam and India’s Northeast a little better. To Bhupen-da, as it ought to be for the rest of us, Assam was indeed a cauldron of a multitude of tribes, sub-tribes, castes, and ethnicities of “hills people” and “plains people”. Their respective identities were often their sine qua nons. Such rigidity either made them retreat into their shells or had cast them into a confrontationist existence with one another.
To these multitudes of ethnic principalities, Bhupen Hazarika was the name of a mighty bridge. What does a bridge do? It connects things that may lie astride but ever so detached, such as the two banks of a river.
On the one hand, his lyricism was akin to a cheerleader’s positive endorsement. On the other, it was also an expression of what I call his “positive negativity”: his world did not tolerate oppressive, discriminatory, prejudicial and majoritarian attitudes, language or acts.
In Hazarika’s death, Assam has witnessed a sort of cultural reawakening. People came out of their homes, queued endlessly, with an average wait-time of 6-7 hours, to get a glimpse of their beloved leader’s mortal remains.
Around street corners, people put up his garlanded portraits and sang his songs. Thousands of earthen lamps burned brightly into the night. Suddenly, the Assamese seemed to have suffered a providential structural break. A departing olden solemnity had thrust them back to a lost romantic ideal from their present-day world of higher incomes all right, but bankrupt minds. Suddenly, it dawned that the Assamese don’t live by bread alone.
Despite the unprecedented outpouring of grief over Bhupen Hazarika’s death, the Assamese nation’s love for Hazarika should be treated with a great deal of caution and suspicion. To what extent, for example, do they understand that “confluence” was the summum bonum of his art? That he was the high priest of humanity? That he invented a much cohesive brand of cultural ‘globalisation’, as opposed to mere integration of commerce?
If his death were to unfortunately reinforce or stoke Assam’s vaunted parochialism, it would be proof of a dangerous conceptual confusion in the Assamese consciousness regarding Bhupen Hazarika and his works.
Parochialism and narrow nationalism was never Bhupen-da’s credo, who would say in one of his epic renditions, Aami Axomiya (We the Assamese people): “Love for one’s motherland is no ground for contempt towards another’s (Mo’r aai’k bha’al pa’u bulile ja’anu aano’r aai’k ghin kora to bujabo).
A narrow parochialism has been the basis for an egregious distinction that has come to be made between being Assamese and being Muslim. To contend only a Hindu could be a true-blue Assamese is not just erroneous but goes against the grains of a ‘nation’ made up of — in Hazarika’s word’s – “na’na jaati, u’po jaati (a multitude of tribes). Hazarika militated against all artificial distinctions, especially those prejudicial in nature. Perhaps, that is why he remained ambiguous towards the great agitation against Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, who were absolute illegal foreigners nonetheless. That ambiguity was not on purpose, but the result of a tumultuous dilemma in Bhupen Hazarika’s mind. How could a preacher of ‘globalisation’ and advocate of human rights suddenly turn his art against a community of illegal migrants? These are never easy questions. Hazarika was, academically a student of politics and political thought, and a master of political science. He did concede that in a modern political context, national boundaries have a sanctity of their own that ought to be respected. So he overly seemed to support the agitation. But his support remained equivocal and vague. He could have, with his mass-mobilising character, led the Assam anti-foriengers movement from the front. But didn’t.
Hazarika once contested a Lok Sabha election representing the BJP, but he was never an ultra-nationalist. In his own words, he was a Marxist.
On a winter morning, some 18 years ago, I had gone to Bhupen-da’s house, not far from my home in Guwahati. He was to deliver his verdict on a manuscript of poems I had penned and also write the preface for it. It was typical of Bhupen-da to encompass an ocean in a single drop i.e. convey a lot of things in one crisp sentence. His verdict: I should grow up to be closer to Marxism, but not be a Communist.
I was 18 or 19 then — uninitiated to grapple with what he said. I did not of course grow up to be a poet, or a Communist, or a Communist-poet. I had burnt those manuscripts, though I cannot remember what had prompted me to do so. Perhaps, it was in a fit of nihilist rage. Today, I can claim to make some sense of Bhupen-da’s dictum for me. I carry that as a talisman in some corner of my heart, almost fanatically. It is this: I am an Assamese, an Indian, a Muslim and a citizen of planet earth.