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Bhupen Hazarika (1926-2011). Photo: Hindustan Times (Hindustan Times)
Bhupen Hazarika (1926-2011). Photo: Hindustan Times
(Hindustan Times)

The humanist bard

Bhupen Hazarika will be immortal through his songs—especially in Assam, which, for the first time, found a voice in this gifted, versatile artist

Mumbai: One of Bhupen Hazarika’s most beautiful Assamese songs is a homage to the wanderer—the jajabor, who has no address. He often wrote his songs in the first person and this song, composed in the 1970s, urges his listener to sympathize with the man who travels from Chicago to Hastinapur, Ottawa to Austria, to the banks of the Mississipi, for whom a geographical address is anathema. This man, Hazarika sings, discovers that home is where kindred minds are. Sung in his rich, deep voice, the song is an anthem of love, and a meditation on the possibilities of human goodness.

Some of his fans will remember him as the eternal jajabor. He gave Assam a voice, but never made it his only home.

Hazarika, musician, writer, film-maker and journalist, who breathed his last today in Mumbai after prolonged illness, will be immortal through his songs, especially in Assam. A reformer at heart, he won hearts with his voice and imagination. The ailing musician, who was 85 when he died, recently said in an interview that he considered himself a setu or bridge. He was the setu between Assamese society, the region’s natural beauty and indeed its political concerns, and other parts of India. Mumbai embraced him for his music and voice; he found his last productive years here.

Few artists have written on such a gamut of themes as Hazarika has. He was born in 1926 in Sadiya, in upper Assam near Dibrugarh district, to a musically-inclined family. His elder brother, Jayanta Hazarika, was another popular singer of Assam. While Jayanta engaged with lost love and loneliness, Bhupen was more concerned with the larger world.

He began teaching in Guwahati University in the late 1940s, while pursuing music. His earliest songs reflect strong socialist leanings. One of his constant subjects was the common man’s daily struggles—Pratidhwani (Echoes), Tritiya Shrenir Jatri (people of the “third class"), Luhit-poriya Deka Bandhu (The young men by the Brahmaputra) are just a few songs in which Hazarika exults in the struggles of the common Assamese. Many of his songs have a pamphleteer’s rhetorical zest (Aah Aah Olai Aah Xojaag Janata, Come out in the open, oh discerning masses). Hazarika translated only a few songs to Bengali and Hindi, including Ganga Behti Ho Kyon and Dil Hoom Hoom Kare. He directed a number of Assamese films and later collaborated with his companion of many years, director Kalpana Lajmi for films such as Ek Pal (1986) and Rudaali (1996).

Hazarika’s musical talent was not steeped in classical traditions. He learnt the basics of Indian classical music, and later developed his own style, modernizing Assamese folk songs. He incorporated Bihu tunes in popular music for the first time. But the beauty of most of his songs rest on his impassioned words and the thoughts behind them.

In the late 1970s and1980s, Hazarika expressed his open support for the All Assam Students’ Movement—from songs of that period it is obvious that he was consumed by idea that the youth can transform society. In the 1990s, he had found another home in Mumbai. He often said that disillusionment with the state’s failure to engage with problems of the common Assamese was a reason he kept away.

His political career was chequered. Hazarika contested elections from Lakhimpur district as an independent candidate and was an MLA for three years. He was away from active politics for many years, during which he composed songs for Hindi films and in 2004, he returned to Assam for contesting parliamentary elections from Guwahati as a BJP candidate. The people of Guwahati gave him a rousing welcome, but did not give him the electoral mandate.

He led best with his songs—those of us who grew up in Assam between 1960s and 1980s, knew his songs by heart. His music was inspiration as well as entertainment.

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