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Recently a video of Dibrugarh resident Syed Saadulla went viral on social media. In it, the 71-year-old former employee with All India Radio is seen standing in knee-deep water, strumming the guitar and singing Luitor Boliya Baan. His performance was in response to the floods that have ravaged Assam, affecting nearly 1.3 million people in 25 districts. “I didn’t want to cry. Disasters and challenges will keep coming, but one has to face them," says Saadulla.

The song heard in the clip was written by Bhupen Hazarika and sung by his brother, Jayanta Hazarika, in 1968. “Bhupen-da warns the river not to misbehave," says Saadulla. “It mirrors our feelings towards the Brahmaputra. We love it, hate it, scold it but it permeates every part of our lives."

The Brahmaputra has inspired many such compositions across the length and breadth of Assam—some are reverential of the might of the river, others use it as a metaphor for life. During the annual floods, these songs offer succour to many. “I find the Brahmaputra mystical. It is the only 'male' river in India, and various aspects related to it are very interesting. I have written songs related to the floods. And even one about how we should be as open-hearted as the river, when in love," says singer-composer Zubeen Garg.

In one of his compositions, dedicated to his “idol" Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Garg draws on the likeness between the confluence of cultures that takes place on the banks of the Brahmaputra with a similar melange seen in the cultural-political figure’s work. “Several tribes also have songs inspired by the river, especially the Mishing, who live on the banks of the Brahmaputra. I have had the opportunity to sing a Mishing song as well—I will flow with the river Brahmaputra and come to you," elaborates Garg.

This is not surprising, given that the river is such an integral part of tribal folklore and culture. Farzana Begum, anthropologist and research officer at the Assam Institute of Research for Tribal and Scheduled Castes, Guwahati, talks about a prayer in the Dimasa Kachari tribe, which refers to a tree growing near the confluence of the Brahmaputra and the Sagi, where they were believed to have been born. In The Study on Brahmaputra: The Lifeline of the People of Assam (2016), Begum talks about several such song traditions, inspired by the moods of the river. “In this context, the names of Laksminath Bezbaruah, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bhupen Hazarika are noteworthy," she writes.

Begum also mentions Agarwala’s composition, Luitor parore ami deka lora, moriboloi bhoi nai, (we are the youth from the banks of Luit and we don’t have any fear of death), written in 1942, which served to motivate the youth during the Indian freedom movement. Then there is Hazarika’s famous, Bistirno Paror, inspired by Paul Robson’s Ol’ Man River. “Paul Robson’s song was about the Mississippi. Bhupen-da met him and was very impressed. When he came back to Assam, he composed this song," says Saadulla. In Bistirno Paror, “he expressed anger and sadness at the indifference of the Brahmaputra towards the moral decline and degradation of humanity," writes Begum.

Meanwhile artists and poets like Saadulla continue to see the river as their muse. “When I was in grade 4, I had written an essay about how I wished the Brahmaputra would be peaceful. That was in 1957 and we are now in 2020 and the story is still the same. There have been suggestions through the decades about deepening the river and so on, but the plans have fallen through," he says. "The rural people continue to suffer. If you visit villages in Majuli, the state of the families there will bring tears to your eyes. Through the video, I have tried to console the flood victims not to lose heart. We need to face it and fight it out."

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