Subcontinent Mourns an Indian Folk Hero: Choudhury

Bhupen Hazarika, one of India's most beloved musicians and perhaps the best-known face of the country's northeast, passed away last week, bringing to an end a scintillating career in the arts that began more than seven decades ago. Hazarika was popularly known as the Bard of the Brahmaputra, the river that appeared in many of his songs. He was mourned by a procession of hundreds of thousands of people when his body was brought home from Mumbai, where he resided in his last years, to Guwahati, in his native Assam.

If Hazarika had such a hold on the public imagination, it was because, firstly, he had a talent for fusing the classical and the popular, tuning the folk music of Assam into a new key and taking its rhythms into other languages. Secondly, he wrote many of his songs himself and his lyrics speaking of man's brotherhood across boundaries of nation and culture, carried a rousing humanist message that had a particular resonance in the worlds of Indian (and later Bangladeshi) nationalism and early republican life.

Yet it might also be said that because of India's many internal boundaries of language and culture, Hazarika didn't have half as many admirers as he deserved. He was a household name only in the eastern states of Assam and Bengal, where his most famous songs -- "Moi eti jajabor" ("Ami ek jajabor" in Bengali), "Bistirno dupare," "Manuhe manhor babe" and "Dola re dola" -- were known to almost everyone. He sang very little in Hindi, the language that comes closest to being pan-Indian, and recorded very little for Bollywood, the Hindi-Urdu-Punjabi cinematic culture that exercises the greatest influence. One of the paradoxes of his geographic reach -- a sign, in fact, of how the deep-rooted civilizational links of the Indian subcontinent cut across the borders of the modern nation-states into which it was broken up by decolonization -- is that his demise was probably a blow to the public culture of more countries (India, Bangladesh and Nepal) than states in his native India.

On Nov. 8, the Hindu reported from Guwahati:

The city roads turned into a sea of humanity as the body of music legend Bhupen Hazarika arrived here on Monday morning amidst lakhs of mourners singing his most popular number Manuhe Manhor Babe...

People lined up the entire 30-km stretch from the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi international airport to his Nizarapar residence and it took eight hours for the cortege to reach the house of the culture icon. Mourners, waiting since morning to have a glimpse of the legend, showered flower petals and sang his popular numbers to pledge their commitment to keep his music and ideals alive and pass them to the next generation.

Hazarika's music and worldview had a strong American connection. In 1948, he arrived in New York to embark on a PhD at Columbia University. He became fascinated by American folk music, especially the ballads of Paul Robeson, whose song "Old Man River" he took across into his own culture and turned into tunes about the Brahmaputra and the Ganges. The Assamese journalist S Mitra Kalita, who grew up in America and had a family connection with Hazarika, recalled:

During the U.S. legs of Bhupen Hazarika’s frequent tours in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, our house, first in Long Island, later in New Jersey, became the dumping ground for his suitcases, lyric books, harmonium, plaques and gamochas [shawls].

A lover of folk music and the Civil Rights movement, Bhupen Uncle made us take pictures of him standing on Paul Robeson Place in Princeton, N.J. He had met Robeson during study at Columbia University and throughout his life clearly drew a parallel between the political activism of Robeson’s music and his own. Bhupen Uncle loved New York City and he regaled in the throngs of fans who gathered around him during shopping trips to the Indian enclave of Jackson Heights. But he was also just as happy being anonymous and roaming his old uptown haunts or Chinatown. [...] He and his partner, the director Kalpana Lajmi, took my elder brother and me to see “Dead Poets Society,” a movie that sparked a discussion about the role of teachers and of following one’s own dreams over one’s parents’. Through his eyes, I realize now I was seeing America and all its plurality and possibility anew.

Like many other great Indian artists of the twentieth century -- the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and the painter MF Husain -- Hazarika was able to fashion an idiom at once cosmopolitan and deeply rooted, working with a fine awareness of the cultural nuances of at least two languages and several musical traditions. Although "Moi eti jajabor" ("I'm A Gypsy"), one of his most popular songs, describes a journey across space, bringing together the Brahmaputra, the Mississippi and the Volga into one Whitmanesque sweep, it could also be read as a kind of artistic manifesto. The nature of Hazarika's achievement and his place in the Assamese imagination were evoked by Amlan Goswami, in an essay published in 2005 in the Assam Tribune:

Bhupen Hazarika is an artist who believes that music has a political role to fulfill: that of humanising and democratising man. The words in his songs carry messages of protest, as well as compassion and peace. Music, for him, in one language or four, must convey the spirit of the people. That spirit is one common thread linking man to man. The river is a constant presence. Languages are perceived as channels in one universal flow.

Yet, his universalism is not abstractly transcendental. His is not the restless wanderer's seeking spirit because he knows where home is. He is not the immigrant cultural pastiche. He is rather the artiste deeply rooted in his own Assamese (and by his own admission, Bangla) soil, who has remained open to the worlds outside his limited political boundaries. Through the medium of folk song and ballad, he has reached out and identified points of confluence across cultures. In doing so, he manages to extract a warm and common glow of humanity. We are all on the same boat, brother. This recognition of a common humanity does not take away his Assamese/ Bangla roots but enriches it. The eternal romantic, his vision is at one with the Western folk artistes who inspire him and by whose side he can deservedly claim his place of honour. He is as at home with Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson as he is with his Baul and Bihu folk.

And Sanjukta Sharma wrote in a piece called "The Humanist Bard":

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 Mississippi, 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.

Indeed, Hazarika made his home for much of his life in Mumbai, far from his native Assam. He first arrived in the city (then called Bombay) in the 1950s, when he came to join the Indian People's Theatre Association, a group of progressive artists who thrived in the idealistic climate and creative ferment of post-independence (a world vividly described in a chapter of the Princeton historian Gyan Prakash's recent book about the city "Mumbai Fables"). The website quoted Hazarika as saying:

"The generous city and its people have welcomed me, accepted me, and given me my second home since so many years [sic]. I admire its people for its willingness to allow people from the rest of India to earn a living and prosper, irrespective of caste, creed or colour."

Hazarika also had a checkered career in politics. He was elected to the Assam Legislative Assembly in 1967 as an independent, and unsuccessfully contested national elections in 2004 as a candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party. As obituaries put together the range of Hazarika's allegiances and the breadth of his ideas, many of his compatriots came to realize that his was one of the richest and most representative of twentieth-century Indian lives.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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