How does one analyse the genius of a multi-faceted icon like Bhupen Hazarika? The biggest danger lies in ending up highlighting one aspect, at the cost of missing out on the overall persona. However, it can safely be said Hazarika was one of the colossal cultural personalities of northeast India — with a deep social commitment and profound political consciousness.
He had a magnificent oeuvre — a good poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author and filmmaker of the highest order. And his intellect and scholarship combined to make him a true-blue cultural philosopher of not only Assam, but of the entire northeast.
Two telling comments made after Hazarika’s death on November 5, 2011, aged 85, aptly bring out the range of his achievement and the wide impact that he made over a span of 70 years.
Writing for The Guardian, Asjad Najir pointed out that Hazarika had “used music, cinema and the written word to stitch political ideology and ancient traditions into the fabric of popular culture”.
National award-winning critic and acclaimed filmmaker Utpal Borpujari was very direct: “The kind of impact this genius has had in the socio-cultural-political space of a huge geographic region comprising the northeast India, West Bengal and Bangladesh would be hard to grasp for anyone who does not understand the Assamese and Bengali languages.”
Born on September 8, 1926, in Sadiya, Assam, Hazarika — the eldest of 10 children — said he inherited his voice from his mother, “who regularly sang lullabies to me as a child”.
A child prodigy, at the age of 10 Hazarika came in touch with lyricist, playwright and first Assamese filmmaker Jyotiprasad Agarwala and poet Bishnu Prasad Rabha and recorded his first song.
Three years later, in 1939, Hazarika acted and sang two numbers in the film “Indramalati” directed by Agarwala, and went on to write his maiden song, “Agnijuger Firingoti Moi”, that year itself.
After obtaining a master’s in political science in 1946, Hazarika joined All India Radio as a producer, but soon after left for New York, where he stayed for five years and received his doctorate in mass communication from Columbia University.
He also won the Lisle Fellowship from Chicago University to promote the development of education through cinema.
A defining moment in Hazarika’s life came when he befriended US civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who told him the guitar was not just a musical instrument but an instrument for social change.
Under Robeson’s influence, Hazarika penned and set to tune the evergreen Assamese song “Bistirno Parare” (“Bistirno Dupare” in Bengali and “Ganga behti ho kyun” in Hindi) that had an echo of Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River” masterpiece.
Back in India, Hazarika became involved with the left cultural movement by joining the Indian People’s Theatre Association and also taught at Gauhati University. The Bard of Brahmaputra sang of socialism and equality, the barely clothed farmers and the poor fishermen.
However, he quit the university after a few years and shifted to Calcutta (now Kolkata), making a mark as a music director and singer. Hazarika also got into films, and played a stellar role in bringing the fledgling Assamese cinema onto the all-India map.
He composed music, wrote lyrics and sang for a large number of Assamese, Bengali and Hindi films from 1930s to the 1990s and was conferred India’s highest film honour — the Dada Saheb Phalke Award — in 1992.
Hazarika won National Awards for three films — “Shakuntala” (1960), “Pratidhwani” (1964) and “Loti Ghoti” (1967) — and a National Award for best music direction for the Assamese film “Chameli Memsaab” in 1975.
He produced, directed, and composed the music for “Mera Dharam Meri Maa”, the first Hindi feature film in colour produced in Arunachal Pradesh, in 1977.
In 1986, Hazarika produced and composed music for the award winning Hindi feature film “Ek Pal” which had the song “Zara Dheere Zara Dheeme”.
Two years later, he was the executive producer and music composer for the award winning film in Hindi “Rudaali”, whose songs “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” (original Assamese song “Buku Hom Hom Kare”) and “Samay O Dhire Chalo” got rave reviews and also became popular for their depth.
In 1998. he composed music for “Gajagamini”, a feauture film written and directed by eminent painter M.F. Hussain and featuring noted diva Madhuri Dixit.
Hazarika, rated as one of the great Indian balladeers, left an impressive body of over 1,000 songs in a number of languages, but most of them in Assamese.
Known for his sharp pronunciation, soulful renditions and a great vocal range, Hazarika’s lyrics covered a wide spectrum of human emotions and subjects from love and romance to nature (hills and rivers), tribal life and, above all, people — the faceless common men and women, and their toils and hardships. He also had an overflowing store of folk music that carried the smell of the dark earth.
Some of his ever-popular numbers are “Moi Eti Jajabor” (“Ami Ek Jajabor” in Bengali and translated by Gulzar into Hindi as “Haan Awara Hoon”), “Sagar Sangamat (“Sagar Sangame” in Bengali), “Ganga Amar Maa”, “Dola He Dola”, “Manuhhe Manuhor Babe” (“Manush Manusher Jonyo” in Bengali) and “Aaj Jibon Khunje Pabi” (Bengali).
The bard’s songs served as a motivation for the anti-foreigners’ agitation in Assam between 1979-85, though the humanist in Hazarika made him critical of some aspects of the movement. However, he performed cultural programmes in support of the agitation.
Hazarika’s literary pursuits also brought him many accolades. One of the leading authors and poets of Assam, he has to his credit over 15 books of short stories, essays, travelogues, poems and children’s rhymes. In 1993, he was nominated the president of the Sahitya Sabha. Besides, he edited the popular monthlies “Amar Pratinidhi” and “Pratidhwani” for over two decades.
Testing his popularity in political waters, Hazarika won the Assam assembly polls from the Nauboicha constituency as an independent in 1967. However, his second experiment with politics did not succeed. Having been drawn to the Leftist ideology in his youth, Hazarika swung to the extreme right towards the end of his life in 2004, but lost on a BJP ticket from the Guwahati Lok Sabha seat.
A much feted man, Hazarika received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1987), Padma Shri (1997) and Padma Bhushan (2001), while the country’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, was conferred posthumously in 2012.