Bhupen Hazarika – The Sub-nationalist Imagination of a Universalist: Bikram Bora

Guest post by BIKRAM BORA

The unprecedented number of mourners crowding the otherwise sleepy streets of Guwahati at night following the demise of the maestro, proves testimony to his genius. In his life, there was no dearth of followers, some logical, some blind; while in his death, grief engulfs both the sections. What could be the reasons for Hazarika’s powerful grip over people’s emotions? It can’t be just his musical dexterity; it’s more the aura surrounding him, emanating from his multi-dimensional persona and life-span.

My personal encounter with him is limited to the annual congregation of Assam Sahitya Sabha at Sivasagar in 1993, over which Hazarika presided. But the memory of a three-year-old cannot explain the way in which he overwhelms my imagination. Hazarika’s foremost asset was his charisma. Growing up in small-town Assam is bound to be accompanied by a childhood laden with his songs – the medium may be an old, rickety stereo player or the cultural programs in the neighbourhood; whatever the occasion may be, Bihu or celebrating the birth centenary of some ‘great’ Assamese. And in a societal framework still not ready to shake away the feverish traits of sub-nationalism dating back to the eighties, he was a god, or let’s say, a demigod. For a layman, Hazarika was The Assamese, whether on the shores of Brahmaputra or beyond the hills surrounding it.

Reflecting the traits of a Renaissance Man, Hazarika tried his hands successfully in many fields, sometimes related and sometimes completely from a different sphere, with different approaches, but not necessarily in watertight blocks. And with a Midas Touch, in whatever field he made his appearance, he created a niche for himself. His academic achievements often remain overshadowed by his musical achievements, yet he had a doctorate from Columbia University, on topic that was in a way path breaking, his thesis being “The Role of Mass Communication in Adult Education in India.” Declining the lucrative offer of a finding himself in the UN, Hazarika came back to Assam, thanks to his ‘jajabori’ (vagabond-like) nature which he so proudly attributes to himself. Besides his musical accomplishments, he also tried his hand at film direction, writing scores for movies, journalism and even painting.

The very essence of his creative energy underwent many consecutive phases, with each phase revealing different shades of his artistic persona. The song Agnijugor Firingoti Moi ( I Am the Spark of the Age of Fire), written at the age of 16 reflects the gradual formation of a political consciousness, on one hand against the repression of an expropriating class and on the other, somehow echoing the aftermath of the Quit India Movement.  A unique amalgam of nationalism and class-consciousness planted in him by his mentors, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla and Bishnu Rabha, titans of the colonial-age cultural renaissance of Assam. Sometimes he challenged caste-boundaries, as in the song of the ‘higher’ caste girl Anamika Goswami’s marriage with the  ‘lower’ caste Prashanta Das. Sometimes he sang of youthful vigour, sometimes he is a harbinger of ethnic harmony and sometimes a caustic voice of protest.

While visiting his aunt in Arunachal Pradesh, I encountered a lady belonging to the Adi tribe who exclaimed in broken Assamese, “Bhupen da okol tohotor nohoi, amaru hoi, amar kotha koise gaanot” (Bhupen da doesn’t belong to you only, he is ours as well, he has mentioned us in his works). The jingoism and chauvinism of privileged classes as well as tribal affinities have always created a fissure in the pluralist nature of Assamese society and its relation with its neighbours. Hazarika was aware of this brittle sociological structure and so he used music as a medium to express a feeling of bonding and shared heritage between different ethno-linguistic identities of the North-East. For a decade there has been an ongoing debate regarding ‘who is Assamese’, Bhupen Hazarika did not allow himself to be entangled in such affairs, he insisted in formation of an identity ‘from below’, not ‘from above’. His effort of consciously forming an Assamese identity came from the grassroots, rather than from a dialectical discourse. It was more of a populist measure and also more friendly approach to the laymen. So it is not astonishing that people from all the tribes in Assam are coming to offer him homage at his funeral and that Arunachal Pradesh government declared a day of ‘Official Mourning’ for him. The symbolic implications of these is what I emphasize. Hazarika was the sole face of an identity that every ethno-linguistic identity of the region can share; he was an insignia of the symbolic harmony cutting across differences.

The reality in Assam was harsh, pierced by ethnic tensions, jingoism as well as threat in the form of influx from Bangladesh. What Hazarika tried to do was what Benedict Anderson termed as nations imagining themselves into existence.  Hazarika’s imagination brought together the components of an existing potential national identity and visualized it in his songs. This imagination had three strands – opposing caste and class hierarchy; a revolutionary stand in regard to societal norms, as reflected in the song Auto-rickshaw Solau Ami Duyu Bhai (We two brothers drive auto-rickshaws), which tries to do away with middle-class insistence on white-collar jobs – the very essence of middle-class consciousness without carrying its negative connotations, successfully resonated via the song. “It is a rule to break all rules”, he sang. The third strand tried to transcend ethno-linguistic divides. His vision is yet to be brought into practice.

Hazarika’s rendezvous with Paul Robeson was one of his most life-changing experiences. While at Columbia University, Hazarika became associated with Robeson and tha letter’s influence on him is legendary. Even many decades later, we can have glimpse of Robeson in Hazarika, both in his positivist humanistic approach and his works. Robeson’s magnum opus, Ol’ Man River resonates in Hazarika’s masterpiece Bistirno Parore (Of the Wide Shores) whose Bangla and Hindi renditions, Ganga are as popular as the Assamese one. Robeson’s approach of incorporating folk music into the tradition of protest songs made Hazarika realize that a true artiste can never disassociate himself from the socio-political paradigm.  In Robeson’s words, “Guitar is not a musical instrument, it is a social instrument”. In the early years of his work, Hazarika belonged to the same school as that of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie or even Bob Dylan.

That very sense of belongingness to the society and its political aspects made him a Jonotar Xilpi (People’s Artiste) in the eyes of the mass rather than a morose, introspective man of art. A song like Bor Bor Manuh’r Dula (Palanquin of the Lord) was a blow to the feudal superstructure while the tone is milder in Manuhe Manuhor Babe (For the People, By the People), one of his most well-remembered numbers, which contemplates the need for fellow-feeling and bonding between people in a humanistic manner. In Raijei Bhaworia, Dexei Nattghor (The Land is the Theatre, People are the Players), he asserts his pro-people stand which is sometimes even anti-establishment.

The way he accommodates Assamese nationalism into his broader humanistic approach is remarkable. He had his dreams in the distant skies, but his feet firmly rooted on the shores of his dear Burha Luit (Old Brahmaputra). He supported the cause of Assamese aspiration of self-expression without letting it stray into jingoism During the turbulent period of Assam in sixties and the eighties, when ethnic tensions especially between different tribes, between Assamese and Bengalis, and between indigenous people and immigrants were at their peak, Hazarika played a pivotal role. Writing songs like Moromore Bhaxar Akhor Naikia (Languages Close to the Heart Don’t Have Scripts), or by forming peace-seeking cultural troupes, or by meeting affected people. In violence affected areas, people welcomed him like a messiah, pleaded with him to do something to end that strife. However his voice was not enough to be heard during tough times, and Assam remained as divided as ever, except at his funeral.

Hazarika once asserted in an essay. “From the banks of Brahmaputra since 1947, I have dreamt of an emotionally integrated India, a land of aesthetic opportunity for all ethnic groups.” However, when he saw that dream squashed into nothing by the central government turning a blind eye to Assam and other peripheral regions, when the sense of alienation led to the sprouting of sub-national aspirations in Assam, Hazarika was only a passive voice, not an active catalyst. His credibility in the entire phase of the eighties was not on the political front, but on the cultural front, by writing fever-pitched songs which mobilized the masses for a ‘nationalist’ cause, i.e. ‘Jatiyotabad’ as it is termed in Assam.

Hazarika even had a brief stint in active politics. His motives of sudden arrival in this sphere is not clear, probably it dawned on him that by actively involving in politics, the ideology he espoused can be brought into practice than just being reflected in songs and remaining dormant in people’s psyche. Though his first attempt of coming into the sphere of legislature from Naoboicha constituency from Assam was successful, his later attempts were not so. Probably that resulted from his opponents being successful ex-MPs like Hem Barua or because of him being a contestant from BJP. In Assam, the  saffron is still viewed with suspicion because of more or less egalitarian and pluralist nature of the class and ethnic composition and due to strong undercurrents of subnationalism. Moreover, the public perception in Assam always views culture, art and literature as entities completely segregated from the political sphere, so whenever someone tries to transcend these self-imposed watertight blocks, he or she is bound to displease the masses. The veneration of Hazarika as a cultural titan led to his stature as something distant form the realm of politics in the view of people. However, despite his relative failure in active politics, Hazarika remained one of the most vocal politically charged voices of twentieth century Assam, whether by his songs, his association with IPTA or his arrest at the hands of New York police on the suspicion of being a ‘communist’.

However, we should not limit his achievements to Assam or India – he was a ‘world citizen’.  The sobriquet of Jajabor (Vagabond) that he took on for himself speak of his restlessness and utter disregard for geo-political restraints. Hazarika has songs for the revolution in China (a stand he changed later following the Indo-China war), and the independence of Bangladesh. The doctrine of universalism is best expressed in his classic Moi Eti Jajabor (I am a Vagabond):

I treaded Luit (Brahmaputra) and Mississippito have a glimpse of Volga,
Went through Ottawa and Austria  to embrace Paris,
I carried old shades of Ellora to Chicago,
Heard the echoes of Ghalib’s Shayaris in the Minar of Dushanbe,
I spoke of Gorky at Mark Twain’s tomb,
While the strangers I met became dear ones.

This sense of belongingness to the entire world while retaining his roots is quite rare. During his time in ColumbiaUniversity, the route he took to New York from Guwahati encompassing Kolkata, Vizag, Colombo, Cairo, Paris and London is a remarkable representation of universalist aspirations. However, it is a fact that his identity more or less remained confined to the people of North-east, Bengal or the cognoscenti in Mumbai, not among the masses in the other parts of the country.

Hazarika is referred to as the Duronto Torun (Reckless Young Man) because of his perpetual youthfulness. Though his songs of socio-political commentary are more popular, his songs on the the fervour of youth, love and so on are noteworthy too. Within the façade of a ‘People’s Artiste’ there lay a deep, introspective persona which relished solitude too. With a soothingly melodious Gupute Gupute (Furtively) or a dark, psychedelic ‘Bimurto Mur Nixati’ he tries to do away with the social restraints that are imposed on expressing love, at a time when it was a truly revolutionary stand. Hazarika was a wild and reckless lover of women, his many affairs are in the process of becoming legends, but yet it is claimed by many that the lady he aspired to in his life never became his. The result being some of the most haunting and memorable love songs in the entire course of Assamese post-colonial music.

Bhupen Hazarika is not just a performing artiste; he is a form of imagination inAssam. An imagination that on the one hand grasps the sense of Assam and on the other hand, reflects it on a national platform. I have witnessed frenzied Bhupen-veneration in Assam, deliriously crowded functions where he performs, the ecstasy over unveiling a life-size statue of him by All Assam Students Union or the state of utter despair following his demise. The reverence sometimes treads into the dangerous territory of fanatic hero-worshipping. The imagination is so deep-rooted that in Assam people tend to believe certain things just because “Bhupen Da is saying” or worry what will happen after his departure.

Thus, Bhupen Hazarika’s importance in Assam was not because of his works or his musical genius alone, but more because of the aura he was able to cast over the people in the entire region, cutting across ethno-linguistic faultlines. Now, that imagination must be channeled towards a direction of mending the fissures that are appearing in the socio-political framework of Assam. The very core of his ideology which never took a properly defined shape but yet has left an imprint in each of his listeners can answer many of the questions that are haunting a turbulent Assam.  His visions remained unfulfilled; people in Assam are united over him, but divisions still exist. He wanted the divisions to cease to exist, not that they only momentarily disappear following his demise. That is something the upholders of his legacy should work on rather than mourning over his demise in hysterical reverence.

No doubt he had his share of faults, limitations and miscalculated steps, but as India mourns him, we can at least consider him to be an imperfect yet a great charismatic personality, cultural communicator and  voice of the people, not just of Assam but South Asia as a whole.

(Bikram Bora is pursuing his graduation from Ramjas College, University of Delhi.) 

6 thoughts on “Bhupen Hazarika – The Sub-nationalist Imagination of a Universalist: Bikram Bora”

  1. This article presents a classic (if not complete) alternative of looking at the music maestro, to the previous one written by Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti.

    The very tendency to fit Hazarika only to a working class narrative, takes away many a dimensions of the legend he was. Yet, serious intellectual thoughts that have sprung up on the life and works of Bhupen Hazarika, makes him one of the most interesting case studies of cultural politics in the world.


  2. Brilliant…and sometimes when the thoughts are in sync you dont need to say much

    Except one word..dis is where the dream of a New Assam has to be built .This is where it stands.And it is us….


  3. This is an insight into the immense socio-cultural struggle that Dr.Bhupen hazarika was spearheading to make a “Great Assamese Society” instead of all the disintegrated linguistic tribes and socities of Assam. Just hope that that ideology of his takes a breath of life in the near future.


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