On August 15, 1947, when India gained independence, Bishnu Prasad Rabha led a black flag demonstration in a village named Dighelia, shouting “Ye Azaadi Jhootha Hain, Sirf Chamra Ka Badal” (This freedom is a hoax : only a change of skin), and he was promptly arrested and put behind bars. After he was released, Rabha went underground for years – presenting a serious challenge to the establishment. He took up arms and engaged in guerrilla warfare against the government.
And, this was years before (Che) Guevara devised guerilla’ attracted worldwide attention. The Bishnu Ram Medhi government placed a bounty of Rs. 10,000 on his head. However, Rabha did manage to escape – hiding in isolated towns, remote villages and densely covered woods. He met some of his friends in disguise, and once met a young Bhupen Hazarika inside a hut located atop the Kamakhya Hill. The twenty two year old Hazarika cycled all the way from Chenikuthi to see his mentor. While Rabha was still underground, Jyotiprasad Agarwala passed away at the young age of 47. On hearing the news, Rabha was so distressed that he even contemplated surrendering to the police. In 1951, after the death of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, he became the president of the Assam branch of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
During his underground years as a Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) rebel, Rabha gained enormous popularity as a revolutionary artist and he was popularly called ‘Xoinik Xilpi’ (the artist who took up arms).
Although, Rabha tried his best to conceal his presence, he was finally captured in a village named Ghilaguri (in the present day Kokrajhar district) in the year 1952 and was jailed for a year. While he was lodged in the jail, Rabha painted the famous portrait of Shrimanta Shankardeva (which Bhupen Hazarika termed as one of the ‘finest specimens of mod-painting’). Coming out of prison and leaving aside armed struggle, Rabha fought the Lok Sabha elections of 1957 from Barpeta constituency as a C.P.I. (?) candidate; but lost it by a narrow margin.
During the Chinese aggression of 1962, Bishnu Rabha was arrested under the Preventive Detention Act. A man of enormous frame, Rabha’s legs were chained and he was dragged along the roads as a mark of humiliation. He was later imprisoned in the special cells of Behrampur Jail in Orissa for six months. In spite of this mistreatment, Rabha’s decided to contest the elections to the Legislative Assembly from Tezpur – this time as an independent candidate and as an artist with a mission.
According to his campaigner, Uday Shankar Saikia, whom I interviewed two years back; people came out in hordes to pay their respects to Rabha wherever he went. His election symbol was a set of scales and the slogan coined by his supporters was ‘Ji kore Allai, Vote dibo Pallai’.
Rabha was on a campaigning spree, when one fine day, he was invited to deliver a speech at a public meeting. As he was walking up the wooden stairs, he noticed a “Xorai” (traditional offering tray) painted in the background. He immediately grabbed the microphone and spoke at length about the cultural significance and aesthetics of a Xorai; and the need for maintaining perfect symmetry while replicating it in any form. In another instance, he befriended an uncompromising Maulvi from Panbari by discussing about the various tenets of Islam and the different sects that flourish worldwide.
His chief rival in the election was the Congress candidate, Bijoy Sarma. Bijoy Sarma and Bishnu Rabha performed together in the plays staged at the historic Ban Theatre of Tezpur. One day, Bishnu Rabha and Phani Sarma were travelling in an ambassador for campaigning purpose; when they saw a car carrying the Congress flag, approaching from the other side. It was Bijoy Sarma’s car. Rabha asked the driver, Bijit Saikia to stop, and he got down with Phani Sarma to greet their fellow artist from Ban theatre.
“How’s your campaign faring, Bijoy?”, said Bishnu Rabha. “It’s going on well, Bishnu da. I think you will win this time”, Sharma replied. Rabha then with his usual candour rounded off by saying, “As for me, I would rather want you do well. Anyways, whoever wins, he should not betray the poorest and most neglected inhabitants. They have showered their blessings on us and it should not be squandered. You should know that my best wishes are always with you.”
Bijoy Sarma then proceeded to offer ‘paan’ to his mentors and chatted for nearly half an hour. The camaraderie between the political rivals baffled the onlookers and they stood there quite stupefied!
Bishnu Rabha won a landslide victory in that election and everyone joined in to celebrate. The otherwise quiet riverside town of Tezpur, presented a unique spectacle that day.
Soon after the election results were out, the celebrated icon moved to Shillong – to attend the Assembly session. It is said that after he reached the hill station , the Chief Minister of Assam, Bimala Prasad Chaliha arranged for his accommodation at Pinewood Hotel. Rabha was allotted a room just next to that of his protégé Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. Chaliha later revealed that he wanted both artists to continue in their creative endeavors, even after joining politics.
Unfortunately, cancer gripped him midway and Rabha passed way on 20th June, forty-nine years ago. He was born in Dhaka on 31 January 1909