The dream kept coming back for months – always the same one. I would see that my father was still in Assam, travelling to faraway lands. In spite of trying hard I could not locate where exactly the two of us were having that ephemeral conversation. Baba was seated in a train. Are you not coming back, I stuttered. No, he said-a silent refusal, one so firm that that it would choke me with intense pangs of sorrow. Why are you doing this to us, so many days have passed since you are gone from home, I wanted to say. But the dream would disappear at this point, leaving me undecided about the truth of what I had witnessed decades back on a hospital bed – an oxygen mask sitting tight on a face under which the breath has long frozen, its straps clasped so hard that they had cut two distinct channels on it.
Every time I woke up, I despaired- death was more of a resolution than a disappearance into a land that was not home. At least not the home I was referring to in the dream. But the thought process brought in more problems for me -whose home was I referring to? My father’s or mine. Was Kolkata ever his home, was the home we knew his real home?
A recent feature on my father had this to say, ‘Hemango Biswas was one of the foremost musicians and composers of his time, was also known for his writing and political activism, and was a pioneer of the leftist cultural movement known after the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), especially in Assam – He formed the Surma Valley Cultural Squad around 1943 that toured Assam and Sylhet, staging revolutionary songs and plays. He became the chief organizer of the Sylhet chapter of the Progressive Writer’s Association in 1943-1944, and throughout the late ‘40s and ‘50s the Assam chapter of IPTA.’
It was in 1942 that he finally left his father’s ancestral home in Sylhet on ideological grounds. His father happened to be a small but powerful zamindar in Mirashi village of Habigunj sub-division in Sylhet. By that time, he had served several terms in British jail and during one such term, he contacted tuberculosis which was not curable in those days. His commune life started after he left home and for the next fifteen years, with occasional bouts of serious illness, he stayed mostly in party communes/ IPTA offices, sometimes also in sympathetic party comrades’ or relative’s houses in Sylhet, Guwahati, Silchar, Dibrugarh, Shillong and other places in Assam and the North East. This included his underground periods as well. This was one chapter of his life about which he wrote occasionally, but never systematically. While trying to build an archive on Hemango Biswas around his birth centenary year it seemed to me that retracing his journey in the formative days of Assam IPTA (40’s, ‘50s and early ‘60s) would be a crucial step in reconstructing those historic years, not only for his life but keeping in mind the leftist cultural movement in the north-east in general. In that sense, Assam (which included pre-partition Sylhet and the entire north-east) was a homeland that his later life in Kolkata or his long recuperative years in China were not.
One evening I was reading a portion of his (unfinished) autobiographical writing titled ‘Ujaan Gang Baia’ – roughly translated as ‘Sailing Against the Stream’ (the obvious boat metaphor has to do with his lifelong passion about ‘Bhatiali’, a Bengali folk genre predominantly associated with boatman on the river, Hemango Biswas being its foremost exponent in this part of Bengal) . I had read this particular section many times over, it never failed to give me goose bumps. That evening while I was reading it again, an elderly cousin from Shillong arrived.
I asked him then, “Do you remember, once while in Shillong we went up a hill and you told me baba spent a long spell of his underground days there in a house?”
“Yes, the place is called Nongthymmai.”
“That was long back -in ’85-‘86, I guess, baba was still living, and of course, I was too young to comprehend the importance of such things. Do you remember the house, did you ever see it?”
“Of course, I was probably in class six or seven at the time I had been there. It would be around 1947-48’, my cousin replied rather pensively.”
“Do you think it might be’49-’50?”
“It could be, I was around thirteen or fourteen then, which makes it ‘49 actually.”
“Would you be able to locate the house, if we went to Shillong now?”
“I think I will, I remember the landlord’s name though- Karkongar.”
“I have taken down the details, the next time I am in Shillong, let’s try and discover the place, if it still exists.”
“Sure, but what makes you so sure it was ’49?”
”Let me read out this portion from his book for you. I was reading it just before you came in…”
‘Telengana’s peasant struggle shows our way’, that was our motto when we went to the 1949 All India Conference of IPTA, known as the Allahabad Conference. After we returned, all of us were forced to go underground. But even in that state, I tried to organize the IPTA state and peace conference in Naliapul, Dibrugarh. Working amidst such risk in weak health made me seriously ill….and I could not attend the conference.
“…After that (The second state conference of IPTA at Naliapul in Dibrugarh where the police and the resistance forces fought, and as a result, one police personnel and three IPTA representatives died, almost all the Communist party members were arrested and many of them were tortured severely in prison), I came from Guwahati to Shillong for convalescence. I was put in a rented room at the end of the town, but within a few days, almost all the members of the Shillong Local Committee were picked up by the police from a secret meeting. I started facing enormous hardship then. It became difficult for me to arrange even a basic meal, let alone medicines and proper food. I took refuge in a shack at a Khasi locality away from the main town only at a rent rate of Rs. 20. A sympathetic party worker who worked in a handloom co-operative in Shillong stayed with me. He cooked for me in the morning before he went out for work. He locked me from outside lest anyone suspected. I lay down silently and stayed like that. My comrade used to come back in the afternoon or sometimes in the evening. Once I fell seriously ill and started vomiting blood. My comrade went to a known doctor, but the doctor did not want to come to the house secretly. He provided my comrade with a few medicines and injections. We also thought in such an obscure area a renowned doctor like him should not come, as this might arouse suspicion….anyway, I taught my kind weaver-comrade how to push an injection and started taking injections from him, sometimes even intravenous ones. I struggled like this for almost one full year and had a complete break-down in the end.
“That is how I know it is ’49-’50”, I told my cousin, “whenever he felt a little better he printed handbills with a Gestetner duplicating machine in that house, he writes after that, the police was searching for the place badly and a police personnel came regularly up the front street to keep watch on the house. It was here that he composed his famous song amra to bhuli nai shohid (We have not forgotten, O martyr) after the news of Madhab Nath’s killing in Silchar jail somehow reached him and some of his comrades sent a request to compose a song on that.”
“We will find it, don’t worry, ” my cousin reassured me before he left.
A chance event took me to Guwahati next January. From there I set out for Shillong, primarily to discover the house my father had talked about in his writing. My cousin took me to Nongthymmai, but when we went up the hill, he seemed thoroughly confused. “I am coming here exactly after 67 years, everything has changed so greatly,” he kept saying. We went further up and then came down, looked at a playground where young boys were playing football, came further down almost to the tip of the Principal street and suddenly, seeing a narrow stretch of road that bifurcated from the long winding street up the hill at some distance, my cousin said, “That one, it seems. It is not my fault, it was a forest at that time, the number of houses in this place is confusing.”
We went along that road and he stopped in front of a house with a handsome garden. ‘This could be the one, yes, I think this is the one’ he said. There was no one to be seen around. I thought that asking for permission and narrating a little bit of our purpose might help us find the house, even if we were at the wrong place. My cousin was still wandering at the back of the garden, but he was obviously not finding the one room tiny outhouse about which my father had written in such details. I was about to press the calling bell of the main house, when he called out to me.
“This is the one. See, my memory is not all gone, in the spot in this shade, which they have now turned into a nursery, stood the room.” “How can you be so sure?” I asked him. He showed me two memorial stones to the right of the nursery. I drew near them, not much was legible but one could still clearly read the names etched on both stones: KHARKONGOR.
My cousin gave me a rather intriguing interview standing in front of that dream-like nursery.
“One evening (I was in class seven or eight then) after school when I came home, my father told me sejomama had sent this gentleman over. Apparently, he wanted to see me badly and he was extremely unwell. It was dark and we walked the few miles to reach the house. Crossing the garden, the man opened the lock of the outhouse and I saw my uncle lying in a makeshift bed on the floor. He tried to open his eyes and smile at me, but could not manage to do that. He was so pale that I was sure he would not live for long. The thought made me scared, I wanted to go back home, and I wept bitterly while the gentleman took me back home.”
Seeing us in her garden, the owner of the house came out. She was the grand-daughter of the couple whose memorial stones we had seen and I wanted to narrate to her the entire story. I told her how Shillong had become one of the central places in my father’s life at various stages and how even during his periods of confinement here (either because of ill-health or underground political activities) he never failed to collect folk lore and traditional songs of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. I told her that my father was a purist as far as folk performances were concerned and how as a child, he would try and put me to sleep by singing those songs and recounting those lores. I also told her about the happy Jaintia song ‘Haitu Mmo’ which depicts the story of a hunter who one day targets a fawn and discovering how beautiful it is, fails to throw his arrow. And about the incredibly wistful khasi song, ‘Kokhun Jonga’ where a fawn, warned repeatedly by its mother about the cruelty of the two-legged animals, tries to defy her one day by going out of its hole, and gets killed.
The lady in turn told me that despite the fact that the predominant musical trends in Shillong are non-traditional, and carry the marks of heavy western influence, in NEHU and other places some professors/researchers are now trying to bring back old forms of songs and traditional accompaniments of the hills. She was a Khasi, but understood some Jaintia and smiled happily when I sang two lines from the Jaintia song I just told her about. “These songs cannot die. If you are singing them in cities like Kolkata in their unadulterated forms, here too in the north-east, we are experiencing a renewed interest in them,” she added.
Hemango Biswas writes –
IPTA became an independent organization from the Progressive Writers’ Association because performing artists- which includes theatre professionals, singers, musicians – have a much greater appeal in this country where most people are still illiterate, compared to writers who deal with words and are able to communicate with people of a certain background only.
He further adds that IPTA inspired, artists and musicians to borrow from folk forms, like music and theatre. By doing this, they added local elements to their creative pursuit and used it to politically motivate the masses. Artists like Bhupen Hazarika, Binoy Ray and to some extent Salil Chaudhuri made the best possible use of the folk genre to compose protest songs. Of course, one should add to the list the names of many other folk artists like Annabhau Sathe, Amar Sheikh, Dasharathi Lal who came from working class backgrounds and were themselves renowned trade union leaders.
Yet, in a way, Hemango Biswas’s use of folk music in composing protest songs was like no one else even amongst the other names mentioned here. His early influences at home and in the surroundings of Sylhet, long years of organizational work in the IPTA and the Communist Party in the north-east, and encounters with varied folk forms at the pan India or regional IPTA conferences/peasant gatherings sharpened his innate ability to internalize folk melody/rhythmic patterns of a great range and put them to proper use.
By now, various researchers have established the fact that it was to a great extent because of his initiatives that bihu came to be performed at various major cities including Guwahati in Assam. Even as late as the forties and fifties – bihu was still considered by many urban upper and middle class caste Hindus in Assam as something grossly rustic and vulgar, mostly because of its erotic import. Hemango Biswas wrote several articles establishing the centrality of bihu in Assamese folk music. I can see with how much care he had collected biyanaam, bangeet, bargeet, lullabies and other traditional songs in his notebooks from those days – many of which he taught us in his music classes. When one reads the chapters of his book on the theory of folk and ethno-musicology ‘Ganer Bahirana’, one can see to what length and depth he analyses the origin and practice of bihu – its tunes, melodies, lyrics, metaphors, contexts and ambience. And of course, one does not forget how during the IPTA days he discovered the genius of folk artists like Maghai Ojha, brought them to the fore, and even gave them a proper platform for folk performances. Thanks to these initiatives by him, many of these artists later went on to earn an international reputation.
While doing a project that dealt with Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika’s famous tour for peace and harmony, in riot-torn Assam in 1960, I met many old people in remote corners of the state who testified how successful their trip had been. In this context, they also informed me how the song ‘Haradhon-Rongmon’ ( composed especially for this occasion) had helped calm people down, especially in areas that faced a lot of turmoil. The song was written in both Bangla and Assamese and it narrated the story of Haradhon, a peasant from eastern Bengal and Rongmon , an Assamese peasant, whose houses were gutted down in the riots. But in spite of the devastation, they dreamt of building a new home together where they could sow the seeds in the fields and sing a tune combining bihu and bhatiali.
Retracing his journey in Assam made me realize that I was not haunted by my persistent dream for nothing – it only took me years to decipher the signs in it.
A version of this essay was first published in ArtEAST