The Troubled Legacy of Bhupen Hazarika

While Assam is in turmoil over Citizenship Amendment Bill, BJP led government has conferred India’s highest honour, Jewel of India (Bharat Ratna) on late Bhupen Hazarika. A cultural and political shapeshifter, Bhupen Hazarika was always tough to pin down. The following essay by two progressive activists, Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti from Assam historicises the many faces of the Jewel of India. The essay was first published in 2011 in Kafila as a political obit. 

Mourning people from across Assam assemble in miles and miles of roads leading up to Bhupen Hazarika’s funeral. He’s a restless jajabor/wanderer no more. Paeans after paeans are being sung now after the ‘great cultural hero’, the ‘greatest Assamese’, the believer in ‘the power of the nation’ (the ‘nation’ being Akhand Bharat or Brihottor Axom, depending on whichever variety of nationalists sing). Bhupenda is dead.  Assam is in despair.

Funeral procession of Bhupen Hazarika

Despair and tears are nothing new to be offered by the people of the region, daily humiliated by their exploited, displaced existence. These intricacies of social existence lie shining sharply or muffled in Hazarika’s songs and journey over the years. The music is everywhere, even at the funeral, where of the reported 100,000 people, more were singing than crying. There is arguably no one in Assam who has not known, loved, hated, listened and sung Hazarika, and whom he has not sung of. And this is much before mass media as we know today existed.

In this fractured land where ‘identity’ is supposed to be the reigning logic of existence, of unity or separation, Hazarika touched, sung and wove a rich and ambiguous cultural fabric. And because of it, we find ourselves confronting a troubled legacy, a serpentine history.

Absolute ‘consistency’ is perhaps not a desirable quality and much more so with questions and figures of culture. But Bhupen Hazarika’s jajabor/nomadic inconsistency, and so perhaps the ups and downs of the journey of those whom he sang for and about, is historic. Riding on the energy of the communist-led peasant uprisings which lasted up to the mid 1950s in Assam, Hazarika’s radicalism borrowed directly from the ‘people’s singer’, the communist legacy of Comrade Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Thus Hazarika would declare ‘kasi khonot aji bor suk’ (‘my sickle is too sharp today’). When the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) had its dynamic heyday, Bhupen Hazarika was its president. He was a socialist when South Asia was gripped by its promise. He sang of hearing its echoes, of the energy of the masses, of the red sun on his black hair, from the depths of the night – mur gaon’ore xeema’re, paharor xipare, nixar siyortir protidhoni xunu (‘from the end of the horizon of my village, from across the hills, echoes come to me of the cry of the night’). He was then prothom nohoi, dritiyo nohoi, tritiyo srenir jatri (‘not of the first, not of the second- we are travelers of the third class’). Celebrating the vitality of the working masses, he identified himself as a co-traveler chugging ‘towards the destination together’.

Bhupen Hazarika memorial at Guwahati University

But as the peasant uprisings were contained, this radicalism which was in identification with the stirrings of the tiller-of-the-land turned into the jingoist one of the son-of-the-soil, and come the Indo-China war of 1962, Hazarika turned into a ‘patriotic’ nationalist. He would discover terror and bloodshed committed on the hapless (sic) Indian Army soldiers by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, and demand a strong defense against the ‘violent marauders’ along the Himalayas (‘aji kameng ximanta dekhilu, dekhi xotrur poxuttva sinilu (‘today I saw Kameng border, and recognized the enemy’s bestiality’). However, this hatred for the Chinese proved to be short-lived.  For Hazarika, the jajabor/internationalist, who loved to talk of Gorky and his tales sitting at the tomb of Mark Twain’, it could have been hardly otherwise. Nonetheless, this contradictory pull between a rabid form of nationalism and the spirit of internationalism continued to haunt him his entire life.

Contradictions and ambiguities also followed his engagement with the six year long anti-immigrant Assam movement which started in 1979. On the one hand Hazarika would, supporting the mass character of the movement, also attest to its principal aim of the expulsion of peasant migrants from Bangladesh led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). And on the other, it was precisely during its heydays, when sentiments were sharpening against ‘migrants’ conflated with Muslims as a whole, that he composed and sang ‘Mohabahu Brahmaputra where he painted the long history of migration and assimilation of diverse people which built a composite culture in the region, singing ‘podda nodir dhumuhat pori, koto xotojon aahiley; luit’or duyu parote kotona atithik adoriley … kisu lobo lagey, kisu dibo lagey, jin jaboloi holey…Robindranatheo koley’ (‘caught on the storm of river Podda (Padma), hundreds came, and the banks of the Brahmaputra welcomed them as guests … take some, give some, to melt into each other…also said Rabindranath’). Though often interpreted as a liberal plea, this can be read as a warning of the danger of a sectarian politics of essentialising, of the aggressive upper-caste Assamese Hindu colour of the movement, which sought to violently erase this myriad history into extinction. His assertion that ‘we all have a history of migration and thus we (including the migrants from the erstwhile East-Bengal, now Bangladesh) must strive to live together’, baffled both the supporters as well as the opponents of the movement. Many within AASU began to suspect his support for the movement, as despite his apparent avowal that the Assamese people are in the danger of becoming homeless in their own land (the official AASU line), all he had to offer as a solution was a narrative of migration- hardly a satisfactory answer to the requirements of a sharp anti-immigrant tenor.

Then with the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in the late 1980s-early 1990s, he sings of the countless blood-drenched sacrifices and the new meaning of the coming sunrise in the east (ULFA’s symbol is a rising sun). Ever enthusiastic of the potential of collective action and need for self-determination by the people, many would say, the sharpness of an anti-Indian state position and a critique of ‘Operation Bajrang’ brand of military domination, expected of a bard of a subjugated population was never there in him. A systemic critique would then be a muffled echo in his songs, as he would even turn the battle cries of the working class into abstract liberal appeals for humanity. Thus though the pathos of loss and ceaseless motion are captured Hazarika’s memorable voice in ‘bistirno parore’, his translation of the melancholy and anger of the worker with capitalist and racist exploitation in Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River becomes a mere petty bourgeois radical angst with the erosion of vague societal values in modern times.

With the ever more naked rightist turn in the political life of Assam’s middle classes in the late 1990s, Hazarika followed suit. With the formation of the NDA government (Asom Gana Parishad or AGP was part of the coalition) in 1998, his political journey came to its culmination with viewing the rabidly communal RSS as the authentic agent of social transformation. He even contested a Lok Sabha seat from Guwahati (which he fortunately lost) on a BJP ticket in 2004, with its cadres blaring his humanist plea ‘mahuhe manuhor babey, jodihe okonu nabhabey…bhabibo kunenu kuwa, xomonia’ (‘if man doesn’t think of man … who will?’) on their election vans.

Under the pressure of RSS, he even tried to replace the word Axom with Bharat(as Axom is only to be subsumed within the larger Indian national discourse) in some of his old compositions, but these modifications never became popular. Hazarika’s use of rhetorical forms, like of the ‘virgin earth’ and ‘nation as the mother’ and thus someone to be protected, have been used by patriarchal chauvinists, and this tinge in his content had itself perhaps led to his ‘straying’ into the right wing fold who today find it easy to appropriate him as their own.

Similar turns can also be read in celebrated cultural figures like Bob Dylan who went from being the anthem singer of the radical 1960s generation in the United States to a controversial tryst with a particularly devout form of Christianity. His twists and turns apart, Hazarika did give creative expression to a whole range of feelings of the people of the region, hardly ever discovered by those who had officially avowed ‘art for the sake of society’. Establishing such a chord with people is hardly possible for the crass careerist, and Hazarika, to be sure, was not among them. His compositions blurred the lines between the classical and the folk, between ‘high culture’ and the popular. If he was skilled in composing highly sanskritised Assamese poetry, he was equally at ease in giving voice to the joyous melody of the elephant hunter from Xibaxagor who seduces the gabhoru of Gauripur with his rustic Bihu songs.  He was perhaps also the first one to bring the qawwali genre into Assamese (‘samma thakile jarur jarur’).

And his songs of love and longing are almost always permeated with a high bout of subversive eroticism, a taboo in the caste Hindu households of the Assamese Shreejuts (‘sikmik bijuli, kije tumar xongo priya’). Thus he declares, ‘xomajor niti niyom bhongatu notun niyom’(‘breaking old rules is the rule of today’). Since the late 1990s (along with the rightist turn in his politics), Hazarika’s creativity was in rapid decline. He wrote very little in these years and though he composed a few songs for some Bollywood films, they were far inferior, in content and form, to his earlier compositions.

With Hazarika, the only ‘consistency’ then is of the love for wandering, a constant restless flux. A joyous yet troubled sense of celebration with the changing current and flows of the Brahmaputra being the womb and funeral of the numberless cultures melting into each other, led him also to the Podda, the Mississippi and the Volga. In ‘moi eti jajabor’, after the first two stanzas of such wanderings, he reflects on his peripatetic musings, saying ‘bohu jajabor lokhyo bihin, mur pise ase pon’ (‘many wanderers are directionless, but not me’) and in the next stanza goes on to specify why this is so. He pauses a while, saddened and wondering, at the immense inequality between ‘the rows of skyscrapers and the homeless in their shadows’. In his own jajaboria way he identifies the atrocities, loud or silent, stemming from the interstices of the world, and joining voice with the joyous songs of the people struggling against them, moves on again.

For some time now and at his death, when various varieties of nationalists are vying to uphold him as their hero, it would perhaps be more appropriate to read him at best as a signifier of changing times, wound up with the fortunes of various strata of the people of the region. He was never, as the nationalists would have us believe, a poster boy for ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Brihottor Axom’, consistent with belief in the power of the nation. His belief in people and their creative collectivity at times borrowed from the liberal language and metaphors, and the chauvinist turn of his politics can probably be read in this, but a stress on isolated parochial history and/or pre-critical sense of superiority was never his agenda. Even while acquiescing at times with the linguistic Assamese nationalism of AASU which was based on closure, Hazarika nonetheless also continued singing in Bengali and Hindi as also in many other languages, ever in search for the continuities (a friend from Bangladesh just called yesterday to say that many in Bangladesh will probably only now know that he was an Assamese, and not a Bengali!). This also cannot be read (as the triumphant Indian nationalist would have it) as agreeing uncritically to the idea of a homogeneous ‘great Indian nation’. This search is a continuous one which goes beyond the nation. His repeated stress on the metaphor of the ‘river’ and of migration histories brings this out. The song of the young female worker in the tea plantation, who distinguishes herself from the mainstream caste Hindu culture, singing ‘Laxmi nohoi, mure naam saameli’(‘No, my name is not Laxmi; I am Saameli’), also brings this is a case in point where the pathos of the displaced journey of indentured labour and the conditions of bondage under which she worked is brought to life.

We look at this legacy of Hazarika today, when the ashes of countless revolts of the people of the region lie scattered over its plains and hills. As we enter a new phase of capitalist exploitation and uncertainty, the brutalized people search for new forms of organization and collectivity, its new voice. It mourns its singer at this hour, critically appraising him, seeking to wrench him free from the violence of the right wing nationalists, and sing anew the songs of the people. Just days before his death, Hazarika expressed a desire to be cremated near the tomb of his communist mentor, his dear Bistudaor Comrade Bishnu Rabha. Perhaps he wanted to return where he really belonged: to the theatre of creation rumbling in the hearth of the working people. We must fulfill this last wish of his while evaluating his life, taking his songs and journey forward. This year itself, two radical peoples’ theatre personalities, Badal Sircar and Gursharan Singh, who sung with and of the vitality and creativity of the working classes passed away. With Hazarika, even with his troubled legacy, we need to reclaim the voice which once spoke of and inspired the working masses, with whom he sought to melt, singing…

Xitore xemeka rati…
Bostro bihin kunu khetiyokor,
Bhagi pora pojatir tunh jui ekurat,
Umi umi joli thoka,
Raktim jen eti uttap hou

[On a wilting winter night, may I be,
in a clothless peasant’s broken hut,
of the slowly burning ember from the hay,
the red glowing warmth. .]

Xemeka xemeka rati…
Khadyo bihin kunu din majoor’or,
Prano’te lukai thoka xudha agoni’r,
Hotathe bhomoki utha prosondo jen, eti pratap hau

[Wilting winter night, and may I be,
from the fire of the empty-stomach of a daily labourer,
the suddenly erupting power,
burning bright …]

Kontho rudho kunu xu gayokor
Probhat anibo pora,
Othoso nuguwa, kunu somor gitor babey,
Moi jen eti sudha kontho hou

[Of a voiceless singer’s unsung war song,
which can wrench out the dawn,
may I be, the music …]

(Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti are political activists from Assam based in Delhi.)


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Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti are political activists from Assam based in Delhi

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