Mumbai: Bhupen Hazarika, the ‘bard of Brahmaputra’ whose ability to weave magic out of traditional Assamese music gave us songs like Dil hoom hoom kare‘ and O Ganga behti ho, swayed and inspired millions across generations with the power and passion of his voice.
A poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author and filmmaker, the self-proclaimed jajabor (wanderer) took the rich folk heritage of Assam and interpreted it beautifully for the world through his songs.
With his death, the country has lost not only one of its few balladeers but also one of its greatest cultural icons, cherished in Dhaka as much as in Guwahati.
Born in 1926 in Sadiya into a family of teachers, the academically-talented Hazarika completed his basic education from Guwahati in 1942, BA from Banaras Hindu University in 1944 and MA (Pol Sc) in 1946. He did his PhD in Mass Communication from Columbia University. He also received the Lisle Fellowship from Chicago University, US to study the use of educational project development through cinema.
During his stay in the US, he met the legendary black singer Paul Robeson, whose famous number ‘Old man river’ was successfully transformed to the megahit Bistirno parore (O Ganga behti ho in Hindi), a virtual anthem for generations of pro-Left activists.
In an interview to a national daily many years ago, he attributed his singing to tribal music.
“As a child, I grew up listening to tribal music – its rhythm saw me developing an inclination towards singing. Perhaps, I inherited my singing skills from my mother, who sang lullabies to me. In fact, I have used one of my mother’s lullabies in ‘Rudali’,” the Dadasaheb Phalke winner had said.
He sang his first song Biswa nijoy nojowan (in the second Assamese film Indramalati) in 1939 at the age of 12.
In addition to his native Assamese, Hazarika composed, wrote and sang for numerous Bengali and Hindi films from 1930s to the 1990s besides other songs. He was also one of the leading author-poets of Assam with more than 1,000 lyrics and several books on short stories, essays, travelogues, poems and children’s rhymes.
He produced and directed, composed music and sang for Assamese films like Era Batar Sur, Shakuntala, Loti ghoti, Pratidhwani, Chick Mick Bijuli, Swikarokti and Siraj. His most famous Hindi films include his long-time companion Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali, Ek Pal, Darmiyaan,Daman and Kyon, Sai Paranjpe’s Papiha and Saaz, Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe and M F Husain’s Gajagamini.
“You paint through your songs. But I can’t sing with my paintbrush. It’s up to you to fill this lacuna in my artistry. That’s why I’ve taken you,” Husain apparently told Hazarika after choosing him for the music score of Gajagamini.
Last year, Hazarika featured in his first music video — Our Northeast, Our Star with music and lyrics by 3 Idiots duo Shantanu Moitra and Swanand Kirkire. He also lent his voice to this year’s film Gandhi To Hitler, where he sang Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnav jan.
He came to Mumbai to work in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) with Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni and other Marxist intellectuals.
He soon made the city his second home. “The generous city and its people have welcomed me, accepted me, and given me my second home since so many years. I admire its people for its willingness to allow people from the rest of India to earn a living and prosper, irrespective of caste, creed or colour,” he once said about his life in Mumbai.
He received the National Award for Best Music Director in 1976 for Chameli Memsaab and President’s medal for his films Shakuntala (1960), Pratidhwani (1964) and Lotighoti (1967). He was a member of the Assam Legislative Assembly from 1967-72 and was awarded the Padmashri in 1977 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1987. He was the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi from 1999-2004.
He was also a member of Assam Film Development Council and the Central Board of Film Certification. In 2003, he was appointed member of the Prasar Bharati Board.