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Bhupen Hazarika: An Artist of Many Hues

Bhupen Hazarika was a true pan-Indian artist whose creativity transcended borders, languages and cultures, writes Sharad Dutt.

After making a couple of documentaries, when the acclaimed painter Maqbool Fida Hussain announced his feature film Gajgamini with Madhuri Dixit, it became big news in Bollywood. But the bigger news came when he invited Dr Bhupen Hazarika to score the music for this film.


There were mixed reactions in the film fraternity—some raised their eyebrows while others welcomed the combo that it would be a culmination of two great artists of the country. Bhupen was, in true sense, the jewel of Assam.

Poet, lyricist, screenplay writer, composer, actor, filmmaker and editor of two magazines, Bhupen titled his autobiography, Moi Eti Jajabor, as he called himself Jajabor, nomad: "I have been a nomad since my birth. I have no fixed address."
A wanderer all his life, Bhupen was born on September 8, 1926, in Sadiya in Assam. Son of a teacher who migrated to Guwahati in 1929, Bhupen's home was situated near River Brahamaputra. As his childhood was spent near the river banks, this metaphor became an integral part of his lyrics.
When his father joined the revenue department the family moved from one place to another given his transferable job. During his father's posting in Dhubri, Bhupen had a chance meeting with the legendary director of New Theatres, Pramathesh Chandra Barua (PC Barua), director of the cult film Devdas in Bengali and Hindi. This encounter attracted him towards filmmaking as this meeting was entrenched in a nascent Bhupen's mind. In the years to come, he used his childhood treasure of Bangla songs of fishermen and brought that folk element in many of his compositions beautifully.
The stay in Tezpur was the most significant phase of young Bhupen's life, as it was the hub of the revivalist movement in Assamese literature, music and theatre. The movement was led by two giants Jyoti Prasad Aggarwal and Vishnu Prasad Rabha. These two erudite men brought Sankar Dev, a 15th century Vaishnav saint-poet into Bhupen's orbit, and inspired him to make best use of literature, music, dance and drama to bring social reforms, and follow this dictum of the renaissance man of Assam.
The Jyoti and Rabha duo had a mission to transform the dying social cultural scene with the help of youth. They had seen great potential in young Bhupen. Jyoti Prasad Aggarwal taught Bhupen aesthetics philosophy, the strength and heavenly beauty of words and cinematic craft. These lessons chiselled Bhupen's craft in the years to come.
Bhupen was a child prodigy. He cut his first disc at the age of ten in Calcutta in 1936 and his name appeared as Master Bhupen Hazarika. His mother was constantly worried due to her son's childhood musical ambition and his habit as a wanderer, moving and singing with fisherman and spending hours with local bus drivers to pick up folk tunes.
Academically, he joined the Banaras Hindu University after his matriculation, and thereafter, had a brief stint at the All India Radio, Guwahati. Soon, he got a scholarship from Columbia University and set sail for New York in 1949 to accomplish a Doctorate in Mass Communication. While in America, he met Paul Robson, the famed American singer, whom he always considered his mentor.


Impressed and enthused by Paul Robson's appeal as a mass singer he abandoned the thought of pursuing journalism and changed his trajectory to become a folk singer. His lyric Manuhe manuhar babe was quite obviously inspired by Paul Robson's Old Man River.

Writing was Bhupen's other passion. Apart from over thousand lyrics, he penned short stories, poetry, essays, travelogues and rhymes for children. He authored fifteen books and edited two popular monthly magazines, Amar Pratinidhi and Pratidhawani.
Bhupen always stated, "I was just hijacked by music." So, nature beckoned him and it was more than evident in his lyrics and music. Wherever he went he absorbed the particular folk culture of a region, he didn't restrict himself to a particular style. Being a gana shilpi, people remained his theme, and he even called himself 'the cultural labourer'.
After returning from America he started resurrecting folk culture. It became his primary concern. He met composer Salil Choudhary after joining Gana Yatra Sangh and this association lasted a lifetime. He was equally friendly with Balraj Sahni, SD Burman and Ritwik Ghatak for whom he got great reverence. According to Bhupen, "Our generation cannot bypass any reference to him."
Bhupen directed his first feature film Era Bator Sur (Songs from the Deserted Road) in 1956. This film was based on his own famous radio play with the same name. Bhupen was a dreamer which was amply reflected in this movie. It was an unstructured film depicting many dreams of an artist and scattered thoughts. Bhupen used tunes that he had collected from different regions of Assam and he composed these traditional tunes with brilliant creativity. According to critics, in his movies the music director outweighed the director of the film. This was noticed even in his last film Miri Jiyori.
Yet another story is related to Era Bator. When Bhupen was searching and collecting songs for this film he came across a folk singer Pratima Baruah. She sang for him at his request and he was so mesmerised with her voice that he ensured her singing was brought to the limelight. These unheard folk songs were later named goalparia loka geet. His second film, Mahout Bandhu Re in 1959, was a tribute to these songs.
Soon Bhupen mastered the art of making low-budget films. After making two realistic movies, he launched a film based on the great Sanskrit classic Abhigyana Shakuntalam of Kalidasa. The highlight of this film was the use of folk songs to interpret the narrative of the classic. Shot in a Calcutta studio, the film lacked ambience due to budget constraints. But it didn't hamper his zeal and passion to do something different. So some scenes were shot in colour for the first time in Assamese cinema. The soul of the film rested on the lyrics and songs written by him.
Bhupen had a zeal for experimentation. After this classic, he picked up a Khasi folk tale Ka-sharati for his next film and it was released in 1959 as Pratidhwani (Echo). The undercurrent of the film was the integration between Khasi and Assam regions. The film was also dubbed in the Khasi language. His next film Lati Ghati, also shot in Calcutta in 1966, was a satire on the film industry. Given the tight budget, he edited the film on negative.
After watching this maestro's Assamese films Rajshri Production in Bombay signed Bhupen to make five films in Assamese. The first film was Chik Mik Bijuli in colour. Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and Kishore Kumar recorded songs but the film flopped and Rajshri productions dropped the idea of making films in Assamese.
The only Hindi film Bhupen directed was Mera Dharam Meri Maa in 1977, produced by the state government of Arunachal Pradesh. He kept on making films in Assamese and Siraj was a remake of an old classic film made in 1948. Bhupen had played a role, written the lyrics, and assisted the music director in its earlier version.
His last venture was a telefilm, Miri Jiyori, for Guwahati Doordarshan Kendra, adapted from the 19th century novel by Rajani Kant Bordoloi, based on the lost 'missing tribe', the second largest ethnic group of Assam. It was a longtime desire and he made this film to pay his tribute to this community. He also made two television serials for Doordarshan, Misty Land of Seven Sisters and Lohit Kinare.
So far, Bhupen had confined himself to the Assam region. Now he was ambitious to bring the culture of Assam on the national horizon. He engaged playback singers from Bombay to sing for his Assamese films. Even songs of Chameli Memsaab (1975) was a bilingual film, for which Bhupen composed the music and himself sang in the Hindi version, but it got lukewarm response from Hindi music lovers.
Bhupen's first Hindi film as music director was Aarop in 1974. His compositions, Naino mein darpan hai (Lata-Kishore), Jab se toone bansi bajayee re (Laxmi Shankar) was based on his own Assamese popular composition, Hey maee jakhaua. Shabana Azami and Farooq Sheikh starrer, Ek Pal, also released the same year, wherein he used Assamese folk music brilliantly. In its numbers, Phool dana dana (Bhupender-Nitin Mukesh-Bhupen), Jane kya hai jee darta hai (Lata) Mein to sang banwas (Lata-Bhupen), he successfully created the ambience of tea gardens. Even Mil Gayi Manzil, directed by Lekh Tandon, had a rich blend of Assamese folk music and dance.
Bhupen scored music for all the films of Kalpna Lajmi and won a National Award for Rudali. He recreated his own popular composition, Buku hoom hoom kare to dil hoom hoom kare (Lata), and it established him at the national level. Other popular songs Jhoothi moothi mitwa, Beete na beete na (Lata) had pure Rajasthani touch. His own number, Maula o maula, was again based on the Assamese folk.
Kalpna Lajmi's Darmayan (1997) didn't leave the same impact as Rudali, but for Daman (2000) he created melodies like Hey Ram (Alka Yagnik), Hu tu pagal pawan chale (Kavita Krishamurthy/Ishaan), Sar sar hawa (Hema Sardesai) and Gumsum (Bhupen). The film Saaz (1996) had only one composition of Bhupen, Badal chaandi barsaye (Devki Pandit-Jyotsna), and it became popular.
In MF Hussain's Gajgamini (2002), Bhupen composed memorable tunes, as evident in Shankar Mahadevan's rendition, Hansa re hansa, that he sang in Raga Deepak, and Meri payal boley chham (Kavita Krishnamurthi), that were highly appreciated by the audience. Hussain Saab was overwhelmed by its music and told Bhupen, "Your music paints, but my brush can't sing."
Besides Assamese and Hindi, Bhupen composed music for Bangla, Bhojpuri and Malayalam films and was finally acknowledged as a national musician. He directed a dozen feature films, gave music direction in 79 films, and lent his voice for playback singing, while penning his own screenplays for the films and lyrics too, even when he held the office as Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi on the Script Committee and being on the Board of Directors of National Film Development Corporations (NFDC).
He was conferred countless awards for his enormous contribution to the music and film industry, including the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate from Tezpur University, Assam Ratan, Arunachal Pradesh Gold Medal and Bangladesh Jodha Medal.
He was suffering from breathing trouble and finally succumbed to pneumonia on June 30, 2011, in Mumbai at the age of 85. Hismortal remains were brought to Guwahati for a full state honour funeral. Enormously loved by the Assamese, his statue was erected in his home state. Bhupen Hazarika in not amongst us, but he will perpetually remain in the hearts of his admirers in India and Bangladesh.

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