Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, popularly known as the “Bard of Brahmaputra” and “Sudhakantha” (the Nightingale), was one of the doyens of the Assamese cultural space. His talents were multifaceted and ranged across several arenas. He excelled in various roles including that of a vocalist, musician, poet, lyricist, actor, filmmaker, professor, and politician. His renown and devoted fanbase extended beyond the boundaries of Assam, resonating throughout the nation, making an impact on the global stage.
Bhupen Hazarika was born on September 8, 1926, to Nilakanta and Shantipriya Hazarika in a town called Sadiya in Assam. In 1929, Hazarika’s family shifted to Guwahati for better prospects followed by Dhubri and then Tezpur. It was at Tezpur that a turning point came in his life when he was discovered by two major cultural icons of Assam, Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, while singing a borgeet (devotional songs composed by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva). The encounter proved to be monumental in his life as it opened several new avenues for him. In 1936, he accompanied them to Kolkata to record his first song at the Aurora Studio for the Selona Company. He was also offered the opportunity to sing 2 songs for Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s film, Indramalati. They were: Kaxote Kolosi Loi and Biswo Bijoyi Naujawan.
Bhupen Hazarika was not only extremely talented in the cultural sphere but was also academically prolific. He completed his education in Intermediate Arts from Cotton College, Guwahati in 1942 followed by degrees in Graduation and Post Graduation from the Banaras Hindu University in the discipline of Political Science. In 1949, he was awarded a scholarship from Columbia University and hence proceeded to New York City to pursue his Ph.D. He was awarded the degree in 1952 for his thesis titled ‘Proposals for Preparing India’s Basic Education to use Audio-Visual Techniques in Adult Education’. He had also received the Lisle Fellowship from Chicago University to study the usage of educational project development through cinema.
Dr. Hazarika had worked at the All India Radio station in Guwahati for a brief period of time before he set off for New York. He had also worked as a teacher at Gauhati University for a while. However, he left it and headed towards Kolkata in order to begin his career and eventually established himself as a successful music director and singer. It is noteworthy that Hazarika had composed Gauhati University’s anthem, Jilikaba Luitare Paar. He had also fostered close links with the cultural association IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and was appointed as the Secretary of the Reception Committee of the third all-Assam Conference of IPTA, which took place in Guwahati in 1955. Adding to his list of accomplishments, he secured a seat as a member of the Assam Legislative Assembly from the Naoboicha constituency in 1967. Furthermore, in 1993, he was elected as the President of the Asam Sahitya Sabha.
Dr. Hazarika is internationally renowned for the melodious songs that he had composed and sung in multiple languages. His lifelong sojourn with music began at an early age, especially after his association with the two cultural icons Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha. Dr. Hazarika’s encounter with the Afro-American political tradition at Columbia University, and his association with the noted American artist and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson had a deep impact on his musical journey ahead. The tune and imagery of his very famous song “Bistorno Parare” is based on Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River.” The song became extremely popular and was subsequently translated into Hindi and Bengali languages as well.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was a humanist. His songs were renowned not only for their melodious tunes but also because of their powerful and thought-provoking lyrics. His lyrics promoted themes of communal harmony, optimism, justice, a message of protest, revolutionary zeal and empathy amongst people. His songs were based on several themes including contemporary issues, patriotism, the beauty of nature, issues of human interest, and love, amongst others. The music of his songs was inspired from traditional folk music and tunes as well.
Manuhe manuhor babey
Jodihe okonu nabhabey
Bhabibo kune nu kua! Homoniya
(If people don’t think of their fellow people with a little sympathy, then who will? Tell me o friend!)
The lyrics of the song “Manuhe manuhor babey” was a powerful artistic intervention in a society and nation that was rife with tension and divisions. The song was eventually translated into several languages and was also declared as the song of the millennium by BBC Bengali Service. There were several other songs that also depicted similar emotions. These include “Bistirno paarore” and “Sitore Semeka Rati.”
Axom amar rupohi
Gunoru nai xexh
Bharotore purbo dixor
hurjyo utha desh
(Our Assam is beautiful and is replete with good qualities; located in the eastern part of India, it is the land where the sun rises) Sri Hazarika’s songs evoke a feeling of immense pride and love for one’s land amongst the listeners. They dwell on the cultural, social and aesthetic life of not only Assam but also of the other states of North-East India and by extension the entire country.
Xopun sohoror moromi xorotor
(In an evening in Shillong, the city of dreams; during the lovely autumn, memories are golden)
Bhupen Hazarika’s songs were famous for their picturesque description of Assam, and the North-eastern states. This song is especially significant for the lyrical elucidation of Shillong’s beauty and warmth. Nature features as a recurrent theme in his songs, as he constantly derived inspiration from it. Besides nature, love also featured as an emotion for his songs. Some songs which depicted these emotions include Xoixobore dhemalite and Tumar premor bhogjorati.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was a major cultural icon of not only Assam, but of the entire North-eastern region. He promoted the emotion of brotherhood and unity amongst the tribes of the region and believed in the need to promote the languages and culture of these states, in order to foster fraternity and good-will. He had proactively undertaken the task of immersing himself within the local communities of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Meghalaya, to grasp their rich culture. His songs incorporated various tribes and communities, such as the Missing, Karbi, Bodo tribes of Assam and other tribes from Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Through his music, he illuminated their culture, way of life, traditional clothing, and the exquisite allure of the natural world.
A multilingual scholar and musical maestro, Dr. Hazarika composed in several languages including Bengali and Hindi. Some of his famous songs include Dil hoom hoom kare, Manush manusher jonno, Oo Ganga Beheti ho kyu, and Gonga amar ma. Several of his songs were also translated into different languages. His songs were endeared in neighbouring Bangladesh as well. Interestingly, friends and admirers from Nepal had gifted Hazarika his signature black Nepali cap.
The contributions of Bhupen Hazarika transcended to the realm of cinemas too. He was associated with many films in various capacities. The first film he was associated with was Indramalati (1939). He had produced, directed and composed music for several films in various languages. The Assamese films he was associated with as a director, producer and in other technical capacities were Era Bator Sur (1956), Shakuntala (1960), Pratidhwani (1964), Lotighoti (1966), Swikarikota (1986), and Siraj (1988), amongst others. He had produced and directed a documentary titled “Emuthi Saular Kahini”, which was based on the co-operative movement of the Government of Assam. This documentary was entirely composed in a lyrical format. In 1977, he produced and directed a documentary titled “Through Melody and Rhythm” for Calcutta Doordarshan Kendra on the folk songs and dances of Northeast India. In 1981, he produced and composed music for a documentary to promote tourism on behalf of the Government of Assam.
His artistic legacy lives on in a wide spectrum of Hindi and Bengali films as well. The Bengali films which he lent his music to include Mahut Bandhure (1959), Ekhane Pinjar (1971), Simana Periye (1978), Ek Pal (1986), and Gajamukta (1994), amongst others. The Hindi films with which he was associated range from Rudaali (1994,) to Darmiyaan (1997), Gaja Gamini (2000) to Kyun (2003) and several others. He was also associated with a Bodo movie, Jiuni Simang (1987) and a Bhojpuri movie, Chhath Maiya ki Mahima (1979). Hazarika had also directed, composed music and produced the first colour Hindi feature film of Arunachal Pradesh, Mera Dharam Meri Maa (1976). This movie featured the song “Arunachal Humara” that has become the de-facto state song of Arunachal Pradesh and has also been translated to many tribal languages. Prior to that, he had directed a documentary, For Whom the Sun Shines (1974) for the government of Arunachal Pradesh on tribal dances and songs.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was the recipient of several prestigious awards. Some of the most noteworthy awards include the President’s Medal for his films Shakuntala, Pratidhwani, and Lotighoti, the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for Chameli Memsahab (1975), and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (1992). Bhupen Hazarika was also the recipient of several civilian awards of high stature; including the Padma Shri (1977), Padma Bhushan (2001), Padma Vibhushan (2012), and Bharat Ratna (2019). The latter two awards were accorded to him posthumously. The Government of Bangladesh conferred upon him the prestigious “Muktijoddha Padak” in 2011 (posthumously). Besides these awards, he was also accorded with several accolades from various organisations such as the Bengal Journalist’s Association Indira Gandhi Smriti Puraskar (1987), Best Music for his film Rudaali at the Asia Pacific International Film Festival, Japan (1993), and an Honorary Doctorate from Tezpur University (2001).
While in 2013 and 2016 two commemorative stamps were issued by India Post in Dr. Hazarika’s honour, the Dhola-Sadiya bridge that links the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (longest road bridge in India to be built over water) has been officially called the Dr. Bhupen Hazarika Setu.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was an institution in himself, who contributed immensely towards the growth of Assam and the Northeast in various capacities. The cultural icon passed away on November 5, 2011, in Mumbai, leaving behind a massive vacuum in the music and cultural space of Assam. His songs touched millions across the globe, and acted like a thread which joined people across communities and borders through the invisible bond of music. His legacy continues to spread joy, hope and offer inspiration to people everywhere.