On the 8th of August 2019, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was conferred India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna (posthumously) alongside former president Dr. Pranab Mukherjee and late RSS leader Nanaji Deshmukh. It was received by his son Tez Hazarika.
Every person who has been brought up in Assam, irrespective of language, class, or religion, has a memory of the songs written and sung by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. As singing and dancing are quite integral to many Assamese families, it is almost impossible for children from Assam to not have danced to the songs of Dr. Hazarika. The most famous song being Bistirno Parore, it’s Hindi equivalent being O Ganga Behti ho Kyon? which is a soulful rendition that it surely gives you goosebumps when you listen to it.
I was once supposed to perform a solo dance on the song ‘Snehe Amar Hoto Shrabanor’ but I had to cancel it owing to the death of one of our family members. It is another soulful song whose music was adapted for the Hindi song Jhuti Muti Mitwa Awaan Bole from the famous film Rudaali starring Dimple Kapadia. With Gulzar’s lyrics, Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali is one film that should be in everybody’s bucket list, whosoever is into watching a lot of meaningful movies. As the title of the movie suggests, Rudaali (which derives from the word ‘Rona’ and translates to ‘crying‘) basically refers to women from a lower caste group from Rajasthan who are hired professionally to mourn upon the death of upper-caste males. This movie was released in the year 1993 and was based on the short story written by the famous Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. In fact, the film was selected as the Indian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 66th Academy Awards but later failed to be a part of the nomination.
Dr. Hazarika had also composed music for the legendary artist and filmmaker M.F Hussain’s ‘Gaja Gamini‘ (One with a walk like an elephant) starring Madhuri Dixit- a film that was an ode to womanhood inspired by many women characters viz. Leonardo da Vinci’s (played by Naseeruddin Shah) Mona Lisa, Premchand’s Nirmala and Kalidas’s Shakuntala. But it could not perform well at the box office.
When I was growing up, on our road trips from Duliajan to Guwahati, which almost traverses 500 km, there were at least a couple of hours dedicated to Bhupen Hazarika and his younger brother Jayanta Hazarika, apart from the usual Hindi songs of the late 90s and the early 2000s and the famous numbers from ABBA, Smokie, Backstreet Boys, Michael Jackson or MLTR to name a few. My dad had gotten an amazing chance to interview Dr. Bhupen Hazarika when he was an engineering student back in the 80s as he was the editor of his college magazine. There are photographs of dad and Dr. Hazarika which are preserved in one of the old albums at our home.
Dr. Hazarika was born in Sadiya in the upper reaches of Assam, where now India’s longest bridge Dhola-Sadiya on the Lohit river stands at 9.15 km. This bridge is also called the Bhupen Hazarika Setu. Having sung and written some popular Assamese songs during his formative years of teenage, he later went to study at some of the famous educational institutions in the country and abroad. Starting from Cotton College, then at Banaras Hindu University and later at Columbia University, New York where he earned a scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. during his brief stint at the All India Radio at Guwahati. He earned his Ph.D. in 1952 for his thesis on “Proposals for Preparing India’s Basic Education to use Audio-Visual Techniques in Adult Education”.
In New York, he befriended Paul Robeson, a prominent civil rights activist, who influenced him in his song Bistirno Parore which is based on the imagery and theme of Robeson’s Ol’ Man River. This song was translated into many languages but was sung by himself in three languages- Assamese, Bengali, and Hindi. Needless to say, he went onto win so many awards and was rightly called the ‘Bard of Brahmaputra’. Here is a list of national and state honors conferred on him-
I happen to follow a page on Face book titled “Vintage Assam- Digitising the Forgotten Past” which is doing a commendable job of documenting so many unknown yet very significant stories as these were extremely important in shaping India in general and Assam in particular. I urge all of you to visit the page and see through those stories. I am sure it will brighten up your dull day! This page posted a very significant picture right after Dr. Hazarika was conferred upon the Bharat Ratna, a thing even I was not aware of. The legendary singer-songwriter was also awarded the famous “Five-pointed star rimmed with brass”– a thing most commonly seen in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He passed away on the 5th of November 2011 at the age of 85. There was a 5-day state mourning and his funeral was attended by an estimated half a million people. His songs that were based on the themes of humanity, universal brotherhood, communal harmony, love, and empathy were not just popular in Assam but were equally popular in Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and neighboring Bangladesh. Today he is alive in all of our hearts with his meaningful songs that have been helpful in bridging the gap across communities and among people and will continue to do so for generations to come!
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