The Message of Unity in Bhupen Hazarika's songs

Bharat Ratna Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was perhaps the greatest individual that the state of Assam was fortunate to have in the last century. I have used the words 'the greatest' because no bond of region, community, class or even nation could bind him down and confine him. These ideas coming from someone who was born in an otherwise insular community are indeed remarkable.

Even though I might face a lot of criticism from my Assamese readers, I must say one thing. Most of the Assamese people, from as far back as I can remember, have been inward-looking. The Assamese, especially the well-off landed gentry, like to think of themselves as a community separate from the rest of the lot. The entry of 'outsiders' (this includes not just immigrants from foreign countries but also people from other states) is often resisted. Those from a different tribe or those speaking a different dialect are usually made fun of or scorned. This does not have to be true for each and every person. After all, we have shown the greatest capacity of assimilation when we welcomed the Ahoms from the east and the Brahmins and other people from the west. But a sense of insularity still seems to prevail among the community as a whole.

That is one of the reasons why I like Bhupen Hazarika. Even while being completely rooted in the Assamese culture and ethos, Hazarika was able to extend his reach virtually everywhere. He can be compared to a tree which has got the deepest and the strongest possible roots and yet is able to reach the greatest heights. He was a self-proclaimed 'jajabor' (vagabond) who traveled incessantly; someone who thought of people not in terms of community, class or nation, but rather through the simple lens of a human being.

In our hearts we shall always be one

What was this broad-mindedness due to? We may never be able to give complete answers to this question. Yet we are bound to think that it was partly because of the region where Hazarika was born and where he spent his earliest days. His place of birth, Sadiya is almost at touching distance from the Assam-Arunachal border, a hotspot of tribal diversity. It was not exactly strange for those early memories to translate into later impressions which were expressed in songs like 'Siangore Galong'
"I hear them calling out to me.
The Galongs of Siang, the Khamptis of Lohit
And the Wanchus of Tirap."

-Bhupen Hazarika, Siangore Galong (The Galongs of Siang)

Siang, Lohit, and Tirap are various rivers of the region, while the Galongs, the Khamptis, and the Wanchus are tribes inhabiting those river valleys. Much later, in 2018, Arunachal returned the favor with the 'Statue of Brotherhood', a statue of Hazarika, financed by the state government.

These attempts to bring about a sense of unity among various tribes are not just limited to Arunachal. Hazarika also had strong relations with Meghalaya. Numerous songs have been composed by him while he was entranced by the magic of the Khasi hills. The beautiful 'Shilongore Godhuli' (An Evening in Shillong) and the romantic 'Shillongore Monalisa Lyngdoh' show the effect which the state had on Hazarika. His attempts to show the similarity between the Assamese farming community and the Khasis can be encapsulated through the following lines of his song –
"Ploughing the red hills,
The Khasi peasant toils day and night.
The thousands of spirited peasants in the valleys
Are moved by the same spirit as them."

-Bhupen Hazarika, Hey Hey Hey Dhole Dagare (The Beating of Drums)

In a region where tribal identities are strong enough to create decade-long conflicts, Hazarika wanted to weave 'threads' of unity that would 'bind the peaks of the high hills' in togetherness, 'just like the rains falling on Cherrapunji' ultimately merge into the Brahmaputra 'in an embrace'.

A true global citizen

Hazarika's education and work took him to several parts of the world. He traveled to the USA for his Ph.D. There he made friends with the iconic Paul Robeson. Robson's 'Ol' Man River' is thought to have inspired Hazarika's 'Bistirno Parare' (in Hindi it was translated as 'Bistar Yeh Paar'). Also the Civil Rights song 'We are on the Same Boat, Brother' was translated into Assamese by Hazarika and soon it became an enduring part of Hazarika's stage programs

That experience of a foreign land greatly expanded Hazarika's vision. His belief in humanity rather than in some synthetic identity of community or nation was expressed through his enduring 'Manuhe Manuhor Babe' (translated into Bengali it became 'Manush Manusher Jonno', the second most popular song of Bangladesh after 'Amar Sonar Bangla' according to a survey conducted in the early 2000s). He carried this further in 'Moi Eti Jajabor' (I am a Vagabond) as shown through the following lines –
"I have gone from the Brahmaputra to the Mississippi and marveled at the beauty of Volga.
Traveling from Ottawa to Austria I have embraced Paris on the way.
From Ellora, I have carried the old colors to Chicago.
I have heard Ghalib's poems in the Minars of Dushanbe.
And sitting atop Mark Twain's memorial I have talked about Gorky."

Action, not just words

Hazarika's agenda was not just to gain some short-term popularity among literary circles by writing idealistic songs. It was the exact opposite of that. He deeply believed that friendship between various races and nations was possible and even necessary. His songs only expressed what was in his heart all along.

One of the most inspiring moments of Hazarika's career was in 1960, the year when Assam saw the worst linguistic riots ever. The myopic decision of the State to favor Assamese as the only official language led to widespread resentment among the minority Bengalis in the state. Violence and counter-violence did not take long to spread and soon the state was burning. It was then that Hazarika and Hemanga Biswas (both active members of the Indian People's Theatre Association) joined hands to stop this fratricide. Cultural troupes consisting of Assamese, Bengali, Nepali and Khasi artistes under the leadership of Hazarika and Hemanga toured the state. Nobody could have believed that songs and dances could defeat violent mobs. Yet, when Hemanga and Hazarika came together to sing 'Haradhan Rongmonor Katha' (The Story of Haradhan and Rongmon), many in the audience were moved to tears. The song, which was a story about two peasants, Haradhan (a Bengali) and Rongmon (an Assamese), employed traditional folk tunes and instantly struck a chord in the audience's heart. Many abjured violence and some even came up to confess their crimes.

What was Hazarika's greatest legacy? His songs have been unable to bring about inter-tribal unity, that is for sure. Conflicts like the ones that recently shook Arunachal (the PRC issue) do occur even now. But there is a chance that the true message of Hazarika's songs will be someday discovered by the world. That day would be the day when Hazarika would have his biggest success – a success even greater than posthumous awards.

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