I wrote this, two years back, as a person obituary for a magazine. I am not sure it was published. So, here it is, again, on the occasion of the maestro’s birthday today/
/ Dr. Bhupen Hazarika (ড.ভূপেন হাজৰিকা) Born 8 September 1926 (Sadiya, Assam) Died 5 November 2011 (Mumbai, Maharashtra)/
My father is not a crowd person. He does not even attend weddings. On the day of music maestro Bhupen Hazarika’s last rites, on November 8, 2011, however, he had decided to take a walk, even as the streets were filled with people. The ground, where Hazarika was to be cremated, was just a half-an-hour’s walk. That afternoon, my father could not even reach the place; it was a sea of people. Everyone was there to bid the iconic personality the final goodbye. It was an extraordinary sight, unprecedented, even in a place which has seen its fair share of public gatherings. It was a momentous display of how Bhupen Hazarika’s music had touched each and every one in Guwahati, and in turn, in Assam. For the Assamese people, he was Bhupenda. A generation had lost its elder brother.
There are limits to how popular a single person can become. For every fan of every personality, there may be dozen others who do not care about him. But to be loved by an entire generation, an entire population, is something else? There is only a handful who could achieve this feat. Perhaps Gandhi was one. Perhaps Michael Jackson, Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal, Amitabh Bachchan among the living. In Assam, Hazarika wasn’t a person. He was, to use a cliché, a living legend, an epitome and a testament of the Assamese culture. He defined Assam to the world, and every Assamese person basked in his glory, in his almost god-like talent. There isn’t a single Assamese person, in Assam or elsewhere who hasn’t heard about Bhupenda or know at least one of his songs by heart.
Personally, I owe my love for Bhupenmama to my mother. She knows all Bhupen Hazarika songs, even the obscure ones, courtesy the radio. She doesn’t sing, she recites the lines of the songs, and she has a song for every possible occasion, whether it’s happiness, sorrow, love, patriotism, life’s lessons, anything. You mention a subject, and there’s a Bhupen Hazarika song about it, and my mother can recite it. His are not songs, but poetry. They are epigrams. They are quotable quotes. They are life’s lessons. They are part of a community’s cultural history.
I have 431 Bhupen Hazarika songs on the hard drive of my computer. This is by no means a complete collection. I have no idea how many songs he had composed and sung in an illustrious career spanning half-a-century, from his debut as a child artiste (he was born in 1926) in the second Assamese feature film, ‘Indramalati’ (1939), to being a singer of protests, attending public functions, to being a high-profile filmmaker and music director, who crossed over to Bangla and then to Hindi, and yet retained his roots. For the Assamese, he was the bridge between the past and the present. He was tutored by the luminaries like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha in the pre-independent India, fought for the rights of the oppressed and then, introduced the state to the world.
And, imagine, the man wrote all those songs, composed the tunes and performed, relentlessly, for more than half-a-century. The only comparison comes to mind is Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Hazarika himself was the music. He was the voice. He did not need anything else, other than perhaps a harmonium. He just needed to sing, and sing he did, to last a lifetime, to last an eternity.
But, what is this enduring appeal of Bhupen Hazarika? I cannot answer this question. But, I can identify with his songs, the same way my mother does, despite the fact that we are two generations apart. Hazarika sings about the people, the farmer, the fisherman, the worker, the office-goes, the idealist, the patriot. Even his abstract love songs are populated with people we know. His songs breathe the same air I inhale.
I cannot sing, but I know at least 50 Bhupen Hazarika songs by heart. It has been a part of my growing up. No, he’s not my favourite musician; Jim Morrison is, and these days, Green Day. But, Hazarika’s music throbs in my being. He is not just a singer. He is part of the Assamese consciousness. He is part of the Assamese identity. He defines Assam, and in turn, the Assamese people. All I can say is that I am proud to be born in the same land where Bhupen Hazarika was born.
It’s true, with his passing, a glorious chapter of Assamese history comes to an end. It’s also true Bhupen Hazarika continues to live on, in me, in every Assamese.